Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”


December 18, 2017

Gopal Baratham: “Orwell of the Orient”

by David Hutt

http://www.newmandala.org/gopal-baratham-orwell-orient/

Image result for gopal baratham

The Late Singaporean Novelist Dr. Gopal Baratham

The late Singaporean novelist Gopal Baratham’s A Candle or the Sun, published in 1991, is rightly regarded as one of the finest works of literature to come out of the city-state (though probably not according to its government). Politically-minded, and not afraid to amble along a storyline of repression and state-enforced victimhood, it is small wonder Baratham’s writing was often compared to George Orwell’s.

Related image

A Time magazine’s review of A Candle or the Sun states that it “picks up where George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four left off.” In the negative, both authors’ styles are admittedly a little too heavy with caricature and requisite pathos, especially when it comes to life’s victims. Indeed, A Candle or the Sun might initially catch one’s eye as a Southeast Asian transmutation of Nineteen Eighty-Four. As Baratham would say in an interview, he wanted to complete the book by 1984 “for Orwell” but couldn’t finish it until the end of 1985. The book is set in 1983. It took another six years to find a publisher, which was Serpent’s Tail, of London.

Image result for  Keep the Aspidistra Flying

A more discernible reader, however, might also notice the traces of Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A bored salesman and failing amateur writer (a la Gordon Comstock), Baratham’s protagonist, Hernie Perera, gives up on his artistic dreams, though with the promise of literary success, when he accepts a job offer from an old friend to work at the Ministry of Culture producing propaganda. Both Comstock and Perera are susceptible to hypocrisy gilded in justification, mistreatment of their lovers for their own advancement, and an overestimation of their own literary merits.

Perera’s self-respect is lost (though later redeemed) when he betrays to his new employers his lover Su-May, a member of anti-government Christian sect that is printing a “street paper.” This oppressive state is ominously distant from the story, however. (The setting is clearly Singapore, despite the book’s forewarning that “any similarity of persons, places or events depicted herein to actual persons places or events is purely coincidental.”) Perera does muse on how the state wants a say in even the most minute points of life (“your masters kennel you in neat boxes, doctor your females, control litter size according to pedigree and tell you what names you can give your pups,” to give one example.) And Perera is later chided by the lover of his friend: “Did they never tell you that on this island of paradise of ours trade is a matter of security, education is a matter of security, health is a matter of security, how you wash your underwear is a matter of security.”

The Singaporean academic Ban Kah Choon apparently once described him as a “magician who stands before the unknown to decipher what has yet to be written.” Ignore the pretentiousness and incoherence of this statement; Baratham, after all, was fictionalising fact in A Candle or the Sun: specifically, Operation Spectrum, the Singaporean government’s attempt at McCarthyism. But he was certainly charting a new course in Singaporean literature. And instigators often have to be more obvious. Baratham was at his best when he was at his subtlest, though he often had the habit of repeating his understatements so often they become glaring. Indeed, re-reading A Candle or the Sun in light of the more recent politically-natured novels from Singapore (I’m thinking in particular of Jeremy Tiang’s understated State of Emergency, published in May) one gets the sense that Baratham subscribes to the hammer-to-crack-a-nut cliché.

Three years after A Candle or the Sun was published, Catherine Lim, another Singaporean writer, earned a rebuke from Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for her articles in the Straits Times. Writers on the fringe must not challenge the government, the Prime Minister said. There were suspicions, during the ‘90s, of Baratham being the city-state’s “token liberal,” an author who avoided the sort of criticism and censorship others faced. “You should criticize the faults if you care for the society,” he said in 1996. “Some people say I’m the government’s token liberal. What can I say?”

His background, perhaps, afforded him some protection. Born in 1935, decades before Singapore became an independent nation, he followed his parents’ footsteps into the medical profession. At 36, he finally graduated from the University of Edinburgh, specialising in neurosurgery, after training at the Royal London Hospital. He would later return to Singapore, eventually becoming the head of Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s neurosurgery department. In 1991, the same year A Candle or the Sun was published, he was elected president of the ASEAN Association of Neurosurgeons.

His prominence in the medical field, at least in Southeast Asia, was not quite equalled by his literary recognition. A Candle or the Sun became his first published novel, after two collections of short stories, and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 1992, which he reportedly turned down because, he said, it was awarded based on the panel looking for a “Singapore style of writing” when he considered his work international (most of his work was published by British publishing house, not Singaporean ones). He attempted another novel and a non-fiction book after A Candle or the Sun but it was that work that kept his name in alive among the talking classes.

His death, in 2002, gave chance for his reappraisal as an interlocutor for free speech in Singapore. Teng Qian Xi, writing in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore at the time, offered a retrospective: “The criticism of the Singaporean ethos of conformity and rationality, as well as the questioning of memory, rhetoric and history which I often found forced in his stories became more exciting, less pedagogical in A Candle or the Sun.”

Freedom from speech

Image result for singapore speakers corner

Singapore’s Speakers’ Corner–Hong Lim Park

I do not know how widely A Candle or the Sun is still read in Singapore. I am told anecdotally that, like Nineteen Eighty-Four is around the world, it’s known by many but read by few. I hope not. Nonetheless, it remains an easy-to-hand reference for free speech matters. Indeed, how little things seem to have changed since it was published. The People’s Action Party (PAP) is still in power, as it has been since Singapore gained its statehood. The country’s media remains closed. MediaCorp dominates television and radio, and is the only terrestrial TV broadcaster. It happens to be controlled by the government-owned investment arm, Temasek Holdings, the CEO of which is Ho Ching, the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. As for the newspapers, the Straits Times is owned by Singapore Press Holdings. Its current CEO is Alan Chan, who previously served in several government positions, and its chairman Lee Boon Yang, who served as an MP for the ruling party from 1984 until 2011, and held Cabinet positions during that time.

When Baratham was interviewed after the publication of A Candle or the Sun, he laconically defended himself: “It’s not that I want to irritate, but I just speak my mind… You should criticize the faults if you care for the society.” But this is a concept that still doesn’t find ear among the ruling elite, despite its rhetoric. In February, the Prime Minister commented: “If all you have are people who say, ‘Three bags full, sir’, then soon you start to believe them, and that is disastrous.” On the same day, as the Economist pointed out, a respected former diplomat who now runs a public-policy institute at the National University of Singapore, said Singapore needs “more naysayers [who] attack and challenge every sacred cow.”

Singapore is now a 21st century economy propped up by 20th century politics. And the Sedition Act, on the books since the late 1940s, is still brought out to slap down those naysayers, especially those who criticise the sacred cows, namely religion and race. PM Lee Hsien Loong has defended Singapore’s limits on free expression as a means to safeguard social stability. “In our society, which is multiracial and multi-religious, giving offence to another religious or ethnic group, race, language or religion, is always a very serious matter,” he said. This has been the case since Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister (and the current PM’s father), promised in 1965 to build a multiracial nation. “This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion,” he commented that year.

Today, Indeed, Singapore is a multiracial state. And a heavy dose of state-enforcement has gone into defending this idea. Singapore celebrates Racial Harmony Day—July 21, the day when the riots broke out in 1964—and schoolchildren are taught about religion and ethnicity. But the idea that by suppressing “hate-speech” one can improve society reveals hidden impulses behind those who call from restraints. It is, at the same time, utopian and nihilistic.

I’ll take a fairly positive-slanted story from the Straits Times, dated November 8, 2015, as an example. The article’s author describes Singapore as a microcosm, “which pledges to be color-blind in its meritocracy and economic growth by providing opportunities for all”. From these, and numerous other reports, one gets the sense that perhaps the government is justified in trying to silence what it considers hate speech.

But a number of commentators are quoted as saying that Singapore is “nowhere near being a race-blind society” because racist undertones are hidden under the surface of a seemingly cohesive society. They also said that “some people and groups are downright ignorant and biased, others merely tolerate, but others are proactive in understanding and being appreciative”. One sociologist opined that “bubbling beneath our civil veneer, there are prejudices and stereotypes which occasionally surface to trigger bouts of soul-searching”. Indeed, the death of a foreign worker in Little India in 2013 led to a riot of more than 300 people, during which 54 officers and eight civilians were injured.

But silencing any public discourse on race or religion doesn’t seem to have done much good (just as banning mention of food isn’t a cure for malnutrition). As seen over the decades, while tensions remain dormant most of the time, they do have the recurrent habit of bubbling up. Moreover, not talking about the issue doesn’t always mean it will go away. A 2013 survey found that almost half of Singaporeans didn’t have a close friend of another race.

At some point in A Candle or the Sun, Perera is warned: “culture is a matter of security.” So, too, is culture a matter of free speech. While “hate-speech” does exist, all too often free speech is curtailed in Singapore over claims that individuals have offended a religion or race, when what they have really done is criticise the government. A casual glance over the cases of people recently prosecuted for free speech reveals that courts tend to find some facet of religious or racial offence in the person’s comments.

Take the case of the blogger Amos Yee, who was prosecuted twice for wounding religious feeling, not for criticising the government. As Singapore’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Foo Chi Hsia, said in 2015, “Amos Yee was convicted for insulting the faith of Christians…Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.” Indeed, from this comment one can denote the legal contortionism of the Singaporean government: its citizens have the right of freedom from speech, which, to the government, is more important than freedom of speech. Yee might have gone on a tirade against religion, but his main target for criticism was the government, specifically the death of Lee Kuan Yew, in 2015. He called the late leader “a horrible person”, an “awful leader” and a “dictator,” as the Economist reported. Indeed, the American government was clearly of opinion that Yee was persecuted for his political views when it offered him asylum this year. “This is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime – critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions,” one American immigration judge wrote during Yee’s asylum ruling. To which the Singaporean government responded that America allows “hate speech under the rubric of freedom of speech.”

It is often too easy to defend the freedom of speech for the likes of Baratham, a learned doctor and adroit novelist. Harder, though, to defend the uncouth ramblings of someone like Yee. As I wrote in the Diplomat at the time: “It is clear that most of [Yee’s] comments were crude and inarticulate and, befitting his age, childish. This doesn’t mean, however, he ought not be defended for merely uttering an opinion.”

Taking the candle

George Orwell once described Speakers Corner, in London’s Hyde Park, as “one of the minor wonders of the world.” On my last visit to Singapore, last year, a reposeful afternoon provided me with a moment to visit the city-state’s own attempt at a Speakers Corner, located in Hong Lim Park. Oh, how imitations are inferior. The Economist described it thusly:

[A] spot set up for Singaporeans to exercise their freedom of speech without any restriction whatsoever, beyond the obligation to apply for permission to speak and to comply with the 13 pages of terms and conditions upon which such permissions are predicated, as well as all the relevant laws and constitutional clauses.

That article was about the prosecution of blogger Han Hui Hui who, in 2014, journeyed to Speakers’ Corner to protest the management of the Central Provident Fund, the city-states compulsory social security fund. She was found guilty and fined more than $2,000 last year not for voicing her opinion, a government spokesperson said, but for “loutishly barging into a performance by a group of special-education-needs children, frightening them and denying them the right to be heard.”

But what’s surprising about Speakers’ Corner is that Singapore would even attempt a parody. But, then again, Baratham understood the importance of the masquerade. The real heft of A Candle or the Sun is not in how an oppressive state operates but how people are so ready to sacrifice (and justify sacrificing) freedom for “good housing, safe streets, schools for your children and… three square meals a day and a colour TV,” as Perera says. Indeed, principles are sacrificed with only the slightest enticement by the state, unlike in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

In 2013, a survey of 4,000 Singaporeans asked whether they preferred “limits on freedom of expression to prevent social tensions” or “complete freedom of expression even at risk of social tensions.” 40% of respondents went for limits and 37% said complete freedom. The remaining 23 percent had no opinion on the matter, which perhaps says something about public participation in Singaporean society.

If Nineteen Eighty-Four is a novel that represents what Orwell described as “the dirty-handkerchief side of life” then Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, published 17 years earlier, is its saccharine facsimile. Huxley in a letter to Orwell shortly after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four:

Whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-on-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power, and these ways will resemble those which I described in Brave New World.

A Candle or the Sun serves somewhat as a synthesis between the censorial warning of both dystopias. Baratham understood that too much jack-booting, never the first port of call for the Singaporean repressors anyway, couldn’t last. (A Candle or the Sun happened to be published the year the Soviet Union collapsed). Equally, permissiveness, unlike in Brave New World, had to be carefully managed: provide a glimpse but never the real thing. Perera, an intelligent man, understands the cognitive dissonance one needs to survive in such a world. A noted passage in A Candle or the Sun finds him musing over whether to take the censorial job. He compares his position to that of a prostitute. “Once I’ve accepted Sam’s job,” he thinks, “I was sure I would have to do things distasteful… I suppose this loss of self-respect is what distressed me. It must be something that all whores grappled with.” But as he soliloquises, he swiftly talks himself round to a justification:

The analogy with prostitutes was a good one. There must be prostitutes who are wives and mothers, who ran families, loved their husbands. Their salvation must lie in an ability to separate in their minds acts which were physically identical.

The psychically identical act, for Perera, was to be able to write artistically and censorially at the same time. In short, selling something that one doesn’t want to, nor believes in. Indeed, from his days running a furniture store, Perera reflects that salesmanship “consisted not of providing people with what they needed, but with that was essential to their dreams.” Shortly afterwards, he comments: “The possibility of winter is essential to the happiness of people living in the tropics.” Dreams, Perera realises, are all too willingly indulged and what people really need (freedom and autonomy) sacrificed. Indeed, do people want the candle (the intimation of freedom) or the sun (the real thing)? The government’s art of salesmanship, as Singapore’s history has shown, makes sure people readily opt for the candle.

•   •   •   •   •   •   •   •

Editor’s note: readers interesting in buying The Candle and the Sun can find copies available through Marshall Cavendish or at AbeBooks.

 

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew


December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org

Image result for Lee Kuan Yew the icon

 

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.

https://i0.wp.com/www.newmandala.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Lee-Kuan-Yew-2-1024x768.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Related image

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.

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education


November 28, 2017

The Moral Imperative of Quality Education

by Peter Mutharika

Image result for Peter Mutharika PM of Malawi

Peter Mutharika–President of Malawi

Poor countries like Malawi are doing what they can to improve educational quality and access. But there is only so much that a country with modest means can achieve, which is why global leaders, when they meet in Senegal early next year, must recommit to investing in the education of all children.

 

BLANTYRE, MALAWI – In September, I was among a group of world leaders who gathered in New York City to discuss ways to improve access to quality education. Around the world, hundreds of millions of children are either not receiving basic schooling, or are attending schools but not learning. We gathered to devise a way forward.

The crisis that I discussed with heads of state from France, Senegal, and Norway, along with leaders from the United Nations and global education advocates, is not an abstract problem unfolding in a distant land. It is a crisis that has reached my doorstep in Malawi. The challenge of education is one that my government, like many in developing countries, grapples with every day.

Image result for  Education in Singapore

Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

As one of the co-conveners of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity – which brings together world leaders to mobilize support for solutions to the education crisis – I have long focused on how to improve educational access. Quality schooling is key to helping people contribute to the development of their communities and their countries. Without a properly educated populace, it would take decades for developing countries like mine to overcome the profound economic, social, and health challenges that we face.

To ensure that we do not fail our children, or our country, my government is investing heavily to build a strong and sustainable education system. We have steadily increased education spending, which has risen from 12.5% of the total domestic budget in 2010 to 21% in 2015. This represents one of the highest percentages among developing countries anywhere, and I hope that our example will encourage leaders elsewhere to devote at least 20% of their national budgets to education.

But there is a limit to what economically struggling countries like Malawi can do alone. To make real progress in education, the generous support of wealthier partner countries and global institutions is essential. The momentum we have generated can be sustained only if donor support remains strong.

Malawi’s education sector has benefited greatly from balancing increased domestic investment with external support. For example, more Malawian children are enrolled in primary school than ever before, and the rate of boys and girls completing primary education has increased dramatically, from 59% in 2007 to 80% in 2014. Adult literacy has also improved, albeit more modestly, from 61% in 2010 to 66% in 2015.

Still, Malawi falls far behind the rest of the world on a several key education indicators. Among the list of challenges we face are derelict schools, high pupil-to-teacher ratios, and significant gaps in inspection and oversight capabilities. These and other issues make it hard for teachers to teach and for students to learn.

Image result for rihanna education

GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna at the Élysée, Paris, July 2017

When Rihanna, the pop artist and ambassador of the Global Partnership for Education, visited Malawi in January and met with students and teachers, she put a spotlight on the promise of education. Our country has been fortunate to receive funding in recent years from bilateral donors and international organizations like GPE, which helps countries like mine increase educational quality and broaden access.

Since 2009, GPE funding has enabled Malawi to conduct long-term planning and data collection, and has brought domestic and international partners together for a common cause. GPE’s support has helped us build more facilities, overhaul our curriculum, improve access for girls, and train more educators.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Malawi’s partnership with GPE has been transformative, which is why I am urging donor countries around the world to contribute generously to GPE at its upcoming financing conference in Senegal. By 2020, GPE aims to distribute more than $2 billion annually to help improve education in developing countries around the world.

Without GPE’s support, some 825 million young people risk being left behind without the education or skills to perform well in the workplace of the future. That could lead to growing unemployment, poverty, inequality, instability, and other factors that threaten not just individual countries or regions, but the entire international community.

Educating every child is a moral imperative and thus a universal responsibility. In today’s interconnected world, challenges and gains in low-income countries do not remain local.

When my colleagues and I met in New York on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, we recommitted to solving the challenges of educational quality and access. We now need the rest of the world to join us in addressing this global crisis head-on.

 

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 15, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by Ja Ian Chong, NUS

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

 

Image result for Singapore's Foreign Minister

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong– Not Choosing Sides between Beijing and Washington.

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

Image result for Singapore's Foreign Minister

 

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.

Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations


November 12, 2017

Portents of transactional diplomacy in US–Southeast Asia relations

by Alan Chong, Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

In the wake of three Southeast Asian prime ministers’ visits to the Trump White House, a new pattern of diplomatic communication appears to be taking shape — transactional diplomacy.

It is well known that the election of Donald Trump triggered a wave of privately expressed unease in many Asian capitals. Trump’s inauguration speech spelt out the cornerstone of his foreign policy in simple terms: ‘We will follow two simple rules: buy American and hire American. We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first’. In the course of three recent visits by the leaders of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to Washington, President Trump has demonstrated consistency in applying these rules.

Image result for Lee Hsien Loong visit The White House

 

What one sees emerging out of the Trump White House is nothing less than transactional leadership translated into foreign policy. Leaders produce compliance from followers by promising tangible carrots and sticks. In managerial settings, this is remarkably effective since followers expect the leader to specify clear key performance targets against which the former can measure their productivity. But in the world of international politics, transactional foreign policy may be complicated to the point of possible failure.

The problem with Trump’s foreign policy is that he takes his ‘America First’ policy too seriously. This has triggered a peculiar foreign policy overture manifested in the visits by the Malaysian, Thai and Singaporean prime ministers to the White House recently: shopping diplomacy.

Image result for Najob Razak visits The White House

During Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak’s visit, he made it clear to the media that he was bringing a ‘strong value proposition’ to the United States. It was announced that Khazanah Nasional (the Malaysian government’s sovereign wealth fund) and the Employees Provident Fund (Malaysia’s national pension fund) would invest several billion dollars in equity and infrastructure projects in the United States. Additionally, Malaysia Airlines was pledged to actively explore options for acquiring more Boeing jetliners and General Electric engines to the tune of US$10 billion.

Image result for Thailand's Ocha visits The White House

Not to be outdone, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha had an even longer shopping list to please Trump. Prayut promised that the Thai military would acquire Blackhawk and Lakota helicopters, a Cobra gunship, Harpoon missiles and F-16 fighter jet upgrades to be topped off with 20 new Boeing jetliners for Thai Airways.

Next, in an obvious nod to Trump’s championing of the plight of US workers in the much bandied ‘Rust Belt’, Siam Cement Group agreed to purchase 155,000 tonnes of coal while Thai petroleum company PTT agreed to invest in shale gas factories in Ohio. To top it off, Prayut and Trump signed a memorandum of understanding to facilitate an estimated US$6 billion worth of investments that will purportedly generate more than 8000 jobs in the United States.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong followed a similar script by showcasing Singapore Airlines’ publicly televised signing ceremony with Boeing Corporation for buying 39 aircraft with the attached tagline of generating 70,000 jobs in the continental United States. It did not go unnoticed that Trump smiled broadly and jabbed jocularly at the Boeing CEO while uttering very audibly to the television cameras ‘that’s jobs, American jobs, otherwise don’t sign!’.

Trump was not fooling around for the media. He meant to live up to his ‘America First’ rhetoric. Yet one hopes that Trump and his cabinet appreciate that shopping transactions do not define a whole bilateral relationship. Each of the prime ministers had also sought Trump’s friendship for multiple ancillary issues such as keeping US markets open to their businesses or getting a lift for domestic politics.

All three countries too wished to keep the US military engaged in the region as a stabilising factor vis-a-vis the emergence of Chinese power. In the Malaysian and Singaporean cases, both countries share with the United States a clear joint stake in the defeat of Islamic State-inspired terrorism worldwide. In the Southeast Asian strategic mentality, diplomatic relationships are always viewed in the long term. With or without President Trump in the White House, the United States is a naturalised political, economic and military presence in the region.

Another time-honoured diplomatic virtue practised by Southeast Asian governments is that of making gifts as a material representation of friendship. Gifts need not be a sign of surrender or weakness on the part of the giver. They are an indirect language for affirming respect despite political inequalities between great powers and weak states, and they signal the durability of strategic partnerships painstakingly built up since the Cold War.

Southeast Asian states will be more than well-rehearsed for this chapter in US–Southeast Asia relations. Many pundits are also speculating that China will also follow the same tack by decorating President Trump’s upcoming official visit to Beijing with even more dazzling multi-billion dollar energy and high tech deals. Today, diplomacy by gifting has found a new frequency in the Trump White House.

Alan Chong is Associate Professor at the Centre for Multilateralism Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

A version of this article was originally published here on RSIS.

 

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture


November 9, 2017

Singapore’s Foreign Policy at a juncture

by  Ja Ian Chong, National University of Singapore

http://www.eastasiaforum.org

Image result for vivian balakrishnanCall on Myanmar State Counsellor, Union Minister in the President’s Office and Union Minister for Foreign Affairs Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by Minister for Foreign Affairs Dr Vivian Balakrishnan on 18 May 2016 during his introductory visit to Myanmar [Photo: MFA]

 

In July 2017, a rare public debate occurred within Singapore’s foreign policy establishment. In contention was whether the city-state should defer to major powers or insist on pursuing its longstanding foreign policy principles.

 

This discussion came against a backdrop of China’s new willingness to assert its foreign policy preferences, apparent fissures within ASEAN as well as US capriciousness. Such developments have the potential to shake longstanding pillars of Singapore’s external relations. The debate reflects unease about shifts in East Asian politics and uncertainty over how best to respond.

Image result for Singapore and China

Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong with President Xi Jinping of China–Engaging China while tilting towards the United States

Engaging China — especially in terms of economics — while encouraging comprehensive US engagement in Asia are integral to Singapore’s longstanding approach of ‘not choosing sides’ between Beijing and Washington. This policy assumes significant overlap in US and Chinese interests, shared major power desire for self-restraint and mutual accommodation and US commitment to the liberal international order it created after World War II. Recent developments seem to cast doubt on these long-held presumptions. In fact, the 2017 Qatar Crisis that sparked the debate stemmed partially from US disinterest and ambivalence.

Singapore is especially discomforted by China’s reclamation and arming of artificial islands in the South China Sea despite widespread opposition, and Beijing’s non-participation in and lambasting of the Philippines-initiated arbitration tribunal process. Beijing was also exceptionally harsh in criticising Singapore over the latter’s insistence on the rule of law in relation to maritime issues and the arbitration tribunal. The detention in Hong Kong of Singaporean armoured vehicles en route from Taiwan and the apparent exclusion of the Singapore Prime Minister from Beijing’s Belt and Road Forum further heightened Singaporean concerns.

One of Donald Trump’s first moves as US President was to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Other major trade arrangements hang in the balance as the US administration threatens punitive action against trade partners. The rashness with which President Trump seems to treat North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons could also destabilise the region. Potential US global retreat is similarly disconcerting despite reports that the Trump administration dropped calls to make security commitments contingent on payment from allies and partners. Such actions detract from efforts by US officials to assure East Asia of active and consistent US engagement.

Behaviour by Beijing and Washington endangers another important pillar of Singapore’s foreign policy: its preference for international law, institutions and norms. Such mechanisms give smaller states a degree of formal equality with major powers, since all actors are technically restrained by the same rules, requirements, and procedures. Notably, participants in the July 2017 debate agreed on Singapore’s need for institutions such as the United Nations and ASEAN as well as international law to be robust. They differed on how strongly to advance such arrangements.

Beijing’s rejection, mobilisation against and dismissal of the South China Sea arbitration tribunal process along with its expansive maritime claims and broad interpretation of exclusive economic zone rights suggests a desire to adjust internationals laws in fact if not in form. China’s ability to break ASEAN consensus on positions Beijing deems inimical to its interests and Washington’s new suspicion of multilateral institutions — seen in the TPP withdrawal and its criticism of the UN — portend greater pressure on key institutions.

Some ASEAN members seem ready to accede to China on the promise of economic gain, even as Washington appears to be turning into an increasingly unreliable institutional partner. Then there is worry about major powers eroding sovereign autonomy by intervening domestically through business, academia and other sectors. Prevailing laws, institutions and norms are familiar to Singapore and it has historically excelled in working with them to its own benefit. Shifts on these fronts — which Singapore cannot influence — are cause for anxiety.

The debate abated with a reiteration of longstanding principles by Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan without new policies or strategic directions. Such trepidation is unsurprising given the many complex variables currently at play. Circumstances surrounding China’s rise and the United States’ relative decline are unprecedented for Singapore, and the country is on the cusp of a generational leadership transition. ASEAN is no longer the same conservative, anti-communist Cold War club, where member interests were relatively predictable and consensus was easier to develop. Climate change, long-term economic sustainability, and terrorism too present serious challenges.

Singapore is not alone in trying to find its foreign policy footing — the July debate parallels ongoing discussions in Australia, Japan, South Korea and elsewhere about how to reposition strategic priorities. Singapore may ultimately wish to re-examine how best to pursue its enduring interests in maintaining freedom of action, economic openness and the containment of tensions given the evolving external environment.

Possible considerations range from reducing reliance on ASEAN in favour of other partnerships to investing in far-reaching ASEAN reform, perhaps at some expense to autonomy. Contemplating such change, particularly in public, may be uncomfortable for Singapore’s foreign policy traditionalists, but it is necessary for charting the city-state’s future in an increasingly uncertain world and hence deserving of sustained and open discussion.

Ja Ian Chong is Associate Professor of Political Science at National University of Singapore.