In mid 2012, when the late SR Nathan, Singapore’s former president (1999-2011), agreed to be the guest of honour at the launch of my first book, “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore“, I was delighted.
Mr President! Presiden! 总统 ! ஜனாதிபதி !
Actually, I hate honorifics. Especially for those out of office. It’s a debate in other countries: “President George W Bush? He’s no longer president.”
But never mind lah. For old SR, I’ll use it. So, I was somewhat chuffed that President Nathan had agreed.
When I shared the news, from my buddies I got joy and congratulations: “Eh, how did you con him, ah?”
What I didn’t expect was some negativity from readers, some “How-could-you-go-with-the-establishment?” rebukes. Though not a politician, President Nathan was a civil service stalwart of Lee Kuan Yew’s government. (The presidency is a largely ceremonial role.)
Some people, I won’t say necessarily opposition or anti-establishment, those are labels thrown around, so maybe “non-establishment” better, some non-establishment people dropped out of my book launch once they heard the news.
They like my writing, but they dropped out just because President Nathan would be the guest of honour. That’s their prerogative, of course, a very welcome “act of protest”, if you will.
Still. While I always knew that political polarisation existed in Singapore, that was the first time I really started thinking deeply about it.
Family portrait in the 1920s. Little SR is third from right, embraced by a much older cousin sitting on the chair. SR’s mum is on the other chair, and his dad is standing.
Sellapan Ramanathan was born in Singapore on July 3rd 1924, but grew up with his parents and siblings mostly in Muar, Johor, in a house overlooking the Malacca Straits.
SR’s father worked as a lawyer’s clerk for a firm that serviced rubber plantations. In 1933, with Malaya’s rubber industry failing amid The Great Depression, SR’s father, debt-ridden and alcohol-prone, took his own life. SR was eight.
He enrolled at Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) in Singapore, but was soon undermined by his own addiction: to photographs of famous boxers. SR and buddies would collect newspaper photos of their favourite boxers and paste them in exercise books, a precursor, I guess, of the Panini sticker books we grew up with. (My first was for the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.)
Since SR’s family did not buy newspapers, he had to buy boxer photographs from friends, and eventually racked up debts of “several dollars”. (Five dollars in the 1930s is the equivalent of almost a hundred today.)
SR started selling off his school books to repay them, and eventually stole schoolbooks to sell. That led to his first expulsion from school.
“I returned home wondering how to break the news to my mother. That evening one John Handy—a classmate with whom I had fought in school—came to take his revenge and told my mother that I had been sacked from school. She was shocked.”
[Insert joke about rich ACS kids preying on poorer ones.]
SR went on to Rangoon Road School and then Victoria School for his secondary education. There, he could not buy the books he needed, which led to him being picked on by teachers, which in turn led to him regularly playing truant. When another boy’s books were stolen, SR was then scapegoated. That led to his second expulsion from school.
“At that point I decided to run away.” He was sixteen.
SR left his mum’s home in Singapore and moved back to Muar, where he worked as a hawker’s assistant and then a clerk. During the Japanese occupation (1942-45) SR learned Japanese and became a translator and interpreter for the top dog in the Japanese Civilian Police. He also reconciled with his mum.
Nathan with Lta. Kokubu
SR, like Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), quickly adapted to the socio-political realities of life under the Japanese. LKY also learned Japanese so he could work as business interlocutor and middleman. (My obituary of LKY here.)
Were LKY and SR collaborators, traitors? Some must have thought so. The Japanese certainly treated the Indians in Malaya much better than they did the Chinese, for obvious historical and cultural reasons.1
SR finally graduated from the University of Malaya (in Singapore) in 1954, aged thirty. In 1958 he married his childhood sweetheart, Urmila Nandey, after a sixteen-year courtship. Eighteen-year old SR had first noticed a thirteen-year old Umi, a Bengali, while running errands for the Japanese in 1942. Despite the inevitable parental and societal opposition to a Tamil-Bengali relationship, they persevered.
A full critique of President Nathan’s life, including his numerous subsequent achievements and awards, as well as possible complicity in wrong-doings, would take hours. But I like that early part of his story because it should inspire any young person for whom life hasn’t been kind.
Chin up, keep going.
Should I talk about the Communist Part of Malaya (CPM) cadres I had met and interviewed?
That was the main content deliberation ahead of my book launch presentation.
President Nathan served as director of Singapore’s Security and Intelligence Division (SID) from 1971 to 1979. Though resolving the 1974 Laju ferry terrorist incident is the highlight of his tenure, he was also directly involved with the Malaysian and Singaporean governments’ decades-long battle against the CPM. By then the CPM had been pushed northwards out of Malaya, finding refuge in Betong, a Thai border town. It signed a peace agreement with the Malaysian and Thai governments in 1989.
In 2004 Sumana Rajarethnam, my best friend, and I cycled up the Piyamit Hills near Betong to reach the old CPM base, where the former cadres had been given land by the Thai government as part of the agreement.
That was the one of the toughest rides on our month-long journey around Malaysia, which we did subsisting on RM10 (US$3) a day. That trip became the narrative thread for “Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore”.
We interviewed a former soldier whom in the book I call Betty. Like SR, Betty left home at 16: in 1978 she trekked with six others from Selangor to Betong, trudging through 350km of rainforests, to become part of the CPM’s bomb squad. She would strip dead Malaysian soldiers of guns, bullets, food, matches, boots.
“We could get 150 bullets from each soldier! The bullets could weigh up to 10 kg. And I was only 50 kg!” she laughed, a youthful, girlish laugh.
Sumana and I returned to the Piyamit Hills in 2011, which is when I photographed another former female guerrilla who was running a restaurant there.
But why are these Malayans, some of whom might be considered independence heroes, still stuck in Thailand? Why don’t we have a truth and reconciliation commission and allow them back? Surely the communist threat to Malaysia and Singapore is now long gone?
The CPM was formed in 1930 largely as an anti-colonial force. It first fought the British. Then it fought the Japanese (even as SR and LKY were “collaborating” with them). And then later the British again. LKY has admitted that without the CPM’s armed resistance, his own constitutional methods of wresting power away from the British would have taken much longer to work.2
We shouldn’t romanticise the CPM or be naive about China’s meddling. “Deng Xiaoping pulled Chin Peng [CPM’s leader] out of revolutionary retirement and promised him generous Chinese backing if he and the CPM now resumed the armed struggle in Malaysia,” writes Julia Lovell in “Maoism: A global history”.3 “Chin Peng, the obedient acolyte, complied. From bases on the border with Thailand, the CPM and its thousands of insurgents fought the Second Emergency against independent Malaysia and Singapore between the 1960s and ’80s, through jungle battles, political subversion, arson and assassinations.”
So, at my book launch: on the one hand I wanted to talk about the Malayan Communists. It’s a fun, sexy story with deeper lessons about the scripting of national histories, dealing with dissent, foreign interference, truth and justice.
On the other hand, in attendance would be President Nathan, who had personally been involved in the fight against them.
Think of it as the young, naive, waffly writer who grew up comfortably in modern Singapore (and who drinks a lot) trying to be idealistic in front of the battle-hardened experienced realist over fifty years older (teetotaller).
I was nervous.
President Nathan sat through the presentation calmly, and even chuckled when I described one of the times we had to break the law: Sumana and I cycled across the Penang Bridge, on which bicycles are banned.
“Not the first time I’ve broken the law, Mr President, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.” I can’t imagine too many other establishment folk in Singapore laughing in public at a joke like that.
That was also a tough ride. The cross-winds are mad, the lorries a whisper away, and the sorrow of leaving Penang weighs down the soul.
As President Nathan was walking out, he congratulated me again, and said “We need to talk about the communists one day. Don’t be too naive about them. I’ll share some stories.”
Sadly, we never got to have that tea.
But his words left an impression. Other members of Singapore’s Old Guard who subsequently shared critiques of the book had similar words: don’t underestimate the dark forces, don’t be too sanguine about provocation from other countries.
While acutely sensitive to the terrorist threats to Singapore, I used to be fairly doveish on the risks from other countries. So I’m grateful to President Nathan and others for moderating my stance a bit.
For sure, Singapore’s Old Guard cut their teeth at a very specific time in history, the end of empire, when Singapore’s international environment was novel and fast evolving, when China was lurching from one Mao-inspired tragedy to another, while the US and USSR battled for space supremacy, among other things.
Today’s world is different in many ways.
It’s thus important that we regularly question the “immutable truths” and existential realities that the Old Guard holds dear—even if only to revalidate them for a doubtful young citizen.
In keeping with that, I’d like to think that President Nathan appreciated hearing my stories of the CPM and others. Their voices matter.
We gave him a few copies of the book at the launch.
Five months later, his PA sent me an email:
“Mr Nathan asked if you could send him a few copies of your book. He wishes to promote your book.”
In today’s Singapore, with more vicious political polarisation, would an establishment figure like President Nathan still be as supportive of a non-establishment writer like myself?
Similarly, would I be as open to his views as I was then?
Political polarisation in Singapore is not as problematic as in other countries. This is largely because of the relative socio-economic homogeneity of the electorate, i.e. voters are more similar to one another than elsewhere.
Most Singaporeans are urban, well educated, of the middle class, and live in multicultural public housing environments. Most can afford to travel to neighbouring countries. Our school curriculums are largely the same, as are our communal spaces, whether hawker centres or parks. The entire “country” lives in a global city (albeit with obvious inequalities that we must address).
Politicians have long emphasised our ethnic and religious differences, while ignoring the electorate’s overwhelming socio-economic similarities, a convenient, self-serving political sleight of hand. #divideandrule
Contrast Singapore to the US, where voter ideologies and preferences can stretch from Middle America to global city, from the society portrayed in Netflix’s Tiger King to HBO’s Sex and the City.
Singapore’s political parties reflect this ideological closeness. Compared to the diversity of platforms overseas—imagine what a Trump v Sanders contest would have entailed—Singapore’s opposition seem like younger cousins of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). Some call The Workers’ Party, the main opposition party, “PAP lite”.
Nevertheless, polarisation has become more obvious, more petty and more vicious since my 2012 book launch.
I do not know exactly why. I look forward to seeing more research on this.4
I hope for this piece simply to spark conversations, to see how we can help promote more healthy discourse between people with different political preferences.5
In that spirit, I will share a few anecdotes and observations on different groups. These are Singapore-specific observations, I won’t bother delving into more global, secular trends, such as the rise of social media, that arguably have a bigger role to play vis-a-vis polarisation, and that I have touched on elsewhere (like in this piece on Fake News.)
– Let’s question the individual’s motives and character while ignoring the substance of their argument. This perhaps is the biggest problem in Singapore (and some other countries). It has trapped me in pointless discussions many times.
Friends have regularly asked me “Oh, but what is PJ’s/Alfian’s/Kirsten’s character like?” It is often used to deflect, when my friend cannot marshal an adequate response to aforementioned persons’ arguments, or defend their mistreatment at the hands of ministers.
It cuts both ways. Some on the non-establishment side might question any pro-PAP argument by attacking the person as a sell-out.
The “person” I’ve had to most often defend in this regard is Mothership.sg, an alternative media site whose owners I know and respect, but which has a reputation as a PAP tool, perhaps because of its perceived association with George Yeo, a former minister.
(Never mind that Mothership is quite happy to publish my commentaries, including this one calling for an inquiry into the Marxist Conspiracy.)
“The problem is that the existing vitriol and the inability to debate issues without attacking the person or their motivations have been amplified and multiplied by access to social media and the partisan use of mainstream media,” says Ian Chong, friend and political scientist. “This means that people have less and less space to disagree.”
– From the viewpoint of PAP voters, there is a nasty tendency for others to blame them for every darn policy misstep in Singapore. Often along the lines of: “Oh, you’re one of the 70%. Serves you right.” (Referencing the PAP’s 70% vote share at the last general election in 2015.)
It is as if PAP voters have to own every single political or policy decision, from the 2017 constitutional change for the reserved presidency to the flip-flopping on personal mobility devices (PMDs).
In Singapore’s representative democracy, voters actually have very little influence on day-to-day policies. Moreover, we might assume that a decent share of the 70% voted for the PAP not because they love them, but more because bo bian lah: they are less enamoured by the opposition.
So, while voters must ultimately be accountable for their decisions, this is an unhealthy line of attack, imho, that has poisoned the exchange of views.
– From the viewpoint of opposition voters, the old canard that the opposition and its supporters are anti-Singapore has grown more shrill.
In this worldview, shared perhaps by a fair number of PAP right-wingers, there is some dark conspiracy by the opposition to undermine Singapore’s stability. (It is a worldview, no doubt, that traces its roots to the siege mentality of the LKY-SR Old Guard.)
Accusations stray into treason and sedition. The accusers seem not to grasp the simple notion that other Singaporeans might have a different definition of “the good life”.
This also makes fair exchange difficult.
– The PAP right-wingers have been spurred on by a barrage of attacks by senior politicians in recent years against academics, artists, social workers, civil society activists and other ostensibly non-partisan players.
Two of my favourites are:
Ong Ye Kung, education minister, selectively quoting from the work of Alfian Sa’at, one of our leading playwrights, in order to demonise him, also comparing him to “nazis and violent jihadis”.
(Read: administrator gives a public literature lesson to a playwright.)
K Shanmugam, law minister, spending six hours nitpicking at the dissertation of PJ Thum, an Oxford-trained historian. Over 130 academics around the world wrote an open letter in support of Thum. Oxford itself said that Thum’s thesis “was written to the very highest standards of historical research that Oxford expects of its doctoral students”.
(Read: lawyer gives a public history lesson to an Oxford-trained historian.)
– Around the world we are seeing assorted uprisings against the authority of “experts”. Singapore has largely been immune to this, thankfully. Certainly in the hard sciences I don’t see too much questioning of authority: the one Singaporean I know who is an anti-vaxxer is very much the exception in my life.
But worryingly, in the social sciences, as evidenced above and elsewhere, certain elements of the PAP are adopting this anti-expert ethos, which has shades of a Jordan Peterson attack on the liberal intelligentsia at universities. Everybody from senior Singaporean academics overseas to Yale-NUS administrators might get caught in this dragnet.6
– When it comes to civil servants, I see three potential issues vis-a-vis polarisation. First, for some time now, civil servants across the spectrum have been unfairly maligned for political decisions. Many Singaporeans conflate politics and governance (as the PAP would arguably like them to).
Second, many elite civil servants try hard to present the facade of impartiality but in reality may be fervent PAP supporters; indeed many have long seen the Administrative Service as a stepping stone to politics.
Third, for the civil service rank-and-file there is often the opposite problem. Many are actually quite independent-minded but are assumed by many outside to be PAP lackeys.
Part of the problem is that often the rank-and-file are easy targets in the line of fire—they, unfairly, bear the brunt of responsibility for decisions made much higher up. Think of COVID-19 frontline workers getting pummelled by the public.
– On polarisation sparked by employment, labour issues and immigration.
Prime-minister-in-waiting Heng Swee Keat made a speech in September 2019 on the three major challenges to social cohesion: income inequality, a growing inter-generational divide and deepening political polarisation.
He said that Singapore’s “tripartite model”, the seemingly harmonious relations between governments, unions and businesses, has helped to deepen cohesion, and “enabled us to overcome crises time and time again”.
Barely half a year later—think dormitories, contractors, migrants—I wonder if he’s changed his mind.
Perhaps it is the failure of the tripartite model to integrate the views of all stakeholders, including NGOs like TWC2, that is the main reason for the shocking societal polarisation with respect to the migrant worker COVID-19 challenge, independent Singapore’s biggest ever humanitarian crisis.
Are the South Asian migrant workers victims or unhygienic? Are nurses underpaid or whiny? Singapore seems more divided than ever.
Immigration, meanwhile, is a complex issue that deserves its own piece. (Soon.)
– Finally, the media. Singapore’s mainstream media (MSM) has fuelled polarisation by failing to fairly cover alternative and opposition viewpoints.
Over the past few years, these are just a few of the many viewpoints a mature, thinking society would have deserved:
– An argument for why the 2017 reserved presidency might not have been wise
– Proper coverage of the numerous alternative proposals to solve “the HDB issue”. (Something Mothership does.)
– Raising the alarm earlier about the worker dormitories
Because the MSM will not cover these viewpoints, commentators are forced to publish them elsewhere.
This over time creates a natural ideological opposition between Singapore’s mainstream and alternative medias.
It’s a shame. The MSM has many good journalists whose voices are muffled. They should be freed of PAP oversight.
Every time I hear a politician, like Heng in that speech, rail against ”echo chambers, silos and fake news”, I chuckle, for that is precisely what the PAP’s control over the MSM has contributed to.
“I think what Singapore can do with are better processes for dealing with and tolerating difference,” says Chong. “It is not that someone with a different or jarring view needs to be silenced. These things need to be debated.”
On August 26th 2016, Singapore held a state funeral for President Nathan. At the funeral they played Thanjavooru Mannu Eduthu, The Sands of Thanjavur (Tanjore), from the Tamil film Porkkaalam.
The song is about a dollmaker who collects sand, water, clay and other materials from different parts of India to make a doll. President Nathan said it was his favourite song as he saw it as a metaphor for how the various ethnicities and cultures come together to form a cohesive Singapore.
Whatever our colour, political preferences or ideological bents, we are each in our own way slowly shaping the same Singaporean doll.
I think President Nathan, the Japanese-speaking Tamilian who grew up in Malaysia, married a Bengali, and then proudly served independent Singapore’s Chinese prime minister, would have wanted us to remember that.
This was shot at East Coast Park by photographer Alwin Lim of LightedPixels Photography. A couple asked “the people’s president” if he could appear in their wedding shoot. So random, so odd, so beautiful. I love it.
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1 It was in keeping with Japan’s desire to drum up anti-colonial sentiment during its Southward campaign. Subhas Chandra Bose, “Netaji”, and his Indian National Army, supported by the Japanese, operated in Singapore in 1942-45.
The Japanese also helped set up PETA (Pembela Tanah Air – Defenders of the Homeland)in the former Netherlands East Indies, which became the backbone of anti-Dutch armed resistance after the war.
2 Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Times Media, 2000, p. 211
3 In her phenomenal book, Julia uses “MCP” for Malayan Communist Party; which I have taken the liberty of changing here to CPM, its official name, for the sake of consistency.
4 “There’s unfortunately not much [research] on political polarisation in Singapore. It’s a sad function of the lack of publicly available information on Singapore, restrictions on polling about politically related matters, and cost of doing research on Singapore created by the policies of successive administrations.” – Ian Chong, friend and political scientist
5 I’ve always been transparent about my political preferences: I’m happy with the PAP in power but we need many more opposition faces in parliament; the supermajority leads to arrogance, ignorance and the unhealthy temptation to meddle with the constitution.
6 If you want to dive right into the latest, check out this spat between Cherian George, Singaporean academic, and Yap Kwong Weng, principal advisor at KPMG, who some believe may be standing for election soon (aspirations Yap has denied).
Thanjavooru Mannu Eduthu, The Sands of Thanjavur (Tanjore), from the Tamil film Porkkaalam. Music video above; the song being played at SR’s funeral below.
Excerpts from President Nathan’s speech at my book launch:
“In my years of public service, one thing that stood out is Singapore’s ability to develop a society that lives in harmony, conscious of our different cultures, yet at the same time cognizant of our economic needs and goals…Within this context, the value of dialogue and scholarship are plain to see…
Whatever is said about the national identity of Singapore, the fact will remain that it is inextricably linked to that of Malaya. In so far as the Singaporean identity has changed, or will change in the future, its roots will always be traced as such. This is one of the reasons that the book is interesting to me…
For all the talk of globalisation, with increased trade links and labour flows, with outsourcing and financial integration, and a hundred other impersonal methods of economic analyses, this book seems to ask a simple question: How well do you know your neighbour?
…Instead of sitting in a classroom thousands of miles away, positing on an answer, I am glad he decided to cycle around the country to help answer this question…In an endeavour that took another five years, he interviewed hundreds of people from all walks of life – farmers, managers, ministers, shopkeepers, students and the like – from both sides of the causeway. What started out as a short trip around Malaysia had quickly become a deep look into Singapore as well.”
Haha, I love this shot of the panel discussion at the book launch. Donald Low and I are talking nonsense again, with Manu Bhaskaran in the middle wondering what we’re on about. Both my buddies, appreciate their time that day. (Special shout-out to Manu for making the intro to SR.)
4 thoughts on “President Nathan and polarisation in Singapore”
Thanks Sudhir for your invigorating insight into many issues which we couldn’t discuss, don’t want to discuss or not allowed to ! Keep writing – i’ll be looking forward to your next piece!
Great piece Sudhir! Thumbs up.