This is an essay by Chung-Kwong Yuen, published in Asian Profile, June 1999, and posted 27 Sept 1999 in response to Buruma & Mahbubani dialogue “Are Singaporeans Afraid to Think” in Straits Times. I find the essay very intiguing as it explains explicitly what how the Singapore government really works. I will attempt to analyse the essay when I have the time. Its a little long but its very very interesting (or even FUN! Shut up Andee! I can actually hear your sniggers from here). You can read the whole essay here. Here is the introduction of the essay:
Singapore is a place that arouses deeply divided feelings among observers. Economically, it is one of the great success stories of this century, but it is also widely seen as an authoritarian state that limits freedom of speech and political rights. Even more importantly, its leader Lee Kuan Yew has set himself up as the proponent of an alternative model of economic and political development for the poorer nations, one that rejects western decadence while incorporating “Asian” values of studiousness, achievement through hard work, and deference to authority and group. That is, instead of humbly pleading guilty to liberal charges of sacrificing human rights for the sake of prosperity, he claims to have invented a superior ideology more applicable to the less developed part of the world than what North America and Europe wish to export. This elevates the polemic to a higher level of controversy, with western journalists constantly carping on Lee’s speeches and the actions of the Singapore government, hoping to detect chinks in their armours, while they answer in kind through their various public relations channels. In the end, neither side has been able to strike a knockout blow, and a standoff has ensured.
This is not a simple standoff between good and bad; between democracy and dictatorship; not even between east and west. Lee’s stance is discomfiting to the western liberals precisely because it cannot be neatly labelled and then dismissed. If he were just an ignorant Asian dictator, on route to his inevitable downfall like, say, Ferdinand Marcos, then his ideas would pose no threat to the orthodoxy of the western nations. The fact is however that his policies achieve economic prosperity while ignoring many of the sacred cows of standard political thinking, a situation that cannot be taken in without a serious and painful reassessment of one’s basic tenets; in fact, something that threatens the currently fashionable ideological paradigm. Considering that the great Soviet Union has collapsed like good old capitalists said it would, is little Singapore going to defy the most well proven liberal thinking?
But what exactly is Lee’s so successful ideology? There is nothing special about a belief in education, hard work, family, social hierarchy, and so on. These are not the particular inventions of Lee Kuan Yew, or even particularly Asian. Lee’s invention is much more original. It is a unique combination of Leninist organizational tactics with capitalist industrial and commercial technology implemented among a population with an Asian social background, resulting in a strictly controlled and paternalistic corporate entity that has delivered material wealth to its members. In this article, I wish to analytically examine the various facets of this structure.
And I thought this was hilarious, especially on the continued failure to cultivate a more patriotic populace. I have also constantly wondered why we have political parties with little or no identities or loyalties.
It is therefore no wonder that, as the country became more wealthy under the PAP government, the party organization has all but lost its identity as a political party. It has ceased to have a party ideology that is distinct from the policies of the government, and its members at large, just a few thousand in a citizen body of 3 million, play almost no part in policy initiation. In theory, the party can tell its members of parliament how to vote, and if it so chooses, can bring down the government by causing MPs to pass a vote of no confidence, but the chance of this actually happening is zero because there is literally nobody in the party with the influence to make any decisions other than those in the government itself. The leaders, the government, the important national institutions, and the country as a whole are so closely identified with each other that it is difficult to oppose one without coming under suspicion of being also opposed to the others; being against what policies the PAP has worked out for the country is almost automatically considered unpatriotic. Further, given the career situation, it is easy to believe that the government and its network of trust encompass the best educated and most able people of Singapore; to oppose all these must mark one as a disgruntled incompetent or a deliberate spoilsport, motivated by alien thinking. The idea of several political partiesof equal legitimacy competing for power as alternative governments, seems very remote from reality.
Okay. I decided to read it anyway. It was so revealing. On the issue of the press:
The past quarrel with the western media deserve a mention. The Singapore government looks at media purely from the business point of view: distributing publication in the country is an opportunity to make money, and right to do so is only granted to those that promote the national interest, and of course the government is the judge of that national interest. The western journalists take a “human rights” view: the duty of the press is, by definition, to propagate all plausible points of view, including those that might prove to be wrong, and any attempt to thwart such aims is considered authoritarian. In view of the fundamental divergence between the two camps, a settlement seems unlikely in the near term.
To this I say HA! (Especially to my friends who have mostly left for overseas studies under such governmental scholarships)
I see two practical shortcomings in the Singapore system: the difficulty of finding imaginative leaders and its vulnerability to infiltration by foreign agents. The system has the tendency to promote conformity, and those who thrive in the system are people who are good at conforming, or at least, at appearing to be conforming. The cautious and the sly have a better chance of survival than the frank. Such survival characteristics do not however associate with the vision and real convictions that the system needs in leaders. Obedience is not the same thing as loyalty, which often requires one to speak out and point out problems. It is not surprising that, despite the vast increase in the number of well educated people and the more effective machinery and database for identifying candidates, the government has often complained of the difficulty of finding enough good people to stand for parliament, especially those with ministerial potential.