Book Review: Gandhi and the End of Empire


December 8, 2018

Book Review : Gandhi and the End of Empire

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Two new books bring sharply different perspectives to bear on the history of British imperialism in India up until the end of the Raj in 1947. Together, they offer important insights into how national political identities can evolve on the basis of self-awareness or self-delusion.

NEW DELHI – The books under review both describe the people and events that shaped the final years of the British Raj in India, and demonstrate a magisterial command of their subject. But the similarities end there: these books could not be more different in the ground they cover or, ultimately, in their sympathies.

The first is by Ramachandra Guha, a well-known Indian historian whose previous works include an excellent biography of Mahatma Gandhi’s early life until 1914 (Gandhi Before India), and a historical survey of modern India following the Mahatma’s assassination in 1948 (India After Gandhi). Guha’s new book, Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948, fills the gap in between, describing the final three and a half decades in the life of a saintly nationalist hero who would eventually be remembered as the father of a newly independent India. By contrast, the Mahatma plays no role in The British in India: Three Centuries of Ambition and Experience, the historian David Gilmour’s study of India’s colonial tormentors.

Gandhi’s Larger Truth

Gandhi, as we know, was the extraordinary leader of the world’s first successful non-violent movement against colonial rule. But he was also a philosopher committed to living out his own ideas, whether they applied to individual self-improvement or social change; hence the subtitle of his autobiography: “The Story of My Experiments with Truth.”

No dictionary definition of “truth” captures the depth of meaning that Gandhi found in it. His truth, Guha notes, emerged from his convictions, and contained not just what was accurate, but what was just and therefore right. Such truth could not be obtained by “untruthful” or unjust means, especially the use of violence.

Gandhi described his method as satyagraha, which literally means “holding on to truth,” or, as he variously described it, harnessing a “truth-,” “love-,” or “soul-force.” He disliked the English term “passive resistance,” because satyagraha required activism. To Gandhi, one who believes in truth and cares enough to obtain it cannot afford to be passive, and must be prepared to suffer actively for it.

Viewed in this way, non-violence – like the later concepts of non-cooperation and non-alignment – is not merely about renouncing violence, but about vindicating truth. In non-violence, suffering is intentionally taken upon oneself – instead of being inflicted on one’s opponents – because only by willingly accepting punishment can one demonstrate the strength of one’s convictions vis-à-vis one’s oppressors.

Guha details how Gandhi applied this approach to India’s movement for independence. Non-violence succeeded where sporadic terrorism and moderate constitutionalism had both failed. Gandhi showed the masses that freedom was a simple matter of right and wrong, and he furnished them with a form of resistance for which the British had no response.

Non-violent civil disobedience enabled Gandhi to expose the injustice of the law, giving him a moral advantage. By accepting his captors’ punishment, he held a mirror up to their brutality. And through hunger strikes and other acts of self-imposed suffering, he demonstrated the lengths to which he was prepared to go in defense of truth. In the end, he rendered the perpetuation of British rule impossible, by exposing the lie at the heart of imperialist paternalism.

An Enigmatic Life

Yet as Guha reminds us, Gandhi’s fight was not just against imperialism, but also against religious bigotry at home – a commitment that is very relevant to the current era. The descendants of Gandhi’s detractors on the Hindu right now hold power in India, and support for their brand of nationalism is at an all-time high. In their estimation, Gandhi went too far to accommodate Muslim interests. Within the jingoistic Hindutva movement, his pacifism is regarded as unmanly.

Gandhi: The Years That Changed the World, 1914-1948

But Gandhi, an openly practicing and deeply committed Hindu, defended a version of the faith that was inclusive and universalist, and thus demanded respect for all other faiths. Gandhi was murdered for being too pro-Muslim, and yet he died with the name of the Hindu god Rama on his lips. In the event, he had just come out of a fast that was meant to pressure his own followers, the ministers of the new Indian government, into transferring a larger share of undivided India’s assets to the new state of Pakistan. (Much to the Pakistanis’ horror, Gandhi had also announced that he would spurn the country he had failed to keep united, and spend the rest of his years in Pakistan.)

Such was the enigma of Gandhi. An idealistic, quirky, quixotic, and determined man, he marched only to the beat of his own drum, and often got everyone else to pick up the same rhythm. It has been said that he was half saint, half Tammany Hall politician. Like the best crossbreeds, he managed to synthesize the qualities of his component parts while transcending their contradictions.

But the Mahatma had a personal life, too. Guha describes in some detail Gandhi’s intimate friendship with a married woman, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani (though there is no suggestion of a physical relationship). He also recounts the troubling story of Gandhi’s experiments in sleeping naked with young women (including his own grand-niece) to test his vow of celibacy. Though there can be no doubt about the purity of his intentions – Gandhi gave up sex at the age of 35 – nor can there be any question that such idiosyncratic behavior alienated many of his followers (and remains controversial today).

Still, nothing in Guha’s thorough account diminishes Gandhi’s greatness or the extraordinary and lasting resonance of his life and message. While the world was disintegrating into fascism, violence, and war, the Mahatma espoused the virtues of truth, non-violence, and peace, and left colonialism utterly discredited. Moreover, he set an example of personal conviction and courage that few will ever match. He was that rare leader who transcends the inadequacies of his followers.

India for the English

The British ruled India for centuries with unshakeable self-confidence, buttressed by protocol, alcohol, and a lot of gall. Stalin, for his part, found it “ridiculous” that “a few hundred Englishmen should dominate India.” Though his numbers were off, he was right in principle: the British Raj operated with remarkably few people. Even at the peak of the empire in 1931, there were just 168,000 Britons – including 60,000 in the army and police, and a mere 4,000 in civil government – to run a country of some 300 million people. The British in India never accounted for more than 0.05% of the population.

In his monumental book, Gilmour sheds light on how they did it. He delves meticulously into the lives of Britons who lived and worked in India over the course of “three centuries of ambition and experience.” (An Indian might be tempted to substitute “looting and racism” to describe the colonial period, but we won’t dwell on that.) A decade ago, in The Ruling Caste, Gilmour took readers on a similarly deep dive into the lives of the Englishmen who worked in the Indian Civil Service (ICS). But in his new volume, he has broadened the range substantially to include the soldiers, journalists, and “boxwallahs” (commercial classes), as well as the hunters who single-handedly decimated most of the subcontinent’s wildlife. In the case of the latter, they lived by the motto, “It’s a fine day, let’s go and kill something.”

In describing the social backgrounds of the young men whom Britain sent to govern its far-flung empire, Gilmour takes us through their examinations, training, postings, social lives, professional duties, and extracurricular (sometimes extramarital) activities. Much of this is familiar ground, notably trodden by the ICS’s own Philip Mason in his 1985 book The Men Who Ruled India. But Gilmour has pored over a wealth of private papers and unpublished correspondence, leaving his narrative enriched by an intimacy that humanizes his subjects.

More broadly, Gilmour explains how the British sustained their empire in India through an extraordinary combination of racial self-assurance, superior military technology, the mystique of modernity, the trappings of enlightened progressivism, and brute force. Of course, it should also be said that the British benefited a great deal from the cravenness, cupidity, opportunism, disunity, and lack of organized resistance on the part of the vanquished.

Paternalism and Oppression

The British were in India to do a job: to advance the strategic, commercial, and political interests of their home country. Interestingly, Gilmour notes that two-thirds of the viceroys in the six decades from 1884 had attended Eton, as had half of the governors of the richest province, Bombay. Elitism at home reinforced racism abroad.

The British in India

Though Indians were permitted to take the civil-service examination from 1868 onward, they were long relegated to inferior positions. As one viceroy, Lord Mayo, put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race.” Needless to say, few shared Queen Victoria’s “romantic feelings for brown skins.” In Gilmour’s telling, the British had no illusions about preparing Indians for self-government. Their view of Indians was paternalistic at best, but more often contemptuous. Well into the twentieth century, Britons on the subcontinent spoke and wrote of the need to treat Indians like “children” incapable of ruling themselves.

There were British families that served the empire in India over the course of several generations – some for more than 300 years – without ever establishing roots. They would often send their own children “home” for schooling while they “endured” years of separation from loved ones. But it was not all self-sacrifice and hard work. The British in India were afforded not just generous furloughs and a guaranteed pension, but also the highest salaries in the empire. Some found it “quite impossible” even to spend their income. It is little wonder that English political reformer John Bright once described the empire as a “gigantic system of outdoor relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain.”

British society in India was shamelessly committed to its own pleasures. The families and hangers-on of senior officials routinely withdrew to mountain redoubts for months on end. As they whiled away their time with dances, banquets, and social fripperies, the Indian people, well out of their sight, continued to be ruthlessly exploited. In the summer capital of Simla, for example, so-called grass widows took in the cooler air while their husbands stayed behind to toil in the hot plains. These socialites’ principal activities included gambling, drinking, dancing, and adultery – usually in that order.

Meanwhile, racism became entrenched, pervasive, and increasingly repugnant over time. But while Gilmour acknowledges the racism, he does not address its connection to British self-interest. The Indians were systematically shown their place, with even those in government service being condemned to inferior ranks, piddling pay, and scarce opportunities for career advancement. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said of the ICS, it was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service.”

White-Washed Imperialism

Gilmour writes accessibly, often wittily, and with a wealth of telling anecdotes to bring the story to life. But he is unforgivably non-judgmental toward his subjects. The British imperial system was hopelessly disconnected from the Indians in whose interests it claimed to govern. Yet the very foreignness that Indians regarded as an indictment of colonial rule, Gilmour takes for granted, sometimes even framing it as a virtue.

Accordingly, he presents his cast of characters not just impartially, but often in an affectionate, sardonic light. Rarely does it seem to have occurred to him that these same men were racist oppressors, or at the very least the embodiment of a larger system of iniquity and injustice.

As a result, The British in India comes across as a curiously old-fashioned book, oblivious to the post-colonial currents that have already upended its assumptions. Because Gilmour demonstrates little awareness of the Indian perspective toward the British, we never learn what the subjects actually thought about their subjugators. The growing political consciousness among Indians that Guha describes makes no appearance, even though it provoked a British reaction.

Gilmour also disregards the unforgivable British attitude toward famines. Yet the deaths of 35 million Indians as a result of British imperial policy would seem to undermine his portraits of glittering durbars and elegant soirees.

The fact is that the British did little to advance the welfare of the people they were exploiting. As foreign rulers, they were more concerned with stability. Their job was to ensure imperial profit, not Indian progress, which would have undermined imperial rule anyway. Britain’s presence in India was motivated principally by pillage and plunder, but you wouldn’t know that from Gilmour’s telling. Only an Englishman could write about an emotionally fraught subject like colonialism with such benign detachment.

In reality, by the early nineteenth century, the British had established themselves as a ruling caste not within Indian society, but on top of it. They did not intermarry or even dine with Indians. They lived in bungalows within exclusive cantonments or “Civil Lines,” well apart from the “Black Towns” where the locals lived. They ensconced themselves in little islands of Englishness in the hill stations, where they planted ferns and roses, and built cottages with nostalgia-suffused names like Grasmere Lodge in Udhagamandalam (which the British, unable to pronounce the name, re-baptized “Ooty”). They patronized whites-only social clubs from which even Indian ICS men were blackballed.

More to the point, the British in India sneered at the people whose oppression paid for their comforts. Their loyalties remained staunchly wedded to their faraway homeland. Neither they nor their children mingled with the “natives.” Their clothes, books, and ideas all came from Britain, and British interests always took priority over those of the Indians under their rule. For the most part, the Britons would return “home” at the end of their careers. As the English writer Henry Nevinson observed in 1907, “A handful of people from a distant country maintain a predominance unmitigated by social intercourse, marriage, or permanent residence.”

That was the life of the British in India. Gandhi led the revolt that brought their sordid sojourn to an end. Guha and Gilmour offer an indispensable portrait of the people on each side of the colonial drama. As an Indian, though, I have little doubt about who is the worthier subject.

 

3 Books About George H.W. Bush’s Legacy


December 8 , 2018

 

 

Newsbook

 

George Herbert Walker Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, died on Nov. 30; his state funeral in Washington National Cathedral is today. As memorial services continue throughout the week, many are publicly reckoning with his one-term presidency. Some have praised his statesmanship and decency, while others have criticized his insufficient action during the AIDS epidemic and his role in paving the way for the extreme partisanship of today through campaign methods including an infamously racist ad featuring Willie Horton and aided by his chief strategist, Lee Atwater. Here are three books that discuss his life and legacy.

[Read The Times obituary of President George H.W. Bush.]

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BEING POPPY
A Portrait of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Richard Ben Cramer
192 pp. Simon & Schuster. (2013)

 

Cramer’s original opus was a more than 1,000-page-long accounting of the 1988 presidential election, “What It Takes: The Way to the White House,” in which he delved into the idiosyncrasies and flaws of George H.W. Bush, Joseph Biden, Gary Hart and three other candidates running for the presidency in 1988. In that book, Cramer “set out to write neither campaign history nor political biography,” wrote our reviewer. His main goal was to “examine what leads a person to enter the cement mixer of presidential politics and what happens to him once he does.” “Being Poppy” is drawn from those pages, isolating the story of George H.W. Bush’s candidacy into a slimmer offering.

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THE FAMILY
The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
By Kitty Kelley
705 pp. Doubleday. (2004)

In this cross-generational family saga, “Kelley reminds readers just how long the Bushes have been with us, sweeping like cattle raiders toward the sources of power.” She opens with Prescott Bush (1895-1972), the elder Bush’s father, and then spends considerable time on H.W. and his namesake son. Kelley depicts George H.W. Bush as “hungrier for power than we remember and willing to do just about anything to achieve it,” said our reviewer, adding that “it is startling to read Kelley’s account of Bush (whose father was relatively progressive on racial issues) campaigning hard against the civil rights movement and calling Martin Luther King ‘a militant.’”

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DESTINY AND POWER
The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush
By Jon Meacham
836 pp. Random House. (2015)

Meacham gained unprecedented access to the Bush family patriarch for this biography, in which he covers 41’s personal life — including the tragic death of his daughter from leukemia as a toddler — as well as his political career. Both of our reviews, though largely positive, wrote that Meacham’s biography was sometimes too forgiving of its subject’s flaws and controversial decisions, such as his nomination of Justice Clarence Thomas. Still, the book broke new ground, particularly in reporting Bush’s criticisms of Dick Cheney, whom he credited for his son’s administration’s harsh rhetoric against foreign nations. “But the pleasures of this panoramic book (it clocks in at 800-plus pages) have little to do with the news it breaks,” wrote our reviewer. “They’re about psychological portraiture, enabled by the artful use of Mr. Bush’s diaries — they’re surprisingly rich — and the author’s many probing interviews with Mr. Bush over the years.”

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A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A3 of the New York edition with the headline: Here to Help; Three Books on the Legacy of George H.W. Bush. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

 

 

The End of the Road for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal


November 24, 2018

The End of the Road for the Khmer Rouge Tribunal

 

 On Friday 16 November 2018 the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) handed down a guilty verdict against ageing former Khmer Rouge leaders Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan in what’s known as Case 002/02. Out of fears that they would die before a verdict was reached, the case against them had been split into multiple parts. As such, they were already found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to life in prison in Case 002/01.

So what’s so significant about last week’s verdict?

First and foremost is the crimes that were considered as part of Case 002/02. The first conviction against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan had related primarily to the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh in April 1975 and to a specific instance (at Tuol Po Chrey in Pursat province) where members of the previous government’s military were killed. This second part of the case considered a much broader range of crimes, and crimes that reflect the experiences of many more Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime.

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Case 002/02 included crimes related to the appalling conditions in cooperatives and worksites, torture and killings at security centres, discrimination against the Vietnamese, ethnic Cham minority, and Buddhists, and forced marriage. In a survey conducted in 2008, when Cambodians were asked which crimes Khmer Rouge leaders should be held accountable for, only 4.9% of them mentioned forced evacuation, which had been the focus of Case 002/01. On the other hand, 80% listed killing, 63% listed starvation, 56% listed forced labour, and 33% referred to torture. Trials such as those before the ECCC are meant to do more than just sentence perpetrators; they are tasked with contributing to a sense of substantive justice, and with helping to find the truth about what happened. So, although these two defendants had already been convicted and sentenced, it had not yet been for what were considered to be the right crimes.

There are two particular crimes worth drawing attention to: forced marriage and genocide.

Forced marriage

The Khmer Rouge’s policy of forced marriage, and the rape that occurred within those forced marriages, was not well known before the ECCC, despite estimates now that  400,000 people were forcibly married under the Khmer Rouge. It is largely through the testimony of civil parties (victims who have become parties to the proceedings before the ECCC) and through the advocacy of their lawyers that this issue was brought into the spotlight.

In harrowing testimony, victims recounted how they were too scared to refuse to be married but that they “could see that some people shed their tears quietly”. Couples would be monitored in their homes the night of their marriage by Khmer Rouge cadre to ensure they consummated the marriage. Another victim recalled, “I had to sleep with my husband because I would be in danger if I did not sleep with my husband. Because there was a militiaman eavesdropping, I submitted myself to be a wife. I could not avoid, so I tried to take this”. Women who refused to have sex with their new husband were sometimes raped by local Khmer Rouge leaders.

Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan were convicted of crimes against humanity for both forced marriages and the rapes that occurred with them. This conviction is significant from an international law perspective for recognising forced marriage as a gendered crime that was committed against both male and female victims, and for addressing it at a national scale. It is also highly significant to those victims who came forward after decades of silence. However, the ECCC has also been criticised for not addressing sexual violence that occurred under the Khmer Rouge in contexts other than forced marriage.

Genocide

Undoubtedly, the genocide conviction issued by the ECCC received the greatest attention from the Case 002/02 verdict.

Nuon Chea was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese and the Cham, and Khieu Samphan was found guilty of genocide against the Vietnamese (but not the Cham, with the Trial Chamber finding that “the evidence did not rise to the level of proving that Khieu Samphan actively assisted or facilitated the execution of the genocidal policy against the Cham”). Curiously, the summary of the judgement notes that “Judge YOU Ottara appends a separate opinion on genocide to the Judgement”. This is the first separate opinion issued by a single Cambodian judge, but its contents are not yet known.

There is immense power in the label of genocide. The actions covered by the conviction for crimes against humanity are just as horrific, yet it is those considered genocide that often attract far more attention. This is just as true in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge period is referred to as a genocide in Khmer (ប្រល័យពូជសាសន៍).

Legally, however, genocide only refers to the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. This has led to divisive debates amongst scholars of Cambodia over whether some or all of the crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge could be considered genocide. It also means that the experiences of ethnically-Khmer Cambodians (the vast majority of the population) are not covered by the definition, and the ECCC has not found the crimes committed against them to be genocide.

Here is where the verdict is ripe for misinterpretation. News headlines are very carefully crafted to engage readers by referring to genocide without explicitly misrepresenting the verdict (for example, the New York Times said “Khmer Rouge’s Slaughter in Cambodia is Ruled a Genocide”). For most people, Cambodian and foreigners alike, the details of this verdict will have little to no impact compared to the overarching label of genocide. However, there is a longstanding concern that if it enters into public consciousness in Cambodia that the ECCC found the treatment of the Vietnamese was a genocide but that the treatment of the Khmer was not, that this could further inflame anti-Vietnamese sentiment.

A complicated legacy

The final question to ask about the ECCC and Case 002/02 is: where to from here?

Last week, a summary of the judgement was read out before the Trial Chamber and released online. However, the full judgement is not yet available, with the only information given is that it will be released “in due course”. This decision has been criticised in a report from Stanford University’s WSD Handa Center for Human Rights and International Justice noting that Cambodia’s (notoriously weak) judiciary often relies on summary judgements without full reasoning, and that the ECCC had a chance to leave a different legacy.

The timeline for appeals will not start until this full judgement is released, although both defence teams have already flagged their intention to file appeals. In Case 002/01 the judgement was announced in August 2014 and the appeals proceedings concluded in November 2016. The current completion plan for the ECCC, foresees an appeal judgement in Case 002/02 in the third quarter of 2020.

As for trials against other suspects, myself and other New Mandala contributors have written about the reasons why it is highly unlikely these contentious cases will go ahead. In the aftermath of the Case 002/02 verdict, Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said that since there are “no more” top Khmer Rouge leaders, the government’s policy is that “now this process has ended”. It is hardly surprising, but serves as additional evidence that once the Case 002/02 appeals conclude, so too will the ECCC.


Rebecca Gidley is the author of Illiberal Transitional Justice and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.

Truth-telling in Singapore


November 19, 2018

Truth-telling in Singapore

by  Hamish McDonald.

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https://www.thesaturdaypaper.com.au

Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor Starbucks amid high-rise public housing flats on Singapore’s unfashionable north side. Seeking quietness, we move inside a nearby shopping mall to a cafe offering beverages of a local flavour: black tea with the option of evaporated or condensed milk – the tannin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone British military men.

 

Podcast > The Bigger Picture > Live & Learn > Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford, and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia

23-Mar-15 15:04

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Dr. Thum Ping Tjin, a fellow Singaporean and Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford.

Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, athletic and preppy in tortoiseshell spectacles and a pink shirt. From Singapore’s ethnic Chinese majority, he has an Oxford doctorate in history, is a former Olympic swimmer and has an unblemished military service record. All of which makes him the ideal candidate to go far in Singapore’s kind of meritocracy − perhaps joining the “men in white” of the People’s Action Party, in power since 1959.

Except Thum made the wrong career choice for that. As his history specialisation developed, he’d been thinking of a biography of Vespasian, the Roman legionnaire who, after invading Britain and quelling the Jewish revolt, was installed as emperor by acclamation of his troops and ended a period of instability.

“Then I thought, ‘There are other people who can do that, many people doing way better work on Roman history than I could,’ ” he tells me. “ ‘But who’s going to do Singapore history?’ ”

Soon after his return to a postdoctoral fellowship at the National University of Singapore (NUS), a historic windfall came his way: the British government declassified its archive for the tumultuous year of 1963 in Singapore and Malaya when the two self-governing former colonies were moving to join up in the new, pro-Western nation of Malaysia, standing against the communist tide sweeping South-East Asia.

It contained documents about Operation Coldstore, the sweep by Singapore’s Special Branch in February 1963 to detain more than 100 politicians, trade unionists and activists without trial, ostensibly to prevent the underground Malayan Communist Party instigating unrest to hinder the formation of Malaysia.

From these documents, Thum found the proof of what many had long suspected: that then Chief Minister Lee Kuan Yew mounted Coldstore chiefly to nobble the leftist opposition party, Barisan Sosialis, looming as a serious challenge to his People’s Action Party (PAP) in forthcoming elections. The archive shows Lee virtually admitting as much to British officials. It set a pattern of ruthless use of communist scares and preventive detention powers that Lee employed for decades.

As he wrote and talked about these findings, Thum soon got the answer to his question about who would write Singaporean history.

“Only someone brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is almost career suicide to do Singapore history, because eventually you run into the problem of either you have to censor yourself in Singapore or you leave Singapore and you enter an industry which is not interested nowadays in this sort of niche history.”

Within a year, a senior NUS administrator pulled him aside. “I am not supposed to tell you this, but a directive has come down from the top,” the official said. “You’re blacklisted: no renewal, no extension, no new contract. You’d better make plans.”

Thum went back to Oxford, then returned to Singapore with funding from the Open Society Foundations of George Soros and other donations big and small to start New Naratif, a web platform for research, journalism and art in South-East Asia.

In Singapore he is not alone in myth-busting. In 2014, he contributed to the book Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus, which queried many PAP narratives. It regarded meritocracy as a cover for elitism and groupthink; low taxes and migrant labour benefiting the wealthy and punishing ordinary locals; the purchase of government flats a trap rather than economic security.

The writers saw themselves as helping point Singapore to a more sustainable prosperity, explains co-author Donald Low, an economist and former finance ministry official, in what seemed at the time a new era of flexibility and contested policy on the part of the PAP.

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In 2011, in the economic doldrums after the global financial crisis, voters gave the party and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – the eldest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a severe shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the lowest since 1963. The Workers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best opposition result since Singapore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a separate presidential election, a widely liked maverick came close to beating the PAP’s preferred candidate.

Lee responded with social policy reforms, hints of openness and some humble gestures, notably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 million and that of his ministers to $S1.1 million. The PAP has long argued that these salaries, still the highest in the world for elected officials, are necessary to attract top talent and lessen corrupt temptations.

However, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an effusion of national mourning his son called a snap election, in which the PAP vote rebounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The result of 2015 removed whatever impetus or pressure there was, both within and without,” Low tells me, over beers and another local adaptation of British cuisine, crispy-toasted Spam. “The reform appetite has completely gone out the window in Singapore in the last three years.”

Dig deeper, he says, and Singaporeans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glittering south side of the island, with its heritage hotels, fusion cuisine and rooftop infinity pools.

For a few, the island is like this. A bungalow sold last month for $S95 million, reflecting the top-end wealth created by income tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the absence of capital gains or inheritance taxes. IT start-ups are thriving. British inventor James Dyson has just chosen Singapore to manufacture his new electric car.

For the rest, things are pretty stagnant. Citizens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 million population, their wages and job openings depressed by workers imported from the wider region. The 85 per cent living in Housing and Development Board flats that they have been persuaded to buy have seen values flatten. They are likely to decline steadily once their “ownership” gets to the halfway point of what are actually 99-year leases.

Low and Thum see few responses coming out of the PAP now.

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The fall of the similar-vintage United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia’s election this year has been a new shock. Under the returned Mahathir Mohamad, Kuala Lumpur is breaking its mould, ending capital punishment while Singapore steps up its hanging, winding back ethnic Malay privilege, and exposing how Goldman Sachs bankers, some based in Singapore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of billions.

It’s attracting some envy. “Because really we are the same country,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politicians who couldn’t get along. There are so many similarities that Singaporeans look north and see a society that looks so similar to ours but is heading in a different direction, with hope and vision, things that we lack.”

Singapore’s problem is ennui, not massive scandal. PAP leaders look back, arguing about who best embodies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 election one even boasted about the lack of promises, since promises can be broken.

Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly competent, but looks older than his years, after overcoming two types of cancer, then fainting while speaking at a national day rally two years ago. He has said he will retire at 70, so the next election, widely expected to be next year, will be his last before handing over.

But to whom? The consensus is that a third-generation Lee family member, such as the Prime Minister’s pushy second son Li Hongyi, an IT specialist, could be a risk, especially after a public family squabble about the disposal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that diminished the dynastic aura.

The alternative comes down to three candidates among younger ministers, with senior military rank and closeness to Lee Hsien Loong their main selling points inside the party. “They’re all bland, interchangeable, boring, uninspiring male Chinese,” Thum says. “The problem is compounded by the fact there is a clear, popular leader that Singaporeans want.”

This is current Deputy Prime Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61. A former head of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, and later Finance Minister, he is credited with the post-2011 reforms that helped the PAP rebound in 2015. But he was then shifted into a vague coordinating role in cabinet.

There is more history here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used internal security powers again, in Operation Spectrum, to detain 22 young Catholic social activists, some of whom, after soft torture, confessed on TV to having been unwitting tools of the communists. Studying at the London School of Economics, Shanmugaratnam had mixed with one of the detainees, and an exiled Singaporean leftist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only speculate that the PAP feels that Tharman is a useful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead because he will take Singapore in a very different direction, especially one away from the Lee family,” Thum said.

And of course, he is of Tamil descent. As Flinders University political scientist Michael Barr wrote in his recent book The Ruling Elite of Singapore: “Today the ideal Singaporean is no longer an English-educated Singaporean, but an English- and Mandarin-speaking Chinese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the notion that only strong individuals, like the ideal Confucian junzi (righteous gentleman), could preserve the nation, not strong and independent institutions.

Meanwhile, the PAP leadership plays it by its time-tested book of legal action against opposition figures: for defamation, contempt and sometimes minute financial irregularities, such as using office stationery for private purposes.

Three MPs of the Workers Party are in court facing charges of financial laxity in the local council they also run, with the government-owned media breaking away from what Low calls its usual “Panglossian cheerleading” to give the trial reams of coverage.

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Even a stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s era, diplomat and “Asian values” proponent Kishore Mahbubani, fell foul of the system. His offence was an op-ed, after Chinese officials blocked the Hong Kong transit of Singapore armoured vehicles being shipped back from exercises in Taiwan, saying that small countries had to put up with such things. He was removed as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at NUS.

In March, Thum himself appeared before the Singapore parliament’s Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods, to argue among other things that a government defending Operation Coldstore had its own problems with truth. He found his academic credentials questioned for six hours in what was clearly a prepared ambush by the law and home affairs minister, K. Shanmugam, the government’s main political attack dog.

Still, history does have its rewards. After one talk, a man in the audience approached Thum. He had been a Coldstore detainee: the stigma of being a communist dupe had remained after his release. Now Thum had shown there was no such evidence. “The man said that because of my work, he can look his wife and children in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dignity back.’ I will never forget the privilege to be able to make someone’s life better like that.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as “Singapore sting”.

 

Hamish McDonald  is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.

Malaysia-Singapore – 50 Years of Contentions ’65-’15


November 18, 2018

Podcast > The Bigger Picture > Live & Learn > Malaysia-Singapore – 50 Years of Contentions 1965-2015

 

Tan Sri Ab. Kadir Mohamad, Former Secretary-General, Ministry of Foreign Affairs

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Tan Sri Ab. Kadir Mohamad joined the Malaysian Foreign Service in 1968. He served in various capacities on diplomatic missions overseas for close to three decades before reaching the pinnacle of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1996, becoming its 10th Secretary General (1996-2001). Tan Sri Kadir was also the foreign affairs advisor to Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (2003-2009), and advised current prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s National Security Council Secretariat (2010-2013), before finally retiring in December 2013. He recently released a book titled “Malaysia-Singapore: Fifty Years of Contentions, 1965-2015,” which is his take on major events of these two countries’ bilateral relations since the island republic and our nation parted ways.

ttps://www.bfm.my/malaysia-singapore-fifty-years-of-contentions-1965-2015-tan-sri-abdul-kadir-mohamad.html#