Where the short end of the stick meets the empty half of the glass.
27 Mar11:40 PM
Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose – Me & Bobby McGee, Janis Joplin*
IT must be nice to be Western and superior. It must be nice to judge from afar a grieving and poorly understood nation that is often confused with China. As Singapore came to terms this week with the loss of a titan, the country also came under scrutiny, a great deal of which was admiring in a back-handed way.
After Lee Kuan Yew died, The Guardian devoted an entire article to his policy on chewing gum. Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin’ chewing gum. This is like being complimented on your English.
The day Mr Lee’s body was moved from the Istana to Parliament House, a wire agency article concluded by saying that the proceedings felt “almost too well organised” to some Singaporeans. This is like being told your English sounds – almost – too polished.
And this week, a Telegraph piece called Singapore “proud and prosperous”, but could not resist throwing in “somewhat antiseptic”. This almost made me regret learning English.
These articles share a churlish and tired subtext, that Singapore is somehow less of a country because it lacks some kind of personality that foreigners expect this part of the world to have. The Western lexicon for Asia is a funny thing, and I have a real estate agent’s relationship with it. When a house is advertised as having “charm”, it means that its toilet doesn’t work. When a country in this region is lauded for its “charm”, it usually means that its people have a touch-and-go relationship with indoor plumbing.
“Quaint” means paddy fields where white-collar jobs should be. “Plenty of character” means the roads are not paved and you get diarrhoea from the ice cubes.
If this is what “charm” is, Singapore does not need it. And if it is handwoven baskets and barefoot children you want to see, go to another country that was not farsighted nor fortunate enough to avoid being charming.
For a long time, Singapore has been denied the gloss treatment other cosmopolitan cities get. Fifth Avenue is worshipped as a glamorous shrine to shopping, but Orchard Road is frequently portrayed as soulless. When outsiders report on Singapore, words like “gleaming” and “spotless” are used as though they were epithets.
Once in New York City, thanks to my dithering, my husband took too long to order a sandwich at Katz’s Deli and got snapped at by one of the legendarily ornery servers. “This is Noo Yawk,” the server said, as if that explained everything, and it did.
Likewise, this is Singapore. Everyone is in a hurry and they will hold pre-briefings for briefings, a post-briefing after and a break for a cost-benefit analysis. This is Singapore, this is what made it great. This is also why I became a citizen of this country – because I got tired of “charm”.
Besides, if anyone has the right to complain about Singapore, it is the Singaporeans. This right, they have exercised as though it were the Second Amendment and they were Americans. According to Mr Lee, the Singaporean is a “champion grumbler”. He said this in 1977, so citizens have been practising for at least 38 years.
These days, the complaining is the loudest it has ever been, and some of it doesn’t even make sense. Mr Lee’s passing has unearthed old chestnuts about the stifling of creativity and freedoms. This grousing was understandable 15 years ago, but who is stopping you from being creative now?
For how long do you intend to blame the spectre of a man before taking responsibility for the limitations of your own mind? What books have you been unable to gain access to, what TV shows have you been unable to BitTorrent and what poorly informed, anonymous comments on the Internet have you been unable to write?
If any party is censorious and forbidding, it is the society we have allowed ourselves to become, one that drives people into hiding in Perth when they’ve done something we find unacceptable.
Today, the prevailing attitude is miles away from Mr Lee’s hard-driving, survivalist one. Now, people want to trade a few percentage points of GDP growth for the balance of work and life, as though work were not part of life. They want a softer approach to this idea of competition or betterment, a more consensual form of governance.
What the people want, the people will eventually get – that is both the beauty and horror of democracy. And such has been the earlier success of Singapore that its people have the middle-class wherewithal to demand change, and the government has the resources to provide it.
Like many other migrants, I came here to escape corruption, injustice and water that came out of taps brown in colour. I came here because I understood this to be a place that rewarded industry and ability while tolerating – if not welcoming – extreme dorkiness.
I’ve had the luxury of being able to mind my own business, largely because the government had minded everyone’s. This is not for everyone, I’m sure, and as Singaporeans clamour for more self-determination, they will get it, if only because tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis.
I have my reservations about what this country will become, but as for how it came to be, my appreciation is unequivocal, without qualification and unreserved. Thank you, Mr Lee, for Singapore. There was nothing more you could have done.
*I should note that Me and Bobby McGee was written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster. Janis Joplin's cover of it was released in 1971.
During the early years of martial law, particularly from 1973 to 1976, the country was visited by a number of high-ranking dignitaries from the region. To name a few, Gough Whitlam from Australia, Michael Somare from Papua New Guinea, Kukrit Pramoj from Thailand, and Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore. Some came from more distant lands, like Sirimavo Bandaranaike from Sri Lanka, and Nicolae Ceausescu of Romania. Perhaps it was a well-orchestrated PR offensive designed to show the outside world how martial law was being carried out and implemented in the Philippines.
On those occasions, I was assigned as the aide-de-camp to the visiting heads of government, and this provided me with a ringside seat at most of the functions that were organized for them. I was not involved in the discussions that took place, but the assignment provided me with a close and unparalleled view of how some leaders conducted themselves in their private moments, away from the prying eyes of media.
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore visited the Philippines in January 1974. His Singapore Airlines flight was met by a number of Philippine Air Force fighter jets as it entered Philippine airspace. At that time there were no serious problems with Singapore, trade was minimal and the visit was more of the getting-to-know-you variety. Perhaps it was also an opportunity to test the golfing skills of the two leaders who were both keen golfers. At the Mansion House in Baguio City, the prime minister was a bit early for the scheduled golf meet, and so we took a short walk around. I noticed his keen interest in the flowers and plants that made the surroundings explode in lovely colors and greenery. He asked if I had finished at the military academy nearby, and if I had been to Singapore. But I sensed that his main concern was the presence of threatening clouds hovering close by. I assured him that January was the best golfing month in Baguio.
There was no doubt that you were in the presence of a leader. His steely eyes were focused on you as he spoke with clarity and a sense of authority. Those brief moments were all I had with him.
* * *
During the last few days, if you had the opportunity to visit Channel News Asia on your cable TV sets, you would have seen how the people of Singapore mourned the death of their country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. As of yesterday, close to half-a-million Singaporeans paid their respects by visiting his remains lying in state at Parliament House. Many more laid flowers and greeting cards at several community sites located all over the island. Waiting time for those who were queuing up at Parliament House came up to from eight to 10 hours. By Saturday night so many more had to be turned away due to preparations for the Sunday ceremonies.
India declared a national day of mourning with Indian flags ordered flown at half-staff throughout the country.
Tributes poured in from leaders all over the world. But none was more touching than the one from a young boy perhaps of grade school age, who laid his card in front of Lee’s picture at one of the community centers. The card read: “Dear Mr. Lee, I am proud to be Singaporean. Thank you for everything.”
* * *
Lee’s views on some of the continuing issues of the day (from a collection of interviews by Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill with Ali Wayne):
What is the role of the leader?
“It is the duty of leaders to instill confidence in the people so that they will stand up to be counted. No army however brave, can win when its generals are weak. . . Your job as a leader is to inspire and to galvanize, not to share your distraught thoughts. You make your people dispirited if you do so. The test of leadership lies not merely in echoing fears and doubts, especially when these fears and doubts, however real, are capable of solution and being rendered irrational and unfounded. We cannot afford to passively let things drift. We have to take the lead in public thinking. After having drawn attention to the interests of our communities that require special protection, we must formulate solutions which will safeguard those interests and advance the common good.
“A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people, and the quality of their leaders which ensure it an honorable place in history.”
How responsive should a leader be to popular opinion?
“I learned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi-experts, especially academics in the social and political sciences. They have pet theories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideal, especially how poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always try to be correct, not politically correct.
“What the western world does not understand is that at the end of the day, I am not worried by how they judge me. I am worried by how the people I have governed judged me.
“My idea of popular government is that you do not have to be popular at all, all the time when you are governing. There are moments when you have to be thoroughly unpopular. But at the end of your term, you should have brought about sufficient benefits so the people realize that what you did was necessary and will vote for you again. That is the basis on which I have governed. If you want to be popular all the time, you will misgovern.”
What are the risks of democracy?
“One person, one vote is a most difficult form of government. From time to time, the results can be erratic. People are sometimes fickle. They get bored with stable, steady improvements in life and in a reckless moment, they vote for a change, for change’s sake. . . . I am not intellectually convinced that one person, one vote is the best form of government. We practice it because that is what the British bequeathed us but I am convinced personally that we would have a better system if we gave every person over the age of forty who has a family, two votes because he or she is likely to be more careful voting also for his children. At the same time, once a person gets beyond 65, then it is a problem. Between the ages of 40 and 60 is ideal, and at 60, they should go back to one vote. But that will be difficult to arrange.
“One person, one vote on the basis of the western parliamentary democratic system is workable within certain limitations.”
* * *
His last words: I do not want to be remembered as a statesman. First of all, I do not classify myself as a statesman. I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something. I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.
Whenever I land in Changi Airport, I ask myself what it would take to turn every Philippine city into Singapore. Every overseas Filipino worker who has passed through that magnificent airport sighs at the thought.
Lee Kuan Yew highlights that the “little red dot” catapulted itself from a village with no natural resources into Southeast Asia’s jewel in but a lifetime. Idealistic Filipinos must read Lee’s autobiography as a concrete lesson in the possible.
The story is prone to oversimplification or adulteration with myth. Critical young Singaporeans clarify that Singapore began not as a tiny fishing village but as a strategic British port. The Western media’s romanticization of a Switzerland of Asia is likewise too simplistic.
We should assess Lee through the eyes of OFWs who have lived in the Singapore two generations after him. The first and simplest lesson is that we must not compromise in the character we demand in our national leaders. Lee led an austere lifestyle though he was hardly poor, maintained a strict work ethic even in semiretirement, and backed his strong opinions with meticulous study.
Not that he was perfect. That his son leads Singapore today undercuts the meritocracy Lee espoused. Nor was he a paragon of tact. The best story I heard from the consummate diplomat Tommy Koh features Lee explaining the role of culture in national development. When a reporter asks if certain cultures retard development, Lee bluntly points to Caribbean countries’ supposed carnival culture. At the United Nations in New York, Koh wakes up to find every Caribbean ambassador angrily knocking on his door. He mollifies them by joking that at least his prime minister offends everyone equally. But such were Lee’s convictions that no one begrudged him the right to threaten to reach out from beyond the grave should Singapore go astray.
Second, Lee cultivated talent and cited the ability of his first ministers. Independent Singapore still had Malaysian troops stationed in it, so he wrote how he immediately put the most talented in charge of national defense. Technocratic to an extreme, an
older Lee presented statistics on the low marriage rate of female college graduates. He cajoled educated men to marry their peers to maintain the talent pool and introduced incentives for this, to howls of protest from educated women. Today, a special government agency still promotes dating among college graduates and, more seriously, the best students still aspire to serve in government.
Third, Lee was open to knowledge, absorbing what he considered appropriate for Singapore and avoiding other societies’ expensive mistakes. He invited Israelis to discreetly train the first Singapore army and later emphasized the United States’ key role in Asia’s security. He reinvented himself, moving from an Anglophilic Harry to the Kuan Yew that emphasized his Chinese heritage to the leader that pushed multiethnic Singaporeans to speak English to be competitive.
Singapore was initially conservative in financial regulation because Lee felt it could not yet bear the cost of a financial scandal. However, after retiring as prime minister, Lee was exposed to new concepts as an adviser to the multinational bank J.P. Morgan. He nudged his government in a more liberal direction and had his son head the financial regulator to implement this. He then nudged the Development Bank of Singapore to hire a retiring J.P. Morgan banker, pushing other Singapore banks to hire senior expats and adopt global practices.
Finally, Lee showed how critical vision is in leadership. We are fortunate to have a President perceived to be honest—yet reduced corruption or improved governance alone fall short of vision. Lee had a clear vision of a meritocratic market economy cushioned by healthcare subsidies and universal home ownership. He believed in the stability created when citizens own their homes. He laughed at how villagers hauled pigs and chickens up the stairs of the first high-rise government flats, but recalled with pride how homeowner citizens were ready to defend communities under threat of later riots. Lee also envisioned a racially integrated Singapore, enforced with both carrot and stick, and a clean, competent government supported by the willingness to pay higher salaries.
It is thus shallow to equate Lee with a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. What Lee criticized were weak democracies that left themselves directionless and, in the Philippines’ case, a soft people with short memories that too readily forgave past leaders’ worst sins. We can readily learn from Lee in the context of decisive action within our democratic traditions.
Although Philippine politics continues to revolve around personalities and emotional appeal, we do have young leaders with longer-term visions that transcend individual issues. Sen. Pia Cayetano has consistently championed women’s autonomy, which connects her passionate defense of reproductive health education on the very floor of the Supreme Court and her willingness to open the difficult debate on divorce. No one predicted that Sen. Sonny Angara would emerge as a tax reform advocate, highlighting how our income taxes are the region’s highest, or that Sen. Bam Aquino would be questioning our slow Internet speeds in a greater context of empowering startup businesses. Lacking a once-a-generation genius as Lee, we must throw our support behind transformative visions in various fields. Whether it takes 100 or 1,000 of our most forward-looking leaders to match a Lee, we will need them all to bring our 100 million people into modernity.
CLAREMONT, California—The death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, offers an occasion to reflect on his legacy—and, perhaps more importantly, on whether that legacy has been correctly understood.
During his 31 years as prime minister, Lee crafted a unique system of government, intricately balancing authoritarianism with democracy and state capitalism with the free market. Known as “the Singapore model,” Lee’s brand of governance is often mischaracterized as a one-party dictatorship superimposed on a free-market economy. His success in transforming Singapore into a prosperous city-state is frequently invoked by authoritarian rulers as justification for their tight control of society—and nowhere more so than in China.
Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping is pursuing a transformative agenda heavily influenced by the Singapore model—a relentless war on corruption, a broad crackdown on dissent, and promarket economic reforms. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees in Singapore a vision of its future: the perpetuation of its monopoly on political power in a prosperous capitalist society.
But the Singapore model, as China’s rulers understand it, never existed. To emulate Lee’s model of government—rather than its cartoon caricature—would require allowing a far more democratic system than the CCP would ever tolerate.
The true secret of Lee’s political genius was not his skillful use of repressive practices, such as launching lawsuits against the media or his political opponents; such tactics are common and unremarkable in semiauthoritarian regimes. What Lee did that was truly revolutionary was to use democratic institutions and the rule of law to curb the predatory appetite of his country’s ruling elite.
Unlike China, Singapore allows opposition parties to contest in competitive and free (though not necessarily fair) elections. In the last parliamentary election in 2011, six opposition parties won a total of 40 percent of the vote. Should the People’s Action Party (PAP), the party Lee founded, lose its legitimacy due to poor governance, Singapore’s voters could throw it out of office.
By holding regular competitive elections, Lee effectively established a mechanism of political self-enforcement and accountability—he gave Singaporean voters the power to decide whether the PAP should stay in power. This enforcement mechanism has maintained discipline within Singapore’s ruling elite and makes its promises credible.
Regrettably, most of the rest of the world has never given Lee proper credit for crafting a hybrid system of authoritarianism and democracy that vastly improved the wellbeing of his country’s citizens, without subjecting them to the brutality and oppression to which many of Singapore’s neighbors have resorted.
China would be wise to embrace this model, by introducing a considerable degree of democracy and strengthening adherence to the rule of law. China’s 1.4 billion citizens would benefit immensely if their rulers were to adopt Singapore-style political institutions and practices. This would mean, at a minimum, legalizing organized political opposition, introducing competitive elections at regular intervals, and creating an independent judiciary.
Emulating Lee would allow China to achieve immense progress and become a more humane and open society with a brighter future. Sadly, there is almost no chance of this happening, at least any time soon. When China’s leaders cite the Singapore model, what they have in mind is limited to the perpetuation of their power. They want the benefits of political dominance, without the checks imposed by a competitive institutional context.
Lee may have been skeptical about the benefits of democracy, but he was not viscerally hostile to it; he understood its usefulness. By contrast, China’s leaders view democracy as an existential ideological threat that must be neutralized at any cost. For them, allowing even a modicum of democracy as a means to impose some discipline on the elite is considered suicidal.
Unfortunately, Lee is no longer with us. One would like to imagine him explaining to China’s leaders what has been truly innovative about the Singapore model. Obviously, that is not an option. But it would behoove the CCP—if for no other reason than simple respect for one of Asia’s great statesmen—to stop appropriating the Singapore brand in the service of a completely different agenda. Project Syndicate
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Lee Kuan Yew was a man “too big” for Singapore and “too small” for the world. Under his enigmatic repute as an authoritarian leader, he would turn this tip of a tadpole on the Malayan peninsula into a rare social and political model for states that became envious of its economic prosperity.
The comparisons that were drawn may have been a useful heuristic device but they were dangerous, not least unfair: first, on account of the brilliance and gravitas of Lee Kuan Yew; second, because of Singapore’s geography; and finally, because of the unique historical conditions in which the nation was fitted and formed.
But its story was seductive, so the allusions to the success of this city-state and its founding prime minister by scholars and statesmen kept on coming: What on earth was the secret?
A Cambridge-trained lawyer (earning him a double first with distinction) and a natural fighter, Mr. Lee began his leadership in a hostile and precarious environment. Southeast Asia had barely recovered from the pillages of the Pacific War and was overwhelmed by nationalist movements and the destabilizing effects of communist insurgency. The withdrawal of European imperial authority created a power vacuum and new alliances had to be formed in order to fasten as well as to expand old borders.
Singapore’s ideal postcolonial settlement was to join the Federation of Malaysia, which included Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah. But when Tunku Abdul Rahman caught wind of the loftier ambitions of Mr. Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) to unite in opposition against the ruling Alliance at the federal level, Singapore was expelled.
This self-confessed “moment of anguish” drove Mr. Lee to build Singapore on his own terms. The year was 1965.
He would subsequently send his first foreign minister, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, to request that Singapore be one of the five original states that would establish Asean in 1967. Among his peers of that era—Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia, Suharto of Indonesia, Thanom Kitticachorn of Thailand and Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines—Mr. Lee would be one of the longest to stay in power (1959-1990) and would stay on as a minister-mentor feared and loved by his people.
Singapore was a “tropical slum” in the 1960s—poor, rundown and bereft of natural resources. But Mr. Lee micromanaged his house and virtually tended his lawn to beauty and perfection.
From his policies on regulated social housing, matchmaking and childbirth rates, the careful selection and execution of official languages in order to enhance cohesion in this multiethnic society (of which 74 percent are Chinese, 13 percent Malays and 9 percent Indians), the prohibition of chewing gum in open spaces, to the peremptory flush of public toilets, the end-result is a feat of social engineering and control. There is no satire in this; it was for him, and in his own words, simply the only way to transform Singapore from “a fishing village of 150 souls” into a desirable spotless metropolis.
But the measures Mr. Lee practiced—stifling political dissent, locking up his opponents and muzzling the media—were scorned, not least by the West, whose multinational companies would ironically seek stability and profit in this same corruption-free society.
Why was there such love and hate? It was because Mr. Lee was frank about the belief that leadership is as much a question of embracing values as getting things done right. The Lee-Singapore formula, it seems to me, was to keep an even keel between the principles of idealism and pragmatism.
And to stay the course, an acute sense of realism anchored his vision. Mr. Lee focused on what the world did not have to be able to develop the only two main resources that his country did have: a naturally deep harbor and the limitless potential of a highly skilled and technical workforce. The government lured and coopted the best and brightest to scale the ladders of its meritocratic administration and, by virtue of the country’s size, provided fiscal advantages (i.e., because of low structural overhead costs) for businesses wanting to put up shop.
Singapore has emerged as a crossbreed between a global financial center and a key international shipping hub.
Mr. Lee’s spin on the Asian values debate has to be read, therefore, with greater nuance. Whether it was to perpetuate his vaunted iron fist or to rally his constituency into a social contract that gave primacy to communal over individual ends remains in ambiguity. It is clear, however, that tradeoffs had to be made on the basis of social choices.
This generation’s new leaders have an exciting opportunity before them—to challenge notions of political accountability, to reassess Singapore’s trade and developmental role in Asean, and to spur innovation among the young in society—possibly on new forms of participatory democracy. It is the kind of match that Mr. Lee would have relished.
Whether his social experiment becomes a matrix for political plurality and social creativity or whether it reverts Singapore to its unhappy state will only now pass through the crucible. Either way, Mr. Lee wins, because he finally rests in the legacy that it was he who first made Singapore, incredibly, big for the world.
Kevin H.R. Villanueva, PhD (firstname.lastname@example.org), is research director at the HZB School of International Diplomacy at the Philippine Women’s University and founding director of the recently formed national-regional thinktank on Asean affairs called Arise (Asean Research Institute for Strategic Studies and Enterprise).