Dug up this “letter” while rummaging through old documents for deletion. Thought I’d share it with you, now that the British Empire has a new coalition goverment and new prime minister David Cameron’s perceived glibness seeemed to have done more damage than good.
Letter to Mr. Blair
Dear Mr Blair,
Just a mere few weeks after you took office, Lee Kuan Yew came a-calling to offer his unsolicited advice in all unseemly haste. And, no doubt, also to wrangle an invitation to the Great Hongkong Handover. But that is really him. That man has made a calling of giving advice to all and sundry, considering himself an experienced statesman of world standing while you, in his eyes, are an untried, inexperienced beginner who doesn’t have the benefit of his wisdom.
Also, he knows that you’re young and all your adult and formative years have been spent in a post-Empire Britain in which the ‘Great’ has become a mere echo of greatness past. Also, you made the mistake, like Patten, of calling upon him to seek illumination, thereby reinforcing his patronising proclivities. So, in the tradition of Lee, here’s some advice to you on how you can make Britain***a***’Singapore’.
My first piece of advice is “Never take any advice you have not paid good money for.” That applies to my advice, of course. Free advice is not worth the money it’s not paid for.
A further disclaimer. I know little of world, British or even Singapore affairs, not having the time nor interest nor presumption to make it a full time job to read all that stuff generated by academics, newspapers and diplomatic attaches. Unlike Lee, who has no other job at all, though he’s the highest paid Minister in the land and probably the world, too. All he does nowadays (and for a long time, too, when he was Prime Minister), is to follow world affairs assiduously while dismissing Singapore’s affairs as being too trivial to justify his attention.
Also, you get tired of running such a small country. Also, you run out of ideas, especially when you’re not very creative to begin with and your only claim to success is, in truth, dumb luck, in being in the right place at the right time to catch the Asian tide of ‘economic miracle’ success. Like Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and lately, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia. Especially Hong Kong, which has done better than Singapore. All these countries do not have the dubious benefit of a Lee Kuan Yew at the helm. Yet they are doing well, most posting 6% or better GDP growth rates consistently, some even bettering Singapore, which has been declining of late.
The main reason why Lee is so highly regarded is that he has been around the longest unlike the case in all the other economic miracle countries, which have had numerous changes of Prime Ministers. Hong Kong, for instance, has had a dozen Governors during Lee’s long reign. If it had had just one Governor presiding over its development, that Governor would today be hailed as a ‘miracle worker’ greater than Lee.
Of course, it helps that Lee also speaks the best English of all these Premiers, spicing his speeches and grand pronouncements with pithy quotes from Confucius to Samuel Huntington. He works at it, knowing that the Western media, which makes or breaks reputations, places great store on wit and grand speeches while actions, which are supposed to speak louder than words, are boring and difficult to document. That also explains Lee’s reputation while the many nondescript now-forgotten PMs who masterminded the growth of the other miracle economies are now unremembered.
He has few original ideas. In a speech decades ago, he exhorted his Ministers “not to try to re-invent the wheel but to go to the developed countries where they have had similar problems, and copy the solutions”. That has taken his administration very far, until now, when unique problems have begun to surface that have no parallel in the developed countries and hence, leave the ‘best brains’ of the country nonplussed. Many of the ‘original’ ideas they have tried to come up with have proven incredibly stupid, some even being the ‘brainchild’ of PAP Ministers with impressive Colombo Plan and Cambridge degrees.
So how do you make a ‘Singapore’ out of Great Britain?
To begin with, think small. Singapore has 3 million people in 225 square miles of land. There are more psychiatric patients in Britain alone than that. And as for area, some airports coming up in the region are bigger than this island. Case in point; it takes a mere 30 minutes to drive from North to South and 40 minutes from East to West, under normal traffic conditions.
That means you’d have to hive off most of Britain and govern over an area and population roughly the size of Greater London. Like a Lord Mayor of London except that you’d have all the taxation and law-making powers of the House of Commons. With only 2 Opposition MPs from the Conservatives to contend with. Suddenly, you begin to have an inkling of Singapore’s unique circumstances. And its ‘success’. There must be at least 50 cities — and I don’t mean countries — in the world with people and land area bigger than Singapore’s.
Next, you’d need ‘political stability’ to attract foreign investment to your ‘city’. Much can be justified in the name of that hallowed concept, including a harsh definition of democracy. That is partly why Democracy in Singapore is such a pale version of the real thing, so pale it’s like an Albino standing in stark contrast next to a group of normal people. An Albino Democracy, in short. Or God’s grotesque mockery of human pretensions.
‘Political stability’ is accomplished through several inter-related measures, the first of which is to eliminate the Opposition. That means you must sack all Conservative members who are working in your Labour Government, including the Public Service, Universities, Government-linked Companies and even Private Corporations over which you have influence. One Opposition Leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan was thus summarily sacked from his University Lecturer post several years ago by his Department Head, who, no surprise, is none other than a Peoples’ Action Party MP, Dr Vasoo.
(Note that Lee, who founded the PAP, one of the earliest political parties, never even thought of naming the party ‘Democratic’ or ‘Independence’, two very worthwhile goals in Colonial Singapore. His calling it “Action’ indicates that his Party was formed to further his personal ambitions and not for the good of the people. What is ‘Action’? Until now, nobody, not even Lee, can explain what it stands for).
Till today, Dr Chee cannot find himself a decent job befitting his PhD qualifications, so great and pervading is the PAP’s influence. That is something you’d have to develop your stomach for, a kind of total viciousness and determination to utterly stamp out any Opposition, however minor. It is so easy to control the Universities here because there are only two. That means you’d also need to hive off all the other universities under your administration and ‘concentrate’ on just two.
Furthermore, to eliminate all Opposition, you’d have to successfully sue, even bankrupt and sack from Parliament any Opposition Leader who seems capable enough to be a threat to Labour’s hegemony. This means you’d have to monitor every word spoken or written by William Hague and his team and successfully sue for slander and libel over even the most indirect and innocuous remarks and implications that you can twist to fit into an unboundedly wide net of catch-all legal definition of slander or libel — with your own very sympathetic judges to interpret the law as you will.
Please note that you will never fully understand the legal climate here (or the political climate either) but you can begin by realising that there is no jury system in Singapore. The jury was abolished with hardly any debate or second thoughts long ago. The reason is simple. A jury composed of citizens picked at random only for the one-time purpose of hearing the evidence, deciding guilt and awarding punishment, is almost impossible to influence or intimidate. That is the genius of the jury system.
Lee recognised that, which is why he abolished the jury and created a system whereby only the judge in the case will rule. This judge, being in the employ of the Government, is like all employees of the Government in Singapore, extremely sensitive to coercion. When a judge knows that his next pay-cheque or promotion depends on his ‘performance’, it clarifies the mind wonderfully. Which suits Lee just fine as events have proved. It is a system you will have to adopt if Britain is to succeed a la Singapore.
This legal aberration explains what exactly happened to another Opposition Leader, former judge and senior member of the Bar, lawyer Mr J B Jeyaratnam. He has had to pay fortunes in damages, suffer the ignominy of being evicted from Parliament and the dubious distinction of having the PAP Parliament pass a law specifically tailored and backdated for him, to hound him from Parliament and public life. And when his period of disqualification was almost over, found that the PAP timed the General Election so that he would miss it and thus be unable to contest for another 5 years. One judge, a Daniel probably, though his real name is Michael Khoo, was demoted for being ‘too lenient’ in deciding one of the cases against Mr Jeyaratnam. He could only resign and is now a lawyer in private practice.
Another very senior member of the Bar, a lawyer, this time a former judge and ex-Solicitor-General no less, Francis Seow by name, who stood as an Opposition candidate in a General Election, found himself incarcerated without trial under the infamous Internal Security Act, suffering physical and mental abuse, which included ice-cold air-conditioning blasts of air without a stitch of clothing on, with cold water thrown over him repeatedly to increase the distress, forced to stand for days without respite, while facing unceasing ‘interrogation’ and verbal abuse.
They knew he had a heart condition so maybe it wasn’t the worst they could do to him. He escaped later to write a book on it and is currently a Harvard Fellow in America, unable to even return, thanks to a very ‘creative’ use of the Inland Revenue Authority, which found him liable for ‘tax evasion’ (a common tactic used repeatedly against ‘enemies of the Reich’).
This IRA tactic was used last year against yet another Opposition Leader, Tang Liang Hong, a senior member of the Bar and a successful lawyer. (See the pattern?) He was accused by the PAP as an (variation on a theme) “anti-Christian Chinese Chauvinist” who would upset Singapore’s ‘political stability’ and was sued when he tried to explain to the Election Rally crowd why he was not (with facts like, ‘his own daughter being a Christian and that he spoke fluent Malay and had learned Indian Temple Dancing in his youth’ so he could not be what Lee insisted he was).
The PAP leaders led by Lee in effect turned around and bit Tang viciously, saying that these self-defence statements of fact imply that the PAP men were lying in their accusation, thereby and therefore Tang was slandering them (see the pattern?) A quick few months later, with summary quick execution of ‘justice’ Singapore-style, Tang was ordered to pay $8 million in damages. The IRA also confiscated his law firm files ‘for investigation’ to disrupt his practice. He fled. To this day, he has become another exile.
Another exile, even earlier, is Tan Wah Piow, who had the temerity two decades ago, as President of the University of Singapore Students Union, to participate in a trade union strike. He found himself jailed for 6 months for ‘rioting’ even though he was nowhere near the office where he was supposed to have ‘broken some chairs’ — but the word of the PAP MP, Phey Yew Kok, now a fugitive in Taiwan, carried the day. The judge chose to believe Phey. When sentence was passed, Tan Wah Piow congratulated the judge, Sinnathuray, on his “future promotion to the High Court”. Prophetic words and very prescient, too.
Tan served the sentence and upon release, was immediately driven to an army camp for ‘national service’, during which blatant victimisation can happen. His family begged for a day of reunion, which was grudgingly granted, and he escaped to Britain without a passport where he was granted ‘student status’ by the government of the day. Today, he is a lawyer and a British national. All you have to do is to call him in for half an hour’s chat and great illumination will befall you.
Meanwhile Phey had graduated from perjury to embezzlement and had escaped prosecution to live the good life in Taiwan with his ill-gotten fortune. Another corrupt PAP man, a Minister no less, Teh Cheang Wan, conveniently committed suicide with an overdose of sleeping pills to avoid a prolonged PAP scandal. Lee denies suggesting that Teh avoid a scandal thus but it seems to be a pattern to avoid scandals when PAP men are involved.
Another case of corruption ‘quietly handled’ was the Commandant of my national service Vigilante Corps. He was from the Peoples’ Association, a PAP organisation. Nevertheless, he took the national servicemen’s pay to gamble on the stock exchange. He was only asked to resign, his past loyalty counting for much. There was no publicity.
(Generally, cases of individual corruption do not harm the body politic. Corruption of the system do, as has happened in Singapore in which all major institutions are systemically ‘corrupted’ to keep the PAP in power and to reap the riches of the land, in the form of high Cabinet Salaries and even things like the building of a whole Junior College, staffed by hand-picked Teachers, for Lee’s elder son, Loong, when he was in school. Lee treats Singapore like his personal fiefdom because he considers that that is his ‘right’ because he ‘single-handedly’ created modern Singapore).
Of course, a token few, very few, Opposition MPs are grudgingly allowed, to gloss over the harsh reality of politics in Singapore. These men are carefully analysed and judged to be no threat to the PAP — indeed, some are an actual disservice to the Opposition cause — and hence ‘tolerated’. We in Singapore also have ‘Nominated MPs’, that is, MPs not voted in by the people but appointed by the PAP! Their objectivity, motivation and integrity are anybody’s guess.
This use (or better, abuse) of the legal process has not escaped notice by the braver observers. One wrote about the “compliant judiciary” here — an expatriate academic by the name of Christopher Lingle, in an international newspaper of standing, I forgot which — probably the International Herald Tribune. He was also sued for libel and of course, successfully. All these mean that in order to emulate Singapore’s ‘success’, you’d have to find a way to appoint your own man to be Chief Justice, who can then cast his long pall or judicial cloak over all the rest. In Singapore, this man is Yong Pung How, a classmate of Lee Kuan Yew (what a coincidence! But curiouser and curiouser is to come).
For example, when considering Singapore’s unique circumstances, please note that there are no more than several hundred legal practitioners here in the employ or self-employ of less than 120 law firms (just flip through our Yellow Pages) chasing less than a billion dollars worth of business. This means that it’s darn easy to monitor and control them. The PAP has men in all the large firms (and all the other professional bodies, too), numbering about 20, which know well which side of their Goh Chok Tong sandwich is buttered. So, if the firms want to contend for a piece of the billion dollar action, they know what they must do. Or, more often than not, what they must not do.
In any case, the largest law firm in the country is, surprise, surprise, Lee & Lee, the law firm of Lee Kuan Yew and his wife. Which so happens to employ Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s wife as a lucrative ‘partner’. Returning the ‘favour’, PM Goh chose Lee’s eldest son, Brigadier-General Lee Hsien Loong, as Deputy Prime Minister and designated successor. The other illustrious son in the illustrious Lee Family is also, surprise, surprise, a Brigadier-General, Lee Hsien Yang. Apparently, Loong didn’t take very ‘loong’ to make General and Yang became General at a very ‘yang’ age.
Loong’s rocket-straight ascent to the PMship began when he was just a Colonel. During the Sentosa Cable Car mishap, in which several tourists and Singaporeans drowned when the cables snapped and their cable cars plunged into the sea, Lee seized the opportunity to place his son in the limelight by appointing him to be Commander of the rescue effort to save the remaining cars, with trapped passengers, still dangling on the cables. That Loong was inexperienced and certainly not the best man for the job was obvious to all.
There were higher-ranking officers with better qualifications, not to mention the other minor consideration of the lives of those at stake. But these were unimportant in the ‘grooming’ (of the public — not Loong, who was long groomed from birth) of the next PM. The Government-controlled press (consisting of just one broadsheet daily in English, Mandarin and Malay; one afternoon tabloid in English; and an English Business broadsheet) dutifully splashed page after page of minute-by-minute interviews with Colonel Loong. So did the Government-controlled TV Station — note the ‘singular’ — there’s only one. I’m surprised that the sycophantic TV Station hasn’t produced a Serial on the Great Hero, Colonel Loong, who ‘saved’ several lives at the great sacrifice of his time and his well-appointed air-conditioned office, in the Sentosa Cable Car Saga.
The other son is also groomed as a kind of PM in reserve. Yang is now CEO of Singapore Telecom, one of the largest corporations here, and could make it to the Cabinet if he chose. Or if his father chose for him. Lee’s two sons learned English, Mandarin and Malay from young so that they could become Ministers and Prime Ministers. Lee saw to the former and still sees to the latter.
All these mean you have much to learn and adopt. Your children must be ‘groomed’ to be Generals, CEOs and PMs. You must have a law firm of Blair & Blair that is the largest in the country, with a monopoly of the business, including Government business. And you must employ in your firm, the wife or wives of your successors so that, in time, when your children are ready, your successors will return the favour and make your children PMs.
Since your firm of Blair & Blair will be the biggest, most profitable (Lee commiserated once that his wife’s earnings make him seem like a ‘kept’ man despite his $2.5 million annual salary) and most prestigious, it is only inevitable that many of the country’s judges will come from it. In Singapore, one that we recently know about (many others we don’t), is High Court Judge, Lai Kew Chai. He presided over Tang Liang Hong’s case (surprise, surprise) and Tang’s argument asking him to ‘disqualify himself’ was that Lai was a former long-time employee of Lee & Lee and so close to them that Lee, Loong and Lai had all three bought new, multi-million dollar condominiums all on the same day in the same development, near each other and had obtained unusual discounts from the developer, tycoon Ong Beng Seng, who knows Lee.
This but emphasises that there are financial benefits in knowing the right people — meaning Lee, his family and the PAP. Case in point, even the Spouses get into the action. Ho Ching, current wife of Loong (the first wife committed suicide for giving birth to an Albino and couldn’t face her husband and father-in-law who believed in superior genes and that PMs are descended from PMs, a belief which was discredited by the unfortunate birth) is CEO of Singapore Technologies and a prospective Minister.
Last year, she gave one of her cronies an overly-generous ‘Bonus’ of $1 million. Nobody dares ask why. From what little I know, Lee’s kin occupy high positions. Kwa Soon Bee, for example (Lee’s wife’s brother), was for long, Permanent Secretary for Health and even in retirement, still wields considerable influence over the Ministry. Another kin that I heard of from colleagues in Batey Ads where I was once a junior copywriter was the powerful figure of a Patricia Lee, sister or sister-in-law of Lee and a Director in the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board. She was not highly regarded by my colleagues for her brains but she nevertheless drew a high salary and occupied a powerful post. Coincidence? The natural consequence of a multi-talented family? Unbelievable? It gets curiouser and curiouser.
Time and time again, we are told that ‘political stability’ is the key to Singapore’s success. But what does it really mean? We’ve seen that its central tenet is the ruthless elimination of all Opposition. Another dictum is control of the press. There is no free press in Singapore. Instead, the tiny number of publications allowed (others have been closed down long ago) enjoy monopolies so that they can concentrate on Government propaganda, working hand in glove with the PAP, instead of having to compete like Fleet Street papers for circulation. Instead of a multiplicity of voices which can sound confused and discordant, there is the co-ordinated chorus of a conducted choir led by a PAP Conductor.
This monopoly means that the Straits Times Group of newspapers is rich, which means it pays its people well — Lee once boasted that the local press pays its people the highest salaries in the region — which means that its staff have a lot to lose by being too outspoken or vocal on issues not to be commented on. In other words, the press people become slaves to their high salaries, knowing full well that they lose it all if they are denied promotions or are sacked like Dr Chee Soon Juan.
The viciousness of the PAP Government’s ‘all-out’ co-ordinated campaigns against its critics like Dr Chee can be explained by the Chinese saying “Punish one to scare a hundred”. One ex-columnist suffered the full penalty of her mildly critical piece and no doubt, a hundred others learned the lesson quickly and in no uncertain terms. She is Catherine Lim, one of the very few ‘literati’ in Singapore — we produce less than a dozen works of novels, plays or poems a year, a veritable literary desert. Ireland, which has the same population as us, is a lot more creative — something the Government recognises Singaporeans are not.
Catherine used to have a column in The Straits Times until one ‘slightly critical’ piece offended the PAP. (She was never a political commentator — just a ‘social commentator’). The Government jumped on her with the full force of its awesome machinery. Her column was stopped. Thereafter, her new books were rejected by the Group’s publishing company and BookShop chain.
Being in a position to deal with news, local journalists are also sensitive to all the undercurrents of political life and know precisely what is allowed and what is not. In any case, the Straits Times Group has a PAP ex-Minister as Chairman and PAP members across the whole rank and file.
There has never been a tradition of press freedom. That tenuous tendril of life had long been stamped out under the jackboot heel of Lee; and business and making profits replaced it. That is precisely why the late David Marshall, first Prime Minister of Singapore, eminent lawyer and former Singapore Ambassador to France, called The Straits Times “poor prostitutes of the PAP”. He was wrong only about the “poor” part.
If anything could be, the TV Station is even worse. It is even more under the constraints of PAP men and women in its rank and file. Like the press, the Station has an atmosphere of cloak and dagger secrecy and national purpose like MI5 and MI6. All the media in Singapore operate under conditions like that of a Secret Service, in which job applicants are thoroughly vetted before they are hired, carefully monitored at work and in private life, subject to the control of PAP bosses and having to hew to the PAP line in every piece of job they do. They’d better if they know what is good for them.
When I was a junior sub-editor in The Straits Times, (the job lasted just 3 months but the consequences, a lifetime), my boss was Chief Sub, Roger Yu. Leslie Fong was an Editor. One night, Leslie came over to Roger and casually told him that he had a call “from Upstairs, not to overplay or underplay” the visit of a China Delegation (that was end 1975 or beginning 1976). Yu instantly knew what to do. This is all very normal and not worth commenting in the workings of the local media. Another time, we were sitting around when someone ventured that the Business Times (the Business broadsheet then in its early years) might have to close because of poor reception. Someone, Editor Seah Chiang Nee, I think, obviously much better informed than us, retorted that “the Government would never let it go”. The reason? The Government was trying to make Singapore a financial centre and no financial centre worth its name was without a ‘business paper’. Which was why most of the business news then carried in The Straits Times was ‘moved’ to the Business Times to fill its pages.
This ‘all together now, let’s work together with the PAP’ is, I must stress, the unthinking norm although it’s so very different from Fleet Street that you’d probably never understand its extent. However, to be less charitable, one could accurately describe the local media as long-time prostitutes in a large brothel who have gotten so used to their way of life that they do not even think that what they are doing is anything unusual or out of the ordinary. This ‘innocence’ (the ‘innocence’ of prostitutes) largely pervades all the important institutions, corporations and public life over the entire 225 square mile island.
Since freedom of the press is one of the major underpinnings of Democracy, it is important to note that you will have to systematically stifle the high journalistic standards of Fleet Street. Let me explain. In Singapore, journalism is not a calling but a well-paid job. So there is no Woodward and Bernstein determination, dedication and deviousness to unearth official wrongdoing. Fleet Street works with the Government some of the time, but always with a wary and critical eye to maintain its jealously-guarded independence. The local media works with the Government, period.
This means an uncritical, apologetic, cringing and fawning posture towards officialdom. In practice, local journalism is nothing but minor editing of newswire reports for overseas news and palming off of Government press releases as local news. This is much easier and more profitable than hard legwork and research. Even now, if you would pick up a copy, you’d see that The Straits Times devotes 70% of its pages to overseas news. Is it because readers are so desirous of being well-informed on international matters? The answer is no. Most simply scan the headlines and move on. So how do we explain the preponderance of foreign news?
The answer is simple. Lacking the tradition of Fleet Street, and fearing to dig too deeply or even commenting on local issues lest it treads on some Minister’s toes, the local media plays it safe by turning all its attention to news abroad. This is accomplished simply by printing what comes from Reuters, AP, AFP and other news agencies. Easy job. Even easier money. The thick pages of The Straits Times thus filled, for example, offers advertisers many pages to spend their money. A real cash cow. All the newspapers published by the Group suffer from this ‘cash cow disease’.
Of course, to (unsuccessfully) put a ‘local spin’ on things, there is a futile effort to re-write the newswire reports by combining them, so a news item may attribute the source as “Reuters, AFP & AP”. This allows a little room for re-writing. About 5 years ago, the local media started sending staff overseas so that it could byline its reports “From our Bangkok Correspondent”, etc. But a closer reading of the following news story would show that it’s probably obtained from the major news agencies, so easy it is in the world of the Internet and so difficult it is to really obtain the news first-hand and be able to seize and report its significance, given the limited resources.
This leads to the amusing spectacle of the Leaders in the Editorial Page always commenting on events abroad while turning a blind eye and a closed mouth to events at home. As for home news, it’s basically Government press releases, add a dash of interviews with an official, throw in a pinch of comments from the public and off to the presses.
This re-writing is practised across most of the local publications. It is simply too much work and manpower-intensive to create original columns of stories. One issue of “Her World” Magazine went on and on about how to meet men at parties. This is strange. I must explain. In other countries, women do meet men at parties but not in Singapore. This is due to another unique peculiarity of the local condition. About 85% of Singaporeans live in Government flats.
These are affordable housing but occupants must meet tough conditions. They must be a family of at least two, i.e. a married couple. This means that within the average 900 square feet flat, you’d usually find Parents and Siblings to spoil your party. What with the cramped conditions, neighbours ‘not only next-door but next-wall — just 5 inches away on the other side’ and relatives around, no party would be successful.
Private flats for bachelors are prohibitively expensive and the few community halls are no fun besides being difficult to rent. So why did the magazine write about parties as though it were commonplace? Aha. That article and practically all others like it are the result of Re-Writing, probably from “Cosmopolitan”, which is banned in Singapore. The same thing with computer supplements. These ‘borrow’ heavily from established international magazines like PC Magazine or Internet resources. Although we seem to have many of the institutions of developed cities, there is no real ‘depth’ in all of them.
The realities of women not being able to meet men is vividly revealed in the creation and functioning of the Social Development Unit. This organisation exists to match-make graduate women with graduate men in subsidised junkets (although the majority of taxpayers are non-grads), Lee having decided that brains are inheritable and Prime Ministerial quality inherited. (A belief that led him and his son Loong to perjure themselves in court that Loong’s Generalship and Deputy PMship owed nothing to Lee’s influence — the two men didn’t have to lie in court but they wanted to “for the record” — this is another example of the ‘innocence of prostitutes’ syndrome. In other words, Lee and son ‘honestly’ believed themselves. This can be explained by psychologists. When you’ve been in power so long, hearing only what you want to hear, with everyone deferring to you, scraping and bowing, you begin to develop a sense of self that is at odds with reality or how others see you. Lee and Loong really, really possess the self-deception and self-delusion that allowed them to perjure in court without the slightest sense of wrongdoing).
The peculiarity of cramped, high-rise living also explains Singapore’s ‘low crime rate’. This is more apparent than real. For criminals to flourish, there must be the cover of darkness, hideouts, ‘safe houses’ and places to congregate. In Singapore, there is none. With the entire 225 square miles almost completely filled with high-rise flats all lit at night, and the standard flat housing at least 3 to 4 family members, there simply aren’t places for criminals to meet and plan. The default meeting place for these low-life scum is the neighbourhood coffee-shop, which is well-monitored by the secret police, who look, act and behave like the scum they monitor.
Also, every block of flats has at least one policeman family and/or CID family plus several national servicemen families thanks to a ‘priority scheme’ for these applicants. There are also some ‘Block Representatives’ who are the grassroots organisation who watch what goes on around the neighbourhood and relay or help to enforce the Government’s latest campaigns. This means that the 85% of the population living in flats are under the watchful eyes of at least some of their neighbours. Because your people do not live in uniform blocks like us, with the same neighbourhood shops and amenities, living the same humdrum lives, you cannot duplicate this part of our social organisation. The actual coercive pressure may not be apparent but it contributes to a cowed and intimidated population.
Can you duplicate Singapore? When you began reading this letter, you probably harboured an admiration for Lee and a desire to emulate his ‘success’. These feelings probably began vaporising paragraph by paragraph as the realisation began to sink in that Singapore and Lee are not what they seem. But read on. There’s much more.
For example, to succeed like Lee, you’d have to develop Lee’s deviousness. It is instructive to see how Lee paved the way for his son Loong by removing the Deputy PMs. His long-time Deputy PM was Goh Keng Swee. Then Lee ‘persuaded’ him to ‘retire’ and go to China as ‘economic adviser’. After rotting there for years, accomplishing nothing because the Singapore Model is not duplicable, he came back to find himself effectively sidelined. Another Deputy PM was ‘persuaded’ to run for President. Despite running against a nobody who didn’t want to be President and protested publicly as much, Ong Teng Cheong is now President by a slim 51% to 49% majority. When there is no ‘Government Flats Upgrading’ at stake, as in last year’s General Election in which this ‘bribe’ to the people was the major issue, the people vote with their hearts and the PAP was lucky to get the 51%.
The success of the PAP also owes itself to a kind of low cunning in that every institution is consistently ‘warped’ to serve PAP interests. Take National Service, for example. In Singapore, males who reach 18 serve national service for 2 to 2.5 years. They then go into the Reserve where they are still liable for about a month’s Reservist training a year plus occasional Call-Ups during which they have to report at a few hours’ notice. They are not free from ‘official reporting and duties’ until they are in their forties.
So far, this may not seem much different from the Israeli model on which it is based. But the effect of national service on the males, their wives and families, is that they’d better toe the line because at any time from 18 till their forties, their lives can be made difficult by a higher officer, who can interrupt their private or working life by a summary order to report for some duty. And that officer has to report to an even higher officer, who could do the same. And it ends up high in the chain of command right at the Deputy PM, Brigadier-General Loong. Now you know why Lee’s 2 sons are Generals. The only military coup possible in Singapore will not be one that overthrows the Lees but one that the Lees stage in the event of an Election upset. Everything has been planned and pre-ordained.
If control of the military is important and resides in Lee’s 2 sons, control of the 2 Universities is equally important. Here, you need to realise that higher education is not like in Britain, a birthright enjoyed by citizens as a natural fulfilment of their lives and intellectual potential. Education has to serve the State, and the State is Lee and his heirs. Disciplines pursued meet national requirements, hence the emphasis on Science and Technology.
For a long time, language studies were de-emphasised by the Lees until they realised that the average Science and Technology graduate could not think and, with the dawning realisation that language is the basis of thought, the wheel came full circle and language studies were re-instated. But in one respect, the system is still flawed. Most schoolchildren have to learn two languages (some even learned a third dialect when young). This produced several cohorts of minimally bi-lingual students but with very few excelling in any language. This must have a deleterious effect on the brain-power of the present and coming generations who are not good in any language.
This serves to show that whatever (dangerous) notions emanate from the Lees become public policy without debate (currently, Loong is sounding off on the teaching of history, with the total confidence of a man who doesn’t know what he is talking about), a state of affairs you do not and cannot enjoy. It is but one example of how total (as in ‘totalitarian’) the Lees’ control is and how subservient the rest of the Government and people are — something the British people are certainly not.
Another dangerous notion is Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew never forgot how he was thwarted in his ambition to become PM of Malaysia, a desire that resulted in the eviction of Singapore. So Lee went on to institute National Service and to build up probably the most formidable Armed Forces in the region. The 2 natural enemies are, of course, the neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Indonesia is the greater threat because it is so much bigger and its Government and political system inherently ‘unstable’. Not to mention that during President Sukarno’s era, he had waged an armed conflict against Singapore, then in Malaysia. But the build-up of the armed forces is targeted against Malaysia, which does not have an elaborate armed forces. This anti-Malaysia bias infects the whole armed forces through ‘political studies’. Indonesia is not targeted as a dangerous enemy. Malaysia is.
National Service per se is OK. Building up a strong defence is OK. But when it allows the leaders (meaning the Lee-ders) the luxury of military adventurism, it is dangerous. For example, Lee has been stationing a strong, well-equipped contingent of troops in Brunei to defend it against Malaysia, which surrounds this small Kingdom. It is, by any context, laughable for a 3 million people state to play US-style geopolitical games but the Lee bias against Malaysia blinds him to reality.
It is also dangerous to overestimate the power of the Singapore armed forces because the Generals are untried and the ranks inexperienced — intensive training notwithstanding. (No soldier or General in our history has ever fired at a target that could fire back).
The vagaries of a real war are also unpredictable, especially in an offensive drive against Malaysia. But the paper strength (as in ‘paper tiger’) of the Singapore armed forces has led the leaders to continually take a belligerent stance against its neighbour instead of diplomacy, in a Cabinet of hawks, currently with 2 Generals and an Admiral. The entire Civil Service is also full of Colonels, Majors, Captains, etc. This makes Singapore even more militaristic than Israel, its military model.
By no coincidence, national service and university education come together in the case of male undergraduates, which by now you know also involves intimately, their girlfriends, families, etc. Under the Lee administration, the target of its policies (or spite) is scatter-shot at the target’s family as well. The whole family is implicated. Innocent women and children are as much victims as the target.
How are the male undergrads controlled? Firstly, they would have served national service before they even applied for a university course. After 2 years in the army, they are very receptive to control. They have a Pavlovian tendency to snap to attention and shout “Yes, Sir,” the instant they smell an Officer around. To reinforce the conditioning, they also have to obtain a ‘Certificate of Suitability’ meaning (political) suitability, to enrol. Although few are turned away, this none too subtle reminder of the Lees’ power successfully keeps all the students cowed. In Britain, if you even so much as suggest this Scheme in Parliament, you’d face an outcry that could drop you 10 points in the popularity polls overnight. (There has never been an on-going ‘Satisfaction with the Government’ poll here because it would expose the Government’s unpopularity).
Further control is established through the fear of future inability to find good jobs. Every undergrad knows that a university education is not pursued for its own sake but as a means to a good job which then opens the door to a good life. In short, if they misbehave (slim chance given the climate and natural, cowardly reluctance to take on the authorities like Tan Wah Piow did) or do not obey their orders, they may not get good jobs with the Government, Government-linked companies or even private companies over which the PAP has influence (many PAP men sit in the management of large private corporations, of which there aren’t many). Could you institute this climate of fear in Britain? If you cannot, you cannot even begin to duplicate Lee’s success.
Since Tan Wah Piow was mentioned, perhaps it is fitting to relate how much things have changed since his participation in the union strike. There has hardly been any strike since Tan. In the last 2 decades, there hasn’t been a single strike — this says much about the labour movement here. This is part of the hallowed concept of ‘political stability’ and an important proviso in attracting foreign investment. Your Labour Government rose to power partly through your Labour franchise. But in Singapore, the unions are under an umbrella body called the National Trades Union Congress. And the top man is always a PAP Minister. The last one, Ong Teng Cheong became (narrowly) State President. Which affirms (rightly) that he was a featherweight whose only job was to control the Union Body. A better man would have become a real Deputy PM and thus bad for Loong’s intended succession to the PMship.
Not only is the NTUC PAP-controlled, it hardly busies itself with the non-existent labour movement. Instead, it has become a big employer engaging in big business (Insurance, Supermarket Chain, Taxi Fleet Operations, Holiday Resorts, etc) with tens of thousands of employees. It no longer ‘fights’ for employees but stands right on the side of the PAP Government. This effectively pre-empts any Labour Party in Singapore.
In your emerald isles, you have a hallowed Constitution, in part written, in part powerful, unalterable tradition that the people, press and other institutions will never allow infringement of. But in Singapore, there is no Constitution. This was the astonishing conclusion of the Vice-Dean of the Law Faculty of the National University of Singapore, Walter Woon, in an uncharacteristically unguarded moment.
He came to this sorry conclusion because of the many instances in which the Constitution was ‘amended’ to further entrench PAP rule. Here, I must explain. For the last 25 years, the PAP has had much more than a two-thirds majority in Parliament (ever since the Opposition Barisan Socialis abandoned Parliamentary struggle for protests outside of it) and it fights tenaciously to keep it that way. This means that amending the Constitution is as easy and ‘uncontroversial’ as passing a No-Littering Bill and evokes just about as much notice from the Press and the People. Enviable? It’s only one of the many, many ways in which the Lee System of Democracy differs from yours.
One example of this playing fast and loose with the Constitution is the Group Representation Constituency scheme. When outside observers with not very keen observation powers see that the PAP has such a vast majority in Parliament, they naturally conclude that the people are solidly behind the Government. That is precisely what the Government and its minion media want to project. The truth is, nothing can be further from the truth. The GRC Scheme is responsible for much of the lopsided PAP representation in Parliament. It works like this.
Suppose you won your constituency with an overwhelming majority but many of your Labour MPs barely survive their polls. You then change the Constitution to create at will, GRCs. This is done by carefully studying the voting patterns and ongoing polls. You then create a GRC by ‘merging’ your constituency with that of, say, 9 others to form a huge constituency of 10 members including yourself.
This way, ‘strong’ Labour wards can ‘piggyback’ weaker ones so that when the electorate votes a strong Labour candidate in, they vote the other 9 candidates in as well. Thus, you and all your top Ministers can be the ‘anchors’ to ‘piggyback’ many others into office for a huge Labour win in any General Election.
Is the GRC unconstitutional? Firstly, remember that there is no constitution (to quote Walter Woon). Secondly, there is no framework for the guarantee of civil liberties. Thirdly, we do not have the democratic practice of always offering the people the right to vote in an alternative, viable party as Government. You had a Westminster Office even in Opposition. The symbolism of that Office is that you were a potential Prime Minister waiting for the people’s call. Here, Opposition Leaders cannot even scrounge together enough funds for a small Party Headquarters to meet.
The poverty of our political life is largely due to the poverty of our Opposition, who not only have to work hard full-time for a living, but also do not enjoy the generous cash donations given to the PAP party, which has a huge war-chest that sustains full-time party workers and facilities.
There might have been a proper Constitution had Lee adopted the one crafted by an eminent British legal expert and one of the finest legal minds in the world. What happened was, Lee commissioned him to draft a Constitution. When it was done, Lee read it and threw it away, dismissing it as ‘too liberal’, explaining that the learned expert ‘did not understand our unique circumstances’. Meaning that Singaporeans ‘naturally prefer good or strong government rather than democracy’. And that, ‘like an old shoe’, the old Constitution ‘was more comfortable than a new one’.
It is sad that the constitutionality of the GRC Scheme was never challenged in court. There is probably a case to be made. At least, it would have served to highlight the inherent unfairness of the scheme. But such is the climate of jurisprudence here that the all-too-often aforeseen verdict discourages even the most obstinate Opposition. They also don’t have the money. The Courts here have never challenged the Government on any issue in the long reign of Lee. They are not likely to.
Another peculiarity of our ‘unique circumstances’: Every General Election sees the standard bogeys trotted out to frighten the electorate. These are usually described melodramatically (like the TV Station’s usual ‘cheap and nasty’ melodramas, notorious for their lack of action — no effects, car chases, explosions, stunts, gunfights or even fisticuffs) by the PAP themselves, as “the twin evils of communism and communalism”.
As for Communism, in the early history of our Republic (independent only since 1965), Lee had jailed Opposition Leaders without trial under the infamous Internal Security Act, claiming they were ‘communists’ or ‘pro-communists’. But with communism, especially Chinese Communism, mellowing into ‘Socialist Capitalism’, this bogey could no longer justify detention or the kind of all-out, utterly vindictive, demolition campaigns the PAP invariably mount against opponents (none of your measured speeches in Commons debates). It was never a gentlemanly disputation on how best the country should proceed but more like a thug wielding a baseball bat at a victim (Lee once admitted that he was astonished how like a thug he looked on TV when television was first introduced).
So, in the case of Tang Liang Hong last year, the other bogey was used — Communalism. Hence the PAP charge of “anti-Christian Chinese Chauvinist” and that “Tang is a dangerous man who can undermine racial harmony”, which, of course, implies that even the most vicious PAP response is totally justified.
That General Election was also notable for another development. The issue of ‘upgrading’ of Government flats. With everyone, except the very rich, living in flats, this was a major Bribe and Threat (simultaneously) that no one could ignore. The PAP promised that precincts which voted PAP would be ‘upgraded’ while those which did not will see their flats and neighbourhoods degenerate into slums, drop in market value, unable to obtain funds and even important services (like Emergency Lift Rescues), all of which would have to be supplied by the Opposition MPs the people are foolish enough to vote in.
As for the Bribe part, it was dishonest of the PAP to promise what it could not possibly deliver. And stupid on the part of the voters who thought it could. This is because it took 30 years at a frenetic pace to build all the flats that now house 85% of the people and there simply isn’t enough money (even if all the Reserves are used) to remodel the old flats into bigger new ones with better amenities, as promised. It is also a mind-boggling exercise to move out sections of the population at a time so that their flats can be remodelled, even assuming there is somewhere they can live during the two years that will be needed.
And as for the Threat, it was typical PAP ‘victimisation’. For some years now, the handful of Opposition MPs have had to struggle with the limited budgets for their little townships’ maintenance (limited on a headcount basis) while PAP MPs could obtain additional funds from the Government — even though the additional funds come from all the taxpayers, including those living in Opposition townships.
Sadly, this two-pronged approach of carrot and stick worked, reducing the pitiful handful of Opposition MPs to just two. The people, who proved so susceptible to the carrot and stick are, of course, donkeys. If the results are repeated in the next GE, then they must be asses. (That is another advantage the PAP has which you do not, i.e. having unthinking asses as voters).
Upgrading is, no doubt, important, because it enhances the flats’ value and selling price. So voters were voting directly for their pocketbooks, cynically so. Which means that any PAP claim that the voters ‘chose’ them over the Opposition cannot wash. To date, only a very few precincts are ‘upgraded’ as promised. The others which show some signs of ‘upgrading’ merely have had their lift lobbies re-tiled, or some such little improvement.
You can certainly learn much from the PAP’s Upgrading Bribe/Threat. With your present overwhelming dominance of the House, you are indeed in a good position to implement the PAP One-Party Rule.
If this has been a long letter, far longer than intended at the outset, it’s because there was simply so much to tell and it cannot close without mentioning the Central Provident Fund scheme in which you were interested enough to come to Singapore to learn about.
That the CPF scheme has been ‘successful’ here so far is entirely because of several reasons which militates against your implementing it in Britain. What are they?
Firstly, it is a ‘good’ scheme only if you’ve no other scheme to begin with. If you already have a comprehensive National Health Service and Unemployment Benefits, replacing these with a “Pay Everything Yourself’ Compulsory Saving Scheme like the CPF is a retrograde step. And one that the Conservatives will have a field day picking out the drawbacks.
This CPF ‘Pay Everything Yourself’ scheme pre-supposes one critical condition — that there will be full employment to start with and full employment in the next 10-15 years of implementation. If you cannot achieve that, you cannot adopt the CPF scheme. This is because the scheme is based on forced contributions from salary. Meaning that if you’ve no salary, you drop out of the scheme and its intended benefits. With your unemployment rate hovering about 6%?, this means that 6% of your labour force or several millions will be unable to contribute any forced savings.
It will also fail if you ever have a prolonged recession that throws millions out of work. That it hasn’t happened yet in Singapore does not mean it never will. Also, creeping or recession-inflicted ‘sudden’ unemployment will hit our CPF scheme less than it will hit you. The reason is, most households in Singapore are double-income. Both husband and wife work, contributing to their CPF which pay for their house, while maids or grandparents look after the children. When one is out of work, the other can continue the house instalments.
Then, too, the Scheme has been around for decades, so most Contributors have enough savings. If you’re just starting out, at a few percent, you do not enjoy this luxury. There is also the question of social justice. Every civilised society has tried to tax from the rich to give to the poor, the basis of your Robin Hood legend. The CPF scheme is the opposite, ‘every man for himself’, in that you look after yourself because nobody will. What kind of statement about a society’s values this says, will be interesting comment from your philosophers.
There is another insidious effect of the CPF. By forcing so many percent of the peoples’ salaries into the CPF, then allowing their CPF money for housing, people tend to buy better housing than they can actually afford if they have to pay in cash. This may be good for property developers and the Government housing authority but it means that CPF distorts spending. People, knowing they cannot touch their money until the age of 55, use much of their CPF money for housing while using their cash savings for cars. There is also the ‘pyramid’ effect. As long as there is full employment, as long as people contribute to their CPF, everything is fine. But once there is unemployment, the ‘pyramid’ collapses.
Anecdotal evidence: My father’s tiny 2-bedroomed flat cost just $7,800 in 1969. He sold it in 1995, 26 years later, for $100,000. My present 3-bedroomed flat cost $89,000 in 1985. Today, 12 years later, it is worth $450,000. This, despite the official inflation figure of about 3% a year. Thus, the CPF scheme leads to two effects. One, people buy bigger houses, thereby spiralling up property prices. Two, they spend all their spare cash on the other desirable, a car. This is why car ownership here is the costliest in the world and leads the Government to impose bigger and bigger car taxes, to no avail.
Thus, the net effect of the CPF is that money is diverted into housing and cars, leaving the retail, insurance and other sectors poorer and less dynamic than they could be. If you have a developed insurance industry, for instance, it will weaken because the CPF will force contributions into health care and retirement savings, reducing the need for private insurance. Your retail sector will also suffer because CPF will reduce discretionary spending there.
How does the CPF scheme really work in practice as against theory?
Firstly, everyone must work. If you’ve no salary, you don’t have CPF contributions to make. Since the contributions are compulsory and their use controlled, it is as if you pass legislation on how a large part of every worker’s take-home salary and savings may be spent i.e. a certain part on housing, others on health insurance and even some on certain ‘approved’ shares. I think you have many economists who will tell you that ‘forced and controlled’ expenditure is bad.
Then again, unemployment must be measured not only in percentage terms but also in absolute terms. Remember that Singapore’s total labour force is only 1.6 million people. Your unemployed alone is several times that. This means that you have several millions who will not contribute to CPF and hence cannot enjoy its benefits. This several millions will not only have no salary to live on but cannot pay for housing or medicine. This can be a huge social problem that your present system addresses well enough.
Also, if they have a job then lose it, the blow will be harder because they will not only have no CPF but also no cash to pay in lieu, a Double Jeopardy situation. Your present Unemployment Benefits are a lot more humane in that it allows that unemployment is not necessarily the fault of the person unemployed, which is the underlying basis of the Singapore system and explains why the Social Welfare pittance for the destitute person is set, punitively, at just $180 a month — if you can qualify under the harsh conditions.
(Just as the notoriously severe laws on everything from spitting to drug use is indicative of the Paragons of Virtues’ inability to understand anyone different from themselves, which has led to their pitiful attempts to legislate human behaviour into unthinking, robotic versions of what they imagine human beings should be).
This letter must come to an end eventually and this is as good a place as any. So, to conclude, I hope you will analyse the CPF scheme and the social and political context in which it can be successful and not just be swayed by the PAP’s bragging. But before I end this missive, a disclaimer. This letter is born not out of research or the grapevine of privileged connections. It is entirely the result of what has been reported in the papers but interpreted between the lines, through a jaundiced eye, if you will. In the future, some academic will produce a scholarly tome on the evils of the Lee system and it will be a damning indictment of the PAP. Until then, this letter must serve as a mere introduction.
Anthony Lim (pseudonym)
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