Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew turned 88 a few days ago. The man who once dominated (and in many ways still dominates) Singapore by his mere presences has become noticeably more frail in his old age but as his performance in a dialogue hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy showed, his mind is still sharp.
One of the most prominent moments in this dialogue was the final question. Someone asked him what his vision was and he replied that it was not important what his vision was but what the questioners was. He was, as he said, “walking off into the sunset – he may even stumble.” That reply was vintage Mr Lee. In that statement, he showed that he was already thinking about the one question that nobody else seemed to want to talk about – what happens after he leaves the stage. Let’s face it, Mr Lee is 88, an age where everyday you have is something of a bonus. Like it or not, Singapore has to accept the reality that Mr Lee can drop dead anytime soon and life has to continue.
Say what you like about Mr Lee but he’s been a driving force in making modern Singapore what it is today – the thriving, clean, green and very efficient international metropolis. When Singapore was ejected from the Malayan Federation back in 1965, Mr Lee had the foresight to provide a vision and to surround himself with brilliant people like Dr Goh Keng Swee and S Rajaratnam. He was wise enough to allow these brilliant men to get on with the task at hand.
If you look at his obsessions, you’d realise that Mr Lee was for the most part right in what he wanted for Singapore. How can anyone argue against things like honesty in public service or equality of all before the law? In his years as Prime Minister, Mr Lee was obsessive in not only creating prosperity for Singapore but in making life in Singapore pleasant. The Singapore today compares very well to countries in the developed world of the USA and Europe – I was reminded of this by a young US navy boy in Geylang who said, “If this is your worst area, come to the US and I’ll show you a bad area.”
Mr Lee’s achievements are internationally recognised. I remember Sanjiv Misra, former head of Citigroup’s Asia-Pacific Commercial Banking saying, “It’s not just Singaporeans who are enthralled by him.”
I don’t believe I’d be exaggerating to say that everything in Singapore today is as a result of Mr Lee’s vision. Two Prime Ministers later, we are still living in Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s era and despite holding no official position today, Mr Lee’s presence within Singapore is commanding enough for him to need to mention that he is “no longer in charge.”
So, it’s all the more important for us to ask what life is going to be like without Mr Lee. His presence in our lives has been so prominent for so long that its departure might cause a shock to the system.
In one sense, there is a case for optimism. Singaporeans are used to having a decent lifestyle and are not about to give it up. Simply put, we take things like drinking from a tap as a given and so any government that changes any of these things will face a public revolt.
Even if you look at the ‘hot button’ issues in this election, you’ll see that they have their roots in Mr Lee’s policies. Mr Lee argued that it was necessary to pay top dollar to get top talent and to keep it honest. When the government slipped up – most noticeably in the case of Mas Selamat’s stroll out of Whitley Detention Centre, we got upset because this was not top talent in action. Thanks to Mr Lee, we expect a certain standard from government that is higher than in other countries. To Indians, Italians and the French may shrug if their ministers are less than competent – Singaporeans cannot accept it. If you look at the PAP’s loss in the recent election – much of it has to do with a perceived moving away from Mr Lee’s original vision.
Alcon had it right – “Today’s innovation is tomorrow’s expectation.” In the 60s an honest and competent public service was a new thing – today this is the least we expect from the public service.
However, there is a case for pessimism and in this case its best summed up by the person of the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek. In short, the good life that Mr Lee has provided Singaporeans has produced a young generation who have become spoilt and are unable to deal with a world outside of Singapore or in a world where the need to exercise brain power is a given.
On one level, the case for pessimism is harmless. Take the question of what is India’s national language. If you have read a little bit, the answer is obviously Hindi. Ask someone like the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feast during Ramadan and the answer is Tamil. The reason is simple; Singaporeans have been preconditioned into thinking that an Indian is automatically someone descended from Tamil Nadu. The conditioning is so strong that the richness and variety of what India is has been lost on the likes of this young man. If you are not from Tamil Nadu – how can you be Indian? The lack of knowledge goes beyond basic geography – you’d think a 21-year old with a normal sex drive would know one of the woman’s sweet spots – the clitoris. Unfortunately for him – he never heard of that part of the female anatomy. I repeat, it’s not that he couldn’t find it – he didn’t know this part of the female anatomy existed and this is in a country that prides itself in teaching basic biology.
He is unfortunately not alone in this level of ignorance. When Saudi Aramco had a cultural display up in Marina Square in 2006, members of the public would ask the Saudi delegates, “Which part of Dubai are you from?’ I know Dubai has been much better at publicising itself than the other parts of the Gulf but surely anyone who has looked at a map will know that Saudi Arabia is way bigger than Dubai.
Is Singapore’s education system lacking so badly? Well, I wouldn’t want to say it is but somehow the students who come out of the system lack basic curiosity or at least the desire to find out about the world beyond their HDB block. As long as the facts are told to them by a single trusted source – why question? I remember Andy Mukherjee, the former Bloomberg Columnist describing a group of NTU journalist he had just given a lecture to as being ‘Curiously uncurious.”
Basic alack of curiosity is amusing when it’s the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramdan aka Thambi Pundek tries to show off his loyalty to the system through his ignorance about general affairs. It’s downright worrying when this ignorance is translated into the national level. Ironically, one of the biggest culprits of this is Mr Lee himself. In the early 1990s he arrogantly flew up to Beijing to lecture the Chinese on how to get things done. The result was the Shuzhou Industrial Park – which was a White Elephant for Singapore until the Chinese became majority shareholders. Several billion dollars later, Mr Lee decided to trample round the Middle East trying to lecture the Gulf Arabs on the virtues of George Bush II’s Middle East policies that were obviously failing the Middle East and more worryingly he started writing articles in Forbes to berate Lebanese for not helping Israel to bomb them back to the Stone Age.
Unfortunately all of Mr Lee’s comments are treated as revered wisdom and because of that Singaporeans swallow what he says as gospel and they to view the world in the same way that Mr Lee does. How do you do business with someone when all you know about their country is based on an old man’s prejudices.
Let’s look at Mr Lee’s other big achievement – multi-racialism. Up until recently, Singapore was a proud multi-racial society. However, thanks to Mr Lee’s comments about Muslims, its questionable if Singapore’s racial harmony can be taken for granted. As far as he was concerned, Singapore’s Muslim’s need to be less strict about integrating with the rest of the public. What exactly did he mean by that? Singapore’s Muslims are amongst the most liberal in their outlook? A good portion of them drink and dare I say gamble. How much more do you want them to abandon a faith that is the centre of their culture and how much more do you want them to get trampled by your views when you’ve already trampled them of their birthright in land that was technically theirs?
Most worryingly for Singapore is that there is a lack of honesty amongst certain people. I remember the Young Muslim Politician from Paris Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek, proudly telling a former editor that he was told by his seniors that if he told the Minister the feelings on the ground, he would be told off for not selling government policies. It was only the shock of the last election that the Minister has insisted that he’s told the truth.
In not so many words – we have a culture where everyone is only concerned about sucking up to the top and sugar coats things to avoid trouble. Sucking up becomes one of the key characteristics to advance in life or at least save you from being told off. Yes, I agree that it is necessary to know how to manage superiors. However, it is another story when sucking up to the top hides them from the truth of what’s going on. As I remember my Dad telling me when I delayed bad news “You don’t want to tell me because you don’t want to upset me, but do you know how much time you delayed from me finding a solution.”
This is probably Singapore’s biggest failing. Mr Lee has to bear responsibility for playing a key role in creating this culture. After his initial cabinet stepped down in the early eighties, Mr Lee stopped being “Primus Inter Pares,” the leader who listened, set a vision and allowed people to get on with it. He became “God” or should I say “Minister Mentor,” a character with no official designation other than to teach people what to do. He had the wisdom to step aside when he left the Premiership in 1991 but ironically consolidated more power and people became afraid to engage him in an honest manner.
By doing this, Mr Lee created the very notion that power should last forever. Mr Lee has a done a brilliant job in ensuring that there is no money corruption in the public service. However, his consolidation of power and removal from the ground has helped to accentuate a culture of “power corruption.” I take the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek as a prime example. He cannot help bragging to you about how close he is to certain members of the government.
What does he gain from this? He’s not in it for the money. He just gets the thrill that people who served the nation might respect his worm like mind for having power. Unfortunately this isn’t limited to him.
In the trial of Zim Integrated Shipping versus Igal Dafni in 2009, you had the example of a former CEO of Port of Authority of Singapore telling the former Area President of Zim Integrated Shipping how he could get round loopholes in getting Singapore Citizenship. Her intentions were admittedly good in that she wanted Zim to come to Singapore. However, telling rich people who to get round the laws sounds fishy when you have relatives in the immigration department.
Then again, let’s look at the various Dr Susan Lim versus the Singapore Medical Council. You had the Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health who was also the Secretary of the Singapore of the Medical Council acting as complainant and judge at the same time. As expected, the judge couldn’t rule against this and questioning this could be contempt of court. However, any rational mind will tell you that something is grossly wrong with the system.
The biggest example is the “White Horse” system in the Ministry of Defence. Contrary to what the former Minister of State for Defence might tell you – the sons of prominent people somehow get “different treatment” from the rest. Just think of Dr Patrick Tan’s 12-year deferment when his father was Minister of Defence.
The beauty of this system is that the people top remain honest to a fault. It’s just that somehow, somewhere along the line; the minions felt that they’d get into trouble if they didn’t create privileges for their masters. The masters never objected to this and so they have to have some responsibility for this.
Mr Lee in his early days was a wonderful example of this. Both his sons went through National Service and served in combat units. He’s made it such that being his son is more difficult than not being his son. Our Prime Minister, who is his son, has earned his success.
Has this happened down the line? The Prime Minister has done it. He made sure that when his son broke MINDEF protocol, his reprimand was public. However, what happens at the pinnacle doesn’t filter down.
Mr Lee was right in insisting that we have no money corruption. He has however; allowed power corruption to foster and this will be the undoing of Singapore if it is not kept in check.
It’s easy to fight money corruption. If immigration demands a bribe at the Causeway, you pay and then lodge a complaint. You can be rest assured; the offender will pray to be at the gallows. In this aspect, we the public will never allow this to happen because it affects our lives in an immediate sense.
Power corruption is tricky in that it’s often legal and it’s virtually impossible to prove. As former Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mohammed Mahathir said, “You say everything in Malaysia is under the table, well in Singapore it is just over the table.”
However, it doesn’t make any better than the type done for money. Basically what happens in power corruption is the bottom and top lose the connection. As anyone stroke patient can tell you when the brain and legs lose the connection you get a situation where you simply can’t move – the brain can send out the signals and the leg muscles can be strong but when there’s no connection, nothing happens.
With a country, the rot doesn’t set in so immediately. It takes a bit of time to set in but eventually the rot takes effect.
So far, Singaporeans have shown the ability to stop some of the rot through the ballot box. The question is, would the opposition politicians prove to be made of sterner stuff when it comes to holding power. The case for pessimism is there. As one former writer says, “The Government types are actually fairly decent – it’s the liberals who can be really vicious.” Let’s just pray that the public’s tolerance is lower than the likes of the Young Muslim Politician from Pasir Ris GRC who feasts during Ramadan aka Thambi Pundek when it comes to tolerating nonsense of those in power.