Lee Kuan Yew, the legend goes, made a country against the odds. He never lost a sense of the fragility of Singapore. Having been there 25 times, but not for over decade, I think I have become 5% Singaporean. I can feel the improbability of his achievement. When I see the rain trees by the roads, my heart strings are pulled.
Time to examine this! I have written some short Lee posts already, and a longer one placing him in the context of nation-builders. I gave a skeletal history of British Malaya, 1786-1963 here, which was useful enough to have been used in a postgraduate class in Malaysia or India. I mentioned some moments of confrontation in Singapore’s post-war history here. For references to architecture, search under shophouse.
I am not bored by democracy. Nor am I a Parag Khanna. Indians who stood up in conferences and said: “Please, Mr Lee, come and fix India for us” wanted, understandably, to run away from the dirty Indian road to the gated community of a Singapore. Lee, too, wanted to leave the past behind (so did Mao and Pol Pot), but, when you look at his life, you see that Lee’s dedication to Singapore was in the last analysis an act of love.
The classic account of Singapore as a humourless, over-clean place without soul or grit and full of compulsorily happy people is by William Gibson in the September/October 1993 issue of Wired, Disneyland with the Death Penalty. People who had never been to Singapore wrote articles influenced by it and had their opinions formed by it. This was Wired’s first year.
They fixed their attention on the chewing gum ban which came in in 1992 (under Goh Chock Tong, not LKY, who stepped back at the end of 1990), on the caning of Michael Fay for vandalism in 1994, the litter fines, the use of the death penalty for tiny drug offences. The ban on long hair had come earlier: it operated in various ways from the ’60s to the ’90s.
Singapore has a soul. It had a powerful atmosphere. Perhaps it helped to be British: we were tuned to the post-colonial vibe in a way Gibson was not. Gibson arrived knowing what he was going to write. He satirised the Singaporean propaganda of the time.
Singapore isn’t even litter-free: I could see that last time I was there, over ten years ago. The offenders may be immigrants from countries with no environmental standards or they may be local, but an army of immigrant labour will clean up. I support the laws. If you aren’t looking at your street, you certainly aren’t thinking about the ocean or the tropical forest in which Singapore was a clearing.
“The word infrastructure takes on a new and claustrophobic resonance here; somehow it’s all infrastructure.” I know that feeling. One gets it in airports late at night. “What is the point of any of this?”
Wired, technocratic, hyper-regulated Singapore seemed like a vision, when the web barely existed, of all our futures, a new oriental peril now that Japan was no longer going to rule the world and while we were still waiting for China to get into its stride.
Since then, it has become more normal. Kenneth Jeyaretnam, Disneyland with the Death Penalty, Revisited, Wired, April 2012:
“In fact we have gone backwards to our early stage of development and an industrial strategy based on labor-intensive manufacturing and tourism. Even in mainstream activities Singapore now feels very different from the high-tech, high-wage utopia envisaged by the planners.”
It feels, perhaps, more like just another Asian city and not necessarily the most innovative. It did not feel like just another city to Lee.
In the 1990s nightlife began. Singaporean nightlife was described as like a teenage party in one’s parents’ house, but I think it has improved. At the tawdry end, the government even opened two casinos (or rather “integrated resorts”) in 2010. That would have been unimaginable twenty years earlier.
As an antidote to Gibson, I recommend Singapore Noir, a 2014 collection of stories by living writers, edited by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, in the immensely long Noir series published by Akashic Books (Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World). Each of the stories is associated with a different part of the city.
I mentioned the series in a post called Delhi Noir. The strange thing is that India is supposed to be the place with literary talent, and southeast Asia an entirely unliterary place. There wasn’t even one good bookshop in Singapore before Borders opened in 1997. There was hardly any local literature. Yet the five stories I have read in Singapore Noir are better than the Indian stories. What I do not know, because I haven’t checked, is how many of the writers are true Singaporeans and how many live elsewhere.
Smile Singapore by Colin Cheong, Tattoo by Lawrence Osborne (a Brit), Current Escape by Johann S Lee, Bedok Reservoir by Dave Chua and Murder on Orchard Road by Nury Vittachi are mainly good, but the Lee is too gruesome. They deal with Chinese superstition, prostitution, foreign domestic workers and their bosses, and other matters. It was an inspired decision to end with Vittachi’s farce (it is on, not in, Orchard Road). Wodehouse would have admired it, but it has its own darkness.
There used to be ordinary villages on the island. The last kampong is Kampong Buangkok (I believe it is just about still there). When it is torn down or disneyfied it will be like the closing of a frontier.
Lee was an authentic figure of the British Empire in its dissolution. Almost the last. Mugabe and Kaunda are alive. Mahathir didn’t enter national politics until after Malaya had become independent.
He sang four national anthems: God Save the King, Kimigayo, God Save the King/Queen, Negaraku, Majulah Singapura and had to live with the British, Japanese, British again and Malays.
Lee, like others in the Co-prosperity Sphere who had lived under European colonial rule, collaborated with the Japanese, but he and the British chose to forget this. Lee called them cruel people.
“Surely we must be in charge of our own lives. That is the beginning of politics.” Tay. Lee was in tears in 1965, but perhaps part of him felt liberated even at that press conference.
To use Toynbeean language of withdrawal-and-return, his life’s work had not even begun at that moment of parting.
Survival has been the PAP mantra since 1959. When Singapore was expelled from Malaysia, it had, the legend goes, nothing to fall back on. It was rawly exposed. What were the alleged threats?
Racial strife. Singapore needed to be unified. The Malays had been unable to live with the Chinese in Malaysia. There were serious race riots in Singapore in 1964. So Lee created a different kind of multiracial society after 1965. It took a few years. There were more riots in 1969.
There was no reason, in his mind, other than his policies, for Singapore not to have become a Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese, after all, are 74% of Sri Lanka. The Chinese are 74% of Singapore. Recent numbers.
Was it even possible for Singapore to survive on its own? It had no hinterland. Singapore island is much larger than Hong Kong island, which really would have been unsustainable once the New Territories had reverted to China. But it is considerably smaller than the whole of Hong Kong.
It had no natural resources, other than a harbour. In 1968 the British announced their intention of closing their military bases in Malaysia and Singapore by 1971 (the bases which had been expensively rebuilt in 1939 and had failed to defend Singapore in 1942). Singapore was further thrown back on itself and had to build a defence force.
Singapore might have become a third-world cesspool of corruption. There was no reason beyond determination for much of it to cease to be a slum.
Then communism. Did Lee exaggerate the threat in order to bolster his own legend? The total failure of the BBC to assess Lee’s career (beyond what I referred to in the earlier post, there was nothing, except a short slot on Newsnight in which Kissinger said something in reply to a couple of superficial questions) means that one cannot say that they underestimated this or that. But in general, the least well-understood part of his story is his fight with the communists. Lee founded the PAP in 1954 in an expedient alliance with pro-communist trade unions. He continued to fear them after 1959 and might easily have been killed by them, as by the Japanese.
His nickname for Fong Chong Pik, the head of the Singapore section of the Communist Party of Malaya, was “the Plen”. The Plen wanted a united front with the PAP against the British. But he also wanted a communist Singapore, and resisted union with Malaysia, where the communists had already been beaten. Lee, conversely, joined the Federation to dilute the threat. By the time he left it, the threat had been lifted.
There were still militant communists in Indochina to the north and, until 1966, in Indonesia to the south. Malaysia expelled Singapore, Indonesia could have swallowed it up. Singapore was a tense place in 1965.
Looking to the BBC for news may be rather old-fashioned, but I thought its failure showed its decline. They will have pointed cameras at the funeral. That may be easy, but it isn’t journalism. It’s a way of filling airtime.
Lee on NBC’s Meet the Press, October 22 1967, steering a rather careful line between his anti-communism and mere approval of US foreign policy:
What about water? Self-sufficiency in water was a Lee obsession. He achieved it.
A newer threat to survival is an ageing population. Lee wanted immigrants, because an ageing population would mean the end of Singapore. So bring people in, but integrate them. House them next to people who have been in Singapore for a long time.
But the greatest threat was oblivion. The youngest generation had never known poverty or struggle. Communicating his sense of the fragility of Singapore was his intention in meeting young Singaporeans for dialogues.
And what would happen if and when the PAP ceased to govern honestly and wisely and lost its mandate? Energy-dissipating politics? Chaotic democracy? I suppose that is the oldest Chinese dilemma of all.
The Lee-PAP style may not be acceptable for much longer. Case of the rather immature Amos Yee.
The PAP’s governing principles have been pragmatism, meritocracy, multiracialism, and so-called Asian values or communitarianism.
Pragmatism. There was an unideological tone in domestic and foreign policy. If a policy contributed to a stable, prosperous, orderly society, it was adopted. Lee did not waste energy on post-colonial rhetoric (Mahathir did). Religion was kept out of public life, at the cost of mild oppression of Muslims in matters of dress. Environmentalism was a practical matter, about planting trees and self-sufficiency in water. Immigration was treated as a practical necessity. Gays were OK because homosexuality was genetic, according to Lee; legal reform will presumably come.
Meritocracy. An enlightened ruling party co-opted talent, in theory, where it found it. Ministers were paid enough to remove the temptation of the private sector and also to remove the temptation to be corrupt. A potential minister was nurtured, observed and tested in lesser roles, and, when appointed, expected to stay in the job. The average duration of a minister’s tenure in the UK is under a year.
Multiracialism. Lee could have used his expulsion from Malaysia in 1965 as an excuse to create a Chinese hegemony. The easiest thing would have been to appeal to Chinese voters alone. After all, the expulsion had been based on the Malay majority’s resentment of the Singaporean Chinese. Instead, he took what Lee Hsien Loong in his eulogy (below) called the nobler course and founded a multiracial society. His message to all ethnic groups was “don’t even start”. This was the policy from which the rest could follow. Singaporeans would pull together and not dissipate energy in racial fighting. Separate ancestral cultures, common identity as Singaporeans. We’ll keep our languages and all talk English.
The British experiment in multiculturalism, on the other hand, is preparing an unhappy future.
Lee believed, in a rather 1930s way, that a successful multiracial society had to be based on a facing up to profound, primeval, differences between races. In most societies, that recognition or perception has the opposite purpose: it underpins racism. Malays were less good at science and maths than the Chinese. Unless you recognise that, you are just going to have a lot of discontented Malays wondering why the Chinese are getting preferred in the areas that require maths and science.
So you would often see a headline on the front page of the Straits Times that would say something like “Chinese grades up again in maths”, sub-headline “Malays catching up”.
Lee aimed at zero-tolerance of racial discrimination by a type of racial categorisation. Was this a legacy of the British who, like the Chinese, regarded the Malays as gentle (unless running amok), but economically incompetent? If so, the Malays have taken this on board and are self-oppressors. Malaysia is the only country I can think of where the majority sometimes seems to regard itself as a problem.
Asian values. I am suspicious when I hear this phrase, or the equivalent British values or African values. It ignores Asian cultural diversity and demotes universal values: the worst of both worlds. Add a word in the middle, and Asian “family” values in Britain can also mean Asian nepotism, Asian village bigotry and Asian cruelty.
But there are paradoxes throughout the LKY or PAP system. There is no official racism, but for many practical purposes, Singapore is mono-ethnic. Most businesses are run by Chinese. The Chinese are three quarters of the population. There are many subtle ways in which a Chinese hegemony is supported and many ways in which Malays feel oppressed. Of the eighteen members of the current cabinet, thirteen are Chinese, four are Tamil and one is Malay (the Minister for Communications and Information, who is also Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs). All are male. The ratios in the population are 74%, 9% and 13%.
There is no corruption, but government-linked corporations which are partly or fully owned by a state-owned investment company, Temasek, include Singapore Airlines, SingTel, ST Engineering, MediaCorp and many others. They play a big role in the economy and their boards are filled with members of the Lee family, ex-cabinet ministers, and government officials. As of November 2011, the top six Singapore-listed GLCs accounted for 17% of the total capitalisation of the Singapore Exchange.
Singapore takes education seriously. I don’t know how much it spends on it or what indicators are significant (percentage of GDP does not sound very helpful), but it is central to the PAP’s plan for maintaining Singapore’s “competitiveness”. And yet, many people who know Singapore well, including Hong Kong entrepreneurs, say that Singaporeans have not been taught how to think. A Singaporean, Kishore Mahbubani, an intellectual cheerleader for the PAP, wrote a book called Can Asians Think?
Whatever the shortcomings of the system, Singapore at least tried to develop its own people. It did what most of the Muslim world failed to do. On the other hand, by not drilling their populations into being docile consumers, poorer Muslim societies have left a space in the human psyche for spiritual energies that may, one day, turn creative.
There is very little political or press freedom in Singapore. For an example of the treatment of foreign media, see experiences of the Far Eastern Economic Review.
The Internal Security Act 1960 allows imprisonment without trial (“preventive detention”) and has been used against communists, islamists, agitators and dissidents: all who wish or may wish to block project Singapore. Free political speech had no constructive role to play in the building of the nation, only a destructive and inhibiting one. Perhaps it is time for this Act to be amended.
Dr Chee Soon Juan at worldpolicy.org: “Unbeknownst to many, Chia Thye Poh of Singapore was the longest-serving political prisoner of the 20th century. A teacher and a socialist member of parliament, he was detained in 1966 under the Internal Security Act for allegedly conducting pro-communist activities, and imprisoned for 32 years – 14 years longer than Nelson Mandela’s incarceration on Robben Island.”
Are restrictions on freedom in Singapore at least well-defined? Are infringements of liberty in free countries more insidious?
If Asian values is an objectionable phrase, would “Asian system” better describe Singaporean politics? But they aren’t “Asian” at all. Many in Hong Kong found Singapore as creepy as William Gibson did. The other three tigers are, or try to be, real democracies.
Mahathir himself, not exactly a tolerator of dissent, would criticise Lee’s restriction of political free speech (reported here, here). Lee in return, and with some reason, criticised Malaysia’s race-based politics.
You have to look to China to find a parallel to Singapore. Japan and the Asian tigers were laboratories for trying out what China would eventually do, but if China is trying to follow a model, it is that of the island nation. Governance before freedom.
Even as Gibson was writing, Singapore was planning clones of itself in China, a country with which it had only opened diplomatic relations in 1990: Lee’s last act as prime minister.
Do you move to democracy eventually or not at all? Is a model of a) bottom-up removal of people in front-line executive roles with b) an upper level whose members are not elected but co-opted sustainable?
Nowhere on earth has linked urban planning with social engineering and long-term economic policy like Singapore. It’s easier in a small country. Lee stopped short of compulsory eugenics, but only just. Singapore is the opposite of the shambolic, poll-following improvisation that is the UK. No wonder Thatcher admired him.
“Singapore was made in the image of Lee.” If so, what was Lee like? A strict Victorian father.
He was on the right side or open-minded on the things that make people go mad: sex, race and religion. He was not a climate-change denier. He was a pragmatist who did not tolerate corruption. His detestation of personality cults was genuine. He wanted his house pulled down after he died and not turned into a shrine. He refused to be called a statesman. He did not care whether the PAP or another entity ran Singapore in the future so long as it was run by his definition wisely. Patriotic occasions were celebrations of Singapore, not of the PAP. It is as well that he died before the fiftieth anniversary of independence or he would have started to look like a relic.
All accounts of Lee mention personal kindness. A stern man with a tender heart. A self-educator. Almost the last thing he did before becoming ill on February 4 was to take his lesson in Mandarin. Like all parents of a certain age, he’d ring his children for IT advice. He didn’t have literary interests. His wife did.
The PAP wants to encourage thinking and creativity. Perhaps it is past the “we must all be more spontaneous” phase. I’m not worried about culture. Singaporeans will do what they want to do and “culture” will not be the mere luxury commodity that it is in the Gulf. When people talk about culture in these contexts, they do mean culture of a Western dye. Western cultures, high and low, still tend to marginalise non-Western cultures, which become crafts or folklore or are locked into ritual. Or is that just how “we” see them?
An English friend who makes films told me that he once had to stay with a family in Kuala Lumpur. He was so appalled by the plastic consumerism and shopping-mall-centred lives that he found there that he thought “I’d better get home as fast as possible and keep what culture we have going”. Is he sure he would not have had a similar over-educated reaction staying with a family in King’s Lynn?
The only world-class Western classical musician ever produced by southeast Asia is a Singaporean, Melvyn Tan, who was punished for not having done his National Service when he returned for a visit at the age of nearly fifty, although he had left for England at the age of twelve. His fame meant that the punishment was light: only a fine.
The urban transformation which began after 1965 had, at the time, few precedents in history. The People’s Park Complex was a seminal project for east Asia in 1967. The transformation went too far for my taste. We have so little confidence in ourselves in Europe that we preserve everything. But Singapore hasn’t lost its garden city feel. Lee Hsien Loong called LKY Singapore’s “chief gardener” in his eulogy and meant it literally. And one day, even in Singapore, we may begin to see the effect of time on buildings.
A friend sent me a link to a piece by Chris Blattman, who wrote:
“No, I’m not going to complain about the whitewashing of an authoritarian regime. I’m used to people trading off someone else’s freedom for GDP growth. Or forgetting that for every transformative dictator there are many more who take the country down the toilet.”
Blattman may be a serious economist, but I found that mildly silly. As if freedom appears ready-made at the birth of a state merely in the absence of a dictator: the Condoleeza Rice view of the world. He also can’t spell Lee Kuan Yew. But he goes on:
“Rather, I want to highlight this point from political scientist Tom Pepinsky:
‘The coverage of Singapore under the late Lee Kuan Yew consistently emphasizes a theme of rapid economic development in an inauspicious context, encapsulated by the slogan “From Third World to First.”
‘Now, no one should doubt that Lee Kuan Yew was a developmentalist statebuilder par excellence. But Singapore at independence a third-world country? This narrative neglects the incredible legacy of openness, infrastructure, and stability that the British rule left this tiny country.
‘Singapore entered the community of independent states as a prosperous country, at least by the standards of the time.
Noel Barber’s The Singapore Story is a period piece, published in 1978. Nobody would read it now, but it was my introduction to Lee. It’s a Janus book, by an author who remembers Singapore as a colony, a place of old-fashioned sensuous appeal, a magical island in the sun, and who also knows where it is heading. It ends with a portrait of Lee approaching twenty years in the job. I think Barber wrote partly on the basis of meetings with him. He over-emphasises his Englishness. He also published Sinister Twilight: The Fall and Rise Again of Singapore (1968) and The War of the Running Dogs: How Malaya Defeated the Communist Guerrillas, 1948-60 (1971) and two novels about Singapore.
The best book of historical images of Singapore is Gretchen Liu’s Singapore: A Pictorial History, 1819-2000, Singapore, National Heritage Board/Ed. Didier Millet, 1999. There is a documentary urgency, and considerable charm, in the photographs. This is neither arty nor nostalgic. Malaysia: A Pictorial History 1400-2004 by Wendy Khadijah Moore, Singapore, Didier Millet, 2007 is a companion.
The last book one would expect to find at all interesting is a huge coffee table production by Melanie Chew called Leaders of Singapore, Singapore, Resource Press, 1996, but I found it riveting. Only two copies on Amazon, both at the scam price of over $800. It has interviews with all the figures of Lee’s generation and just before whom we never hear about, several of whom Lee Hsien Loong mentioned in his moving eulogy.
I have a dozen other books on Singapore, but those three come to mind in this context.
Hsien Loong, NUS University Cultural Centre, March 29: