Our Infant Information Revolution


June 15, 2018

Our Infant Information Revolution

 

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that advances in computers and communications would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s 1984. Today, billions of people have eagerly put Big Brother in their pockets.

Toddler concentrated with a tablet

 

CAMBRIDGE – It is frequently said that we are experiencing an information revolution. But what does that mean, and where is the revolution taking us?

Information revolutions are not new. In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press launched the era of mass communication. Our current revolution, which began in Silicon Valley in the 1960s, is bound up with Moore’s Law: the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every couple of years.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.–Joseph S. Nye

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, computing power cost one-thousandth of what it did in the early 1970s. Now the Internet connects almost everything. In mid-1993, there were about 130 websites in the world; by 2000, that number had surpassed 15 million. Today, more than 3.5 billion people are online; experts project that, by 2020, the “Internet of Things” will connect 20 billion devices. Our information revolution is still in its infancy.

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The key characteristic of the current revolution is not the speed of communications; instantaneous communication by telegraph dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The crucial change is the enormous reduction in the cost of transmitting and storing information. If the price of an automobile had declined as rapidly as the price of computing power, one could buy a car today for the same price as a cheap lunch. When a technology’s price declines so rapidly, it becomes widely accessible, and barriers to entry fall. For all practical purposes, the amount of information that can be transmitted worldwide is virtually infinite.

The cost of information storage has also declined dramatically, enabling our current era of big data. Information that once would fill a warehouse now fits in your shirt pocket.

In the middle of the twentieth century, people feared that the computers and communications of the current information revolution would lead to the type of centralized control depicted in George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. Big Brother would monitor us from a central computer, making individual autonomy meaningless.

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Instead, as the cost of computing power has decreased and computers have shrunk to the size of smart phones, watches, and other portable devices, their decentralizing effects have complemented their centralizing effects, enabling peer-to-peer communication and mobilization of new groups. Yet, ironically, this technological trend has also decentralized surveillance: billions of people nowadays voluntarily carry a tracking device that continually violates their privacy as it searches for cell towers. We have put Big Brother in our pockets.

Likewise, ubiquitous social media generate new transnational groups, but also create opportunities for manipulation by governments and others. Facebook connects more than two billion people, and, as Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election showed, these connections and groups can be exploited for political ends. Europe has tried to establish rules for privacy protection with its new General Data Protection Regulation, but its success is still uncertain. In the meantime, China is combining surveillance with the development of social credit rankings that will restrict personal freedoms such as travel.

Information provides power, and more people have access to more information than ever before, for good and for ill. That power can be used not only by governments, but also by non-state actors ranging from large corporations and non-profit organizations to criminals, terrorists, and informal ad hoc groups.

This does not mean the end of the nation-state. Governments remain the most powerful actors on the global stage; but the stage has become more crowded, and many of the new players can compete effectively in the realm of soft power. A powerful navy is important in controlling sea-lanes; but it does not provide much help on the Internet. In nineteenth-century Europe, the mark of a great power was its ability to prevail in war, but, as the American analyst John Arquilla has pointed out, in today’s global information age, victory often depends not on whose army wins, but on whose story wins.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.

When people are overwhelmed by the volume of information confronting them, it is hard to know what to focus on. Attention, not information, becomes the scarce resource. The soft power of attraction becomes an even more vital power resource than in the past, but so does the hard, sharp power of information warfare. And as reputation becomes more vital, political struggles over the creation and destruction of credibility multiply. Information that appears to be propaganda may not only be scorned, but may also prove counterproductive if it undermines a country’s reputation for credibility.

During the Iraq War, for example, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay in a manner inconsistent with America’s declared values led to perceptions of hypocrisy that could not be reversed by broadcasting images of Muslims living well in America. Similarly, President Donald Trump’s tweets that prove to be demonstrably false undercut American credibility and reduce its soft power.

Public diplomacy and the power to attract and persuade become increasingly important, but public diplomacy is changing. Long gone are the days when foreign service officers carted film projectors to the hinterlands to show movies to isolated audiences, or people behind the Iron Curtain huddled over short-wave radios to listen to the BBC. Technological advances have led to an explosion of information, and that has produced a “paradox of plenty”: an abundance of information leads to scarcity of attention.–Joseph S. Nye

The effectiveness of public diplomacy is judged by the number of minds changed (as measured by interviews or polls), not dollars spent. It is interesting to note that polls and the Portland index of the Soft Power 30 show a decline in American soft power since the beginning of the Trump administration. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not credible.

Now the rapidly advancing technology of artificial intelligence or machine learning is accelerating all of these processes. Robotic messages are often difficult to detect. But it remains to be seen whether credibility and a compelling narrative can be fully automated.

Joseph S. Nye, Jr., a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University. He is the author of Is the American Century Over?

 

Democracy and Press Freedom


May 18, 2018

Democracy and Press Freedom

by Amb. Dennis Ignatius

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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COMMENT | Democracy brings with it its own dividends. One of them is press freedom.

Freed from the shackles of government control, the Malaysian press is already exploring the limits of its new found freedom to articulate news, views and opinions. Our dismal ranking – near the bottom of the list in the World Press Freedom Index (145 out of 180 countries) – will now improve dramatically. Perhaps we might even become a poster boy for press freedom, at least in ASEAN.

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No More Vandalism of the Media

I anticipate that with time we’ll once again have a noisy and assertive press. There are lots of enterprising and intrepid reporters out there who are just raring to do their job once again. We must release them to their professionalism and passion if we want to strengthen our democracy.

I’ve been  a columnist and commentator for almost 10 years now. I know what it’s like to be censored, to feel anxious about crossing some invisible line, to worry about whether I might run afoul of some foul law or upset some powerful person somewhere.

Journalists, columnists and commentators should never have to fear the state. But that’s over and done with; I feel freedom’s caress in a very real way now as I write.

We cannot afford to be complacent about the press ever again. A free press is fundamental to democracy, fundamental to keeping our government honest and accountable, and the people informed.

To that end, we must insist that our new government act quickly to rid our nation of every single repressive law. No journalist should ever have to worry about exposing wrongdoings, malfeasance or corruption no matter who is involved. No editor should ever have to worry about a call from the Ministry of Home Affairs. Both government and public officials need to operate in the full glare of public scrutiny.

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Abdul Rani  Kulup–King of Police Reports–is out of business

As well, we should stop the childish behaviour of making police reports whenever someone says something unpleasant against the prime minister or other public figures, as a group in Kedah did recently (claiming that someone had said something offensive about Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad). Public figures don’t deserve special protection from criticism or insult. In any case, Mahathir himself won’t be losing any sleep over being called names; he’s been called worse before and look where he is now.

Television and the print media should also be free of government control or influence; it gives them too much power to impose their views on the nation. Political parties, too, should get out of the media business. Hopefully, the new government will act decisively to free the media from political control. We certainly don’t want to see the mainstream media now become unthinking and fawning echo chambers of the new government.

Coming back to life

The air of freedom that is already penetrating mainstream media is now forcing them to reinvent themselves. Suddenly, public broadcasting and the print media are coming back to life.

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Hooligans and Racists like Jamal Yunos and his Red Shirts will now have to bear the full brunt of the law if they intimidate journalists and disrupt public order

One TV channel, for example, carried a banner encouraging their viewers to celebrate our democracy. Another long-repressed reporter who had for years considered Mahathir a dirty word suddenly found the courage to give him advice on democracy. Strong stuff by the standards of our hitherto moribund mainstream media but it’s a good beginning.

For the first time, I find myself watching the news on local TV instead of automatically switching to CNN, BBC or Al-Jazeera.

I once wrote for a major English daily but resigned in disgust after a few years and refused to buy any of the local newspapers. Like many Malaysians, I refused to support the ‘dummification’ of the media, refused to be party to lopsided, blatantly dishonest reporting.

Well, I bought my first copy of a local newspaper a few days ago and I confess the content and tone have improved. Perhaps I can now look forward to once again spending part of my day, teh tarik in hand, reading the local papers.

Online news portals like Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today (FMT) and the now defunct Malaysian Insider have kept the flame of press freedom burning through the long dark years of oppressive government. So many of their journalists worked long hours with little pay and endured harassment and rejection because they were passionate about their profession.

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Malaysiakini: Free at Last to pursue responsible journalism

Many of us will always be grateful to editors like Steven Gan, Nelson Fernandez and Jahabar Sadiq for their courage in publishing all our highly critical and near subversive articles about Umno-BN and the Najib administration when no one else would. They upheld freedom of expression and the right to criticise the government when both were abandoned by mainstream media. They and their staff ought to be hailed as heroes of our democracy.

In the new environment of press freedom, online media like Malaysiakini and FMT will now become mainstream. Perhaps it’s time for a print version of Malaysiakini or an FMT daily or even a KiniTV channel. One thing is sure: competition will result in better and more qualitative news coverage and lead to a flowering of investigative journalism. What a thrilling prospect! Politicians take heed.

Whatever it is, the sooner the media is revamped and given the freedom to do their duty without fear or favour, the safer our democracy will be.


DENNIS IGNATIUS is a former ambassador. He blogs here.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Making Academia Matter Again


April 19, 2018

Making Academia Matter Again

by 

Academics can no longer afford to pat themselves on the back and celebrate their own privileges. If they are to defend the freedom of their enterprise, they must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of their research – and how research actually occurs – is well understood.

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CAMBRIDGE – Academic freedom is a precious commodity, critical to ensure that discovery of the truth is not encumbered by political or ideological forces. But this does not mean that intellectuals should hide in academic bunkers that, by protecting us from criticism by “non-experts,” allow ego to flourish and enable a focus on questions that are not actually relevant to anyone else. We experts should have to explain ourselves.

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The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh
 

This means, first and foremost, that researchers should be communicating their results in a way that supports accountability and confirms that public funds and education benefits are being used in ways that are in taxpayers’ interests. The duty to communicate findings also ensures that the public is educated, not only about the topic itself, but also about the way research actually works.

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Scholarly books and journals often give the impression that the truth is revealed through a neat, orderly, and logical process. But research is far from being a pristine landscape; in fact, it resembles a battlefield, littered with miscalculations, failed experiments, and discarded assumptions. The path to truth is often convoluted, and those who travel along it often must navigate fierce competition and professional intrigue.

Some argue that it is better to hide this reality from the public, in order to maintain credibility. For example, in 2014, physicists collaborating on a project known as BICEP2 thought that they had detected gravitational waves from the beginning of the universe. It was later realized that the signal they had detected could be entirely attributed to interstellar dust.

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H.E. Dr. Kao Kim Hourn, University of Cambodia (UC) Founder, Board and Trustee Chairman, And President seeks to create a Research  Culture at UC,Phnom Penh.

Some of my colleagues worried that this revelation would undermine faith in other scientific predictions, such as those involving climate change. But would hiding the truth from the public really do more for scientific and academic credibility than cultivating a culture of transparency? Probably not. In fact, being honest about the realities of research might enhance trust and create more space for innovation, with an informed public accepting that risk is the unavoidable and worthwhile cost of groundbreaking and broadly beneficial discoveries.

Another way to ensure that academia continues to innovate in useful and relevant ways is to blur the traditional boundaries among disciplines – the frontiers where invention so often happens. To that end, universities should update their organizational structure, moving away from clearly delineated departments in order to create a kind of continuum across the arts, humanities, and sciences. Students should be encouraged to take courses in multiple disciplines, so that they can weave those lessons and experiences into new patterns of knowledge.

To make this process sustainable, universities should ensure that the courses and curricula they offer help students to develop the skills that a fast-changing labor market demands. This means not just creating new curricula today, but also updating them every few years, in order to account for new trends and discoveries in areas ranging from artificial intelligence and Big Data to alternative energy sources and genome editing.

Professors, for their part, should approach their job as mentors of future leaders in science, technology, the arts, and humanities, rather than attempting to mold students in their own intellectual image. Of course, the latter approach can be useful if the goal is to advance the popularity of one’s own research program and to ensure that one’s own ideas and perspective endure. But that is not the fundamental mission of academia.

The louder the consensus in the echo chambers of academia become, the greater the ego boost for those who inhabit those chambers. But history shows that progress is sometimes advocated by a soft voice in the background, like that of Albert Einstein during his early career. Truth and consensus are not always the same. Diversity of opinion – which implies diversity of gender, ethnicity, and background – is vital to support creativity, discovery, and progress.

That is why it is so important for prizes and professional associations to be used not to reinforce mainstream perspectives, but rather to encourage independent thought and reward innovation. This does not mean that all opinions should be considered equal, but rather that alternative views should be debated and vetted on merit alone.

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We in academia cannot continue to pat ourselves on the back, celebrating our own privileges and failing to look at the world in new and relevant ways. If we are to defend the freedom of our enterprise, we must restore dialogue with the broader public and ensure that the relevance of our work is well understood – including by us.

GDP Should Be Corrected


January 23, 2018

GDP Should Be Corrected

by Urs Rohner@www.project-syndicate.org

The hazards of relying solely on gross domestic product as a measure of overall economic activity have become obvious over time, especially as corporate profits have outpaced GDP growth in key economies. But none of the flaws in GDP are fatal, and policymakers should focus on fixing them, rather than seeking an entirely new framework.

 

ZURICH – Respected economists have long pointed out that gross domestic product is an inadequate measure of economic development and social well-being, and thus should not be policymakers’ sole fixation. Yet we have not gotten any closer to finding a feasible alternative to GDP.

One well-known shortcoming of GDP is that it disregards the value of housework, including care for children and elderly family members. More important, assigning a monetary value to such activities would not address a deeper flaw in GDP: its inability to reflect adequately the lived experience of individual members of society. Correcting for housework would inflate GDP, while making no real difference to living standards. And the women who make up a predominant share of people performing housework would continue to be treated as volunteers, rather than as genuine economic contributors.4

Another well-known flaw of GDP is that it does not account for value destruction, such as when countries mismanage their human capital by withholding education from certain demographic groups, or by depleting natural resources for immediate economic benefit. All told, GDP tends to measure assets imprecisely, and liabilities not at all.

Still, while no international consensus on an alternative to GDP has emerged, there has been encouraging progress toward a more considered way of thinking about economic activity. In 1972, Yale University economists William Nordhaus and James Tobin proposed a new framework, the “measure of economic welfare” (MEW), to account for sundry unpaid activities. And, more recently, China established a “green development” index, which considers economic performance alongside various environmental factors.

Moreover, public- and private-sector decision-makers now have far more tools for making sophisticated choices than they did in the past. On the investor side, demand for environmental, social, and governance data is rising steeply. And in the public sector, organizations such as the World Bank have adopted metrics other than GDP to assess quality of life, including life expectancy at birth and access to education.

At the same time, the debate around gross national income has been gaining steam. Though it shares fundamental elements with GDP, GNI is more relevant to our globalized age, because it adjusts for income generated by foreign-owned corporations and foreign residents. Accordingly, in a country where foreign corporations own a significant share of manufacturing and other assets, GDP will be inflated, whereas GNI shows only income the country actually retains (see chart).

Ireland is a prominent example of how GNI has been used to correct for distortions in GDP. In 2015, Ireland’s reported GDP increased by an eye-popping 26.3%. As an October 2016 OECD working paper noted, the episode raised serious questions about the “ability of the conceptual accounting framework used to define GDP to adequately reflect economic reality.”

The OECD paper went on to conclude that GDP is not a reliable indicator of a country’s material well-being. In Ireland’s case, its single year of astonishing GDP growth was due to multinational corporations “relocating” certain economic gains – namely, the returns on intellectual property – in their overall accounting. To address the growing disparity between actual economic development and reported GDP, the Irish Central Statistics Office introduced a modified version of GNI known as GNI*) for 2016.

The gap between GDP and GNI will likely close soon in other jurisdictions, too. In a recent working paper, Urooj Khan of Columbia Business School, Suresh Nallareddy of Duke University, and Ethan Rouen of Harvard Business School highlight a misalignment in “the growth in corporate profits and the overall US economy” between 1975 and 2013. They find that, during that period, average corporate-profit growth outpaced GDP growth whenever the domestic corporate-income-tax rate exceeded that of other OECD countries.

In late December, this disconnect was addressed with the passage of the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. By lowering the corporate-tax rate to a globally competitive level and granting better terms for repatriating profits, the tax package is expected to shift corporate earnings back to the United States. As a result, the divergence between GDP and GNI will likely close in both the US and Ireland, where many major US corporations have been holding cash.

Looking ahead, I would suggest that policymakers focus on three points. First, as demonstrated above, the relevant stakeholders are already addressing several of the flaws in GDP, which is encouraging. Second, public- and private-sector decision-makers now have a multitude of instruments available for better assessing the social and environmental ramifications of their actions.

And, third, in business one must not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We have not solved all of the problems associated with GDP, but we have come a long way in reducing many of its distortions. Instead of seeking a new, disruptive framework to replace current data and analytical techniques, we should focus on making thoughtful, incremental changes to the existing system.

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018


December 23, 2017

Greetings from Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh for Xmas and 2018

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Dr. Kamsiah Haider in Kuala Lumpur and Din Merican in Phnom Penh wish all our friends and associates around the world a Merry Christmas 2017 and prosperous New Year, 2018. We are indeed grateful for your warm friendship and support we enjoyed during 2017. We forward to working with you in the coming year and together we can make our world a better place.
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We have little time for politicians and ideologues as they are a crop of egoistic, misogynistic  and greedy people. All we have to do is to look at Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan and other places to see for ourselves their handiwork. People are their victims, especially women, children and the elderly. They have lost the moral high ground and we must put our differences aside and work hard for peace.
On the occasion of Christmas and the New Year 2018, may we ask Michael Jackson to sing for us his famous song, Make The World a Better Place. –Dr. Kamsiah Haider and Din Merican.

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew


December 3, 2017

Governing Singapore, beyond Lee Kuan Yew

by Cherian George

http://www.newmandala.org

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One of the late Lee Kuan Yew’s most admirable acts of foresight was to usher out Singapore’s first-generation leaders in order to hasten the rejuvenation of the People’s Action Party (PAP). Giants like Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam and E.W. Barker retired from the government in the 1980s, when they were still younger than Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump were upon entering the White House. In the short term, this represented a massive underutilisation of talent. But that’s how determined Lee was to make sure that the next generation—Goh Chok Tong, Ong Teng Cheong, Tony Tan, S. Dhanabalan and others—would emerge from the shadow of their seniors to secure the future of the ruling party.

PAP exit management under Lee had one major omission, though. Himself. Lee felt he needed to stick around. Since his designated successor Goh Chok Tong had no objections, Lee didn’t accompany his first-generation comrades to the early retirement he had so strenuously advocated. After 1991, when Singapore got a new premier for the first time in 32 years, various terms were used to describe Lee’s new position. Senior Minister. Minister Mentor. Goalkeeper. Whatever the title, for the next 20 years, the simple political reality was that LKY was still around. At The Straits Times where I used to work, word came from way above my pay grade that we were not to say he stepped down. He stepped aside.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HE Halimah Yacob,  Singapore’s Eighth President

The elected presidency was Lee’s insurance policy against a so-called freak election that could bring the wrong party into power. The insurgents might only last a single parliamentary term, but they could cause permanent damage in that time, Lee feared. They could raid the country’s financial reserves and replace key public sector appointment holders with incompetent cronies. Lee decided that the office of the president had to be given the power to veto such plans. This new executive role would require the president to be directly elected by the people.

Related imageIn 2011, the PAP’s favoured candidate Tony Tan won the Presidential Election but with only 35% of the vote. Presidential elections have been more contentious than Lee Kuan Yew anticipated.

Lee’s constitutional fix, meant to make Singapore more stable, ironically created one of its main sources of political uncertainty. The freak election scenario remains a whimsical notion; but in the meantime, presidential elections have opened up a new front to challenge PAP dominance. This has forced the PAP to shift more attention away from governance and towards politics—the exact opposite of what Lee spent most of his career trying to do. To address the risk that presidential elections will deviate from the government’s preferences, it has had go through various contortions, including reducing the power of the president in relation to the unelected Council of Presidential Advisers, raising the pre-qualification bar for would-be candidates (including reserving this year’s election for Malay candidates), and lecturing Singaporeans that they must not politicise the presidency. The rancour surrounding presidential elections—and the attendant cost to the unifying purpose of the head of state—had been predicted by Singaporeans who submitted thoughtful feedback during the Select Committee hearings leading up to the 1991 constitutional amendments. Lee had brushed aside their concerns.

The pay formula for ministers and senior civil servants was another radical idea born of Lee’s frustration with an obtuse Singapore public. He was justifiably concerned that skyrocketing private sector pay would weaken the public sector’s ability to recruit top talent. He was correct to conclude that the government could not let its remuneration lag too far behind. Where he went wrong was to decide that, instead of arguing it out in parliament every time it needed to revise its pay structure, the government should create an automatic formula pegging public officials’ salaries to those of top earners such as lawyers, bankers and corporate chief executives.

Singaporeans could see the fundamental flaws in the idea. A league table of top salaries in fields like banking and corporate management would show very high figures year after year, but those salaries were not going to the same people every year. Firms and individuals would enter and leave the list; they were in risky, competitive markets. Like boy bands, they might be at the pinnacle for only a few years. In contrast, the government’s stars would continue to get top dollar for a couple of decades, their pay being pegged to the private sector’s equivalent of Westlife in the 1990s, the Jonas Brothers in the 2000s, and One Direction in the 2010s. This just didn’t smell right. Many Singaporeans also had deep concerns about so explicitly marketising the relationship between leaders and led.

Lee Kuan Yew would have none of it. He was determined to do what he had always done: use his political clout to create a structural fix that, he thought, would put an end to unproductive debates and let the government get on with the job. Concluding his marathon speech during the 1994 parliamentary debate on the formula, Lee declared, “I say I am prepared to put my experience and my judgement against all the arguments that doubters can muster. In five to ten years, when it works and Singapore has a good government, this formula will be accepted as conventional wisdom.”

In the realm of embarrassing 1990s predictions, this one vies with 3Com founder Robert Metcalfe’s statement the following year:I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.” For instead of depoliticising the question of public sector remuneration, Lee’s formula bequeathed to his successors possibly the era’s single most toxic policy move. Exactly as critics predicted, it infected government–people relations with cynicism and distrust.

The PAP had prided itself on its willingness to make unpopular decisions in the country’s long-term interest, but now when ministers resisted the popular will, their motivations would be questioned—of course they don’t care about the people, they only care about their high-paying jobs. The market-pegged formula also made people contemptuously unforgiving of inevitable mistakes—this is what million-dollar salaries get us? Another serious unintended but predictable consequence was to make the civil service resistant to change, by disincentivising risk-taking among officers earning salaries many know they can’t command elsewhere.

Lee Kuan Yew admitted to making mistakes, especially in pushing zero population growth too aggressively in the 1970s. But he couldn’t really be faulted for that one, since practically every government looking at similar demographic trends arrived at the same policy prescriptions. In contrast, Lee’s ideas to restructure of the presidency and public sector pay in the 1990s were idiosyncratically his own. And they were not cases of random error but systematic error, as scientists would put it. They resulted from his peculiar obsession with protecting the state from the unpredictability of democratic politics. He had more or less succeeded in doing so in earlier decades—like that special IT guy, constantly troubleshooting and tinkering. But he overestimated his ability to design plug-ins for Singapore’s operating system that would continue to function smoothly after he left.

Shamefully, he—jointly with Goh Chok Tong—was allowed to announce his resignation a week after the election, and before colleagues whose presence in cabinet Singaporeans had been querying for years. It was an undeservedly ignominious end to a government career that would be eulogised profusely four years later.

Lee and Goh said they were doing it to indicate “that the PM can and will revise and revamp his policies … to give PM and his team the room to break from the past, and … to make it clear that the PAP has never been averse to change”. When he accepted their resignations a few days later, Lee Hsien Loong allowed their rationale to stand—to “leave it to me and my team of younger ministers to take Singapore forward into the future”—thus throwing out of the window two decades of PAP assurances that Lee Kuan Yew’s presence in cabinet had never been an obstacle to progress, since ministers had minds of their own.

For more than a decade, Lee Kuan Yew had been codifying his beliefs in his memoirs and other books. This exercise was a symptom of the PAP’s understandable anxiety that its unique formula for good governance would not survive him. But it also contributed to the old pragmatism of the PAP giving way to dogmatism. After LKY’s final, emotional exit in February 2015, the depth of his influence became even more apparent. LKYism became a kind of quasi-theology, with members of the governing elite falling over one another to cite his words and acts, and thus show that they were the legitimate interpreters and inheritors of Singapore’s ultimate oracle. Being “against Mr Lee’s values” emerged as a damning label to stick on opponents within the establishment. Lee had long been called the founding father of the republic, but in 2017, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean took the quantum leap of declaring that all of us—as individuals, not just collectively—are “sons and daughters” of Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Teo did not actually possess the power to rewrite everyone’s birth certificate, but the remark revealed Lee’s place in the minds of the PAP’s senior leadership.

Teo’s declaration came during the parliamentary debate on the Lees’ feud over their family bungalow at 38 Oxley Road. This was a debate that engrossed the establishment and most ordinary Singaporeans. It centred on what to do with the building that was Lee Kuan Yew’s private residence during his adult life. The debate missed the point. The question we should be asking is how much room to give to the Lee Kuan Yew that will reside in the Singaporean mind long after his death.

This essay is extracted from Cherian George’s self-published anthology, Singapore, Incomplete: Reflections on a First World Nation’s Arrested Political Development. The book is his first for a general audience since his 2000 volume, Singapore: The Air-Conditioned Nation.