America–A Divided Gun Nation

March 10, 2018

America–A Divided Gun Nation

by Ian Buruma

Image result for Ian Buruma

Ian Buruma, Editor of The New York Review of Books, is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and Year Zero: A History of 1945.

As a country of immigrants, the United States is held together more by shared laws than shared culture. But when it comes to gun rights, laws must compete with myths, none more powerful than that of the rugged gunslinger, the freedom-loving rambler whose way of life is threatened by government control.

Image result for The American Gunslinger


NEW YORK – Defending the right of United States citizens to buy semi-automatic rifles or carry concealed weapons is akin to denying any human responsibility for climate change. Rational arguments are not the point. No matter how many schoolchildren are gunned down or what the scientific evidence may be for the effects of carbon dioxide emissions, people will not change beliefs that define their identity.

It follows, then, that the more liberals from New York or San Francisco, or indeed Houston, agitate for ways to control the sale of guns to civilians, the harder proponents of the right to own lethal weapons will fight back. They will often do so with the zeal of religious believers who feel that their God has been offended.

Collective identities have a history, of course. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, was adopted in 1791, when citizens who had rebelled against the British monarchy thought they needed to protect themselves, if called upon, against an oppressive state. Interpretation of this amendment has been contested terrain, but the original idea was that citizen militias should be armed.

It follows, then, that the more liberals from New York or San Francisco, or indeed Houston, agitate for ways to control the sale of guns to civilians, the harder proponents of the right to own lethal weapons will fight back. They will often do so with the zeal of religious believers who feel that their God has been offended.

Collective identities have a history, of course. The US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, was adopted in 1791, when citizens who had rebelled against the British monarchy thought they needed to protect themselves, if called upon, against an oppressive state. Interpretation of this amendment has been contested terrain, but the original idea was that citizen militias should be armed.

For many Americans, especially in rural areas and in the southern states, this collective entitlement became akin to a God-given individual right. Demagogues have had great success pitting such people against coastal and urban elites who supposedly want to strip them of this right. The fear that demagogues exploit is rooted in more than a shared taste for hunting, or a notion of self-defense. It is about who people think they are. Take away their gun rights, and they would feel culturally and socially annihilated.

But if this is the core of many Americans’ identity, it points to an odd contradiction in their national self-image. The Second Amendment is of course a legal concept. In a way, that is true of the US itself. As a country of immigrants, the US is not based on shared ancestry or culture. It is based on laws – the only way a people from so many different cultural backgrounds could be bound together in a common enterprise.

No wonder, then, that there are so many lawyers in the US, and why Americans are more litigious than, say, the Japanese, who rely more on customs and traditions. If the US can be said to have a civic religion, the Constitution is its holy writ. And that is precisely how conservatives treat the foundational laws, including the Second Amendment.

At the same time, however, many Americans cherish national myths, no less foundational in their way, which are in direct opposition to the idea of a nation of laws. In classical Westerns, the true American hero is the rugged gunslinger, the outlaw who knows right from wrong in his gut, the freedom-loving rambler who rides into the sunset on his trusted horse, a rifle slung across his shoulders. John Wayne arrives to save the citizens from the bad guys in black suits whose nefarious deeds undermine the liberty of the American frontier.

But who are those villains dressed in black? They are bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and railroad builders, often representing the interests of powerful figures in the big cities on the East Coast. They employ fighting men of their own, to be sure, but the black-suited men come from a world of contracts, treaties, and big government.

The story of most Westerns is of a wide-open rural idyll, where man has found perfect autonomy, threatened by a state ruled by man-made laws. The only laws the Western hero respects are those laid down by God and his own conscience. And he badly needs his gun to defend them.

The problem with the American myth is that this rural idyll of perfect individual liberty, this state of nature, as it were, cannot possibly be maintained in a highly organized state of banks, courts, business corporations, and legislatures. The Second Amendment is a sop to the myth, disguised by the fact that it is also encoded as law.

Image result for Trump the New Yorker Hustler

Trump is a New York hustler who can tap into the fears of Bible Belt gun-lovers. If the US is riven by an escalating culture war over its national identity, Trump has the uncanny ability of personifying the worst aspects of both sides of the divide: the lawlessness of the gunslinger and the rapaciousness of the city slicker.–Ian Buruma

Ronald Reagan understood the mythical yearning of many Americans better than most presidents, perhaps because he had acted in a number of Westerns himself. When he famously proclaimed that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is our problem,” he was talking like a gunslinger, even though he was officially speaking as the newly installed US President.

In a far coarser and more belligerent way, Donald Trump has followed Reagan’s example. In fact, he really is a kind of outlaw, with no use for norms of civility in government. In many ways, Trump has managed to combine the habits of a desperado with the interests of the men dressed in black suits, the corporate leaders, the bankers, and their political representatives in Washington.

Trump is a New York hustler who can tap into the fears of Bible Belt gun-lovers. If the US is riven by an escalating culture war over its national identity, Trump has the uncanny ability of personifying the worst aspects of both sides of the divide: the lawlessness of the gunslinger and the rapaciousness of the city slicker.

To overcome the dangerous fissures that are tearing its society apart, the US must find a president who can bridge the cultural divide. Alas, it could not have chosen a man less suited to the task.

BOOK REVIEW: The Messy Ganga and India’s Future

January 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Messy Ganga and India’s Future

by John Elliott

Image result for victor mallet ganges

India’s River Ganges is a mess. The great and awe-inspiring sacred Ganga, as it is generally known, is revered by hundreds of millions of Hindus who foul its waters and assume that all will be well, however awful and health-endangering it becomes.

That in many ways is the story of modern India, a country that manages to be awe-inspiring and brilliant, but also frequently dysfunctional, defying most efforts to make it work better.

The challenge for an author is how to combine a study of all the enormous potential and the failings of this magical and frustrating country, and to explain how people tolerate the faults but do little to improve them, while making the most of what is available.

Successive foreign correspondents based in India have tackled this in different ways, mostly with broadly based surveys of political economic and social life, but with an increasing awareness in recent years of the negatives.

Image result for victor mallet ganges

Victor Mallet (pic above) a widely experienced Financial Times journalist who is now the paper’s Hong Kong-based Asia news editor, has chosen a neat solution by writing about the Ganges after spending four years in Delhi as his newspaper’s South Asia correspondent.

He has explored the 2,525 km river’s history, religion, economics, industry, environmental and health issues, and the people, while using it as a metaphor to explain how India functions, or doesn’t. Politics comes in too because Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist Prime Minister, has failed so far to fulfil his 2014 promise to clean the river that Hindus both revere and pollute.

A keen yachtsman, Mallet first developed an interest in the river when he spotted an image on a Delhi map of a sailing boat in a red circle – the universal sign for a yacht marina. It is in an industrial zone called Okhla on the banks of Delhi’s (filthy) Yamuna River, a tributary of the Ganges.

There he found “an immaculately kept building and garden called the Defence Services Sailing Club” with sailing dinghies nearly stacked on racks. “It was obvious that the boats were rarely used. The caretaker confirmed it. The reason was there in front of the club: the stinking, foamy black filth that was once a river.”

Image result for victor mallet ganges

Keeping Ganga clean? Fanatics don’t bother, feel the river is self-purifying, will take care of itself – COUNTERVIEW.ORG

After explaining how the Ganges was portrayed in India’s legends and paintings “as a natural paradise of lilies, turtles and fish” where “the cheerful god Krishna would play his flute amid a troupe of adoring female cow herds,” Mallet reports that “the water at Okhla is so polluted by human waste that it contains nearly half a million times the maximum level of faecal coliform bacteria established as the Indian standard for bathing water.”

That is a good introduction to modern India, enabling the author to show in the first two pages of his preface why the Ganga is such a great vehicle for exploring all the contradictions of a country that could be a world leader but somehow is not (yet?) getting there. As he travels, he meets a contrasting series of people from Saffron-clad Hindu priests to engineers and well-meaning environmental activists, and from tannery businessmen and bureaucrats to ashram devotees.

Image result for victor mallet ganges

The most horrifying part of the book is a chapter headed “Superbug River.” Many of us living in Delhi (and elsewhere in India) tolerate air pollution many times above safe limits, as well as undrinkable tap water, because we are protected by purifying filters in our homes and offices.

Mallet however uncovers much worse health hazards in the Ganges, saying that people are liable to pick up a recently discovered bacterial gene that can make various diseases highly resistant to antibiotics.

He stumbled on the gene, known to scientists as NDM-1, while researching “normal” pollutants such as sewage and industrial waste. “It only takes a short visit and exposure to acquire such genes in your gut,” he was told in Britain by an environmental engineering professor. As Mallet notes, this is a politically sensitive matter – Indian officials and doctors “were furious” when The Lancet medical journal in 2010 named the new gene NDM after New Delhi.

Devout Hindus, says Mallet, are unwittingly spreading diseases, and antibiotic resistance to diseases, in the very river to which they have come to pay homage. Water samples have demonstrated that even what are usually regarded as the relatively pristine reaches of the upper Ganges near Haridwar suffer surges of bacterial pollution during visits by thousands of urban Indians during the May-June pilgrimage season.

Throughout the book, the Ganges is the main focus but, along the way, there are many other subjects and issues ranging from the poisoning of vultures and a state government suggesting the use of cow urine as a hospital disinfectant, to corruption among water tanker drivers (and others), and India’s desperate need for jobs that Modi’s Make in India campaign cannot begin to solve.

Modi was elected in 2014 both to change the way that India is run by making the machinery of government cleaner, more effective, and less bureaucratic, and to create jobs and opportunities for the aspirational young. Make in India is one of a myriad of high profile schemes that he has launched to try to inject focus and drive into a somnolent government, but it is difficult as yet to assess how much has actually been achieved as a result of all the razzmatazz.

Modi’s pledge to clean the Ganges and reverse the failure of many earlier attempts can however be assessed, especially at the holy city of Varanasi which he chose as his parliamentary constituency. Little seems to have been achieved in the city apart from some beautification of the ghats, or flights of stairs, on the Ganges banks.

Varanasi’s disillusioned residents reminded Mallet about Modi’s televised launch of a plan to clean tonnes of mud off the city’s famous Assi Ghat, and criticised the lack of progress on the more important problem of sewage. Such cosmetic projects were like “putting lipstick on a woman with a dirty sari”.

Curiously, Modi made Uma Bharti, a religious activist and politician the minister in charge of water, and thus the Ganges. Mallet says “she appeared more interested in proving the existence 5,000 to 6,000 years ago of the extinct Saraswati River… than in solving the very real crisis facing the contemporary Ganges.”  That demonstrates one of the Modi government’s limitations – that several ministers and leaders of his Bharatiya Janata Party are more interested in Hindu religion and mythology (and nationalism) than they are in building a strong nation that works.

Image result for varanasi ganges river and Taj Mahal

Mallet is however too optimistic about the prospect of the Ganges being cleaned. He cites great and well-organised religious festivals like the Kumbh Melas, which bring millions of worshippers to the Ganges, as examples of even the most corrupt state governments being able to perform. “Good organization and efficient infrastructure, in short, are no more impossible in India than anywhere else,” he declares.

This misses the point that the Kumbh Melas are one-off events where a single official is given overall charge without political interference (though politicians are quick to claim credit when all goes well). There are other similar examples, such as the building of the Golden Quadrilateral highways around India 15 years ago and the construction of the Delhi Metro railway. In each case, politicians stood aside and left officials to get on with the job – and there was overwhelming support for what was being done.

Sadly, that is unlikely to work with cleaning the Ganges because there are too many interests and the project is neither time-bound like a Kumbh Mela nor of clear immediate benefit like a metro or highway.

Cleaning the Ganges is therefore a perfect metaphor for modernizing India. The task is just too huge and too complex for quick solutions – as Modi is discovering with a general election just over a year away.

A former “Financial Times” South Asia correspondent, John Elliott now writes for Asia Sentinel from New Delhi. He is the author of “Implosion: India’s Tryst With Reality”   (HarperCollins)



The Great Han — Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today–Kevin Carrico

January 16, 2018

Book Review

The Great Han — Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today–Kevin Carrico

Image result for The Great Han:Race, Nationalism and Tradition in China Today book

“Make China Great Again” is officially now the agenda of President Xi Jinping. Can “Make the Han Great Again” be far behind? In this interesting if somewhat academic work, Australian China scholar Kevin Carrico has examined the rising influence of traditionalist, racially based sentiments within modern China, particularly through study of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong) and associated ideas.

At one level, the movement, established in 2001, is a curiosity, seemingly on the fringe of a society rapidly modernizing and engaging with the world. Han clothing is the symbol of a wider commitment to belief in restoration of a largely imaginary era of Han greatness and cultural purity and rejection of foreign-influenced money obsession of China today. But it has important elements in common with the officially promoted emphasis on Confucian principles, and on long held beliefs in the genetic division between Han and the rest.

Nor does this merely appeal to aging traditionalists and those who hanker after a return to traditional script and other pre-Communist aspects of the nation. The book begins with a quote from a Han Clothing Movement supporter, an IT professional based in that hub of Chinese modernism, Shenzhen:

“You can’t have nationalism without race (minzu zhuyi). That’s what we want to do: promote Han racial nationalism (Han minzu zhuyi) …. The multiracial nationalism we have now in China, with 56 races as part of a larger “Chinese race” (Zhongua minzu) is a big scam. It was imposed upon us by the Manchus, forcing us Han, the core of China from the beginning of time, into submission. All that this nationalism has done is to weaken China.  You can’t just destroy the distinction between civilization and barbarism (Hua yi zhi bian), incorporate a bunch of barbarians into our nation and then expect a strong nation. All this talk of “wealth and power” (fuqiang) is empty and meaningless without Han nationalism.”

The principal villains, from this Han perspective, are not the western powers and Japan and the one hundred years of humiliation, they are the Manchus. The dynasty may have been overthrown in 1911, but Manchu ideas, customs and (allegedly) Manchu money continue to prevail. The queue may have gone but the Manchu qipao and magua – both designed originally for horse-riders –are is still viewed as the standard Chinese traditional dress, as for example provided to delegates to the APEC Summit in China in 2015.

The Han movement’s intent is to remove all such foreign impurities, which has also to include inter-marriage with inferior foreign genes, a problem which has supposedly been enhanced by the one child policy.

The movement shows up the uncertainty which often exists in China around the meaning of the word minzu. Does this simply connote a nation-state? Or does it imply a specific racial identity? Under the foreign Manchus, there was no problem as all the ethnicity came under a single political entity under a Manchu monarch. But are the 55 identified as non-Han equal nationalities or simply colorfully dressed dance groups for the amusement of tourists? At least according to Carrico’s Han Clothing advocates, they must be kept at apart – but under Han control. They are incapable of prospering on their own, but have become a drain on the Han.

Some of this may seem too extreme to be worth bothering much about. It is not too different from the racism and nativism which thrives among many – mostly Trump supporters – in the United States. Nonetheless it is relevant to China’s perception of its relations with the world in general, and its immediate neighbors in particular.

In his “The Discourse of Race in Modern China,” Frank Dikotter explored the history of the Chinese views of race and identity and their application today. It includes the concern with the whiteness of skin color. In particular this provides a crucial demarcation between Han Chinese and their mostly browner southeast Asian neighbors – let alone Indians and Africans.

The Han Clothing adherents of Carrico’s book indulge in rants against Africans in particular. But as residents of Hongkong and Singapore will be aware the color divide has more mundane manifestations – domestic helpers are only recruited from brown Asians, not Chinese.

It may be that as China becomes great again, it will become less concerned with ethnicity, more with being a benign empire accepting of all races and religions under its wing. But at least as likely is the prospect of Han chauvinism advancing in step with Chinese power.

What to read about North Korea

January 4, 2018


North Korea may be the most secretive and totalitarian country in the world, as well as the wackiest. As a result, it inspires some of the best fiction and nonfiction, so the upside of the risk of nuclear war is an excuse to dip into literature that offers glimpses of this other world — and some insights into how to deal with it.

Thousands of North Koreans have fled their homeland since the famine of the late 1990s, and many are writing memoirs recounting their daily lives and extraordinary escapes. A leading example is IN ORDER TO LIVE: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom (Penguin, paper, $17) by Yeonmi Park, with Maryanne Vollers. Park is a young woman whose father was a cigarette smuggler and black market trader. As a girl, she believed in the regime (as did her mother), for life was steeped in propaganda and anti-Americanism. Even in her math class, “a typical problem would go like this: ‘If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?’”

What opened Park’s eyes was in part a pirated copy of the film “Titanic.” The government tries hard to ban any foreign television, internet or even music, and North Korean radios, which don’t have dials, can receive only local stations. But the black market fills the gap, with handymen who will tweak your radio to get Chinese stations, and with illegal thumb drives full of South Korean soap operas.

I’m among those who argue that we in the West should do more to support this kind of smuggling, because it’s a way to sow dissatisfaction. Indeed, what moved Park was the love story in “Titanic”: “I was amazed that Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were. The idea that people could choose their own destinies fascinated me. This pirated Hollywood movie gave me my first small taste of freedom.”

In the end, Park’s father was arrested for smuggling, and the family’s life collapsed. Park and her sister went hungry and had to drop out of school, and she survived eating insects and wild plants.

So at age 13, Park and her mother crossed illegally into China — and immediately into the hands of human traffickers who were as scary as the North Korean secret police. They raped her mother and eventually Park as well, and both struggled in the netherworld in which North Koreans are stuck in China — because the Chinese authorities regularly detain them and send them home to face prison camp. Park and her mother were lucky, finally managing to sneak into Mongolia and then on to South Korea.

Another powerful memoir is THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES: A North Korean Defector’s Story (William Collins, paper, $15.99) by Hyeonseo Lee, with David John. She is from Hyesan, the same town as Park. It’s an area on the Chinese border where smuggling is rampant, where people know a bit about the outside world and where disaffection, consequently, is greater than average.

Still, Lee’s home, like every home, had portraits of the country’s first two leaders, Kim Il-sung and his son, Kim Jong-il, on the wall. (The grandson now in power, Kim Jong-un, hasn’t yet made his portrait ubiquitous.) Lee begins her story recounting how her father dashed into the family home as it was burning to rescue not family valuables but rather the portraits of the first leaders. There’s an entire genre of heroic propaganda stories in North Korea of people risking their lives to save such portraits.

Like other kids, Lee grew up in an environment of formal reverence for the Kim dynasty. At supper she would say a kind of grace — to “Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung” — before picking up her chopsticks.

“Everything we learned about Americans was negative,” she writes. “In cartoons, they were snarling jackals. In the propaganda posters they were as thin as sticks with hook noses and blond hair. We were told they smelled bad. They had turned South Korea into a ‘hell on earth’ and were maintaining a puppet government there. The teachers never missed an opportunity to remind us of their villainy.

“‘If you meet a Yankee bastard on the street and he offers you candy, do not take it!’ one teacher warned us, wagging a finger in the air. ‘If you do, he’ll claim North Korean children are beggars. Be on your guard if he asks you anything, even the most innocent questions.’”

Hmm. No wonder my attempts at interviewing North Korean kids have never been very fruitful.

Lee escaped to China at age 17 and started a new life in Shanghai but remained in touch with her family. One day her mom called from North Korea. “I’ve got a few kilos of ice,” or crystal meth, she said, and she asked for Lee’s help in selling it in China. “In her world, the law was upside down,” Lee says, explaining how corruption and cynicism had shredded the social fabric of North Korea. “People had to break the law to live.”

It’s fair to wonder how accurate these books are, for there’s some incentive when selling a memoir to embellish adventures. I don’t know, and in the case of “In Order to Live,” skeptics have noted inconsistencies in the stories and raised legitimate questions.

So how did North Korea come to be the most bizarre country in the world? For the history, one can’t do better than Bradley K. Martin’s magisterial UNDER THE LOVING CARE OF THE FATHERLY LEADER: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty (St. Martin’s Griffin, paper, $29.99). Martin recounts how a minor anti-Japanese guerrilla leader named Kim Il-sung came to be installed by the Russians as leader of the half of the Korean peninsula they controlled after World War II. Martin discovers that Kim’s father was a Christian and a church organist, and Kim himself attended church for a time. That didn’t last, and Kim later banned pretty much all religion — though he became something of a god himself, quite a trick for an atheist. But do North Koreans really believe in this “religion”?

Judging from defectors I’ve interviewed and much of the literature on North Korea, many do — especially older people, farmers and those farther from the North Korean border. That’s partly a tribute to the country’s shameless propaganda, which B.R. Myers explores in his interesting book, THE CLEANEST RACE: How North Koreans See Themselves — And Why It Matters (Melville House, paper, $16). He notes that North Korea produced a poster showing a Christian missionary murdering a Korean child and calling for “revenge against the Yankee vampires” — at the same time that the United States was the country’s single largest donor of humanitarian aid. Myers argues that North Koreans have focused on what he calls “race-based paranoid nationalism,” including bizarre ideas about how Koreans are “the cleanest race” — hence the title — bullied and persecuted by outsiders.

For a more sympathetic view of North Korea’s emergence, check out various books by Bruce Cumings, a University of Chicago historian, like KOREA’S PLACE IN THE SUN: A Modern History (W.W. Norton, paper, $19.95). Cumings argues that North Korea is to some degree a genuine expression of Korean nationalism. I think Cumings is nuts when he says, “it is Americans who bear the lion’s share of the responsibility” for the division of the Korean peninsula. But his work is worth reading — unless you have high blood pressure, in which case consult a physician first.

Whatever the uncertainties about the accuracy of recent North Korean memoirs, it’s absolutely clear that some stories about North Korea are fabricated — because they’re fiction. Today’s political crisis with Pyongyang is a great excuse to read Adam Johnson’s THE ORPHAN MASTER’S SON (Random House, paper, $17), which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2013. Johnson tells the story of a military man turned prisoner turned celebrity turned villain, dealing for a while with utterly confused American visitors — an account so implausible and bizarre that it’s a perfect narrative for North Korea.

The other fiction that I’d recommend is the Inspector O series by James Church, the pseudonym of a well-respected Western intelligence expert on North Korea. Inspector O is a North Korean police officer who investigates murders, a bank robbery and various other offenses, periodically dealing with foreigners and turning down chances to defect.

Inspector O is a complex, nuanced figure who understands that the regime he serves is corrupt, brutal and mendacious, but he remains loyal. That’s because he is a deeply patriotic and nationalistic Korean, and he resents the patronizing scorn of bullying Westerners. I think many North Korean officials today are an echo of the conflicted nationalist Inspector O.

A Little Satire is good for the weekend: AliBaba Aficionado 1

December 10, 2017

A Little Satire is good for the weekend: AliBaba Aficionado 1

by R. Nadeswaran

SATIRE | The following is the welcome address by AliBaba Aficionado 1 (ABA1) at the emergency caucus meeting of “AliBaba and the 40 Thieves” held in a cave in a Southeast Asian country this week:

This is not a political meeting. So I will dispense with the formalities. As Head of the Brotherhood of Thieves, I have bad news. We can no longer rely on the people we had previously relied on. Some are cracking up and soon, they will be singing like canaries. Like the 159 business leaders housed at the Ritz Gardens in Riyadh which has been turned into a prison, some of you will turn over or be turned over.

Our turn may have come. The law is closing on us. Sorry, the law is closing on me. I can run but I can’t hide. You are accessories so I don’t think they are interested in you. You are only foot soldiers who carry out my orders. I will not squeal on you but I will have to seek protection for my wife. I sometimes wonder if anyone would speak up for her or save her.

The paintings have been returned, the properties were seized and some jewellery surrendered. My wife is aware “they” know about the pink diamonds but I am worried that she will go berserk if they attempt to confiscate them.

Image result for ali baba and the forty thieves

Yes, 2017 is not a year on which I shall look back with unadulterated pleasure. It has turned out to be my annus horribilis.  A series of unfriendly events have taken place and the crackdown by authorities around the world has caused us a lot of discomfort, distress and loss of sleep.

Periodically, when the coast appears to be clear, the governments of certain states drop “bombs” unannounced and we have to set our damage control operations in motion. Even our neighbours have not been too helpful with the timing!

Two days ago, some American lawyer described one of our citizens as a kleptocrat and its effects have been reverberating from the Atlantic to our shores. A few of our die-hard supporters have become victims – dumb-founded, caught flat-footed and mostly ignorant.

Our usually dependent propaganda unit has run out of lies and deceit. The guys who were put in charge have failed miserably. All they could do was to scrap the bottom of the barrel and say that the lawyer does not know what he is talking about!

Do you expect the people to believe them? The cyber-troopers whom we spent millions have no clue how these issues have to be addressed.

Our Mr Money Bag @ Fei Chai is not with us, which should tell you a lot. In fact, he is scared of setting foot not only on our shores but any landfall in the world. Hence, he is taking to the high seas to avoid arrest. With the most beautiful girls and the best champagne, he shouldn’t be complaining!

On a more serious note, the lifeline of our operations – money – has been slow in coming. Fei Chai’s non-appearance is reflected in your goodie bags. No more gold bars and other glittering stuff. There’s not much to take home. Perhaps some gold coins, some sterling, euros and greenbacks and a few other odds and ends.

Money is tight

Previously, as head of the congregation, when I call for summits like this, there’s plenty to pass around, but not this time. Many governments are keeping tracks on Fei Chai and his activities. His close associates have abandoned him. He can’t even transact any financial dealings. Even his proxies are under watch.

A few years ago, he wired a couple of billion into my account. When one American journal published the details, I thought they will back off after I threatened to sue. Instead, they challenged me. I had to retreat.

Then, I told everyone that the money came from a friendly party in the Middle East. My No 2 even went to extent of announcing that he met the donor. But he couldn’t even tell a lie properly because his bluff was called.

Image result for The Penang Born Chinese Arab

One of the Delegates to the Emergency Caucus meeting of “AliBaba and the 40 Thieves” 

This claim debunked and I was caught with my pants down when they produced documents showing the money trail through financial institutions in four countries before it came to my account. It caused me quite a few anxious moments when I met up with my golf buddy in the US on a recent visit.

Banks around the world are watching the movement of money. Fei Chai, members of my family and many of you have been designated as “persons of interest” by central banks of some countries. Hence, if you have overseas accounts, be prepared to offer some explanation as to the source of your funds.

Let me remind you that not far from where we have assembled, there are about 5,000 people attending another congregation where more is spoken than done. They have no love for any group or any leader. They have converged, hoping to reap the rewards – cash, contracts, projects and even one-night stands – at an annual meeting where everything including loyalty, allegiance and commitment are traded. Even principles, ethics, integrity and conscience are bought and sold at a premium to the highest bidder.

Despite having their hands tainted, some are making excessive demands with the backing of dissidents. I have already heard the Cow-in-Condo woman beating the war drums and the lavatory cleaner wanting to be installed as chief minister. Some other minions have come out with bird-brained ideas but as I said, there’s not enough loot to contain their lofty and ambitious ideas.

I have said it before and is worth repeating – cash is king. But right now, cash is tight. Old friends who benefited are washing their hands off. And there’s not enough to appease everyone. Any idea, plan or suggestion to assist me in escaping my predicament will certainly be welcome.

The above is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

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.

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.