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.

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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.

FA Abdul remembers Humanist Thasleem Ibrahim


August 30, 2017

FA Abdul remembers Humanist Thasleem Ibrahim

“For what is a man, what has he got
If not himself, then he has naught,
To say the things, he truly feels
And not the words, of one who kneels
The record shows, I took the blows
And did it my way…”

– Frank Sinatra, “My Way”

http://www.malaysiakini.com

COMMENT–FA Abdul | Dato Thasleem Ibrahim was my teh tarik and chatting buddy. The first time I was in contact with Dato Thasleem was in early 2015 when I received an unexpected text message from him.

“Assalamualaikum. I read your article ‘I Like Keema And Not Kimma’ and I nearly fell off my chair!”

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Dato Thasleem Ibrahim and Datin Dr. Yazmeen paid a courtesy call on Dr.APJ Abdul Kalam at his residence in New Delhi on 26th.July 2010. The discussions centered mostly on education and youths.

We both had a good laugh chatting about the Malaysian Indian Muslim Association (Kimma), which claimed to be representing the Indian Muslims but was seeking for them to be acknowledged as Malays. As an ex-advisor to Kimma for many, many years, Dato Thasleem surely had a lot of stories I found interesting.

Following that first text message, more conversations through phone calls as well as over teh tarik and vadai at his favourite mamak place in Taman Tun Dr Ismail ensued.

I learned that Dato Thasleem was born in Ramnad district of Tamil Nadu and came to Malaysia when he was five years old. Having been schooled in Ipoh until he was in Form 5, he regards himself as an Ipoh boy.

Oh, how can I forget the time when he joked – “I have banyak girlfriends in Ipoh. But now they’re all grandmothers!”He was such a jovial chap with a remarkable aura.

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Dato’ Tashleem Ibrahim seen with DAP’s Theresa Kok

One of the issues both of us passionately talked about from time to time was how religion, which was supposed to promote unity among all, was being used to break us apart. Dato used to warn me that if nothing is done now, in the future we might end up in separate hospital wards and mortuary freezers according to our race and religion.

Dato Thasleem’s dream was to create a better world for our children, a world full of values of humanity, fairness and equality – a dream he never gave up on.

“I lost the case, my dear. Punished for speaking the truth and seeking justice but the civil servant got promoted. Malaysia is truly Bolehland,” he told me not too long ago regarding a senior Malay civil servant who had sued him for defamation for calling him an ultra-Malay racist. “But I cannot give up. The fight must continue.”

As much as I looked up to Dato Thasleem as a wonderful being with a great soul who was ever willing to fight for justice, for he believed every true Muslim had a responsibility to defend what is right and resist what is wrong, I also saw a father figure who was kind and loving and always gave a shoulder to lean on upon sensing the need for one.

The last time I spoke to him was the morning he was admitted to the hospital.

“I have been following all your articles. Been unwell for the past six months. I was diagnosed with interstitial lung disease in 2009, yet I’m not giving up and I’m pushing myself against medical advice and now I’m paying a heavy price. Too many battles to fight, it really hit me hard.”

He told me how he regrets not taking better care of himself. And he spoke of the need for him to keep his mind active by continuously hammering the corrupt politicians, although at the time, he was not feeling well.

And even as his health deteriorated, he texted me, “Ma, you will always be in my prayers.”

With him now gone, it is up to those who loved him dearly and those who recognised his jihad, to carry on fighting for justice.

Dato Thasleem devoted his life to fighting for what he believed in and, in the midst of doing so, touched so many lives.

Jihad for justice is his legacy. The fight must go on. It has to.


FA ABDUL is a passionate storyteller, a growing media trainer, an aspiring playwright, a regular director, a struggling producer, a self-acclaimed photographer, an expert Facebooker, a lazy blogger, a part-time queen and a full-time vainpot.

 

A Fitting Tribute to a Humanitarian and an Exemplary Malaysian Muslim–Thasleem Ibrahim


August 25, 2017

A Fitting Tribute to a Humanitarian and an Exemplary Malaysian Muslim–Thasleem Ibrahim

by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

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On Dato’ Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim

The best way to honour his memory is for the activists in the community to do away with the infighting and deep divisions that have plagued their work and to come together to continue the struggle for the downtrodden, exploited and subjugated among them and in the other communities–Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

The passing of Thasleem Ibrahim leaves a big void in the NGO sector. It also takes away a luminary from the much smaller world of the true sons of our soil and Malaysian patriots willing to act according to the dictates of their conscience and to stand up for justice, a better country and the rights of the marginalized and oppressed – not simply in words but also in deed.

A man of strong values, Thasleem’s record of compassion, charity and activism is unique amongst Malaysians.

Eschewing the fanfare which good Samaritans and benefactors often look for, he has quietly funded studies for over 60 hafiz (Quran memorisers) in the last 20 years. He has also adopted Tamil schools since 1995 with more than 15,000 children benefiting from his financial support; and, in his own home, he and his wife have been adoptive parents to 16 children from various backgrounds – Hindus, Christians, Malays, and Indian Muslims. Few Malaysians can match him in his humanitarianism and his personal mission to share his worldly acquisitions with those less fortunate.

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 Dato’ Thasleem Mohamed Ibrahim

Two personal traits of Thasleem stand out for me during the time that he and his National Indian Rights Action (NIAT) and Jihad for Justice groupings worked with the Center for Policy Initiatives and Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia on the controversial educational issues of the day from 2008- 2014 before he was compelled to take a less active role due to ill health.

The first is that while Thasleem took his religious faith and values seriously and he tried to live them in his activist work, he never saw the need to draw attention to his commitment to Islam or to talk much about the beauty or superiority of the religion. On the contrary what roused his anger and his response – often articulated in public rebuke – were extremists and hypocrites making use of Islam and those peddling the ideology of religious dominance.

The second was his fearlessness in taking up politically incorrect and unpopular issues which he really had no stake in. Thasleem was a retired businessman, not a historian, academic or educationist. But his concern was for truth, good sense and sensibleness to prevail. In the campaign against the use of Interlok as a school text and on the need for a true Malaysian history to be taught to our young population, he openly criticized the motives and dishonest educational values of the ruling politicians and their apparatchik which had necessitated the reform movement he helped to lead.

Thasleem has left those of us who aspire to a better Malaysia too early. He would have wanted more time. But he was also always fully aware that the torch burning for justice and truth is only faintly lit and is easily extinguished should patriotic and level-headed Malaysians remain silent and do nothing or remain on the sidelines. This is especially true for the case of marginalized Tamils and Indians whose welfare and cause he was most committed to, and where he was concerned with the little progress achieved.

The best way to honour his memory is for the activists in the community to do away with the infighting and deep divisions that have plagued their work and to come together to continue the struggle for the downtrodden, exploited and subjugated among them and in the other communities.

The Right to Dissent Well Done, MP William Leong–Why Deal with PAS


August 25, 2017

The Right to Dissent Well Done, MP William Leong–Why Deal with PAS

by Geraldine Tong

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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My friend MP William Leong defends the right to Dissent–PAS is a liability to Pakatan Harapan. Good luck to you in your retirement from national politics and thank you for your outstanding service as Member of Parliament since 2008 to the people of Selayang and Malaysia.

Wan Azizah is too weak to censure Azmin Ali’s courtship of PAS. Without Anwar Ibrahim and Dr Syed Hussein Ali, the PKR Political  Bureau is no longer strategic. I worked with both Anwar and Dr. Syed and learned a lot from them. –Din Merican

PKR President Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail has not accepted the resignation of PKR Selayang MP William Leong from the party’s political bureau.

“I am sad and would prefer him not to do that (resign). I may not receive his resignation. I just told him I am not accepting it (his resignation), but if he insisted then it is a different matter.

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Vice President Nurul Izzah Anwar–The Future of PKR

“For now, I want to talk with him. I have seen his point,” she said to journalists after attending a forum on China’s investments in Malaysia at the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (KLSCAH) last night.

Leong on Wednesday announced that he had tendered his resignation from the party’s political bureau in protest of PKR’s continued attempts to court PAS.

This is despite the Islamist party having severed political ties with PKR, following the green light given at the party’s muktamar in April.

Leong had said that he cannot defend his party’s position of still wanting to work with PAS. “When I can’t lead in this direction, I can’t follow in this direction, then I have to step aside.”

The Selayang MP had also said that he does not intend to contest the next general election.

Despite that, he said he would remain a PKR member as well as a member of the party’s leadership council.PKR’s political bureau has been debating its relationship with PAS ever since the collapse of Pakatan Rakyat in 2015.

It has also been reported that the bureau decided last week to give Wan Azizah and her Deputy, Azmin Ali, a chance to talk to PAS, possibly to pursue a political pact.

Azmin, who is also the Selangor Menteri Besar, has since been engaging PAS in informal talks.

GW Establishes Program to Bring more STEM Teachers to High-Need Schools


May 20, 2017

 

https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/gw-establishes-program-bring-more-stem-teachers-high-need-schools

by GW Today

George Washington statue in University Yard

The George Washington University’s Center Courtyard–Making History at GWU

Read the full Strategic Plan (PDF)

The George Washington University has evolved into one of the nation’s leading universities. To continue advancing, the university has produced Vision 2021, an educational vision that reflects our aspirations to provide a unique, rigorous education to every one of our students and to secure our position as one of the world’s premier research universities.

View Our Progress

GW Establishes Program to Bring more STEM Teachers to High-Need Schools

Scholarships will contribute to two years of college tuition in exchange for teaching after graduation.

A new program at the George Washington University will offer science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors the opportunity to receive teacher training and scholarships for agreeing to teach in high-need school districts across the country after graduation from GW.

The new initiative is made possible by a grant through the National Science Foundation and the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program. The five-year, $1.5 million grant will begin at the start of the 2017-18 academic year and is expected to assist more than 25 students total with $20,000 per year toward the cost of tuition and teacher training in their junior and senior years.

Once students complete the GWNoyce program, they will be prepared to apply for licensure with the D.C. public school system, which would make them eligible to teach in 48 states.

“Producing high-caliber secondary math and science teachers for high-need schools is essential to support our nation’s increasingly STEM-driven economy,” said Larry Medsker, research professor of physics and director of GWNoyce. “This work on behalf of our high-need communities aligns well with the GW mission statement goal of improving the quality of life in D.C.”

Dr. Medsker said the program will be particularly strong because it will recruit students who are already studying STEM-based fields and offer them courses, workshops, seminars and service projects to prepare them to be teachers in high-need schools.

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It also will offer preparatory stipends and projects for freshmen and sophomores who are interested in applying to the program, in conjunction with activities offered by the Honey W. Nashman Center for Civic Engagement and Public Service, GWTeach, a separate GW undergraduate program that prepares STEM majors to become teachers, and a new partnership between GWTeach and the Smithsonian Science Education Center.

Because of these additional offerings, the program is expected to reach more than 500 GW students by 2022.

High-need schools are defined as having at least one of the following characterizations: high percentage of individuals from families with incomes below the poverty line; high percentage of secondary school teachers not teaching in the content area in which they were trained to teach; or high teacher turnover rate. These school districts can be found in urban, suburban and rural settings.

“The GWNoyce program will enable our students to more easily transition into STEM teaching in high-need schools, a cause that is critical to meeting the needs of colleges, graduate schools and ultimately our nation’s STEM workforce,” said Ben Vinson, dean of the GW Columbian College of Arts and Sciences where GWNoyce is housed. “The goal of the GWNoyce program is a timely one and aligns with our vision for an engaged liberal arts, one that will bring our education and research to a new level of excellence.”

The GWNoyce program also will create a new relationship with Northern Virginia Community College, Loudoun Campus, allowing students accepted into the program to transfer to GW for the start of the junior year. The scholarship will help ease some of the financial burdens in pursuit of their bachelor’s degrees. The program is expected to create new opportunities for Virginia students interested in studying STEM fields at GW.

 

When Giants Fail


May 8, 2017

When Giants Fail

What business has learned from Clayton Christensen.