Book Review: War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore


April 1, 2018

Book Review: War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore 

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Kevin Blackburn and Karl Hack
Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012. Pp. 459. Paper.

Reviewed by Sudarat Musikawong, Siena College, USA

War Memory and the Making of Modern Malaysia and Singapore reveals how individual, communal, and state-crafted memory emerge in conflicting claims to post-colonial World War II national belonging that involve selective amnesia.  The authors argue that while Malay “deathscapes” remake the past into nationalist stories of Malay warriors, Singaporean state-craft incorporates a multiracial approach in which the ethnic Chinese sook ching massacre victims of the Japanese occupation came to stand in for collective suffering.  Blackburn and Hack provide careful explanation of prisons turned into tourist destinations, cenotaphs dedicated to soldiers killed, military cemeteries, memorials dedicated to fallen soldiers, commemorations, and monuments of battles support the argument.  Martial post-war memory does the cultural work of forming a sense of nation and belonging crafted through ethnic communal lens.  This book will be of most interest for those studying post-war memory in Southeast Asia, as well as comparative accounts of Japanese occupation.

The Malay Peninsula was a British colony with complex communal ethnic conflicts.  British-imported Indian and Chinese labour for the rubber and mineral industries economically displaced Malays from their resources.  However, British imperialism figures lightly in the book.  In the book, the Japanese invasion and occupation (1941-1945) are dominant post-war memories.  Because the Japanese war strategy was one of rapid conquest and development in their territories, the peoples living in the Malay Peninsula suffered enormously from Japanese repression, mass violence, and displacement in work camps to places like New Guinea and the Burma-Thailand Railway.  The authors demonstrate how numerous nationalist tensions emerged between Malay nationalists (both pro-capitalist and communist), Indian nationalists, Eurasians and British colonialists, and a fractured Chinese community (between capitalist and communist revolutionaries).  After WWII, while countries like Indonesia were able to wrestle away from Dutch rule, the Malays returned to British rule with a promise of eventual independence in 1957.  After a series of communal race riots between Malays and the Chinese in 1945-1946 and again in the 1960s, the peninsula split between Muslim-Malay rule of Malaysia and Sino-Malay establishment of Singapore.

These ethnic communal tensions, accompanied by Cold War contexts of anti-colonial nation-building and the minority status of Europeans and Indians in the peninsula contributed to a series of different episodes of forgetting and remembering.  For example, the Chinese Malayan Communist Party soldiers had a memorial unveiled on 1 September 1946 to commemorate the lives lost due to a Japanese ambush precisely four years earlier.  But with changing geopolitics, these communists shifted from hero-martyrs to villains.  The Malayan communists were plotting against the return of British rule, then against the Malay state.  The public was denied access to commemorations and the memorial was put in storage.  As communist insurgents, they were configured in public memory as undeserving of public memorials until 2003 when insurgency was no longer at issue [112,120, 278-279].  Another clear example would include how the suffering of Europeans is the subject of ‘Changi Prison tourism’ and championed by the Singapore Tourism Board [79-94]; but although imprisoned Indians had communal commemorations, they have no public site of memory in either country [180, 205-206]. These are the origins of literal nation-making that take place alongside the very different national memory projects of war-time suffering and heroism.

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Mahathir put his experiences during the Japanese Occupation behind him when he initiated Look East Policy as he sought Japanese Investments

One of the challenges of studying memory is that over time, historical complexities and conflicts bring about many moving parts.  But Blackburn and Hack manage the multiple conflicting narratives by layering individual accounts, communal commemoration, and nation-state projects.  While the non-regional expert may be overwhelmed by the details in the first two sections, the “Nations and States” section is a fascinating account of how divergent Malaysian and Singaporean state-craft can be.  By the 1970s-1980s each country’s restructured economy became intertwined with Japanese investments and the demand for Japan to recognize and pay for its war crimes became more vexed and complicated.  Confronted by similar diplomatic pressures to maintain Japanese economic investments each treated Japan’s refusal to offer direct apologies for war-time atrocities and rape very differently—wilful amnesia in Malaysia, selective remembering in Singapore.  In Malaysia, the government’s marginalization of war-time suffering is suggested through Premier Mahathir’s ‘Look East Policy’.  The highlights of this policy included the unencumbered welcoming of Japanese direct investments in the Malay auto-industry, the 1980s exhuming of mass graves for development projects (rather than claims for restitution or recognition), and the Premier’s appeal for Japan to stop apologizing [258-260].  In contrast, the Singaporean state has promoted closely regimented massacre re-enactments, textbook projects, and state-sponsored commercial films, education, and war-tourism projects directed both at domestic and European and Australian tourism.  Of note, the over-enthusiasm of lay actors’ first re-enactment of Japanese war-time cruelties resulted in the traumatization of the entire group (most of whom where school children), physical injuries from being chased by the actors, and the hospitalization of several from the audience [305].

The book argues that both countries have marginalized the deaths and survivors of minor ethnic groups by focusing on the most politically and economically powerful groups.  For example, the following groups have been marginalized from state sponsored projects: the Burma-Thailand railway conscripts, of which 182,000 Asians and Eurasians (mostly Indian rubber tappers transplanted from the Malay peninsula) [199], tens of thousands of Indians sent to New Guinea in forced labour camps (of which 51% died due to harsh conditions and disease) [203], the losses of the communist Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (the MPAJA were mostly Chinese), and European heroes and victims of the Japanese occupation in Malaysia.  These omissions from dominant forms of post-war memory are unsurprising.  Outsiders to the region can imagine the difficulty the authors’ face in providing an all-encompassing account that avoids reproducing dominant hegemonic state narratives.  Scholars of war trauma have pointed to the importance of perspectives of perpetrators, gender analysis, and ethnic/racial minority identities in understanding strategic amnesia. And the book would benefit by including more discussion of Japanese, women’s, and Indian minority memories to examine the role of social amnesia and how it operates in nation-building projects.  War-time memory of soldiers and “freedom fighters” are figures of sacrifice, martyrdom, and heroism are incorporated into Malay nation-building projects.  In contrast, Singapore co-opts suffering as a unifying force [340-341]. To kill for independence from the Japanese is an honor for the sake of the post-colonial nation, but to die in work camps or massacres requires a restorative justice that leaves room to question the ambivalence of collaboration with the Japanese occupation or British colonialism.  One of the most important accomplishments of the book is that it leads to scholars toward new directions in social forgetting by focusing on what is not included in state commemorations and memorial projects.

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Singapore’s mystifying political succession


February 12, 2018

Singapore’s mystifying political succession

Why is the PAP so ambivalent about the idea of being led by the brilliant and erudite Tharman Shanmugaratnam of Ceylonese Tamil ancestry ?

By Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org/singapores-mystifying-political-succession/

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong to retire at 70

Should Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong retire at 70 then?

Whoever emerges as Singapore’s premier-designate, two things are certain. First, he will come from the People’s Action Party (PAP), the only ruling party Singapore has known since it became self-governing in 1959. Second, he will want to preserve the PAP’s pro-business-but-socially-responsive philosophy, and its security-focused state apparatus with a dominant executive at its core.

Despite these givens, the succession question is currently a key preoccupation in the city-state. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said he would step down by the age of 70, which is now four years away. Three fourth-generation (“4G”) leaders are said to be on the shortlist to take over: Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, 56, and two 48-year-olds, Chan Chun Sing and Ong Ye Kung. The uncertainty is testing people’s faith in a political brand associated with surprise-free long-term planning. Less talked about in mainstream media, but more troubling, is how the PAP has sidelined the individual who most inspires confidence—Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

In the larger scheme of things, these career technocrats may seem to be just different shades of white. Yet who will succeed Prime Minister Lee is not a trivial matter. Within the parameters of PAP ideology, there is scope for a new leader to embark on meaningful changes—or not. Despite the party’s strong showing in the 2015 general election, when it won 70% of the popular vote, one should not underestimate the need for internal reform. On Singapore’s political spectrum, people who prefer the PAP to stay the same—or, at the other extreme, to lose power—are probably outnumbered by those in the middle, who want a much-improved PAP.

In recent years, Singapore academics have contributed suggestions for radical reform that a bolder PAP should find thinkable and doable. Public policy scholar Donald Low, for example, has argued that Singapore needs to shake up its governance principles if it wants to respond effectively to current socio-economic challenges (Hard Choices, 2014). Sociologist Teo You Yenn makes the case for more compassionate social policy to address an alarming income divide (This is What Inequality Looks Like, 2018).

In my own recent book, I contend that enlightened self-interest should persuade the PAP to embark on liberal political reforms (Singapore, Incomplete, 2017). Even among Singaporeans who are generally pro-establishment, there is dissatisfaction with government leaders who seem far too quick to brush off lapses, whether it’s chronic breakdowns of the mass transit system or the massive corruption scandal involving the government-linked Keppel corporation.

Hence the interest in how the PAP’s rejuvenation plays out. Indeed, there is probably more curiosity about this round than ever before. It will be only the third occasion in more than 60 years that Singapore has changed prime ministers. The first time was when the nation’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside for Goh Chok Tong in 1991. This was a moment met with more disbelief than anticipation: it was assumed that Lee would still be pulling the strings. As for the identity of Goh’s successor, the writing was on the wall even before he moved into the Istana. When Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong took over in 2004, the only surprise was that Goh lasted as long as he did.

This is thus the first time in the republic’s history that there is a genuine and potentially far-reaching choice of leader. Singaporeans who are understandably seized by this moment, however, are beginning to feel frustrated by a closed and opaque leadership renewal process. Singapore has a Westminster-style parliamentary system in which citizens do not directly select the head of government. Like in Britain, Australia and India, Singaporeans elect members of parliament, but it’s the winning party’s leaders that decide who takes charge of the executive branch. In such systems, it is not uncommon for a ruling party, after internal wrangling, to suddenly announce a new prime minister in mid-term. Three of the last four Australian premiers came to power this way.

In Singapore, though, the problem is compounded by the lack of democracy within the party in power. Lee Kuan Yew gave the PAP a Leninist structure, ensuring that its summit could never be conquered from the base. The central executive committee, via cadres it selects, basically elects itself. It would be pointless for any leadership contender to appeal to the party membership, let alone the wider public. Popularity does not decide succession. It may even work against candidates, since the government’s elite technocrats have always been suspicious of the popular will. They would not look kindly on any colleague cultivating too direct and independent a connection with the ground.

 

On the plus side, this model protects Singapore from the kind of demagoguery associated with presidential systems: a Duterte or Trump is not going to emerge suddenly from the primordial ooze. On the other hand, though, the lack of any clear mechanism for managing a leadership contest denies the PAP the chance to engage in a radical reassessment of its direction. In most democracies, party conventions serve this function, but in this regard the PAP more resembles the Communist Party of China: party conferences are stage-managed occasions for the formal anointing of pre-selected leaders. In effect, this system puts Singapore’s political future in the hands of a very small coterie of men—the prime minister and perhaps two or three members of his kitchen cabinet.

The official line is that the next-generation ministers will get to choose their leader among themselves. There is precedent for this. Goh Chok Tong was not Lee Kuan Yew’s first choice, but the job went to him anyway because he was the consensus pick within his cohort. In that spirit, sixteen 4G office holders released a joint statement in January assuring the public that they “are working closely together as a team, and will settle on a leader from amongst us in good time”. It should be stressed, though, that any autonomy the 4G ministers enjoy is by the incumbent prime minister’s leave. If he and his lieutenants have a favoured successor, any other contender has to be extremely cautious and deft if he plans to lobby for job. The system isn’t just opaque to outsiders; even a potential challenger needs to feel his way, with no precedent to guide him.

It is also clear that the current incumbents want continuity more than change. Lee has occasionally spoken of the need to think outside of the box and slaughter sacred cows, but in recent years his administration’s overriding instinct has been to preserve the status quo. Thus, at a time when even Singaporeans close to the establishment understand the need for fresh thinking, the succession process has a strong bias in favour of conservatism.

 

In January, Lee said that it would take “a little bit longer” to name his successor, killing speculation that the matter would be more or less settled through a cabinet reshuffle after next month’s Budget debate. Although some saw this as a sign of reluctance to step down, it could also be because the 4G deliberations are not going according to script. Some say Lee’s presumptive first choice, Chan Chun Sing, may not be getting the unanimous backing of his peers. Ong Ye Kung, in an intriguing comment to the Straits Times, said he had in mind a colleague who, among other characteristics, had the ability to drive long-term, important policy—which seems to describe Finance Minister Heng better than Chan, who, unusually for a high-flier, has not held a key economic portfolio. Granted, there is a risk of reading too much into the precious few opinions the ministers have offered about succession. What is clear, though, is that the process is not progressing like clockwork.

Under our noses

The Straits Times obligingly offered a “neat solution”. Lee should eat his words and serve beyond the age of 70, one of its editors opined: “It gives enough time for the changing of the guard to happen smoothly and uneventfully.” There is, however, another obvious answer staring Singapore in the face. Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, 61, could take over until the 4G cohort produces a leader. Tharman, who held the education and finance portfolios with distinction, is Singapore’s most highly regarded politician. This lifelong public servant would never thrust himself into the race—indeed, he “categorically” ruled himself out last year—but by the same token it is unlikely that he would refuse if his party insists.

Conventional wisdom states that he is too close to Lee’s age to tick the rejuvenation box. Yet, they are five years apart, the equivalent of a full parliamentary term. Whatever the government now considers an appropriate retirement age for a prime minister, Singapore could benefit from a five-year Tharman administration in between Lee and a 4G successor.

Another question mark hovers over Tharman’s race. He is of Ceylonese Tamil ancestry in a country that is 70% Chinese. Detractors claim Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese premier. There’s no doubt that racial prejudices persist: in a 2016 Institute of Policy Studies survey, only six in ten Chinese said they would accept an Indian prime minister. But such polls are misleading. It is one thing to ask people to react to a hypothetical, nameless, faceless candidate of a given race. It’s another thing entirely to offer voters a specific, real-life individual. In the former case, there’s a high chance that survey respondents’ racial stereotypes will be activated—since race is the only biodata they’ve been given. In the latter case, voters are able to consider the whole person. Of course, some voters may not see past the candidate’s colour. But many will be drawn to other salient traits, such as character and experience.

Thus, in the real world, there’s no contradiction between harbouring generalised prejudices against a particular ethnic group and feeling positively towards specific persons of that very race, because they are not “that” kind of Indian or Malay or whatever. (Successful individuals from minority backgrounds are well acquainted with being patronised in this manner.) Thus, human beings are able to manage the cognitive dissonance of holding on to their racial prejudices even as they acknowledge the undeniable worth of specific members of that community.

Whether we label such inconsistency reasonableness or irrationality, Tharman is clearly a beneficiary. The same year as the IPS survey, a poll commissioned by Yahoo showed that seven in ten Singaporeans would support (not merely accept) Tharman as their next prime minister—twice as many as his fellow deputy prime minister, Teo Chee Hean, who came in second. In the 2015 general election, Tharman outperformed everyone else, including the prime minister, in the popular vote. His team secured more than 79% of the ballots in their constituency, significantly higher than the already-impressive 70% share that the PAP won nationally. No matter how racist Chinese Singaporeans may be, there is simply no evidence that this handicaps Tharman’s ability to rally the ground. Mystifyingly, though, Lee and his colleagues have declined to express such confidence. “I think that ethnic considerations are never absent when voters vote,” Lee said when pressed by the BBC about whether Singapore was ready for an Indian prime minister.

The real issue with Tharman may be the colour of his politics, and not his skin. More than any other minister, he has an appetite for progressive reforms. Ironically, his social initiatives addressing households’ economic insecurity were probably the most important policy-related reason why the PAP did so well in the 2015 election. (Another key factor, the tidal wave of sentiment following the death of Lee Kuan Yew, was an unplanned, one-off act of god.) But soon after, he was moved into a coordinating minister role, losing his finance portfolio to Heng.

The PAP has always taken pride in its adroit navigation of global tides. If it were to apply that skill to the succession question, it might appreciate the competitive edge that Tharman offers Singapore at this moment in history. Neoliberalism is wearing thin; citizens across the developed world are rebelling against elites and expertise, and finding false hope in identity politics; polarised politics is preventing publics from working for the common good; populism is drowning out sensible solutions to complex problems.

To the extent that any one leader can make a difference, Tharman is the man for these times. He is a world-class policy wonk who also happens to be extremely popular. He has won over the public, not with empty rhetoric or simplistic solutions, but through his palpable sincerity in wanting to build a country where people are treated with dignity and met at the point of their need, whether those needs are economic or more intangible. Some Singaporeans say picking a non-Chinese leader would be a triumph of imagination. On the contrary, if the PAP doesn’t take advantage of Tharman’s unique capacities, it’s not its imagination that should be questioned, but its grasp of reality.

 

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew


December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org

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One of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s most admirable acts of foresight was to usher out Singapore’s first-generation leaders in order to hasten the rejuvenation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Giants like Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and E.W. Barker retired from the government in the 1980s, when they were still younger than Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were upon entering the White House. In the short term, this represented a massive underutilisation of talent. But that’s how determined Lee was to make sure that the next generation—Goh Chok Tong, Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan and others—would emerge from the shadow of their seniors to secure the future of the ruling party.

PAP exit management under Lee had one major omission, though. Himself. Lee felt he needed to stick around. Since his designated successor Goh Chok Tong had no objections, Lee didn’t accompany his first-generation comrades to the early retirement he had so strenuously advocated. After 1991, when Singapore got a new premier for the first time in 32 years, various terms were used to describe Lee’s new position. Senior Minister. Minister Mentor. Goalkeeper. Whatever the title, for the next 20 years, the simple political reality was that LKY was still around. At The Straits Times where I used to work, word came from way above my pay grade that we were not to say he stepped down. He stepped aside.

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A portrait of Lee Kuan Yew by Chinese painter Ren Zhenyu in an upmarket Singapore gallery. (Author photo)

It could have been much worse. He could have held on to the top job like Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who also won power in 1959 but would only concede it to death, 47 years later. Or like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, who before he was ousted by the military was saying he’d run for another five-year term in 2018, at the age 94. Or he could have done a Mahathir Mohamad, who never met a potential or actual successor he didn’t eventually consider an enemy to undermine or incarcerate.

If Lee didn’t join this club, it wasn’t because he lacked self-belief or the stomach for undemocratic methods. Perhaps his autocratic tendency was tempered by his hyper-rational, unsentimental view of life. He knew time changes everything, and that people grow old, get weak, and die. So, while convinced that Singapore needed an omnipotent executive branch to run the place, he also knew its personnel would have to be rotated before they succumbed to their mortality. He also differed from the typical dictator in that his family was clean. Corrupt strongmen avoid the exit door because they fear it will lead them and their kin straight to prison. The Lees didn’t have that problem.

Whatever the reasons, Lee Kuan Yew didn’t follow the jealous despot script. Instead, he institutionalised a system of leadership renewal. Therefore, while the PAP as a party is unapologetic about its desire to dominate politics indefinitely, PAP leaders as individuals accept they have to make way for younger replacements.

Things could have been worse; but they could have also been better. Political self-renewal must mean more than replacing older leaders with younger ones. It may require systemic change as well. This is where the PAP fell short. Lee and his junior colleagues failed to adapt their governance model to the post-LKY era. They underestimated how much the system had evolved around Lee’s style and philosophy. After three decades, the state had become like a corporate computer system patched together by a brilliant IT guy who refuses to adopt off-the-shelf solutions used by other firms, and insists on installing his own custom-built software upgrades year after year. He is conscientious enough to train apprentices and write a voluminous troubleshooting guide. But only he knows how to get optimum performance out of his system. Eventually, the company will find out the hard way that it should have adopted more resilient open-source solutions that wouldn’t depend on their champion IT guy being on call 24/7.

Image result for The Brilliant Lee Hsien Loong with Lee Kuan Yew

 

The globally respected operating system that Lee rejected while he was in office was the democratic template of checks and balances to avoid over-concentrated power. Robust institutions insure against the mortality and fallibility of human leaders. Lee placed his bets instead on a conveyor belt of able men unfettered by onerous constraints. This had been Lee’s unique contribution to the founding generation of PAP leaders. The master political strategist opened up space for brilliant policy entrepreneurs like Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen to work their wonders. He did this partly with his persuasive skills, but also by pushing aside legal, institutional and human obstacles in the way of an increasingly dominant administration.

Lee failed to acknowledge that this formula couldn’t last indefinitely. His miscalculation produced at least two policy innovations that proved costly for the PAP, and for which the party is still paying a price. These were the elected presidency and the ministerial pay formula. Both were the products of a mind obsessed, as it always had been, with the challenge of protecting Singapore governance from the vagaries of public opinion and the popular vote. They were hatched during that period from the late 1980s to the 1990s when Lee was handing over to the second-generation leadership, and anticipating what might go wrong. And both became Frankenstein’s monsters that made his successors’ jobs harder, not easier.

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HE Halimah Yacob,  Singapore’s Eighth President

The elected presidency was Lee’s insurance policy against a so-called freak election that could bring the wrong party into power. The insurgents might only last a single parliamentary term, but they could cause permanent damage in that time, Lee feared. They could raid the country’s financial reserves and replace key public sector appointment holders with incompetent cronies. Lee decided that the office of the president had to be given the power to veto such plans. This new executive role would require the president to be directly elected by the people.

Related imageIn 2011, the PAP’s favoured candidate Tony Tan won the Presidential Election but with only 35% of the vote. Presidential elections have been more contentious than Lee Kuan Yew anticipated.

Lee’s constitutional fix, meant to make Singapore more stable, ironically created one of its main sources of political uncertainty. The freak election scenario remains a whimsical notion; but in the meantime, presidential elections have opened up a new front to challenge PAP dominance. This has forced the PAP to shift more attention away from governance and towards politics—the exact opposite of what Lee spent most of his career trying to do. To address the risk that presidential elections will deviate from the government’s preferences, it has had go through various contortions, including reducing the power of the president in relation to the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers, raising the pre-qualification bar for would-be candidates (including reserving this year’s election for Malay candidates), and lecturing Singaporeans that they must not politicise the presidency. The rancour surrounding presidential elections—and the attendant cost to the unifying purpose of the head of state—had been predicted by Singaporeans who submitted thoughtful feedback during the Select Committee hearings leading up to the 1991 constitutional amendments. Lee had brushed aside their concerns.

The pay formula for ministers and senior civil servants was another radical idea born of Lee’s frustration with an obtuse Singapore public. He was justifiably concerned that skyrocketing private sector pay would weaken the public sector’s ability to recruit top talent. He was correct to conclude that the government could not let its remuneration lag too far behind. Where he went wrong was to decide that, instead of arguing it out in parliament every time it needed to revise its pay structure, the government should create an automatic formula pegging public officials’ salaries to those of top earners such as lawyers, bankers and corporate chief executives.

Singaporeans could see the fundamental flaws in the idea. A league table of top salaries in fields like banking and corporate management would show very high figures year after year, but those salaries were not going to the same people every year. Firms and individuals would enter and leave the list; they were in risky, competitive markets. Like boy bands, they might be at the pinnacle for only a few years. In contrast, the government’s stars would continue to get top dollar for a couple of decades, their pay being pegged to the private sector’s equivalent of Westlife in the 1990s, the Jonas Brothers in the 2000s, and One Direction in the 2010s. This just didn’t smell right. Many Singaporeans also had deep concerns about so explicitly marketising the relationship between leaders and led.

Lee Kuan Yew would have none of it. He was determined to do what he had always done: use his political clout to create a structural fix that, he thought, would put an end to unproductive debates and let the government get on with the job. Concluding his marathon speech during the 1994 parliamentary debate on the formula, Lee declared, “I say I am prepared to put my experience and my judgement against all the arguments that doubters can muster. In five to ten years, when it works and Singapore has a good government, this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”

In the realm of embarrassing 1990s predictions, this one vies with 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe’s statement the following year:I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” For instead of depoliticising the question of public sector remuneration, Lee’s formula bequeathed to his successors possibly the era’s single most toxic policy move. Exactly as critics predicted, it infected government–people relations with cynicism and distrust.

The PAP had prided itself on its willingness to make unpopular decisions in the country’s long-term interest, but now when ministers resisted the popular will, their motivations would be questioned—of course they don’t care about the people, they only care about their high-paying jobs. The market-pegged formula also made people contemptuously unforgiving of inevitable mistakes—this is what million-dollar salaries get us? Another serious unintended but predictable consequence was to make the civil service resistant to change, by disincentivising risk-taking among officers earning salaries many know they can’t command elsewhere.

Lee Kuan Yew admitted to making mistakes, especially in pushing zero population growth too aggressively in the 1970s. But he couldn’t really be faulted for that one, since practically every government looking at similar demographic trends arrived at the same policy prescriptions. In contrast, Lee’s ideas to restructure of the presidency and public sector pay in the 1990s were idiosyncratically his own. And they were not cases of random error but systematic error, as scientists would put it. They resulted from his peculiar obsession with protecting the state from the unpredictability of democratic politics. He had more or less succeeded in doing so in earlier decades—like that special IT guy, constantly troubleshooting and tinkering. But he overestimated his ability to design plug-ins for Singapore’s operating system that would continue to function smoothly after he left.

Shamefully, he—jointly with Goh Chok Tong—was allowed to announce his resignation a week after the election, and before colleagues whose presence in cabinet Singaporeans had been querying for years. It was an undeservedly ignominious end to a government career that would be eulogised profusely four years later.

Lee and Goh said they were doing it to indicate “that the PM can and will revise and revamp his policies … to give PM and his team the room to break from the past, and … to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change”. When he accepted their resignations a few days later, Lee Hsien Loong allowed their rationale to stand—to “leave it to me and my team of younger ministers to take Singapore forward into the future”—thus throwing out of the window two decades of PAP assurances that Lee Kuan Yew’s presence in cabinet had never been an obstacle to progress, since ministers had minds of their own.

For more than a decade, Lee Kuan Yew had been codifying his beliefs in his memoirs and other books. This exercise was a symptom of the PAP’s understandable anxiety that its unique formula for good governance would not survive him. But it also contributed to the old pragmatism of the PAP giving way to dogmatism. After LKY’s final, emotional exit in February 2015, the depth of his influence became even more apparent. LKYism became a kind of quasi-theology, with members of the governing elite falling over one another to cite his words and acts, and thus show that they were the legitimate interpreters and inheritors of Singapore’s ultimate oracle. Being “against Mr Lee’s values” emerged as a damning label to stick on opponents within the establishment. Lee had long been called the founding father of the republic, but in 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the quantum leap of declaring that all of us—as individuals, not just collectively—are “sons and daughters” of Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Teo did not actually possess the power to rewrite everyone’s birth certificate, but the remark revealed Lee’s place in the minds of the PAP’s senior leadership.

Teo’s declaration came during the parliamentary debate on the Lees’ feud over their family bungalow at 38 Oxley Road. This was a debate that engrossed the establishment and most ordinary Singaporeans. It centred on what to do with the building that was Lee Kuan Yew’s private residence during his adult life. The debate missed the point. The question we should be asking is how much room to give to the Lee Kuan Yew that will reside in the Singaporean mind long after his death.

This essay is extracted from Cherian George’s self-published anthology, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. The book is his first for a general audience since his 2000 volume, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation.

ASEAN@50


August 3, 2017

ASEAN@50

by Kishore Mahbubani*

*Professor Kishore Mahubani is Dean, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/asean-50th-anniversary-by-kishore-mahbubani-2017-08

We live in troubled times, with pessimism clouding even the most prosperous parts of the planet. Many are convinced that the international order is falling apart. Some fear that a clash of civilizations is imminent, if it has not already begun.

Yet, amid the gloom, Southeast Asia offers an unexpected glimmer of hope. The region has made extraordinary progress in recent decades, achieving a level of peace and prosperity that was previously unimaginable. And it owes much of this success to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which marks its 50th anniversary this month.

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Dean Kishore Mahbubani and Singapore’s Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

Southeast Asia is one of the world’s most diverse regions. Its 640 million people include 240 million Muslims, 120 million Christians, 150 million Buddhists, and millions of Hindus, Taoists, Confucianists, and Communists. Its most populous country, Indonesia, is home to 261 million people, while Brunei has just 450,000. Singapore’s per capita income of $52,960 per annum is 22.5 times that of Laos ($2,353).

This diversity puts Southeast Asia at a distinct disadvantage in terms of fostering regional cooperation. When ASEAN was founded in 1967, most experts expected it to die within a few years.

At the time, Southeast Asia was a poor and deeply troubled region, which the British historian C.A. Fisher had described as the Balkans of Asia. The Vietnam War was underway, and the Sino-Vietnamese War was yet to be fought. Many viewed the five non-Communist states that founded ASEAN – Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand – as dominoes, set to be tipped over by a neighbor’s fall to communism or descent into civil strife.

But ASEAN defied expectations, becoming the world’s second most successful regional organization, after the European Union. Some 1,000 ASEAN meetings are held each year to deepen cooperation in areas such as education, health, and diplomacy. ASEAN has signed free-trade agreements (FTAs) with China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand, and established an ASEAN economic community. Today, ASEAN comprises the world’s seventh-largest economy, on track to become the fourth largest by 2050.

Image result for the asean miracle a catalyst for peace

As I explain in my book The ASEAN Miracle, several factors have underpinned the bloc’s success. At first, anti-communism provided a powerful incentive to collaborate. Strong leaders, like Indonesia’s Suharto, former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed, and Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew, held the group together.

It helped that as ASEAN was getting off the ground in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the strategic interests of America, China, and the bloc’s members converged. But even when the Cold War ended, the region did not erupt into conflict, as the real Balkans did. ASEAN countries maintained the cooperative habits that had become established in Southeast Asia in the 1970s and 1980s.

In fact, ASEAN’s erstwhile communist enemies – Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – decided to join the bloc. So, too, did Myanmar, ending decades of isolation. ASEAN’s policy of engaging Myanmar attracted criticism from the West, but it helped lay the groundwork for a peaceful transition from military rule. (Compare this to the West’s policy of isolation toward, say, Syria, which certainly won’t lead to a similar outcome.)

To be sure, ASEAN is far from perfect. Over the short term, it seems to move like a crab – two steps forward, one step back, and one step sideways.

Yet ASEAN’s long-term progress is undeniable. Its combined GDP has grown from $95 billion in 1970 to $2.5 trillion in 2014. And it is the only reliable platform for geopolitical engagement in the Asia-Pacific region, unique in its ability to convene meetings attended by all of the world’s great powers, from the United States and the European Union to China and Russia.

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ASEAN continues to face serious challenges. Territorial disputes in the South China Sea have created deep divisions, and the intensifying geopolitical rivalry between the US and China poses a further threat to cohesion. And domestic politics in several member states, including Malaysia and Thailand, is becoming increasingly chaotic.

But ASEAN’s history suggests that the bloc can weather these storms. Its impressive resilience is rooted in the culture of musyawarah and muafakat (consultation and consensus) championed by Indonesia. Imagine how other regional organizations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council or the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, could benefit from adherence to such norms.

The EU once amounted to the gold standard for regional cooperation. But it continues to struggle with a seemingly never-ending series of crises and weak economic growth. Add to that the impending departure of the United Kingdom, and it seems only prudent to seek other models of cooperation. ASEAN, however imperfect, provides an attractive one.

The EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. But ASEAN’s approach may turn out to be the way of the future, enabling other fractious regions to develop sturdy bonds of cooperation, too.

In the Post Lee KuanYew Era, can Singapore still walk tall on Global Stage?


July 19, 2017

In post-Lee Kuan Yew era, can Singapore still walk tall on global stage?

By  Bhavan Jaipragas

Singapore has a Lee Kuan Yew conundrum, and it has little to do with his house.

As the late independence leader’s three children this week continued their bitter public quarrel over his century-old bungalow, the Lion City’s leading diplomats were having a slug out of their own debating his foreign policy legacy.

The rift among the foreign ministry top guns was sparked when one of them publicly lamented in a July 1 op-ed that the respected statesman’s demise two years ago meant the city state no longer wielded an outsized influence in the global arena.

In a political career spanning six decades – including 31 years as premier – Lee’s counsel on geopolitics was sought by dozens of world leaders from Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) to Barack Obama.

Upon the patriarch’s death in March 2015, Obama led global platitudes, hailing him as a “true giant of history… and one of the great strategists of Asian affairs”.

Dean KIshore Mahbubani, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public  Policy

In the Straits Times commentary, Kishore Mahbubani, a former Singaporean envoy to the United Nations (pic above), cautioned that without Lee’s diplomatic heft, Singapore now needed to “exercise discretion” in foreign policy. He suggested the Lion City could become like Qatar – now mired in a stand-off with its larger Gulf neighbours – if it imprudently stepped on the toes of major powers.

“We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era,” wrote Kishore, currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

“As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly … exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers,” wrote the former diplomat.

That stance did not sit well with Kishore’s peers in the highest echelons of the foreign ministry. On Facebook, Bilahari Kausikan, a fellow diplomatic grandee, lambasted him for his “muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous views”.

A SLIGHT AT PM LEE?

“Independent Singapore would not have survived and prospered if they always behaved like the leaders of a small state as Kishore advocates,” wrote the ambassador-at-large, who has an impressive following on social media. “I don’t think anyone respects a running dog.” Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, a former foreign minister, also took aim, describing Kishore’s writing as “questionable, intellectually”.

The nub of the blowback from the establishment was that Kishore’s views appeared to be a slight aimed at the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong – Lee Kuan Yew’s eldest son – for lacking the diplomatic finesse of his father and predecessor Goh Chok Tong.

Responding to one commenter who defended Kishore, Bilahari said: “I disagree, it’s a thinly disguised attack on the PM”. Premier Lee, in power since 2004, has faced some domestic criticism over his foreign policy, but the fact that this time the dissent was from within – and at a time when the government is facing questions over its China policy – appeared to touch a raw nerve.

 

The erudite Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong

Local blogs have increasingly blamed the premier for the city state’s troubled relationship with Beijing in the last year.

Last August, Lee angered Chinese leaders after he said he backed arbitration as a way to peacefully resolve international disputes. Beijing took offence as the comments came soon after an arbitral ruling on the South China Sea dispute largely went against its favour.

As a small state, should Singapore hide when ‘elephants’ fight?

Some have also taken issue with Lee’s actions years earlier. In 2013, the premier sparked a mini controversy over light-hearted jibes he made at China’s expense during an after-dinner speech in Washington.

“Beijing residents joke that to get a free smoke all they have to do is open their windows,” Lee had said.

‘NO LINK TO SIBLING FEUD’

Kishore – facing an onslaught of rebuttals from within the establishment – did not back off from his original stance.

“I wrote this article as I believe that some of our senior officials have been imprudent in their public statements,” the 68-year-old wrote in a statement following the string of responses.

“As a result there have been some serious mishaps in our external relations,” he said in the statement posted on the Channel NewsAsia website. “The hard work by our founding fathers has been squandered. Our geopolitical space has shrunk.”

The diplomat said officials who viewed his commentary as an attack on the premier in the midst of his highly publicised family feud were mistaken. The article was published two days before the premier was to address parliament over abuse-of-power allegations made against him by his siblings Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling.

“This argument is flawed because my article was submitted to the ST [Straits Times] several weeks ago. It was the ST that chose to run it this weekend,” Kishore wrote.

Foreign policy observers said the open tiff put on full display internal debates within the country’s diplomatic complex, amid growing pressure to accommodate the rise of China as a superpower alongside the United States. Officials have long stressed that the Lion City would not waver from publicly supporting the international rule of law, even if that means angering bigger powers.

BALANCING ACT

“Singapore has a vested interest in standing up for a rules-based international order, as it is the framework that underpins the Lion City’s success,” said Hugo Brennan, an Asia-focused analyst with the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “But it will always be a balancing act between taking a principled stand and refraining from tickling the dragon’s tail,” he said.

Mustafa Izzuddin, a Southeast Asia politics researcher at the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, said the “Kishore-Bilahari kerfuffle should be viewed in a positive light as it illustrates that there is no danger of groupthink in Singapore’s foreign policy”.

Why the Lee Kuan Yew family feud is a metaphor for Singapore

The Straits Times, which published the commentary kick-starting the saga, on Friday said in an editorial that Premier Lee’s invitation to the G20 summit in Berlin this week illustrated the Lion City’s continued diplomatic prowess.

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Ambassador at Large Bilahari Kausikan

https://publichouse.sg/role-small-states-bilaharis-criticism-kishore-wrong-misleading/

Despite not being a leader of a G20 nation, Premier Lee has been a fixture at the summits as a guest of the host nation. Bilahari meanwhile pointed to Lee’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) on the sidelines of the summit to bolster his argument that the Lion City should stick to its foreign policy guns. “The moral of the story for us is keep calm: things are never as bad as they may seem,” he wrote in a Facebook post about the meeting. “Do not mistake noise – shouting – for substance. Psy-ops do not work if you keep calm.”

 

 

Singapore–Smart City Smart State


July 15, 2017

Singapore –Smart City Smart State

I am in the process of completing my read of Kent E. Calder’s excellent book, Singapore, Smart City Smart State. I must admit upfront that I am an admirer of Singapore and the city state’s leadership going back to Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his team of brilliant men to  Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his colleagues.

Image result for Kent Calder Singapore Smart City Smart State

Calder’s book, therefore, intrigues me. In it,  Professor  Calder provides clear answers why Singapore  can serve as a model of unique governance for other advanced  economic economies and  the emerging world.

He believes “…its sustainable state and urban policy model, leveraged by the Digital Revolution and the Internet of Things, provides such a fresh and apt perspective on governance in today’s world.It shows how to tackle the challenges of transnational importance in a world where markets are almost completely globalized, but governance is not. As Singapore is an economically advanced  and technically sophisticated city-state, in the heart of the developing world, its example is not only timely but also broadly relevant. It provides insights for dealing with both G-7 welfare- state crises and also the epic rural-to-urban transition under way in the developing world, in an era of historic technological change” (p.163 of the book).–Din Merican