Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

January 28, 2016

Singapore: The Passing of Francis Seow (1928-2016)

by John Berthelsen

Francis Seow, once a high-ranking Singaporean official, died on January 21, 2016 in the United States, where he had spent the past 25 years as a refugee from the late Lee Kuan Yew’s petty vindictiveness.  He died at the age of 88 in Boston, where he was an adjunct professor at Harvard University.

Singapore has supposedly loosened up in its treatment of dissidents. However, the cases of Roy Ngerng, who dared to question the operation of Singapore’s Central Provident Fund earned him a libel suit that bankrupted him from Lee’s son, the current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and teenager Amos Yee, who was temporarily committed to a mental ward for an obscenity-filled video criticizing the country, show that it hasn’t lightened up that much.

But what Lee ordered up for Seow is a prime example of just how far the elder Lee would go to crush his enemies. After two years as the island republic’s Solicitor-General, Seow quit in 1972 and went into private practice. He was also appointed senior counsel to a Commission of Inquiry after Chinese students boycotted an examination in 1963. He had the cheek to challenge Lee on several different fronts, and he paid for it by losing his country.

Never a favorite of the Lee administration, Seow was suspended from practice twice after he left as Solicitor-General, once for a year on Lee’s instructions to his cousin, then the Chief Justice, over an undertaking given to the Attorney- General. Nonetheless, he was elected to the council of the Law Society in 1976 and became its president in 1986.

The late Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, brooking no opposition, reacted negatively to Seow’s plans to restore the role of the Law Society to comment on legislation. In 1987, Lee pushed through legislation barring the organization from lending official comment on legislation unless the government specifically asked for it.

Later, Seow won a seat on the board of the venerable Singapore Turf Club. Lee in turn pushed legislation through the parliament abolishing the turf club and replacing it with his own, with the government controlling the appointments to its board of directors.

But it was his decision to represent two dozen church organizers and professionals involved with the Catholic Church in 1987 that caused the final explosion.  Lee during that period was said to be deeply concerned about Catholic liberation movements in South America and was determined to make sure it didn’t spread to his island.

The alleged offenders were originally arrested in 1986 and held for several weeks until they traded televised “confessions” of such innocuous deeds as sending books from capitalist Singapore to communist China. After several months of silence, the youths delivered press releases to the international media saying they had agreed to the confessions, and to statements that they had not been mistreated, for the right to be left alone, and that the Singapore government had broken the promise, continuing to make examples of them and to hound them.

Immediately after the stories were printed in the international press, authorities rounded them up and arrested them again.

Seow agreed to act as counsel to them. Almost immediately he was himself imprisoned without trial for 72 days and suffered “enhanced” interrogation techniques that included long periods of sleep deprivation and interrogation in freezing cold without adequate clothing, which landed him in the hospital in fear of a heart attack. Reportedly authorities were afraid they had endangered his life.  The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Human Rights Watch, the Canadian Parliament, the UK Parliament, several US senators and others delivered stinging criticism of the Singapore government, to no avail.

Seow was accused of receiving political campaign funds from the United States to promote democracy in Singapore and meeting with Hank Henderson, then a US political secretary, to further democracy in Singapore despite the fact that at the time the US remained one of Singapore’s staunchest allies. Henderson was vilified on the front page of the Straits Times for having fathered a “love child” in the Philippines despite the fact that he was married to another woman. Henderson had actually adopted the baby, who was born before his then-current marriage. He was forced to leave the country.

A Catholic priest involved in the situation was also trashed in the Straits Times for having been observed entering the home of a single woman and leaving several hours later, in the middle of the night.

Lee Hsien Loong, then the Defense Minister, held a press conference to detail Seow’s transgressions, including one that he was “seen entering the home of the Asian Wall Street Journal correspondent.”  Later that year, the correspondent was refused an additional work visa and was forced to leave the country.

After his release, Seow ran for parliament as a member of the Workers Party, which Lee hated, with his group constituency losing marginally to Lee’s People’s Action Party. Eventually Singaporean authorities descended on his law office and collected virtually every scrap of paper in it.  He was ultimately accused of 60 counts of tax evasion, impelling him to flee the country for the United States. On top of that, at the time of his arrest, Seow was involved in a relationship with a Singaporean businesswoman who was financing a business deal through Bank Nationale de Paris. The bank suddenly dropped her line of credit and forced her out of the business deal. Bank officials at the time said the government had nothing to do with aborting the transaction.

Harvard took Seow in as a visiting fellow. He conducted research on human rights and the rule of law, publishing several books, one of which recounted his detention, To Catch a Tartar, and continued for the rest of his life to pound the Singapore government for its lack of civil liberties, and meeting with Singaporean student groups overseas. 

“He was a necessary milepost in the development of Singapore and of the rule of law and democratic accountability in Asia,” his nephew, Mark Looi, wrote upon his death. “One day hopefully his native country will recognize this.”


Labour Giant Lord Healey–A Tribute

October 4, 2015

Labour Giant Lord Healey–A Tribute

by David Mackie

Labour’s Defence Secretary in the 1960s, Chancellor in the 70s and Deputy Leader in the 80s whose hopes of the top job were dashed by the left.

Denis Healey2In terms of intellectual range and ability he had a far better claim to the premiership than several who did

Unfair though this would indisputably be, the life of Denis Healey, the former Labour Deputy Leader and Cabinet Minister, who has died aged 98, is likely to be remembered as a story of what might have been. Throughout the Harold Wilson governments of 1964 and 1966 he served as Defence Secretary; through the whole of the Wilson and James Callaghan terms from February 1974 to the party’s crushing defeat in 1979, he was Chancellor of the Exchequer.

But he never made it to Foreign Secretary, a job for which he was formidably equipped. He never made party leader, though on merit he undoubtedly should have done. And he never made Prime Minister, though in terms of intellectual range and ability he had a far better claim to the job than several who did.

There were moments when Healey came close to taking the foreign office. Had Hugh Gaitskell, then Labour leader, lived on beyond 1963 and won the following year’s election, he might have landed the job then. Wilson preferred to give it to Patrick Gordon Walker. When Gordon Walker lost his seat in the 1964 election, Wilson stuck with him, even though he was not an MP. However, when he lost again in a byelection at Leyton, east London, the following year, Wilson sent not for Healey but for Michael Stewart – chiefly, some colleagues believed, because he intended to keep foreign policy in his own hands and judged Stewart as more malleable than Healey.

Denis HealeyWhen in March 1968 the then Foreign Secretary, George Brown, walked out of the government, Wilson again considered Healey, but instead recalled Stewart. Then when Labour came back to power in February 1974, Healey lost out to Callaghan. And when Callaghan succeeded Wilson as premier, he gave the foreign office to Tony Crosland, keeping Healey as chancellor. After Crosland’s premature death in 1977, the doors closed again as Callaghan picked David Owen – though as Healey wrote in his memoirs, at the time he felt he ought not to leave the Treasury.

As for the party leadership, Healey made a bid for it in 1976 when Wilson stepped down, but took a mere 30 votes in the opening ballot and could push that up to only 38 even after Roy Jenkins, Crosland and Tony Benn had dropped out. When Callaghan resigned 18 months after the 1979 election defeat, Healey began as front runner, but was overtaken by Michael Foot, who had not at first intended to stand.

Though recognised as one of the party’s big hitters, Healey never had the devoted personal following that Jenkins had enjoyed, and made no attempt to build one. In a time of huge turmoil within the party, choosing Foot rather than the combative Healey seemed to many Labour MPs the best way of ensuring a quiet life. Healey, too, had recently been involved in one of his occasional vigorous spats with the Labour left, which had alienated not just his opponents, but some who, while sympathetic to Healey, had found his assault damaging.

Some right wing Labour MPs who later defect to the Social Democratic party (SDP) voted for Foot rather than Healey in the hope of wrecking the party. There were enough of these, Healey himself believed, to give Foot his 10-vote majority. As the 1983 election approached, and the polls presaged disaster, it seemed possible for a time that Foot might be ousted or might even step down of his own accord, but Healey’s opportunity never arrived. And when Foot departed after Labour’s abject defeat, Healey, at 66, chose not to run, feeling the party wanted the leadership to pass to a fresh generation.

The moment when his chances of getting to Number 10 had looked brightest was immediately before the 1978-79 winter of discontent, when Labour still had a chance of winning the coming election. Had Callaghan kept the premiership at that election, it might well have passed in a couple of years or so to Healey. But Labour’s defeat in May 1979 put paid to that, and one of Britain’s best potential Prime Ministers was thwarted to the last.

And yet, in perhaps the best political autobiography of the late 20th century, The Time of My Life (1989), Healey reflected on his career with satisfaction, not disappointment. This was in no sense the chronicle of a life unfulfilled, partly because of what he had achieved at Defence and the Treasury, but also because he could never understand how some of his colleagues subordinated everything to their politics. His family always came first and, as he wrote in his preface to the book: “I have always been as interested in music, painting and poetry as in politics.” You needed, he often said – though some said he’d borrowed the term from Edna, his wife – to have a hinterland.

Lord & Lady Healey...Lord and lady healey 1

Lord Healey and Lady Edna–A Loving Pair

Edna Edmunds, whom he had met at Oxford – where she had been much pursued, and whom he married in 1945 – was the heart of that hinterland. But his student travels before the second world war in France, Italy and Germany had given him a sense of the world’s possibilities that never faded. The writers from whom he took the texts at the heads of the chapters in The Time of My Life are some guide to the width and voracity of his reading: Yeats (his greatest literary hero), Defoe, Homer, Virginia Woolf, Byron, Hugh McDiarmid, Coleridge, Auden, CP Cavafy.

Only Healey among political autobiographers, recounting a visit to the office of a US government counterpart, could record: “I noticed a Rouault,” just as only Healey could say of Nigel Lawson, the Conservative chancellor: “He had a raffish insolence which reminded me sometimes of Steerforth in David Copperfield, sometimes of a rather tubby Alcibiades.” And certainly, only Healey would dare to open a chapter with the words: “Hector Berlioz, like me, had found it necessary for much of his life to earn a little extra by writing weekly articles as a feuilletoniste.” Through most of his life, he read greedily, prowled the picture galleries, revelled in nights at the opera, photographed avidly (he had given up painting) and played the piano with passion, if not always with accuracy.

With his big, ruddy face and his trademark eyebrows, Healey set out to enhance the fun of the nation. He played up to the image which others clearly enjoyed. When the impressionist Mike Yarwood started giving his Healey the catchphrase, “Silly billy”, Healey promptly adopted it, though he had never used it before. When people mocked him for name dropping, he dropped names with even more shameless abandon.

With his big, ruddy face and his trademark eyebrows, Healey set out to enhance the fun of the nation. He played up to the image which others clearly enjoyed. When the impressionist Mike Yarwood started giving his Healey the catchphrase, “Silly billy”, Healey promptly adopted it, though he had never used it before. When people mocked him for name dropping, he dropped names with even more shameless abandon.

Healey’s origins were Irish, and he had in abundance the gift of the gab. Sometimes that made for trouble. He was a bruiser, and sometimes a bully. His silkily lethal insults, sometimes prefaced by “with the greatest respect”, made enemies. During the 1983 election campaign, after the Falklands war, he accused Margaret Thatcher of “glorying in slaughter”, and had to withdraw the remark (he had meant to say “conflict”). When he claimed that leftwing Labour critics were “out of their tiny Chinese minds”, he had to apologise to the Chinese embassy, too.

Explaining that gaffe, he said in an interview with this newspaper: “The real trouble is that the only politician who doesn’t make that sort of mistake is the sort who tries never to say anything, and my great weakness as a politician is that I always say too much. I dare say I am a bit of a thug … On the other hand, you know, every party needs some people who will rough it up from time to time.”

Often his lacerating turn of phrase made him the talk of the town. His most cherished target was Thatcher; Rhoda the rhino, he called her, and the La Pasionaria of middle-class privilege. Healey’s difficulty as Labour deputy leader and shadow foreign secretary was that Commons debates pitched him not against her, but against Geoffrey Howe. His chummy insults to Howe were legendary: “Like being savaged by a dead sheep,” he said of one of Howe’s attacks on him.

But often, getting at Howe was merely the handy excuse for attacking Thatcher. The most famous passage of all came in 1984, when the Conservative government banned staff at the intelligence agency GCHQ from belonging to trade unions. “The foreign secretary,” he told the Commons, “is not the real villain in this case. He is the fall guy… Who is the Mephistopheles behind this shabby Faust? … The great she-elephant, she-who-must-be-obeyed, the Catherine the Great of Finchley … has drawn sympathetic trade unionists into open revolt.” This was not done simply to entertain. As a Healey attack developed, the Tories began to laugh. Even frontbenchers after a while could not disguise their mirth. And now they were not just laughing with Healey – he had them laughing at their leader. And once they were softened up, Healey would pulverise them.

Denis Winston Healey – the Winston reflecting his father’s admiration for Churchill, whose reputation was then still scarred by the disastrous first world war campaing at Gallipoli – was born in Mottingham, Kent. His father became the principal of Keighley technical college, but his son attended Bradford grammar school, where his favourite subject was English. His academic excellence marked him down for Balliol College, Oxford, where he read classics and philosophy; his contemporaries included Jenkins and Edward Heath.

Throwing himself into student politics, he dominated the Labour club, though by now he had joined the Communist party. “Only the Communist party,” he explained in his memoirs, “seemed unambiguously against Hitler.” Having got his predicted double-first in 1940, he awaited his call-up. His military career began ingloriously, checking travel arrangements at Swindon station, but his expertise in logistics saw him given the job of beachmaster at Anzio, south of Rome, in the allied invasion. He was mentioned in dispatches twice during that campaign and promoted to major.

Healey’s experience of war coloured his life. He was deeply opposed to the Suez adventure of 1956. When he heard on his car radio while driving to a protest meeting that the Russians had taken their chance to move in on Hungary that same year, and that Hungary was calling on the west for help, he pulled off the road and wept. As a young MP to whom Gaitskell listened, he persuaded the Labour leader to temper his early sympathy for a military onslaught on Egypt. Some 25 years later he judged that Foot, of all people, had initially been too ready for military action when the Argentinians invaded the Falklands.

Lord-HealeyPerhaps the most crucial part of Healey’s education, even above Bradford, Balliol and the war, was the job he took in 1945 as international secretary of the Labour party (at a salary of £7 a week). Here he learned hard truths and made contacts and friendships which served him for the rest of his life. He worked closely with the foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, one of the progenitors of the Nato alliance, to which Healey was also dedicated.

Above all, he discovered the ugly realities of Communist rule, especially the suppression of socialist parties. His task in the countries he dealt with beyond the iron curtain, he said in his book, “was to help the socialist parties to stay alive … They were hanging on by the tips of their fingers.”

His knowledge and grasp of events recommended him not just to Bevin, but to the new generation of Labour leaders, especially Gaitskell, whose plans for nuclear disengagement and reductions in conventional forces in Europe were influenced and sometimes drafted by Healey.

Unlike Jenkins or Crosland, Healey had not set his sights on an early entry to parliament. He fought an apparently unwinnable seat – Pudsey and Otley – in 1945 and came close, in a Labour landslide, to winning it. But it was not until 1952, when he was 34, that he won a byelection for a safe Labour seat, Leeds South East (which after redistribution three years later became Leeds East). Having grown up in Keighley, he knew Leeds well and developed a great affection for his constituency, matching his local party’s advice against metropolitan fashion.

His maiden Commons speech was made on foreign affairs and defence. He used it, daringly in those days, to argue for the inclusion of Germany in Nato. Though he sometimes felt that Gaitskell’s leadership was too confrontational, he was firmly in Gaitskell’s camp against the the recently departed labour minister Aneurin Bevan. That reflected his belief that the left’s idealism too often blinded it to reality.

“There are far too many people,” he declared at the party conference that followed Labour’s third successive defeat in 1959, “who want to luxuriate complacently in moral righteousness in opposition … We are not just a debating society. We are not just a socialist Sunday school. We are a great movement that wants to help real people at the present time. We shall never be able to help them unless we get power. We shall never get power until we close the gap between our active workers and the average voter in the country.”

Within three years of his election Labour was deploying Healey as an unofficial frontbencher, winding up Commons debates on defence. He also used the freedom of opposition to develop a network of contacts, some of whom joined him in founding the Institute of Strategic Studies. In 1959 he won a place in the shadow cabinet and became the party’s second-line spokesman on foreign affairs. Two years later he was given responsibility for colonial and commonwealth issues, and in 1963, the new party leader, Wilson, made him chief opposition spokesman on defence.

When Labour won in 1964, Healey was made defence secretary and given a seat in the cabinet ahead of two other contenders, Jenkins and Crosland. The outgoing Tories had got through nine defence ministers in 13 years. Healey stayed there for almost six years. But his preoccupations at this time spilled across foreign policy. It used to be said that the foreign office was divided between those who thought Healey ought to be foreign secretary and those who thought he already was.

These years confirmed the decisive break with Britain’s imperial past and its old commitments east of Suez. Some of that came from political realism and some from economic constraints. Realism told Healey to get rid of the TSR-2 strike and reconnaissance plane; economic constraints forced the scrapping of the project he had offered as a replacement, the F111. He fought in vain against its abandonment. In 1966, under Treasury pressure, he agreed to cuts that cost him the services of his junior minister Christopher Mayhew and the chief of naval staff, Sir David Luce, who complained that cuts would making it impossible for the services to meet their commitments.

By 1967 his insistence on devising and pursuing his own solutions had alienated Wilson, who believed he was far too close to the US defence secretary, Robert McNamara. When they found themselves on opposite sides on the sale of arms to South Africa – Healey in favour, and Wilson, after initial support, against – the relationship began to look terminal. Later Healey would say that he had made the wrong choice on this issue. Yet even those he crossed rarely had any doubt about his record at defence. Roy Hattersley, his junior minister there, later told Healey’s biographer, Edward Pearce, of “the bliss of working for somebody who had the subject absolutely at their fingertips, who knew what he wanted and pursued his own concept of defence policy with a critical rigour which I have never seen from anyone else”.

 Had Labour won the general election in 1970, he would have been Wilson’s chancellor. As it was, he became shadow foreign secretary and was at last elected to the party’s national executive committee. When Jenkins resigned as shadow chancellor over Labour’s commitment to a referendum on Europe, Healey replaced him. Later he regretted that he had not handled the shadow chancellorship better, that he had not denounced more fiercely and effectively the break for growth engineered by the Conservative chancellor Tony Barber – with cruel consequences for Healey when in 1974 he took over the job after the Tory defeat. That left him saddled with the consequences of Barber’s well-intentioned follies.

Some, such as his austere deputy, Edmund Dell, argued for immediate draconian measures. Healey, though he had long believed that Britain was living dangerously above its means, was more cautious. He knew things would have to be changed. He believed in particular that the doctrines of Keynes, to which moderate Labour had long been wedded, no longer suited the times because of the growing influence of world conditions on the British economy and because his doctrines did not square with the strength of trades unions at the time.

Fear of increasing unemployment, especially at the outset when Labour would have to fight a second election in 1974, together with hopelessly inaccurate figures served up by the Treasury, stayed his hand. Drastic solutions were advocated: devaluation, severe deflation, protectionism. He weighed and rejected them all. He invested great trust in a policy he had advocated throughout this decade: controls on prices and incomes, statutory if they had to be. With the help of sympathetic union leaders, especially Jack Jones of the TGWU, he introduced that policy and steered it quite successfully through successive stages.

The raging inflation of Labour’s opening years – just short of 27% a year in August 1975 – was halved by the following summer. “Only the most heroic efforts by Healey,” wrote Dell, “ brought the unions to recognise the dangers of hyperinflation and to accept their responsibility in this matter.” Realism had prevailed. But Healey paid a price: the party voted him off the national executive.

Yet his troubles were far from over. The most famous, enduring image of his chancellorship came after he gave up on flying to Manila for the annual meeting of International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the autumn of 1976, and made instead for the party conference in Blackpool. There, against a cacophony of cheering and booing, Healey, who having lost his place on the executive had to speak from the floor, defended his decision to throw himself on the mercies of the IMF as the only way to beat off a crisis brought about by the heavy selling of sterling. Resort to the IMF meant even more grievous cuts in public spending, which many of his cabinet colleagues, left and right, found unacceptable.

Even Callaghan, who had succeeded Wilson as premier in April, seemed at first to waver. When Healey said that interest rates would have to be raised to 15%, Callaghan at first refused to endorse him, though he later said he had merely been testing the chancellor’s resolve. On the one hand, Healey was trying to persuade the IMF to minimise the extent of the cuts it required. On the other, he was having to convince his colleagues that swingeing cuts could not be escaped. In the end, prime minister and chancellor fought the battle against cabinet dissent together, and their will prevailed.

It later transpired that this confrontation was never entirely necessary. The forecasts supplied by the Treasury had exaggerated the extent of the problem and most of the credit he negotiated was never needed. These, he later confessed, were his worst four months. “For the first and last time in my life,” he wrote in his memoirs, “I was close to demoralisation.”

Unpalatable though they were, the measures worked. By 1977, all seemed to be going well. What wrecked that was Labour’s attempt to sustain its incomes policy. Callaghan insisted that the norm should be set at 5%, a figure that Healey would later describe as provocative and unattainable. His own preference was for a more vague formula – single figures perhaps. He came to regret that he did not fight Callaghan harder. The result was the 1978-79 winter of discontent, leading to the loss of the ensuing general election. At 61, Healey was back in opposition for the foreseeable future.

The turmoil that followed was, if anything, harder on Healey than the IMF crisis. Defeat disrupted the party, with the left demanding changes in its constitution designed to impose constraints on the freedom of action of its parliamentary leaders, including the transfer of the right to elect the party’s leader from MPs to an electoral college that would also give votes to the unions and the constituency parties.

Some on the right, especially those who later broke with Labour to form the SDP, urged Healey to take the lead in denouncing the process. He demurred, believing that the battle could not be won and that staging a head-on collision would split and perhaps destroy the party. He seems never to have accepted that the Gang of Three – Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rodgers – were genuinely ready to break with Labour. Callaghan had stayed on after the election defeat “to take the shine off the ball”, as he said, in preparation for a Healey leadership. To ensure that the choice was made, as before, by the parliamentary party rather than by the newly concocted electoral college, Callaghan resigned in October 1980, leaving Healey as the apparent favourite.

However, the left prevailed on Foot to stand against him, and Healey lost. He settled for the deputy leadership and the role of shadow foreign secretary. But the left was unhappy even with that. Benn challenged him for the deputy leadership in 1981, and a nasty campaign ensued. Healey won by a minuscule margin, but Foot and Healey, though a happier combination than Foot and Benn could have been, was always an odd kind of tandem when the two had so often pedalled in opposite directions, and on issues such as defence still did.

Labour’s 1983 election defeat, when the party came close to coming third behind the Liberal/SDP alliance, finished Foot, and Healey went with him. He continued as shadow foreign secretary under Neil Kinnock, whose oratorical powers he greatly admired, but whose unilateralist commitment made for tensions. And when Labour lost again, though less wretchedly, four years later, Healey, nearing 70, gave up his frontbench duties and began a redesign of his life.

Now, and even more when he left the Commons for a seat in the Lords five years later, was time for his hinterland, for the wife he admired and adored, for his children, Jenny, Tim and Cressida, and his grandchildren; for art and books and music and for pieces of self-indulgence such as cameos in TV pantomimes and other clowning about. In addition to his memoirs, there were also books of photographs and collections of speeches and writings. From time to time, too, there were speeches in the Lords, some of them quite explosive, often in disagreement with war. The use of armed force in the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, and most of all in Iraq, disturbed and dismayed him.

In the spring of 2004 he said publicly that Tony Blair should resign. He was also, as he had been since his days as international secretary, notably cool on Britain’s involvement in Europe. He had voted against the Conservative application to join the EC in 1972; he had always opposed engagement in the European monetary union; he was set against political union. In political terms though, he was gently fading away, enjoying a private life. He had always, as he once told me, expected to live well into his 90s; his father had died in 1977 at 92, his mother in 1988, at 99, “game and happy to the last”.

In The Time of My Life, there is a touching account of his mother’s late days. At 92 after a heavy fall, she insisted on making the two-hour journey to Glyndebourne for The Marriage of Figaro. Later, living with her son and daughter-in-law at their home near Alfriston, East Sussex, after two hip replacements, she had another bad fall. “When the doctor had put the necessary stitches in the wound,” Healey recalled, “she looked up from her pillow and muttered, ‘Denis, I’m indestructible.’” So much of that spirited mother was replicated in her spirited son.

Edna died in 2010, and he is survived by their children.

Denis Winston Healey, Lord Healey, politician, born 30 August 1917; died 3 October 2015

Cambridge- educated Economist Dato’ Malek Merican passes on

July 10, 2015

I just learned  this morning of the passing of Dato’ Malek Ali Merican, a senior and illustrious member of the Merican family. I suddenly remembered him and googled his name and read the following news clip (below) in The Star.

My wife Dr. Kamsiah and I wish to convey our belated condolences to Omar, Azmi and Karina Merican, Dato’ Dr. Mahmood Merican and Datin Ragayah and other members of his family and our relatives on their bereavement. I missed this sad news as I seldom read The Star and other mainstream newspapers.

Malek and MahmoodDato’ Malek and Dato Dr. Mahmood Merican

Dato Malek and his wife Datin Gaik Merican were in Washington DC  when I was a student there in 1968-1970. They were kind and helpful to me. I remember enjoying lunches with Dato’ Malik at the IMF-World Bank Executive Lounge and the excellent meals at their home. We talked about May 13, when we heard of the racial riots in the wires and tried to figure out how and why it happened. We agreed at the time that it had to do with politics..

When I was in Sime Darby, I had the opportunity to work with him in his capacity as Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning before he joined Arab-Malaysian  Merchant Bank. I shall miss this brilliant Cambridge trained economist who was also with the Malaysian Treasury when Tun Tan Siew Sin who was the Minister of Finance. We last met at Omar’s private ceremony to honour his late mother, Datin Gaik. My economic tutor and mentor, Tan Sri Rama Iyer was also present. I shall remember Dato’ Malek for his contributions to our country. May Allah Bless his soul.–Din Merican

The Passing of Dato Malek Ali Merican

The Star (–June 12, 2015

KUALA LUMPUR: The late Dato’ Malek Merican had an illustrious career in the banking industry, and was renowned for setting a strong foundation for Amlnvestment Bank.

Malek, who passed away on Tuesday, June 9, 2015, at the age of 80, joined AmMerchant Bank Bhd in 1982. He resigned as the Managing Director of AmMerchant Bank Bhd in November 1989 and served as the Vice Chairman of Malayan United Industries Bhd and Managing Director of MUI Bank Bhd until 1990. He rejoined the board of AmMerchant Bank Bhd in May 1990 and served until May 2004. He was also a board member of Pheim Emerging (M) Bhd and Pheim Unit Trusts Bhd in the 2000s.

An economics graduate from Cambridge University, he also holds a Bachelor of Letters in Economics from Oxford University. He served the Treasury for 15 years from 1958 and finally as the Deputy Secretary-General for the Finance, Economic and Tax divisions. Between 1969 and 1971, he was seconded as alternate Executive Director representing 10 countries of Southeast Asia on the Board of the International Monetary Fund.

He was the Deputy at Aseambankers Malaysia Bhd and subsequently made the Managing Director from 1974 to 1979. Prior to joining AmMerchant Bank, he was the Group Director of Corporate Affairs and Planning at Sime Darby Bhd.

Azmi Merican remembers his Dad, Dato’ Malek Merican

My father passed away on June 9. There might be some obits in the local business press but they are not out yet. He had been battling Parkinson’s Disease. Yesterday I got an urgent call but when I got to his place twenty minutes later he was already gone probably due to sudden heart failure.

He was an intelligent man with a gentle appearance. Yet he was an investment banker. My mother once said that he was “absolutely useless” with a deep sigh. How have you arrived at this withering assessment I asked? On account of the fact that he has never made a cup of tea for himself. Or anyone else for that matter.

After my mother passed away I took him out for dinner to investigate this allegation. Surely he had made a cup of tea once in his student days? It’s not rocket science. You boil the kettle. You put a tea bag in a mug. Pour in the water. Voila.The thing is my father’s student days were a tad privileged. He got a scholarship.

Over that meal he told me proudly of how two gentlemen from the [British] Colonial Office turned up to Kuala Kangsar to interview* him* for Cambridge. My father had attended Malay College Kuala Kangsar an Etonian-like college set up by the British. He was the Head Boy. I gathered that he passed the interview.

Then he told me a bit about life in Corpus College Cambridge. You had your meals at specific times in a dining hall (I visualized it as oak paneled). You went to college during term time. You spent your scholarship allowance. You dressed in robes to lectures. Your robes were laid out for you by a porter (sort of like a concierge.) each morning. This was Cambridge in the 1950s. He had a personal tutor. ( A Mr.Macrum who became a Headmaster at Eton College).

Malek cup of tea? Well I supposed the porter made it. My jaw dropped a bit. I realized he didn’t watch “Downton Abbey” because of some quaint cultural fascination. He used to live in that world. And still does. He proudly told me that he felt that he got a better education in those days than you do now.

So after Cambridge he went to Oxford. Then he worked in the Treasury where he became the Secretary General. (A 6 month training course to the IMF in Washington DC meant that “hopeless” man survived off those cartons of chocolate milk that you buy in U.S. Supermarkets) Then he left government service ( the pecking order grew tiresome.) after 15 years of service.

He became a merchant banker. Job titles like Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer(jobs where you get refreshments served by a tea lady pushing a trolley around the building). His chairman at AmBank fondly mentions him in his memoirs as a person who added value to the business. However, he never seems to have made a cup of tea (or coffee) for himself or anyone else.

Indeed a few months ago I got him to buy a Nespresso coffee maker. You just have to press the button. His fingers had become just too weak to press the button. I sighed though not quite as deeply as my mother.

He spoke good 1950s English. Sometimes I had to “translate” his kind of English to other people. If you offered him a cup of coffee he did not say: Yes, Please. Or “That would be nice.” Nope. Malek Merican even when he had trouble speaking due to disease verbalized his reply this way:

“Yes. If it is not a burden”. It made you feel that you were doing a service to the nation. My daughter says that if he resembles anybody in a TV series it has to be Don Draper of “MadMen.”

Cambodia: The Passing of a Patriot

June 8, 2015

Phnom Penh

The Passing of a Patriot

by AFP

His Excellency Samdech Akeak Moha Thomak Pothisal Chea Sim, Protean Protsaphea ney Preah Reacheanachak Kampuchea, a key Cambodian political figure after the fall of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and an ally of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has died today at age 82, the head of his bodyguard unit says. He had been in ill-health for many years and hospitalized in recent months.

Chea Sim

His Excellency Samdech Chea Sim was President of the ruling Cambodian People s Party since it was formed in 1991, and President of the Senate since 1999. He became a revolutionary in the 1950s and like Hun Sen was a member of the communist Khmer Rouge when they seized power in 1975 after a civil war.

Both men fled the group to join a resistance faction groomed by neighboring Vietnam, which installed them as Cambodia’s new leaders after ousting the Khmer Rouge in 1979.–AFP

The Passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

March 23, 2015

Our sincere condolences to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his family, my friends and associates and the people of Singapore on the passing of  Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore. In our view, Mr. Lee now belongs in the pantheon of great world leaders. Mr Lee made it possible for Singapore to be the model of good governance and multiculturalism.–Dr. Kamsiah and Din Merican

Lee Kuan Yew Obituary

The founding Prime Minister of an independent Singapore, he sought to encourage prosperity through ensuring a dominant role for the state.
Lee-Kuan-YewAs first Prime Minister of Singapore, serving for three decades until 1990, and a continuing cabinet presence for the two that followed, Lee Kuan Yew, who has died aged 91, was a man whose story reflected his times. A relentless nation-builder like Tito, an instantly identifiable symbol like Haile Selassie, Lee also had a third dimension, especially in western eyes – statesman, philosopher king, embodiment of the wisdom of the east.

Lee’s role in and articulation of events from the Pacific war and the Japanese occupation of Singapore till leaving politics completely in 2011 made him a pivotal figure of the modern world. To many he became the embodiment of the orderly transition of a region from western dominance to neo-Confucian success. Yet experience had taught him to be a pessimist, which drove him to work harder, to be more ruthless.

Lee himself may not have changed the world outside little Singapore very much. Indeed, his greatest apparent achievement, the creation of a viable independent state, was the outcome of his biggest failure – Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, two years after the organisation’s inception. His first vision of Singapore’s future, as part of a multicultural Malaysia, may prove in time to have been the correct one, but he can be at least partly judged by the achievement of his second vision for Singapore, the prosperous, prickly and obsessively hygienic city state.

He did not create modern Singapore’s prosperity. The city state thrived naturally in a region of economic growth and rapid development of world trade. However, he certainly created the image of the state in his own likeness.

Being liked was not part of his agenda. A combination of high intelligence and unswervable determination were Lee’s characteristics, and he transferred them, at least superficially, to modern Singapore. Without him, it may in time go a different way, more reflective of its multiracial background and potentially precarious existence. But while he was alive few dared think, let alone put forward, alternative visions.

Lee has been described as many things. To Chinese, particularly during his days fighting Chinese chauvinism in the name of a multiracial Singapore identity, the Cambridge-educated lawyer brought up to believe in English education if not in British institutions, Lee was a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white inside. However, later in life, as Chinese identity and Confucian attitudes emphasising education, discipline and hierarchy became more important, he would be criticised for presenting himself as a fount of wisdom, a convincing articulator of modern Asia to western audiences, while actually behaving with all the intolerance of a Chinese emperor. At his worst, he could combine imperial hauteur with extraordinarily petty spite, relishing the destruction of irritating but unthreatening critics. At his best, he had an incisive mind and clear political judgment. For an avowed elitist, he had a remarkable ability to talk to a crowd.

Born in Singapore, Lee was the eldest son of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo, members of a comfortably off but not rich Straits Chinese family. The Straits Chinese were those who had been settled in the region for many years, losing much of their Chinese identity both to the language and institutions of their British rulers, and to the Malays, their neighbours whose tongue was the lingua franca of south-east Asia.

The young Harry, as Yew was known in the English-language environment of the time, came first in Malaya in the Senior Cambridge exams (the equivalent of A-levels) of 1939 and was destined to go to Britain to study law. But the second world war intervened and he had to go to the local Raffles College instead, where he acquired some basic economics, and met his future wife, Kwa Geok Choo. The delay in going to Britain was but a minor inconvenience compared with the sudden and humiliating British surrender of Singapore in February 1942. Lee described his own initial humiliation at the hands of Japanese troops as “the single most important event of my life”.

Little is known of his actual role during the occupation, other than that he learned Japanese (he had a remarkable facility for languages), worked for Domei, the Japanese news agency, and may in the latter days of the war been of help to the British. The obscurity with which this period has been shrouded subsequently gave rise to much speculation about his relationships with the British and the Japanese. But he saw enough of British failures not to want to ape them, and enough of Japanese brutality – mostly directed against the recent migrant Chinese than against the more compromising Straits Chinese – to resent them. As he later wrote, he emerged from the war “determined that no one – neither the Japanese nor the British – had the right to push and kick us around”.

Combining drive with connections, he got himself to Britain in 1946 to study at the London School of Economics. But deciding he needed to aim higher, he talked his way into Fitzwilliam Hall, Cambridge, and graduated in 1949 with a starred first in law. His wife-to-be, whom he married the following year, also got a first.

It was also during this time that he began to develop ambitions beyond returning home to a prosperous legal career. He recognised that the British could not recreate the comfortable, colonial Singapore of prewar days. Nationalism, socialism and communism were in the air. In a speech in 1950 to the Malayan Forum in London, he said: “The choice lies between a communist republic of Malaya and a Malaya within the British Commonwealth led by people who, despite their opposition to imperialism, still share certain ideals in common with the Commonwealth … if we [the returning students] do not give leadership, it will come from the other ranks of society.” Malaya, he noted prophetically, could be either “another Palestine or another Switzerland”.

Even before returning to Singapore, Lee had identified the strands necessary to make a successful politician with the aim of securing an independent, non-communist Malaya. The first was a commitment to greater social justice and income distribution. This was part of the ethos of the time, both in Britain, where Lee was involved with the Labour party, and with such exemplars of independence and social democracy as Nehru’s India. But it was also necessary politics. Lee believed that without a commitment to both anti-imperialism and socialism, radicals would win control of the freedom struggle.

The other element in Lee’s equation was multiracialism, which he saw as necessary to prevent Malaya from dissolving into war between two nationalisms, a Chinese one which was communist in sympathy and a Malay one which tended to be exclusive and feudal.

Back in Singapore, Lee the lawyer and Lee the politician were soon inseparable as he took up the cases of trade unionists, radicals and nationalists. Being from the British-educated Chinese elite, he had to work all the harder at being a leader to dialect-speaking Chinese and Indian union firebrands. His energy and application were prodigious, and he added fluency in Mandarin and Hokkien and passable Malay and even Tamil to his roster of languages.

He was the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Action party (PAP) in 1954, including within it people sympathetic to the communist insurgency, then at its height in the Malayan peninsular. The PAP adhered to constitutionalism while Lee acted for those detained under the Internal Security Act.

Lee’s fortunes as a politician benefited from his bravura courtroom performances. It was this very success with juries that made him critical of the jury system. Judges were less easily swayed by emotion, and were appointed by the government. Once in power, Lee abolished juries.

Despite his advocacy on behalf of leftists and nationalists, there were those who believed he connived to ensure that the left faction did not get the upper hand in the PAP. The party, which had been seen as the main agent of constitutional development in Singapore, swept aside more conservative forces to win the 1959 election by a large margin. Lee became chief minister of a self-governing state within the Commonwealth, promoting social reform but retaining political detention without trial.

His principal objective became to achieve, in co-operation with the Malayan prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, independence through merger with a somewhat suspicious Malaya – which had been independent since 1957 – plus the territories of Sarawak and Sabah to form Malaysia. The PAP was divided on this and other issues and formally split in 1961, the left faction forming the Barisan Sosialis. However, the merger proposal was approved in a referendum.

Lee further solidified his position by mass detentions, including those of prominent Barisan leaders. Though he justified the detentions by reference to the lingering communist threat and Indonesia’s avowed opposition to Malaysia, they came to symbolise Lee’s authoritarian tendencies. With the Barisan decapitated, he won the 1963 election and the Barisan never recovered.

While unification made sense to the moderate majority of Singaporeans and Malayans, it soon ran into problems. Chief among them was the reluctance of the hyperactive Lee to play second fiddle to a Kuala Lumpur-based federal government led by the relaxed, aristocratic tunku, or prince. Lee insisted on the PAP trying to win seats in the peninsula itself, in the process setting itself up as the party more likely to protect Chinese interests than the Malaysian Chinese Association, the conservative Chinese element of the tunku’s ruling alliance. Lee made speeches which many regarded as racially inflammatory. Some Malays wanted him arrested. In the end, the tunku decided in August 1965 that the only way out was for Singapore to leave the federation.

One vision had failed. Now Lee redoubled his efforts to create a new vision – of a republic of Singapore with its own identity and national interests that could hold its own among potentially hostile neighbours. Malaysia and Singapore still needed each other. The Indonesian policy of confrontation ended with the downfall of Sukarno in 1966. However, times were difficult, exacerbated by British military withdrawal, which created additional problems of finding jobs for a rapidly expanding population.

The first 10 years after the expulsion from Malaysia saw Lee forge the society that is modern Singapore. It could have been done differently. Colonial Hong Kong, so similar in many ways, prospered as well without the guidance of a “philosopher king” or a “Moses”, as Lee was to be later described. Nonetheless, Lee was very much in charge of the new Singapore and thus deserves the credit, and the blame.

The ingredients included a dominant role for the state. This combined aspects of social democracy, for example in major efforts to improve health and public housing, with “the mandarins know best” attitudes to social and economic activity.

Foreign capital was relied upon to create jobs. This was a pragmatic recognition from the beginning that Singapore lacked the capital and know how to create industries. Meanwhile its entrepot role was, by definition, dependent on the services it could provide to foreigners.

Nationalism was fostered too, which meant infusing an opportunistic, multiracial commercial hub with a Singapore identity, sense of pride, citizenship and separateness. It meant having strong armed forces, a Swiss-style national service and international assertiveness.

For Lee, western notions of liberal democracy, free association, independent trade unions, juries and other aspects of the separation of powers might have proved an obstacle to achieving these nation-building goals. Yet he was well aware that the British had left behind some democratic expectations, and in order to compete economically, Singapore had to present itself to the outside world as a reasonably open as well as competently run state.

Some government intervention in the economy was simply pragmatic. But much of it had political overtones. The state, for example, created what is now the largest commercial bank, the Development Bank of Singapore, though there was never any lack of private ones. Its forced savings scheme was a colonial-era provident fund that was used to generate savings that helped give Singapore the best infrastructure in Asia. The scheme gave the government control over far more money than it needed, thus enabling it to dictate not only the pattern of investment but housing and consumer spending. The nation amassed huge foreign reserves, which underpinned its growth, reflected in a currency that was as strong as the German mark.

Emphasis on education, especially in science, helped Singapore develop as a base for multinationals. Lee’s government was very successful in identifying and fostering growth industries, whether it was the Asiadollar money market in the late 60s, oil exploration, production and refinery services in the 70s, or electronics in the 90s. However, critics – and even some government loyalists – noted a decline in the entrepreneurial spirit. Educated Singaporeans did not create enterprises: they went to work, very efficiently, for ones already created by foreigners, or the government. The administration was both extraordinarily pedantic and uncorrupt. Yet part of Singapore’s prosperity rested on it providing a safe haven for money made corruptly in neighbouring countries, smuggling or drug trafficking.

Intellectually, Lee recognised the importance of money-making. Money brought power. Yet he exhibited the kind of distaste for businessmen common among Chinese mandarins, socialists and intellectuals. Thus Singapore’s indigenous capitalists were kept on a short leash. From time to time prominent examples were made of “misbehaviour”.

For all its potential shortcomings, for all its dependence on the growth of neighbours, the rise of Japan and latterly of China, the reality is that for four decades from 1970 Singapore delivered economic growth rates almost as good as any in booming east Asia. There have been few hiccups. Thanks to the prosperity of its oil-producing neighbours, Singapore rode the oil crises easily. The mid-80s recession necessitated some minor policy adjustments, but generally, once the mould had been established, Singapore’s economic progress was as unruffled as its politics.

Internationally, Lee played a key role in the development of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). At first he had been somewhat suspicious, fearing it could become a vehicle for Indonesian domination, or an expression of pan-Malay identity. However, he soon embraced it as an anti-communist buffer which linked countries with formal ties to the US (Thailand and Philippines) to the anti-communist but “neutral” Indonesia and Malaysia. Anti-communism cemented Singapore’s ties with the US when it badly needed implied protection as well as investment. With ties to Washington and Beijing, Lee helped to ensure that Asean participated fully in the cold war to force Vietnam out of Cambodia.

In practice, politics seldom stood in the way of business opportunities. After all, Singapore was commerce (not ideology) in action. But once the Soviet empire had collapsed, foreign policy emphasis changed to a wholehearted pursuit of economic goals. Again, Singapore was quick to see the advantages of turning ASEAN attention to trade, providing a new raison d’etre for the group. Freer trade was not just good for Singapore but for the region’s ethnic Chinese business community, many of whom saw Singapore as their spiritual home and salted away profits there.

In social as in economic affairs, Lee tried to shape society to an extent attempted perhaps only by Mao Zedong in recent times. What began in the early years as a voluntary family-planning campaign ended up with the state trying to influence marriage choices and “enhance” Singapore’s genetic quality by encouraging graduates to reproduce among themselves. Myriad rules, taxes, incentives and exhortations confronted the citizen. The result was an orderly society, but only marginally freer of crime than Hong Kong. It was a society where people were afraid to speak out. Lee the great debater was now the winner by default, whether in parliament or the courts.

While continuing with parliamentary elections, Lee muzzled the press, international as well as local, and stamped hard on opponents of the PAP. Opposition politicians were hounded by legal actions – often for libel, which Lee invariably won – and bankrupted. Social workers were branded as communists and detained till they confessed, often after coercive treatment.

Quite why Lee, revered as the father of the nation, found it necessary to use such sledgehammers was not clear. In the 50s, the communists were real and ruthless. But as time went on, real threats vanished. Yet the unrelenting ambition did not, and Lee was unable to change his self-image as a political streetfighter, the gang boss who forever had to prove his ruthlessness. Beyond that, he had a sense of insecurity about the future of Singapore after he was gone. Partly this was a sense that society would go soft with success, or, like the Malays, surrender to the easy languor of the tropics. The younger generation knew only success and the cultivation of wealth.

He, with his recollections of Japanese occupation, the expulsion from Malaysia, the potential threat from Indonesia, always imagined the worst. Singapore could not afford gentlemanly disagreements or real debates. The leaders led, and that was it.

Increasingly, there was only one leader. Comrades from the heroic anti-colonial days retired, drifted away or were pushed out – in the case of President Devan Nair in 1985, after a humiliating allegation of alcoholism that he contested. New blood was brought into the PAP, but increasingly it became a tightknit elite. It retained an effective command structure but the mass base eroded.

The so-called second generation had no real political experience but was full of intellectual accomplishment. Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee as prime minister in 1990, was a competent and well-liked bureaucrat, but Lee remained in cabinet as senior minister. In 2004, Lee’s eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister, and his father “minister mentor”. He resigned from that cabinet position in May 2011 following an electoral setback when the PAP share of the vote fell to its lowest level since independence. He then took no further part in public life.

Goh had been unable to deliver the “kinder, gentler” Singapore that had been expected. The force of Lee’s personality, the moral authority that he commanded, left him the arbiter of anything he cared about. Like a Mao in miniature, he seemed both to enjoy and have contempt for the adulation that surrounded him. Never a tolerant man, he began to show some of the symptoms of age. International acclaim added to his convictions of his own brilliance and righteousness.

Some saw excesses of personal power, not just in his treatment of opponents but in the rapid promotion of his sons. The Singapore courts silenced a string of suggestions of dynastic politics.

With Goh and Hsien Loong minding day-to-day affairs, Lee was free to devote his energies to the world. He saw in the economic success of East Asia the triumph of “Confucian values”: discipline, order, respect for education and authority over western values of individualism, liberalism and democracy. He even succeeded for a while in promoting Singapore as the centre of “Asian values”. Lee was especially heartened by China’s economic success, defended its political repression and criticised Taiwan’s new-found democracy. China’s success fitted not only with his own philosophy but with the increasing emphasis in Singapore on its predominantly Chinese, as distinct from multiracial, character.

Ethnic prejudice lurked just under Lee’s image of technocratic rationalism. He combined assumptions about Chinese cultural supremacy with belief in genetic theories which influenced social policy in Singapore. But if Lee’s actions were sometimes driven by gut instinct, his head was more often the winner, particularly in international affairs. He could set aside his underlying distaste for America, with its crude culture and populist politics, and his Chinese ethnic sentiments to deliver masterly analyses of regional and global affairs. Only occasionally did he let prejudices get in the way of Singapore’s national interest – which, he clearly saw, lay with keeping US forces in the region.

Perhaps only he could succeed in making oppressive Singapore the main Asian critic of the US commitment to human rights and personal freedoms while ensuring that Singapore remained a key to the strategic plans of American military and multinationals alike.

Mostly – though not always – he could guard his tongue sufficiently to keep his Malay neighbours co-operative. His sheer length of service gave him a regional prestige that only Suharto could match, and his successors would not inherit. Suharto, with 180 million people and a vast archipelago to rule, had a big stage, while Lee gave every sign of regarding Singapore – with a population of 5 million in 700 square kilometres – as far too small for his talents.

Indeed, it was far too small. Its size accounted for his obsession that its every detail, down to choice of roadside trees, fit with his plans or prejudices, as well as his eagerness to advise larger countries on how to run their affairs.

Because of his background and early life, he could operate and dominate in many different milieus, but was totally at home in none of them. That perhaps accounted for his ruthlessness. He had permanent interests, not permanent friends. In sum, always a leader rather than a fullower, he set his own agenda.

Kwa Geok Choo died in October 2010, and Lee is survived by their two sons and a daughter. Lee Hsien Loong continues to be Prime Minister; his brother, Lee Hsien Yang, is chairman of the civil aviation authority; and their sister, Dr Lee Wei Ling, is director of the national neuroscience institute.

• Lee Kuan Yew, statesman, born 16 September 1923; died 23 March 2015

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The World will miss Lee Kuan Yew–A Tribute

By Henry A. Kissinger March 23 at 3:43 PM

Henry A. Kissinger was Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977.

lky-kissingerTwo Brilliant Global Strategists

Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore and co-founder of the People’s Action Party, has died at age 91. Lee led Singapore’s rise from British tropical outpost to global trade and financial center. (Reuters)

A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.

Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

The Legacy of PAS’ Spiritual Leader Nik Aziz–ANALYSIS

February 13, 2015


The Passing of Nik Aziz Nik Mat: The Legacy of PAS’ Spiritual Leader-ANALYSIS

The passing of Nik Aziz Nik Mat, the late Spiritual Leader of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS, has left an enormous void in the party and the political landscape of Malaysia. Though his religious educational background was traditional and conservative, he was one of the more pragmatic and realistic leaders of the party, who transformed PAS into what it is today.

By Farish A. Noor*

nik-aziz2TUAN GURU Nik Aziz Nik Mat was one of the most well-known and familiar political-religious leaders in Malaysia, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that he was known throughout the country.

His popularity began to rise from the 1980s when he, along with a number of religious scholars (Ulama) took over the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party PAS after deposing its leader Asri Muda. Thus began the rise of the ‘Ulama faction’ and the re-orientation of the party in the direction of political Islam in step with the global emergence of Islamism from the 1980s to the late 1990s.

In Malaysia today he was also known as the Murshid’ul Am or Spiritual Leader of PAS and the one who was most supportive of the reformist-modernist wing within the party, sometimes referred to as the ‘Erdogan faction’. The question arises as to how and why a traditional and conservative religious scholar such as Nik Aziz could have lent his support to the party’s moderate-reformist wing, who in turn brought the party into the opposition Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Alliance) coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim. To understand the rationale behind Nik Aziz’s thinking, it is important to revisit the man’s past and consider his early religious education abroad, and his experiences in Malaysia and overseas.

Product of madrasah education

Nik Aziz ( pic center) first attended madrasahs (religious schools) in Malaysia, but Young Nik Azizwas then sent to India to further his studies. In India, he studied at the Darul Uloom madrasah of Deoband, Uttar Pradesh and it was there that he was first exposed to currents of religio-political thought in the Indian subcontinent. After graduating from Deoband in 1957, he proceeded to Lahore, Pakistan where he studied Tafsir (Quranic exegesis), and then to Egypt where he studied Fiqh (religious jurisprudence) at the well-known al-Azhar university in Cairo.

It has to be noted that in India, Pakistan and Egypt Nik Aziz did not merely study religious subjects but was also exposed to the currents of political Islam of the time: The 1950s and 1960s were the decades where political Islam was on the rise, with prominent Muslim scholar-activists such as Syed Abul Alaa Maudoodi, Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna becoming better known. In the course of several interviews that I had conducted with him, Nik Aziz admitted that he was less inclined towards the more poetic and/or spiritual variants of Islam that were found in India: On one occasion he was invited to perform a religious missionary tour with the spiritually-inclined Tablighi Jama’at movement in India, but declined on the grounds that he found their practice of Islam ‘world-denying and life-negating’.

Nik Aziz also spoke fondly of his time in Egypt, where he professed an admiration for the nationalist project of Gamal Abdel Nasser who had tried to modernise the country and who was seen as one of the leaders of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement. It was during this period – until his return to Malaysia in 1962 – that Nik Aziz developed his own approach to political Islam.

Alliance of Islamists and professionals

Nik Aziz’s educational background was traditional and conservative, and in many of the religious schools he studied, the teaching was based on the standard Dars-I Nizami curriculum that was introduced in the 11th century. Yet notwithstanding his conservative leanings, his personal experience of living in India, Pakistan and Egypt in the 1950s and early 1960s exposed him to contemporary currents of Muslim activism that later inspired and shaped his own political approach.

After taking over the Islamist party PAS in 1982, he, along with other Islamist-activist leaders like Yusof Rawa, began the internal transformation of the party and actively courted the membership and support of young Muslim professionals and technocrats into PAS.

It was from the 1980s that PAS became a truly modern organisation with strong mobilisation and communications capabilities, as a result of the alliance between the Ulama and professionals that Nik Aziz and Yusof Rawa promoted. Nik Aziz understood the need for a new kind of leadership and membership for the party that would allow it to mobilise faster and respond better to both domestic and international challenges.

The younger generation of professionals on the other hand valued the religious knowledge and moral credibility of men like Nik Aziz as they rejected the capital-driven developmental model they saw in Malaysia and other parts of the post-colonial world.

Nik Aziz’s passing thus leaves behind an enormous void in the leadership of PAS, and raises questions about where the party might head in the near future. But in recounting his personal history, it is instructive to note that even conservative-traditionalist scholars like him were able to appreciate the importance of networks and pragmatic coalitions as part of political praxis.

*Farish A. Noor is Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and author of The Malaysian Islamic Party PAS 1951-2013, Amsterdam University Press, 2014.

RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. The views of the author/s are their own and do not represent the official position of the S.Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), NTU, which produces the Commentaries.