Big Challenge for Asian Modernization


March 30, 2017

Cultural-Intellectual Reinvigoration: Big Challenge for Asian Modernization

by Michael Heng Siam-Heng (received by e-mail with thanks)

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Asia has been experiencing an economic revival since the 1960s, first Japan, then the Four Little Dragons, the Asian Tigers and now China and India. With Asian economies doing relatively well against the background of global recession, many Asians hope that the 21st century would be the Asian Century. But what kind of Asian Century?

How would Asians like this period of their history to be understood and remembered in centuries ahead?  It could be a period of impressive economic growth but also known for its environmental degradation, crimes, corruption, social disparities, religious extremism, and social conflicts. Or it could be a period that draws on the best of human achievements and advances them.  The second case would contribute immensely to a new global civilization characterized by peace, social justice, cultural brilliance, technological advancement, and sustainable economic growth.

I will dwell on four points.  First, on what basis can we argue for an Asian cultural-intellectual rejuvenation? Second, is such a historical project necessary? Third, three challenges facing us. Fourth, being in Malaysia, I will briefly touch on roles that can be played by this country.

Conceptual Basis for an Asian Cultural Rejuvenation

History tells us that radical economic and social transformations are often accompanied by intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. The transformations generate social dislocations that challenge existing cultural norms, ideas, and social institutions.  The problems are serious and they engage the best brains of the time. In attempts to solve the issues, these best and brightest draw on their intellectual heritage, learn from other sources, cross-fertilise them and creatively synthesize them to produce original thoughts.

Examples are Ancient Greece, the Spring-Autumn-Warring period of China, the Islamic golden age, and the Maurya and the Gupta period of India. The most recent experience is the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, which produced giants in the fields of philosophy, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, music, architecture, and literature. We all know at least a dozen of such names.  These European thinkers or cultural giants acted as a positive force during that critical period, functioning both as a social conscience and as sources of forward-looking ideas. Their works have shaped the character of modern European civilization and continue to exert an influence on our thinking and cultures even until today.

The Need for the Historical Project

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Deng Xiao Peng–China’s Great Modernizer–Pragmatist

Ever since Asia suffered defeat and humiliation in its encounters with Western imperial powers, Asian leaders slowly realized the crucial importance of reform and modernization in order to face the onslaught. Country after country began to borrow ideas from the West, not all of which were positive, as we see in the case of Japanese imperialistic aggression.

By the end of the 19th century, Japan, through its  Meiji Restoration (明治維新), was the most successful in modernizing its military and economy, fulfilling its national agenda of being both powerful and wealthy. Once powerful, Japan began to behave aggressively, turning Korea into its colony, seizing large tracts of Chinese territories and occupying Southeast Asia. It was a military adventure which ended in total defeat at the closure of WWII.  To use a  simple metaphor, modernization is like the flight of a bird.  It requires two wings to function in a harmonious manner.  Being wealthy economically and strong militarily is one wing.  The other wing is sound cultural-intellectual development.

Fast forward into early 21st century, Asia has regained much of its share of global economy.  Statistics provided by the IMF, the World Bank and transnational banks testify to this shift of economic power from the West.

To the ordinary public, this shift is visible, in the form of improved standards of living, and the new physical landscape.  The most visible is the super-tall buildings – architectural icons of modernity.  Of the ten tallest buildings in the world, 8 are in Asia, 2 in the USA.

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In contrast to the modern landscape in Asian cities, Asia has a string of disturbing social ills.  There is dysfunctional culture exhibited by the people at the top running the show.  State infrastructure projects are awarded to friends and relatives rather than to the most competent.  Newspapers are full of examples of practices that reflect mindsets that are out of sync with the demands of a modern economy. In societies where there are modern economic and legal institutions, many of these institutions lack integrity and independence.

Even in a modern economy and society operating efficiently, we need something more.  Again using the example of Japan.  It is the most modern Asian country. Yet its modernization is confined to the fields of economy, technology, and life styles. It has not undergone a philosophical development based on a foundation of critical rationality and humanism. The Japanese nation as whole has not been able to come to terms with its atrocities during World War II.

 Three Major Challenges

Asians face three major challenges at this juncture of their history, namely (a) drawing on their own cultural resources and rejuvenating them, (b) learning from others, and (c) learning from each other.

The first challenge can be formulated as: how and what Asians can draw from their own cultural and intellectual resources in the process of dealing with new problems.

With an open and inquisitive mind, old ideas take on new meanings and interpretations in the context of new social problems. If a new interpretation provides an effective way in solving problems, the new solution is likely to find easier acceptance because it is framed in language familiar to the people. A sense of continuity is useful in coping with change.

Interestingly, there is often a link between the old and the new. Even a new philosophy is dependent on the intellectual achievements of the preceding centuries and millennia.  A scholar of the European Enlightenment observes that “enlightenment philosophy simply fell heir to the heritage of those [preceding] centuries. It ordered, sifted, developed and clarified this heritage rather than contributed and gave currency to new and original ideas.  Yet in spite of its dependence with respect to content, the Enlightenment produced a completely original form of philosophical thought.”  In other words, old beliefs can put on modern attires and assume modern colours. The result is a new idea.

This sounds rather straightforward. But it is not so if we observe carefully around us.  Hardcore conservatives prefer a literal and rigid interpretation of their traditions, all the more so if these are written. There is also the fear that in rejuvenating local culture and tradition to cope with the demands of a modern economy, the local culture and tradition may disappear, and that future generations will become culturally rootless.  Another problem is what to select from the past.

I believe that the proper attitude is to embrace change, and to see culture as something living, tradition as living tradition.  They are products of their times, and they will change with the demands of the time.

The second challenge is how and what to learn from others. To the extent that there are similarities in the issues involved in the transition from pre-modern societies to modern societies, we should learn from others’ experiences, both positive and negative. To quote the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan : “Similar experiences engender in men’s minds similar views”. Since the West has a longer history of modernization, Asia can certainly learn from them.

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Again like the first challenge, learning from others is not easy. Some believe that it is very difficult, or even impossible, to transplant ideas, values, and institutions that have sprouted and developed in a different culture and a different set of historical conditions.

Take the case of China’s difficult journey of learning after defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895. While the Chinese leadership welcomed the adoption of obviously more advanced technologies from the West, they had difficulties embracing the Western ideas and value system. The problem is less acute today but is not over.

What happened in China a century ago is happening in West Asia. The common belief was that “Eastern” culture of spirituality was superior to “Western” culture of materialism.  There is a fear that the spirit of local heritage and culture was threatened with destruction by the importation of western ideas and values.

Adoption and adaption of foreign ideas to local conditions is a long drawn out process, which requires creativity, flexibility, and openness. Though the process is complex, it has happened in history, in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in Asia, and Europe.

Evidence in history support the claim that we can borrow ideas that originated in a very different historical context, and adapt them to serve local needs or even improve upon them in the process of creative synthesis. Let me list briefly three examples. First example: Southeast Asia was able to adopt religious beliefs, ways of life, and institutions from India, China, the Middle East, and Europe. These influences from distant lands had originated in settings that were alien to Southeast Asia. Second example is Europe’s absorption of bureaucracy from China. Combining it with check and balance by civic society, the Western practice is more efficient and less prone to corruption, offering useful lessons for China. This is a vivid illustration of the Chinese saying, 青出于蓝而胜于蓝, or the pupil excelling the master. Third example: Buddhism was introduced to China, a country with a profoundly different culture. After centuries of acclimatization, we have a synthesis of the two cultural traditions known as “Chan” in Chinese and “Zen” in Japanese.

The sensible attitude of learning is to be open-minded and rational rather than be influenced by emotion and sentiments. We must be curious and humble while at the same be meticulous, critical and independent minded. Just as Asians should not feel a sense of superiority in being a source of Western modernization, they should not feel a sense of inferiority in borrowing from the West.  Learning from the findings of others can only increase the range of possible solutions.

The above two challenges are related. It is difficult to learn from foreign sources and adopt their useful elements if we are not culturally and intellectually confident. With confidence in our own cultural heritage, we are at ease to critically appreciate the achievements of others. And cultural confidence can only stem from a deep and critical understanding of our own cultural roots, to the extent of discarding outdated ideas and practices of our own traditions.

The third challenge is for Asians to know much more of each other’s history, intellectual achievements, and cultural traditions.  Though language may present a barrier, most Asian intellectuals use English as the second language which renders exchange of ideas possible. What holds them back is their attitude.  Asians tend to know more about Australasia, Europe and America than their Asian neighbours.  

Given the guarded attitude many Asians have regarding learning from the West, they have less misgivings regarding learning from each other. They can benefit from sharing their experiences in modernization.  In fact, Japan’s path of rapid economic development has provided valuable insights to Southeast Asia and later on China and India. This pattern of economic development is described as the Flying Geese, with Japan as the leading goose. In coping with the broader social and cultural issues arising from modernization, the Middle Eastern countries are more likely to consult the experiences of Malaysia and Indonesia than those from the West.

As a concrete project of mutual learning and co-operation among Asian countries, they can compile a set of books – the Great Books of the East, containing the cream of Eastern intellectual achievements. It is a doable project.  It serves as a platform for top scholars of Asian countries to work together, creating as a byproduct a network Asian intellectuals of similar interests.  It would produce a convenient reference work for libraries all over the world.  It world form a key component of common body of knowledge for serious minded global citizens.

Another concrete project is traditional medicine.  Asia is the home of traditional Chinese medicine, traditional Indian medicine, and traditional Middle Eastern medicine. It represents distilled knowledge accumulated over many centuries of medical practice, often under poor material conditions. It is thus evidence-based.  However, critics of traditional medicine often claim that it is not scientific because its research method departs from that of western medicine. Its theory needs a modern set of vocabulary and updated to take into account new medical findings. We can think of a productive sharing and conversation among the three streams of Asian traditional medicine. This is an area for active collaboration of Asian countries that can boost the cultural and intellectual confidence of Asia, while making concrete and valuable contributions to healthcare in the whole world.

Malaysia as the Italy of the Asian Mediterranean(Venice)

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Malaysia is unwilling to tap its rich diversity due to myopic Malay-centered leadership and  corruption–Bodoh Sombong

Cultural and intellectual rejuvenation is often a synthesis and product of the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas.  Its birthplace is located at the cross-roads of diverse cultures and intellectual currents. For example, Italy, widely regarded as the birthplace of the European Renaissance, was an important meeting point of different cultures and intellectual traditions in the Mediterranean.

Malaysia can have an important role in such a historical process. Here, the four major currents of world civilizations (Chinese, Indian, Islamic and Western) are co-existing as mainstreams of social life. They represent invaluable resources. Southeast Asia is a region with a multi-layered sedimentation of diverse cultures. It is a vibrant, peaceful and forward-looking region when we compare it to other regions with similar historical background. If we borrow the language of the European Renaissance, Southeast Asia may be seen as a kind of Mediterranean region in the cultural revival of Asia and Malaysia can aspire to be the Italy of Asia (Venice).

Reinventing prevalent social-cultural practices is quite common in societies undergoing structural changes.  It is part of the efforts of a society to refine and refurbish the inner resources of their societies. It is through such processes of renewal that societies try to overcome internal stagnation and meet external challenges.

The process touches societies profoundly, involving ideas, values, morality, belief systems, culture, and institutions. It requires us to revisit our concepts of goodness, truth, and beauty.  The blossoming of culture represents the sublimation of the human spirit, the enrichment of human experience and the nurturing of human nature towards goodness. It is a project with both social and spiritual dimensions. It is a project with a historical soul.

Economic resurgence in itself does not guarantee a corresponding intellectual ferment and cultural effervescence. There are formidable obstacles in the long journey. First, Asian intellectuals may not rise to the call. Second, there is lack of freedom and internalized self-censorship that originates from a culture of fear. Third, there is no critical mass of thinkers to stimulate each other. Fourth, there are as yet no powerful social groups willing to adopt and champion new philosophies developed by their people.

The rise of Asia may thus be conceived of as an opportunity for an Asian cultural revival, which may or may not happen. Much depends on how Asians will make use of the opportunity. Will they translate the opportunity into a mission, and turn it into a reality?

The project of an Asian cultural rejuvenation is an ambitious undertaking.  It is likely to last for several generations. It has no walls and borders. Contributions from all corners of the world are warmly welcome. Though the stage is in Asia, the cast and audience are global.   This opens up a new arena of international cooperation for all those who aspire to contribute to the long term well-being of humanity.  As co-operation and competition with the West can be expanded to include friendly co-operation and competition in the field of ideas, this new arena could well be an alternative to the geopolitical rivalry between an emerging China and a US in decline.

Let us imagine that East Asia or South Asia could provide a case of cultural revival together with economic modernization.  It would be an attractive alternative to the current Western model for the Middle East. It may offer new insights and solutions for solving the whole array of social, economic and political problems there.

If and when Asian cultural and intellectual reinvigoration does happen in its full glory, it will lift Asian civilization to a higher level. In so doing, it will contribute to the cultural resources of the world and indeed to a richer modern civilization.  It will also impart a more profound and enduring meaning to the term Asian Century.

 

APSIA Conference 2017 Keynote Address by Singapore’s DPM


March 5, 2017

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APSIA Conference 2017 Keynote Address by Singapore’s DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam at LKY School of Public Policy

COMMENT:

Geo-Politics, Disruptive Social Developments and Technological Change: Has the Game Changed? Yes, that is easy part of the answer.  How we wish that life is simple and outcomes are predictable. But it is not. I  have been grappling a few questions. I asked myself questions like What has changed? How it has changed?  What is driving the change?What this change means to us in Asia.

China, North Korea, Islamic and Christian evangelism, terrorism and so on are making the headlines.I  also see increasing polarisation and the need for understanding and rebuilding trust. I expect our politicians to reconnect with people they are mandated to serve and  want leaders to lead with integrity, honesty and hope. Listen to DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam for some insights.–Din Merican

 

 

OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng


February 17, 2017

Book Review:

OB Markers: My Straits Times Story by Cheong Yip Seng

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From the very first chapter of this book to the last, it is full of detailed and astonishing revelations about the mainstream media in Singapore. It is an incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship. Indirectly, Cheong Yip Seng’s My Straits Times Story is invaluable in helping to explain the dominance of one political party through its “symbiotic” relationship to all the mainstream print media in our country.

The book begins with an account of how Cheong was appointed to his job as editor-in-chief of the Straits Times in 1986. This was not a private dinner with a publisher or a board meeting or even the result of a secret ballot at a conference of editors.

Instead, Cheong describes how he was summoned by Chandra Das, a prominent Singapore politician, on a plane to Burma with the words “The boss wants to see you”. Cheong was given a seat in the first-class cabin next to the then-Deputy Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong. Goh wanted him to take over the editorial leadership of the Straits Times from the previous editor, Peter Lim, who had been found wanting.

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Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore

Apparently Lim’s “sin” was that he (and the ST) had during the regional uproar over the Israeli President Chaim Herzog’s 1986 visit to Singapore “failed to recognize the educational role of the Straits Times” which infuriated then PM Lee Kuan Yew who believed that the ST coverage “did not help Singaporeans fully understand the facts of regional life and what it took to be an independent sovereign nation.”

Apparently Lim had relied too much on the Malaysian English-language media in its coverage of the Malaysian outrage without adequately carrying some of the more rabid reactions from the vernacular media from across the causeway. This was the final straw which led to Lim’s firing as the Istana had apparently “reached the point of no return with the Straits Times.”

Related imageBelieve him or not, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew stood up for a responsible and accountable media

In the months before that, Cheong reveals, the government was planning on a “GTO (government team of officials) moving into Times House” similar to what was done with the bus company. The response by the ST leadership is instructive. Instead of protesting against this attempt at interference in professional journalism, apparently Peter Lim and CEO Nigel Holloway met the PM at the Istana repeatedly to negotiate against the presence of government officials in the newsroom. The solution they negotiated was instead a “monitor at Times House, someone who could watch to see if indeed the newsroom was beyond control”. This person was identified by Cheong as (former Singapore president) S R Nathan.

The threat of a GTO together with the presence of a “monitor” made sure that the SPH newspapers toed the party line. This is something that many in civil society in Singapore have suspected for a long time but it is nice to see it confirmed here from the best source possible.

There is more evidence of intimidation documented in this book, mainly from Lee Kuan Yew, who actually endorsed the book prominently. For example, after an early event at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Cheong was threatened by Lee with the words, “If you print this, I will break your neck”. Cheong’s response to what appears on the surface to be a brutal threat is interesting was: “I was taken aback by his thunderbolt…It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew’s ways with the media…Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as (that)…but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster approach was unmistakable.”

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All said and done and for all  the criticisms, Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore a great and globally admired Island Nation in the Sun–Din Merican

Such blatant intimidation is presumably rare in Singapore. The title of the book, however, describes the life of a Singaporean journalist constantly trying to negotiate the “OB” or “Out of Bounds” markers. Cheong explains the origin of the term “OB markers”, ascribing it to former minister George Yeo, who described them as “areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.”

Outside of race and religion, the most important OB marker was then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that the press could not be a “fourth estate” or center of power because it was not elected.

This is not a valid argument to me as it could be argued that the press are far more accountable than politicians as they have to seek the approval of the newspaper purchasing public every day rather than every four to five years in elections.

Instead, Lee’s view of the press was that it was a tool for dissemination and promotion of government policies. One illuminating illustration was a “furious” call from Lee’s office that was received by the (now defunct) New Nation Editor David Kraal. The editors were “flummoxed” to discover that the then PM was provoked by a photograph of a large family to illustrate a story of a happy Singapore family. Apparently, this was perceived by the PM as “subtle but effective criticism” of the “Stop at Two campaign” in which Lee sought to limit families to two children.

There are other OB markers which Cheong found “bewildering”. These included stories on Stanley Gibbons, a stamp dealer; carpet auctions; monosodium glutamate or MSG; feng shui; unflattering pictures of politicians, and scoops.

I think many Singaporeans too would find it difficult to understand why these “should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.” These are, however, hallmarks of an authoritarian regime which can install boundaries at whim without having them questioned.

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The Emeritus Foreign Minister of Singapore, George Yeo

Another OB marker was appearing overly critical of local TV programs. George Yeo apparently pointed out that “If the Straits Times created the impression that our TV programs were not worth watching, Singapore would lose an important channel of communications.” As a result, even the TV critics were reined in.

The issue of scoops is a recurrent theme. Cheong reports that “Lee Kuan Yew was determined to purge the newsroom of the culture of scoops”. He did not want a situation like the Watergate affair in which a dishonest president was exposed by investigative journalists who became cult heroes. Cheong writes that “The PM took the position that Singapore was not America: he had no skeletons in the closet and challenged the press to find one because he wanted to be the first to know…”

But of course, the press could not use investigative journalism to find out – they had to depend on the official version of events. This kind of Alice in Wonderland argument doesn’t seem to trouble Cheong or perhaps by re-stating the argument in this context, he is exposing its hollowness.

Cheong actually admits how much of a struggle this was for him as a journalist. He quotes Number 5 Chinese Leader Li Changchun as urging mainland Chinese journalists to go for scoops and explains his predecessor Peter Lim’s Faustian bargain for Singapore journalists thus: “it was better to produce the best story than the first story…Finding scoops in Singapore with many OB markers carried a real risk”.

Indeed, one gets a sense of how difficult life is for journalists who might inadvertently break a story that covered the sensitive subject of MSG or bad local TV programs or some other OB marker and end up being hauled up by the government.

Cheong makes it clear that while he had hoped that the “knuckleduster era” belonged to the 1970s, it could reappear any time. For example, he describes how while “recovering” from the 2006 general election, he received a phone call in a hotel in Phuket, from Lee Kuan Yew who was “livid” about a “powerfully argued column by Chua Mui Hoong” in which the deputy political editor had questioned the policy of placing opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrading works. According to Cheong, Lee was “his old 1970s self. If the Straits Times wanted a fight, he was prepared to do it the old way, with knuckledusters on”. This is depressing but not surprising to any reader of the ST today.

The extent of micro-management of the local press Cheong reports is amazing. Apparently, Goh Chok Tong had made a suggestion during the launch of The New Paper: “Why not consider a Page 3 girl”. Cheong quickly clarifies that Goh was not suggesting topless women that had been made famous by Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid The Sun but rather girls that (as Cheong quotes Goh) “can be scantily dressed”. The character and direction – and not just the OB markers – of the local press are thus apparently suggested by Singapore’s political leadership.

Cheong also provides details about the ST personnel’s relationship with the ruling People’s Action Party, the PAP. He writes that “senior PAP leaders had been impressed with (columnist Warren Fernandez’s) work for us. His columns in particular have been generally supportive of PAP policies.” He was about to be selected as a PAP candidate for the 2006 elections.

Cheong then emailed the Prime Minister asking to keep Warren at the ST “unless he was earmarked for higher office. But the PM’s response was that he needed Eurasian representation in parliament”. Apparently Cheong’s email had been circulated to the PAP selection panel before the final interview and Kuan Yew agreed to keep Fernandez out of the PAP slate. Of course, now Fernandez is the Editor of the ST.

Reporting on the “opposition” politicians was even more of a “minefield”. Cheong recalls the 1984 elections when “Peter Lim, then editor in chief, was under pressure from James Fu, the PM’s press secretary, conveying the PM’s request to publish Chiam (See Tong)’s O-Level results….Peter Lim refused: he was convinced it would backfire against the PAP…The result proved him right”.

What intrigues me about the incident was not just that the Prime Minister would intervene to try to persuade the national newspaper to publish such data, but rather that the editor-in-chief refused not because of journalistic integrity but rather because he thought it would “backfire against the PAP”.

This is typical of what Cheong describes as the “symbiotic relationship” between the ST and the PAP which is in fact enshrined in the editorial policy that Cheong crafted in response to then PM Goh’s unhappiness with the local mainstream media. The three pillars of that policy are (1) “Accuracy and objectivity” of coverage (2) The nation-building task of advancing and informing the public as Singapore develops and (3) The symbiotic relationship with the government. Some journalists were unhappy about this relationship but it stayed in the ST editorial policy at Cheong’s insistence. This documentation again, is what makes this book valuable to all who read the local press.

There are many revelations in Cheong’s book. We learn that the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts kept a dossier on local press articles which they found offensive. These include not giving enough prominence to ministers’ speeches. We also learn that when editors were “called up for meetings” with then PM Lee, they had to send detailed CVs including their O-Level results and their wives’ educational qualifications.

Other specific examples of censorship included restrictions on reporting conditions in national service camps in the early days and telling stories of the people who actually lost out through the Housing and Development Board (HDB) construction and resettlement process. The latter is poignant as Cheong describes the contrast between the 30,000 square feet (including a pond and a farm) that a friend living in Kampong Henderson had to give up in exchange for less than $3,000 compensation and a much smaller HDB flat. The ST was not allowed to report on such negative aspects of our “urban renewal” process or the HDB “success story”. The threat of the disapproval of the Times House “monitor” which could cost them their jobs through a GTO ensured compliance.

Interestingly, the “foreign investors” whom we religiously try to attract to Singapore are not as keen on press controls as we have been given to believe. According to Cheong, the American Business Council, supported by the US State Department, argued that investors would be deterred without the free flow of information. Cheong reports how the Singapore government stood their ground but paid the price, in his words: “liberal democracies and some members of the Singapore intelligensia saw it as too intolerant for its own good.”

Cheong is dismissive of the online alternative media but he devotes a paragraph to responding to Seelan Palay’s film “One Nation Under Lee” specifically by explaining that the ISD agents hired by the ST were not sent by the government, they were in fact, according to Cheong, willingly brought in by himself.

Later on, Cheong describes Lee Kuan Yew’s response to the online question “Who paid for the flying hospital for his wife” as marking the legitimization of online media. Cheong acknowledges that the days of traditional media are numbered worldwide, even in Singapore. He quotes the current PM Lee Hsien Loong as admitting that he cannot persuade his own daughter to read the news pages of the ST.

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The book is not all about the travails of a court announcer trying to keep the king happy. For me, the most promising section was the one describing the ST’s finest hour – exposing a scandal involving the National Kidney Foundation. Here is where you get a sense of what might have been should the ST have decided to serve the people of Singapore by performing the task of investigative journalists rather than as disseminators of official information.

Cheong was aware of “strong pro-NKF sentiments in powerful quarters” including two ministers (Lim Hng Kiang and Khaw Boon Wan) as the NKF had taken a tremendous load off the public healthcare sector by keeping alive and healthy 1,800 Singaporeans through its excellent dialysis centers.

He was initially prepared to pay S$20,000 as compensation, publish a statement of clarification about the article by Susan Long, which had the infamous gold taps as part of a “generally laudatory article” and settle the matter out of court. Cheong does not reveal who or what made him change his mind and go against Mrs Goh Chok Tong’s efforts to mediate.

T T Durai, then NKF CEO, who was at the center of the controversy, was incensed and accused the media of trying to be the fourth estate, which Cheong had already established was a role that the Singapore mainstream media had given up – except in this case!

Here the ST team excelled themselves – they tracked down the contractor who prepared the gold taps and other witnesses who were prepared to sign affidavits. In other words, good old-fashioned investigative journalism. Like the good journalists that many in the ST are (before they censor themselves), they want their readers to have all the facts, including those below the surface so the readers could make intelligent decisions for themselves.

While the stories in the book are exciting to any media watcher (and there are many more), there are many errors such as the misspelling of my uncle David Tambyah’s name and SARS was described incorrectly as occurring in 2002 in one instance (although the proof readers picked out the correct dates for the three subsequent mentions of the outbreak).

Cheong himself acknowledges the problem with the quality of English in the newspaper and says that the ST paid the price for the “neglect” of the teaching of grammar in schools. It got so bad that he had to “scour” the world for good copy editors whom he eventually found in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and India.

For those of us who lament that our education system seems to have switched from teaching life and career skills to teaching what is required to top international standardized tests, that is a statement worth paying attention to.

The question on many Singaporean’s minds is: Why did he write this book? Cheong does explicitly reveal this. Near the end, however, he gives a telling account of how journalists found official spokespersons unhelpful as their priority was “reflecting better on the ministers” rather than allowing journalists to do investigative or background work. He describes frustrated journalists recounting their bad experiences in explicit detail – perhaps that is what he is trying to do himself as some kind of catharsis.

Perhaps wistfully, he talks about a time when the ST was indeed the “fourth estate” when it did occasionally demonstrate its independence – although he has to reach as far back as 1956 when the ST condemned the takeover of the Suez Canal by British, French and Israelis. British expats in Singapore were incensed and the managing director of the ST, a member of the British establishment was “spat on in the (then British only) Tanglin Club.”

When I asked a prominent civil society figure about the reasons for this book, he pointed out that when authoritarian regimes in Latin America or Eastern Europe were crumbling, “everyone claimed to be a reformer.”

I am an optimist. I think that Cheong has seen the signs from the recent general, presidential and by-elections and he knows that the people of Singapore are waking up. Establishment voices are raising questions about some fundamental assumptions.

The first step, as anyone with a serious problem knows, is acknowledging that you have a serious problem. Perhaps this is Cheong’s first step. Hopefully for the mainstream media, acknowledging the problem of control and domination will be the first step to the recovery of an independent media which can evolve into a free press, a necessity for democracy for the people of Singapore. The book is a worthy read.

(Another version of this review first appeared on yoursdp.org. Assoc Prof Paul Tambyah is a member of the Singapore Democratic Party’s Healthcare Policy Panel. He contributed this in his personal capacity.)

Populism ‘not inevitable’:


January , 2017

Populism ‘not inevitable’:  Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at LKY School of Public Policy

by Charissa Yong

http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/drift-towards-populism-not-inevitable

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Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam delivers his keynote address at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Professional Schools of International Affairs (APSIA) held on January 7, 2017.

Govts must offer hope and real solutions by helping people regenerate careers, and those left behind: Tharman

While Singapore has experienced some of these disquieting trends, he believes policies here and in some other societies made a difference in addressing their impact.

He cited four global trends: stagnant wages, declining social mobility, the sense of togetherness in society eroding, and politics and the media becoming more polarised.

“The only surprise is how long it has taken for those underlying domestic changes in society to be reflected in politics,” he told 350 people at a global affairs conference, Has The Game Changed?, hosted by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. While last year’s populist upsets, driven by anti-globalisation, have created a despondency about global cooperation, Mr Tharman said: “The real challenge is not about globalisation. The real challenge is in domestic policy responses.”

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He added: “There are countries where you don’t get the same trends played out, although globalisation happens in the same way.”

 He cited how in Sweden and Singapore, middle-income workers’ pay went up by more than that in other advanced economies. But lower- and middle-class workers’ wages in America, parts of Europe, Britain and Japan have stagnated.

In America, in 1970, 90 per cent of 30-year-olds had real incomes above what their parents had at 30. Today, the figure is only half, and it affects people’s sense of hope.

The second trend he highlighted was a general decline in social mobility across advanced economies.It is now a stubborn fact and “people know that their chances of moving up in life are less than they used to be if they start off at the bottom”.

Third, people no longer think of themselves and society in terms of “we” but in terms of “us versus them”. This is complicated by how sectarian strife in one area can go global, widening domestic fissures.

Fourth, politics is increasingly polarised, reinforced by how social media algorithms filter “news” in ways that reinforce people’s bias.

Mr Tharman suggested four ways countries can tackle these issues. One, pay attention to cities that have been left behind, in particular through schools and education.

Two, help people regenerate their careers throughout their lives, through skills training.

“You need redistribution in society, and you may need more in some areas, but it’s not at the heart of the matter. It doesn’t give hope. Regeneration is what brings hope because you allow individuals, communities and cities to rise through their own abilities,” he said.

Three, neighbourhood and urban planning must discourage segregation and encourage people to mix. This will enable communities to do well together, said Mr Tharman.

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Four, bring honesty and the need to look to the long term back into politics. He noted a long drift towards “short-termism” reflected in the brazen neglect of issues such as unsustainable pensions and healthcare funding. And neither the left nor the right has offered solutions which give confidence for tomorrow’s generation, he added.

There is a need for honest politics that “tells it like it is” but offers hope and real solutions, he said.

“There is nothing inevitable about the drift towards populism. We have to regenerate the politics of the centre. It can be done.”

Dr. Munir looks back at 2016


January 7, 2017

Dr. Munir looks back at 2016

COMMENT by Dr. Munir Majid@www.thestar.com.my

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Not a single Western political leader has had the guts to tell their people they had to accept a lower standard of living, that it was time for a great reset. Build up productivity and capacity again. Meanwhile, if you go to the pub, go only once a month. If you shampoo your hair once a week, do it fortnightly. Taking holidays abroad in countries whose people you come to hate when you get home will have to take a rest. If you work only 35 hours a week, as in France, what do you expect?–Dr. Munir Majid

The descent from globalism to nativism is the defining story of 2016, but the analysis of its cause and projection of the world into 2017 by intellectual custodians of the liberal order are flawed and offer no guide on how to break the fall.

The Brexit vote in Britain in June, the election of Donald Trump in November and the threatening reactionary outcome of elections in France and Germany next year all point to the end of a certain system by which the world has operated, even if what exactly would replace it is less than clear. If the great Western nations of the world change direction, then the rest must.

A broader perspective, however, would recognise the troubles and decisions of 2016 and what might come in 2017 had a gestation period that began at least from the Western financial crisis of 2008, too often called and accepted as the global financial crisis.

What the West continues to grapple with is how to live beyond its means. There was the criminal excess of the banks leading to the 2008 crisis, of course, but underlying it was the ethic of expectation of a certain standard of living, whether or not one worked for it or was productive enough to deserve it.

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Marie Le Pen, Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Putin–The End of Liberal Global Order

If you do not have the means to get what you want you have to borrow to get it, unless of course you stole and pillaged. So Western states and individuals kept on borrowing, or the central banks printed money to keep the economy going, which it always did not as the money kept going out where it could be more productively used.

Not a single Western political leader has had the guts to tell their people they had to accept a lower standard of living, that it was time for a great reset. Build up productivity and capacity again. Meanwhile, if you go to the pub, go only once a month. If you shampoo your hair once a week, do it fortnightly. Taking holidays abroad in countries whose people you come to hate when you get home will have to take a rest. If you work only 35 hours a week, as in France, what do you expect?

Did any of this happen? People may lose jobs as they could not compete, but they get state support and they blame others like the migrant European workers who could work, who took jobs they did not want to do.

Immigration becomes the issue. And when refugees pour in who also bring with them the threat, and execution, of terror, an inflection point is reached. Sociologists now analyse this as a threat to identity, which certainly is used in rousing emotions during political campaigns, but there was at least equally a revolt against the economic and social condition those not doing so well in life were in.

They are now so widely called the under-served. In the case of Brexit, there was no doubt the uprising of the Little Englander, but there was also the let-us-just-bloody-well-get-out-and-see-what-happens attitude.

While some in the shires thought like this, I also know of a few non-white working class Brits who voted to get out just on this basis. When I asked one such person in London, who is a chauffeur to an unbearable boss, why he did such an irresponsible act, he tried to justify it by associating himself with the workers in Sunderland of whom he knows absolutely nothing.

The thing is, who speaks to such people? The academics and intellectuals only talk among themselves in an idiom only they can understand. Even after Trump, when they pronounced there has been a great failure to address the under-served – which the President-elect on the other hand did so well – they are still talking to and being clever with one another.

My friend Francois Heisbourg, Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, beautifully describes Marine Le Pen’s appeal to the French: “Donald Trump makes Marine Le Pen sound reasonable…..Everyone knows she’s not Trump – she knows how to use a noun and a verb and is intellectually coherent about what she wants and doesn’t want.”

What, for God’s sake, are the arguments that can be used effectively with the ordinary Frenchman that they can understand and appreciate in favour of the liberal order? Paul Krugman likens what is happening to America to how the Roman Republic was destroyed by individuals disloyal to it serving only their own selfish cause. Pray, how many among the Americans who voted for Trump know, or care, anything about the history of Rome?

The Economist, that great citadel of the liberal order, makes a clarion call for its defence and for liberals not to lose heart. How and what to do? Certainly not by talking to one another. Or by communicating in a language and idiom a lower order would not understand.

With perfect Euro-centrism an English commentator fears the Syrian conflict may turn out to be like the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). Has he not heard of the Palestinian struggle which has spawned much of the bloodshed in the Middle East and beyond?

There are three gaping holes in the defence of the “global” liberal order. First there is a blind spot about having to have a lower standard of living unless you earn a higher one. Second, an inability among liberal intellectuals to communicate except among themselves. Third, a reflection on the threat through western eyes only.

The second weakness is endemic. It is a truly global malady. Intellectuals, whether in the West or Malaysia or anywhere else, should not disdain populism, which is the bad word now in all the commentary on the threat to the global liberal order. They will not stoop so low – as Trump did – to gain support. Well, stoop less low or in a different way. Dirty your hands. Reach out.

We don’t communicate simply, when there are simple terms that convey meaning. We think we are so high and mighty.

Actually if you think about it – and this is especially for the blinkered Western intellectuals – the exemplar of populism, and darned effective with it, is UMNO. You may wince at the kris-wielding antics and other forms of political theatre, and you may not agree with some or most of the policies propounded, but you have to admit they rabble rouse their way to considerable support.

Yucks… but that was the yucks that caused Donald Trump to win. You have to get popular support. You do not do so talking to one another from university pulpits, in the parlours of Georgetown in Washington DC, in Hampstead or indeed at the Royal Selangor Golf Club in Kuala Lumpur.

Now, why do Western intellectuals particularly not talk about having to accept a lower standard of living? Well, they too will have to do so. The levels of income of the journalists and professors and consultants actually are very high, and they do a lot of talking outside their paid job for which they are paid more. Can they look the lowly worker in the eye and say you have to be paid less?

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Farewell and Thank You Mr. President for keeping the world  safe, despite setbacks . We in Asia will miss you for your engagement with us.

There has been a historic transfer of savings from countries with a lower standard of living to those higher so they stay there. As these poorer countries need and want rich country currency – particularly the dollar – for their economic life in their global liberal order, the rich not only get the savings from the poor to sustain their economic life in that global liberal order. They also are able to print money for the extras they might want.

They would be risking their own interest if they began to start talking to under served workers in their domestic economy about income levels that can be sustained by actual production – which is what developing countries have to live by, global liberal order or not.

Now the most important main benefit poorer countries obtain from that order is being threatened – their ability and success in producing goods and services which can reach any consumer in open global competition.

Donald Trump is breaking the rules for America because the US cannot otherwise compete. So he wants to protect the American market against better able, more efficient and cheaper producers – the developing countries.

While enjoyment – and denial – of these goods and services is one thing, and while undoubtedly there will in the immediate-term be a rebound of the US economy, who in the medium and long-term is going to hold Western debt so that the high standard of living in rich countries can continue? They do not save to finance the economy. They do not efficiently produce many of the goods and services they enjoy. They need also to take advantage, through trade and investment, of the real growth in developing regions such as in East and South-East Asia.

Therefore on this score alone – the need for an open and competitive global trading system – there is true convergence of interest in the world. The poorer countries will have to take it, warts and all. And the rich Western nations, with their proponents of the global liberal order, will certainly want to keep it all.

The skewered balance in the global liberal order is sustained by an intellectual convention which is Euro-centric but commanding across the globe. Leaders in politics and thought in non-Western countries only have themselves to blame for this.

They accept almost carte blanche what Western liberals submit. Don’t get me wrong. There are so many good things about western liberals and the liberal order.

I don’t think there has ever been in history such a constituency of liberals as there are in the West who would fight for the rights of the victimized and the downtrodden, like refugees, non-whites and Muslims, as there is in the western world today. Even as extreme and violent Muslims blow them up. The adherence to the value of love against hate, and of tolerance against incitement, is of the highest human order.

The other thing developing countries could imbibe from the Western liberal order is the rule of law. This is the strongest defence and guarantee of individual rights there has ever been in human history.

Image result for Lee Kuan YewSuccessful leader: Lee Kuan Yew made Singapore economically successful as a result of the purely utilitarian benefit of the rule of the law

When the laws are applied and enforced without fear or favour, there is faith in the social contract that underlies the polity. This is the main failing of most developing countries, which they would do well to learn from the West, beyond the purely utilitarian benefit of the rule of law that drove Lee Kuan Yew to make Singapore economically successful.

But, despite all this truly profound contribution of liberals and the liberal order of the West, it does not mean we must accept everything from them hook, line and sinker, especially every bit of the analysis of what has gone or is going wrong with the world.

Or the selling of expertise on how to get things right. Their record on that score is poor. We have too many such offerings, in Malaysia for instance, of how to develop our financial system and to train our financial practitioners. We must not be stupid to give money for old rope.

As we go into the new year, we should not be overwhelmed by analyses of what happened in 2016 and why. We must have a clarity and sense of perspective of the causes leading to it. And we must look forward to 2017 without the colonial mentality which makes us slaves to Western thought.