Two months ago one of my closest friends and biggest fans/inspirations/all the rest of it passed. This is a bunch of random reflections, in the disjointed fashion in which we spoke (past tense…sigh). Some of it won’t make sense. Sorry. The only part that might approximate a traditional obituary, if you’re keen, is the last section, “A suitable marriage of Singaporean idealism and pragmatism”, where I tell the story of the time Engsu hosted Lee Hsien Loong and Rodrigo Duterte, leaders of Singapore and The Philippines, at The Coconut Club
Because I’m still in love with you, I want to see you dance again
On Thursday night, September 12th, hours before I heard the news, I was watching HBO’s Big Little Lies, after a day of walking in rural Portugal, and I thought of Eng Su. Nicole Kidman and her husband were dancing to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon, and I remembered the way Eng Su used to sing Young’s Old Man.
Those were the days when Nengks used to sing regular songs, before he decided that he had an obligation to feed our ears with undiscovered gems, that he needed to excavate Motown with the same tenacity he did his own feelings and past.
Malaysia’s and Singapore’s governments at each other’s throats? We’ve been here before. One of the reasons why Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP) and, until May this year, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional (BN) have won national elections more consistently than any other party in democratic Asia is their ability to ratchet up domestic nationalist sentiment against the other.
The PAP has ruled Singapore for almost 60 years while the BN era (including its Alliance predecessor) lasted 61 years. BN may no longer be in power, but Malaysia’s current governing coalition, Pakatan Harapan (PH), has as prime minister ninety-three-year old Mahathir Mohamad, a former BN leader and persistent thorn in Singapore’s side. There is a tiresome familiarity to it all.
We can be sure of three things. First, once the sabre-rattling is done, the governments will eventually resolve all aerial and maritime boundary issues amicably.
Second, the big losers will be us, the citizens. In a world struggling to deal with nativism, and the dangers posed by demagogues who preen their exclusive identities at the expense of our common humanity, it has been worryingly easy for politicians to ignite dormant antagonisms against the other.
Malaysians and Singaporeans are essentially the same peoples—in both countries one finds the same ethnicities, the same religions, the same cultures, the same cendols (almost). If even we can be so easily turned against each other, what hope do other more conflicting identities elsewhere in the world have?
Politicians on both sides have exhibited passive-aggressive tendencies. Rais Hussin, a supreme council member of Bersatu, the Mahathir-led party that is part of PH, wrote an Op-Ed that combined a conciliatory call for cooler heads with a bald-faced threat that Singapore was at risk of “pain by a thousand cuts”. It was remarkable not least because one rarely sees a Malay channelling a punishment from Imperial China.
Tan Chuan-Jin, Singapore’s speaker of parliament, reposted on Facebook a potentially incendiary video that suggests Malaysia may have nefarious motivations for its actions, such as inciting racial disharmony in Singapore. He also asked followers to keep Singaporean soldiers “in our prayers”, a divine exhortation one usually associates with boots on battlefields. He ends off saying that “no one is trying to be jingoistic”, which is precisely the sort of disclaimer that makes one worry about jingoism.
Dear reader, yesterday I published a piece on Oxley mostly for a foreign audience.
During my research, my conversations with numerous people threw up lots of fascinating insights into personal motivations, characters, the way Singaporean institutions work with each other, the way power is deployed, and so on. Much of the juicier, hearsay stuff should probably be saved for coffeeshop talk, but here are a few issues—separate from the ones I address in the piece—worth pondering:
Let’s not talk about it? First, the most worrying thing. If Singapore ever faces a serious corruption problem at the top, we now know there are many Singaporeans who won’t bother. A corrupt leader may simply be able to waltz off with the family jewels.
Think about it. The prime minister’s own siblings had accused him of abuse of power. Instead of simply being curious about the incident, never mind calling for an investigation, many Singaporeans shot the messengers—please don’t air your dirty laundry in public.
Worse, there were suggestions that Singaporeans shouldn’t talk about this because it damages our country’s reputation. People were more concerned about face than abuse of power. Let’s just sweep everything under the carpet, now. That’s the mature way to deal with problems.
The Old Man. Shouldn’t LKY shoulder at least a bit of the blame? For somebody so decisive in life, he has proved frustratingly ambiguous in death. He flip-flopped over including the demolition clause in his will. He gave each kid an equal share of his estate; but, knowing that they disagreed over the fate of the Oxley Road house, he gave the property to Lee Hsien Loong but placed his demolition desire, legally, in the hands of the executors, Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Wei Ling, the only one to live there. Settle your differences, he seems to have been saying.
The Old Man, clearly, was never able to reconcile his two competing morals: on the one hand, shunning monuments (destroy the house), and on the other, realising that the state’s interests must always supersede the individual’s (let the government decide).
I suspect, given what we now know about his squabbling children, that he may not have died in peace. Which is sad.
On a related note is LKY’s fabled belief in simple living. It’s all quite ironic, isn’t it? This was a man who inspired a country of materialists. So while the rest of us have been upgrading our shoes, phones and TVs every chance we get, the founder was still chilling in his midcentury wooden chair. And now we want to preserve it all.1
Sarojini Naidu, a poet and political activist, once joked that it cost India a fortune to keep Gandhi in poverty. She was referring to, among other things, the fact that while he travelled in third-class in his homespun dhotis, lots of money had to be spent on buying up tickets to clear up the cabin and ensure his security.
Observing the fracas over 38 Oxley Road, one wonders if we might one day say the same about LKY’s simple living—that it ended up costing us a fortune.
The squabbling children. With Hsien Loong, his motivations seem fairly clear. The house offers a physical link to his father, from whom he derives much legitimacy. It is fairly well accepted that if Hsien Loong were not his father’s son, there are others in the party, including George Yeo and Tharman, who might have posed a bigger challenge. (That said, let’s acknowledge that Hsien Loong was born with a challenge, with shoes to fill, beyond our wildest.)
Dear reader, I recently published something on the brouhaha involving Singapore’s Lee Family in Foreign Affairs. I’m allowed to republish the first 250 words here; for the rest one must visit the site here (free signup necessary): Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, is facing the toughest test yet of his 13 years in office. In June, his two siblings publicly accused him of abusing … Continue reading a piece on the Lee Family Oxley Road saga
Do people become subversive after reading Animal Farm?
George Orwell’s allegory on totalitarianism was one piece of evidence Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) allegedly seized in 1987 during Operation Spectrum. Thirty years on, the arrest and detention without trial of twenty-two people accused by the government of plotting a Marxist conspiracy to overthrow the state is still an episode shrouded in fog. There are good reasons today for society to embrace a more honest conversation about it.
The facts bear mention. On May 21st and June 20th 1987, a total of nine men and thirteen women, aged eighteen to forty, were arrested and detained by the ISD using powers conferred by Singapore’s Internal Security Act (ISA). The accused were a mix of activists, Catholic Church members, social workers and theatre performers. Some had ties to the rejuvenated Workers’ Party.
A week after the first arrests, the government released a statement tying them to a supposed plot masterminded by Tan Wah Piow, a Singaporean student activist who had gone into exile in London a decade earlier. All of the detained eventually gave written and/or video confessions.
By the end of 1987, all except Vincent Cheng, a church worker, had been released. On April 18th 1988, nine of the ex-detainees issued a statement recanting their confessions, saying they had been made under duress.
All but one, who was overseas, were rearrested the next day. They eventually reaffirmed their original statements and were again released. Two lawyers representing the detainees were also arrested, detained and later released. Cheng, the last detainee, was released in 1990.
Almost immediately doubts emerged about Operation Spectrum’s veracity. In 1991, Walter Woon, later to be Attorney-General, said “As far as I am concerned, the government’s case is still not proven. I would not say those fellows were Red, not from the stuff they presented.” In 1992, Minister S. Dhanabalan resigned from the Cabinet because of his discomfort with Operation Spectrum.
In 2001, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, personal friends with some of the accused, said “although I had no access to state intelligence, from what I knew of them, most were social activists but were not out to subvert the system.” Mary Turnbull, noted historian on Singapore, has called “the alleged Marxist conspiracy” a myth. (Source: C.M. Turnbull (2009). A History of Modern Singapore, 1819–2005.)
Despite this broad-based suspicion about what happened, the government has yet to conduct an inquiry. In 2011 the Ministry of Home Affairs reasserted its position that the twenty-two “were not detained for their political beliefs, but because they had involved themselves in subversive activities which posed a threat to national security.”
Many believe there is nothing to be gained from an inquiry into something that occurred thirty years ago. That is myopic. A nation cannot be built on collective amnesia. By conducting one, Singapore can finally ascertain the truth, strengthening societal cohesion, as well as public faith in its national security apparatus.
To understand why, it is worth first considering the allegations made by the detainees about their time in jail. Long reticent because of their fear of reprisals, some have in recent years started speaking out. Many claim they did not know each other before the arrests. The picture they paint of detention without trial, if true, is grim.
For the first seventy-two hours detainees claim they were made to stand barefoot in thin clothes while being interrogated in a tundra-like room by ISD officers wrapped in winter wear. Sleep deprived, the detainees started hallucinating.
For a bit of context, this reflection was originally published in Suddenly The Grass Became Greener, a limited edition “book of photographs made in Singapore during her 50th year as a nation, and the coincidental death of her gardener”, by photographer Kevin Lee. Check it out here. A friend wrote yesterday to say that she found the piece relevant given the return of the dreaded … Continue reading Singapore, the (occasional) garden city
Over time, the PAP has become a party more for the rich and for the elite. Yes, it will do things for the lower- and middle-income citizens. But more because it wants our votes to stay in power. I’m not convinced it genuinely, compassionately considers every Singaporean as an equal human being. Maybe a long time ago it did; but not anymore.
Some government critics think the party is corrupt and is enriching itself at our expense. Again, I don’t buy that argument at all.
I just think the PAP has become so fixed in its ways, in its belief in a natural aristocracy, that the best way for society to progress is by nurturing the elites.
Which many of us don’t agree with. So, in 2011, I thought, OK, if the PAP loses one GRC, it’s going to reform.
Sadly, no. A few tweaks here and there, but it’s the same old party with the same archaic beliefs. Does the PAP have the ideological adaptability to lead Singapore in our next phase of growth?
I have serious doubts. The demands of the next fifty years are immeasurably different from the last. The PAP’s perennial, indefatigable, prioritisation of growth over distribution, and its aversion to welfare, are ill-suited for an ageing population, slower growth, rising income inequality and wage stagnation.
On a related note, one of the many problems governments around the world are grappling with today is striking the right balance between national priorities and the demands of transnational corporations/the global elite. The PAP has always been far too accommodating of both constituencies. (And, as mentioned, all its leaders probably belong to that global 0.1%.)
Conflicts of interest in turn point to the dangerous nexus of political, policy and business power in Singapore.
Before I begin describing this and highlighting why it is bad for Singapore’s future, I want to emphasise three points. First, my arguments here are about conflicts of interest; not cronyism or nepotism. There is no evidence that cronyism or nepotism afflicts Singapore in any significant way.
Second, I have chosen to name certain public figures below simply because there is no other way to show the existence of these close networks of families and friends in power. Naming them in no way implies that they or their families/friends have ever been involved in anything illegal.
Third, this point is a non-partisan one. Though all the names below are of people close to the PAP—owing to our country’s unique political and institutional history—my broader argument is that Singaporeans should, from here on, vigilantly guard against the emergence of these networks. Today the PAP; tomorrow perhaps the WP.
Every time I think I finally comprehend how closely-knit our leaders in Singapore are, I learn something new that shocks me. This time, it is the network of a new PAP candidate in Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC, whom I will eventually get to.
But first, we need to start at the top: Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Hsien Loong and Ho Ching. Though all of you are aware of this trio, it is important to reiterate its existence and continued power in Singapore today, albeit without the late Mr Lee.
It seems like Nepal has faded quickly from our thoughts. More than 5,000 have died and one million children are in urgent need of help following a 7.9-magnitude earthquake that hit on April 25, 2015. That was followed by dozens of aftershocks and tremors registering more than 4 on the Richter Scale. The earthquake’s epicentre was in Gorkha, the district from where Gurkhas historically come. … Continue reading Nepal, Singapore, Gurkhas