They crammed into an art cafe in Singapore and pulled no punches, deriding authoritarian officials who ruled with an “iron fist” and complaining that government ministers with million-dollar salaries were out of touch.
One woman, a middle-aged professional, got nods of agreement when she said modern Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, had done great things but that new ways were needed from current leaders still practising a “do-as-I-say style of parenting”.
Singapore remains regimented but the unusually frank criticism at the recent gathering, part of a government-run national “conversation” about the city state’s future, reflects the reality that this is no longer the era of Lee Kuan Yew.
LKY, as he is widely known, built the tiny Southeast Asian island into one of the world’s wealthiest nations with a strong, pervasive role by the state and no patience for dissent.
Now 89 and in declining health, LKY has receded from the public and political scene, leaving the government of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his elder son, to deal with economic and social challenges roiling the country of 5.3 million people.
“The time has come for a younger generation to carry Singapore forward in a more difficult and complex situation,” LKY said in 2011 as he resigned from the cabinet after the ruling party suffered its worst election result in history.
Saying they feel inundated by foreign workers and priced out of their own homeland, Singaporeans are angry. And with the hugely respected figure of LKY retired from the political stage, they are no longer hesitant to show it.
In online chatrooms, letters to state-linked newspapers and at the “Our Singapore Conversation” sessions, they are pressing for answers from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) which is doing more to listen but struggling with how to change after five decades in power.
Despite the new climate of open criticism, there is still some trepidation about speaking out in front of journalists. At the recent “conversation” session, the organisers asked Reuters not to identify the participants so they could talk freely without being intimidated by the presence of a foreign reporter.
LKY’s long-standing openness to foreign workers clashes with the current mood and detractors decry his paternalistic and stern ways, including defamation lawsuits against critics.
But his legacy as Singapore’s first prime minister for 31 years and then advisor emeritus is not in doubt.
Last August, rumours spread that LKY was gravely ill or had died. When he disproved the chatter by appearing at the National Day parade, the flag-waving crowd erupted into cheers.
In February, he was hospitalised when an irregular heartbeat interrupted the flow of blood to his brain. But he turned up at a forum a month later and took the stage with Paul Volcker, the former chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve.
Replying to questions about U.S.-China relations, Europe’s woes and Asia’s future, LKY showed his intellect remains intact and powerful. But his speech was slow and sometimes difficult to understand. Many of his answers were short and trailed off.
Volcker prompted nervous laughter from the crowd when he said: “Singapore is going to have to adjust to Lee Kuan Yew at some point not being the guide.”
“VESTED IN THE SYSTEM”
That adjustment is already happening, senior officials say, with LKY leaving the current leaders to set policies without him pulling the strings. The pace of change is the big question.
Hit by voter discontent in 2011 and again in a by-election in January, the PAP must walk a fine line in pacifying the public’s concerns without abandoning policies that have created a financial powerhouse where stability and an ease of doing business are magnets for investors and multinational companies.
“We have to work in a more open way. We have to accept more of the untidiness and the to-ing and fro-ing, which is part of normal politics,” Prime Minister Lee told the Washington Post.
“It is a major change, of course, which we hope we will be able to navigate safely over a period of time and not suddenly.”
While the PAP’s majority in parliament has shrunk to 80 of 87 elected seats, few expect the opposition to prevail in the next election in 2016. But as the PAP charts the way ahead, there are internal differences over what approach to take, senior officials say.
Some of those divisions were on display in parliament in February over a government document that envisioned the population swelling by as much as 30 percent by 2030, largely due to more foreigners, to maintain economic growth.
“I have very serious reservations about the white paper,” PAP member Tin Pei Ling said during the five-day debate.
Inderjit Singh, also from the PAP, said: “Our past decade of rapid population growth has already created too many problems which need to be solved first before we take the next step.”
During LKY’s time, it was very rare for PAP politicians and civil servants to publicly voice any difference of opinion. But the new scope for dissent extends only so far.
In the end, no PAP member voted against the white paper and it passed by a 77-13 margin. Singh was not present for the vote.
Despite the unusually heated debate, the outcome illustrates why speculation may be overblown about a split in the ruling party or major shifts in policy when LKY is no longer around.
“They still have this pretty much authoritarian kind of mindset,” said Kumaran Pillai, a businessman and former chief editor of The Online Citizen, a popular public affairs website.
“I don’t think the split would happen so soon. The main reason is a lot of PAP cadre members, grassroots members and the elite are vested in the system and they aren’t going to let it fall apart just because Lee Kuan Yew has passed away.”
“MORE OPPOSITION VOICES”
The government has taken steps to restrict immigration, cool the property market, build up infrastructure and broaden social safety nets. But it did itself no favours with the population white paper which sent public anger into overdrive and, for many, reaffirmed the PAP’s reputation for prescriptive policies.
“I just want more opposition voices,” said Brendan Mok, a university student with a dragon tattoo on his arm. “At the same time, I don’t feel the opposition is solid enough for anything that could deliver positive change. But we do want more debate.”
Mok and his friend Ron Ho, who both voted for the opposition in 2011, said the priority was to narrow income inequalities and address concerns about housing, good jobs and living costs.
“A lot of Singaporeans aren’t happy and one of the reasons is because there’s a lot of status anxiety here,” said Ho.
With the PAP under pressure to listen, the year-old “Our Singapore Conversation” is assuming greater resonance.
In a Singaporean twist, the dialogue about the role of the state is organised by the government at venues such as The Connoisseur Concerto, a boutique cafe where about 50 people from diverse backgrounds recently gathered.
Crowded around low tables, they tucked into a buffet dinner and then engaged in a feisty chat about the PAP listening but not really changing and about well-paid officials being out of touch with anxiety over public transport and home prices.
“They don’t take the train, they don’t take taxis, they don’t live in HDBs,” said one woman, referring to the state-built Housing & Development Board apartments where most Singaporeans live. “So how do they know?”
Lee Kuan Yew, who continues to espouse the need for immigrants and scolds Singaporeans for not having enough babies, is also seen as out of touch as citizens challenge the government’s top-down approach and demand their voices be heard.
With characteristic bluntness, he summed up his own legacy in the book “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going” published in 2011, just before the election that led to his retirement.
“It’s irrelevant to me what young Singaporeans think of me,” he said. “I’ve lived long enough to know that you may be idealised in life and reviled after you’re dead.”
Filed under: Commentary, Quotes | 63 Comments
Tags: lee kuan yew, pap, people's action party, singapore, succession
Lee Kuan Yew makes his first appearance since his hospitalisation. CNA:
Former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew said that one key factor for Singapore’s success is the confidence people have in the country.
Mr Lee was speaking at a dialogue organised by Standard Chartered Bank on Wednesday evening.
Joining Mr Lee for the dialogue were former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and former chairman of US President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Paul Volcker, as well as Standard Chartered’s group chief executive Peter Sands.
Mr Lee said investors have confidence because of Singapore’s sound institutions, and to build them the country must have a stable government.
Mr Lee said he does not see any developments that will change that situation in the short term of five, 10 or 20 years.
“It will be very stupid of us to shake that confidence. The confidence rests on several pillars – institutions, sound policies by the government – you can always predict what we are going to do in any given situation, and an open trading area,” said Mr Lee.
Filed under: Event, Quotes | 15 Comments
Tags: confidence, institutions, lee kuan yew, paul volcker
A Wise Man for the World: Singapore’s philosopher-king on an ascendant China, the threat of Islamism and America’s entitlements crisis
A more positive review from the Wall Street Journal:
China already dominates Asia and intends to become the world’s leading power. The United States is not yet a “second rate power,” but the inability of its political leaders to make unpopular decisions bodes poorly. Russia, Japan, Western Europe and India are, for the most part, tired bureaucracies. If Iran gets the bomb, a nuclear war in the Middle East is almost inevitable.
These are among the many frank forecasts laid out in a slim volume based on the experiences and insights of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and Asia’s ranking philosopher-king for much of the past half-century. Tiny Singapore has always been too small a stage for a leader of Mr. Lee’s intellect and ego. His interests have extended across the globe, as has his influence. For decades, world leaders, corporate CEOs, scholars and journalists have made the pilgrimage to Singapore to seek his views.
“Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” forms a kind of last testament of the ailing, 89-year-old Mr. Lee. It is based on interviews with Mr. Lee by the authors—Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. diplomat—to which the authors add a distillation of Mr. Lee’s speeches, writings and interviews with others over many years.
The book focuses forward on Mr. Lee’s prognostications, not backward on his accomplishments. Messrs. Allison and Blackwill refrain from commentary on the man and his ideas, letting readers interpret for themselves. The downside of such restraint is that “Lee Kuan Yew” doesn’t truly convey Mr. Lee’s combative candor or the exceptional subtlety of mind that I was privileged to experience in my own interviews with Mr. Lee over two decades. It was his combination of penetrating brilliance about the wider world and prickly pettiness in his own Singaporean laboratory (e.g., banning two Dow Jones publications for the sin of free expression) that made him so fascinating. …
The Chinese language itself—which “is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by its society”—is another obstacle to China’s great-power aspirations. So is a culture that does not “permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.” (Mr. Lee adopted English as Singapore’s national language; he never fully adopted free expression.)
Filed under: Book review | 44 Comments
Tags: china, grand master's insights, lee kuan yew, united states, wall street journal, wsj
Lee Kuan Yew out of the hospital. Wall Street Journal:
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew has been discharged from hospital after recovering from a strokelike condition, the Singapore government said on Sunday.
Mr. Lee, 89 years old, was “resting at home” after being discharged from Singapore General Hospital, where he was admitted Friday after suffering a suspected transient ischemic attack that was associated with an irregular heartbeat, the prime minister’s office said in a brief statement. It didn’t say when Mr. Lee left hospital.
A transient ischemic attack, also known as a “mini-stroke,” is a temporary blockage of blood flow to the brain that leads to strokelike symptoms. …
“The doctors are following up with him to optimize his anticoagulation therapy, in order to minimize the risk of further transient ischemic attacks,” the statement said.
The prime minister’s office announced Mr. Lee’s hospitalization on Saturday, saying he had recovered and was being kept under observation.
Filed under: Newspaper, Report | 10 Comments
Tags: discharge, hospital, ischemic attack, lee kuan yew, mini-stroke, stroke
No word from Lee lately. Meanwhile, a scathing book review in the Vancouver Sun:
If Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and at 89 still the “Minister Mentor” of his patrimony, feels he has been maligned in speech or print he is always swift to bring charges of criminal libel or slander.
And Singapore’s judges, always so fair and trustworthy when dealing with civil cases on which the Lion City’s reputation as a business hub depends, have a long record of putting an extremely high valuation on the reputation of the man whose benevolent shadow still shelters his five million subjects.
But Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill, both American academics and former Washington officials, need have no fear that their new book on Lee’s pithy analysis of global trends will land them with bankrupting fines or prison terms as has happened to other commentators on the record of the Minister Mentor.
The title of this book – Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World – gives a warning that we are entering a realm not of context, analysis and assessment but of hagiography. …
If the introduction creates an unreal world of flamboyant ego-stroking, once the reader finally gets to the words of the Grand Master himself things get seriously weird. …
The chapters are presented as Lee’s responses to interview questions, and Allison and Blackwill did have some interviews with the Minister Mentor for the preparation of this book.
But Lee’s responses have been cobbled together from numerous published interviews with several journalists as well as extracts from his own speeches and writings. …
As for the content, there are no big surprises.
Filed under: Book review | 5 Comments
Tags: graham allison, grand master, hagiography, lee kuan yew, robert blackwill
A review of OB Markers: My Straits Times Story, by Cheong Yip Seng, former Editor-in-Chief of the Singapore Press Holdings, published by Straits Times Press. Asia Sentinel:
From the very first chapter of this book to the last, it is full of detailed and astonishing revelations about the mainstream media in Singapore. It is an incredible resource for those trying to understand the control of the media and Singapore’s brand of self-censorship. Indirectly, Cheong Yip Seng’s My Straits Times Story is invaluable in helping to explain the dominance of one political party through its “symbiotic” relationship to all the mainstream print media in our country. …
There is more evidence of intimidation documented in this book, mainly from Lee Kuan Yew, who actually endorsed the book prominently. For example, after an early event at the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, Cheong was threatened by Lee with the words, “If you print this, I will break your neck”. Cheong’s response to what appears on the surface to be a brutal threat is interesting was: “I was taken aback by his thunderbolt…It was my first taste of Lee Kuan Yew’s ways with the media…Thankfully not every encounter would be as bruising as (that)…but there were many occasions when the knuckleduster approach was unmistakable.”
Such blatant intimidation is presumably rare in Singapore. The title of the book, however, describes the life of a Singaporean journalist constantly trying to negotiate the “OB” or “Out of Bounds” markers. Cheong explains the origin of the term “OB markers”, ascribing it to former minister George Yeo, who described them as “areas of public life that should remain out of bounds to social activism and the media. Otherwise, society paid an unacceptably high price.”
Outside of race and religion, the most important OB marker was then PM Lee Kuan Yew’s argument that the press could not be a “fourth estate” or center of power because it was not elected.
This is not a valid argument to me as it could be argued that the press are far more accountable than politicians as they have to seek the approval of the newspaper purchasing public every day rather than every four to five years in elections.
Instead, Lee’s view of the press was that it was a tool for dissemination and promotion of government policies. One illuminating illustration was a “furious” call from Lee’s office that was received by the (now defunct) New Nation Editor David Kraal. The editors were “flummoxed” to discover that the then PM was provoked by a photograph of a large family to illustrate a story of a happy Singapore family. Apparently, this was perceived by the PM as “subtle but effective criticism” of the “Stop at Two campaign” in which Lee sought to limit families to two children. …
Cheong makes it clear that while he had hoped that the “knuckleduster era” belonged to the 1970s, it could reappear any time. For example, he describes how while “recovering” from the 2006 general election, he received a phone call in a hotel in Phuket, from Lee Kuan Yew who was “livid” about a “powerfully argued column by Chua Mui Hoong” in which the deputy political editor had questioned the policy of placing opposition wards at the back of the queue for upgrading works. According to Cheong, Lee was “his old 1970s self. If the Straits Times wanted a fight, he was prepared to do it the old way, with knuckledusters on”. This is depressing but not surprising to any reader of the ST today.
Filed under: Book review | 9 Comments
Tags: censorship, cheong yip seng, lee kuan yew, ob markers, singapore, singapore press holdings, straits times
CNA, with video:
Singapore’s former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has said that the country is well-placed to ride on China’s growth.
And while Singaporeans have a distinct advantage given their ability to read, write and speak both English and Mandarin, it does not mean they fully understand the Chinese culture.
Speaking at the Business China Awards on Wednesday night, Mr Lee said no two countries share the same culture.
He cited his own experience in learning from his foray into Suzhou and Tianjin.
Mr Lee said Singaporeans are westernised but the Chinese are not, but by being bicultural, Singapore, he noted, can reach deeper inside China to understand its growth story.
Mr Lee said: “For us we follow the rule of law. For them, an agreement is the beginning of a long friendship in which we make adjustments as we go along.
“Considering what is fair, and that makes for a misunderstanding at the beginning but we soon adjusted and we realise that in China, we do business the Chinese way which means we sign an agreement and it’s the beginning of a long friendship.”
Filed under: Event, Quotes, Video | 8 Comments
Tags: business china, china, lee kuan yew, mandarin, singapore
New books on Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew launched — in Malaysia, for obvious reasons. Malaysia Chronicle:
Comparison and analysis about the styles and qualities of two notorious Southeast Asian autocrats – Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad – are bound to be reignited with the release of two books published this year to coincide with the 25th anniversary of Singapore’s infamous Operation Spectrum that saw 22 social activists, lawyers, journalists and church workers detained without trial in May 1987.
One of the books ’Prelude to the Post-Lee Kuan Yew era’ written by political exile Tan Wah Piow, who was thrown into jail for allegedly “masterminding a Marxist plot”, will be launched on Saturday 24 November at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in Kuala Lumpur …
Wah Piow will also participate in a panel discussion to be moderated by social activist Maria Chin Abdullah at 2pm to 4pm. The other speakers are political analyst Wong Chin Huat and Dr G Raman, a Singapore laywer and former legal adviser to the University of Singapore Students’ Union in 1969.
BOOK LAUNCH & FORUM
Prelude to the Post-Lee Kuan Yew Era
Date: Saturday 24 Nov 2012 time: 2-4pm
Venue: Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
1 Jalan Maharajalela, Kampung Attap, Kuala Lumpur, Transit: Maharajalela
Smokescreens & Mirrors by Tan Wah Piow
Escape from the Lion’s Paw edited by Teo Soh Lung & Low Yit Leng
These two books on Singapore will be launched by
Mr Tan Yew Sing & Dr Kua Kia Soong
Followed by a panel discussion:
Prelude to the Post-Lee Kuan Yew Era
Moderator : Maria Chin Abdullah
Filed under: Uncategorized | 2 Comments
Tags: lee kuan yew, low yit leng, mahathir mohamad, Malaysia, maria chin abdullah, operation spectrum, singapore, succession, tan wah piow, teo soh lung
Mercy, or just a tactical move? South China Morning Post:
Prominent Singapore opposition leader Chee Soon Juan has been discharged from bankruptcy, the government said, after an unprecedented concession by two former prime ministers to whom he owed about S$500,000 (HK$3.2 million).
Ex-prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong agreed to accept a reduced amount of S$30,000 from Chee, which will free him from bankruptcy proceedings formally on Friday, a statement by the Insolvency and Public Trustee’s Office said.
Chee, the firebrand leader of the Singapore Democratic Party, was declared bankrupt in 2006 after he failed to pay S$500,000 in court-ordered damages to Lee and Goh. The two had sued him for defamation for comments he made against them during the 2001 general elections.
The development means Chee, 50, will be able to travel outside the country freely and also contest the next elections, which are due in 2016. Still, some commentators saw the concession by Lee and Goh as a political manoeuvre – allowing Chee to contest the elections could split the fragmented opposition’s votes further at a time when the ruling People’s Action Party has lost much support because of rising prices and an influx of foreigners.
“It could be that Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed, but it’s hard to believe that he has changed because it doesn’t fit his character,” said respected political commentator and former newspaper editor P.N. Balji.
“The other possibility could be to ‘muddy the waters’, especially for the coming general elections. Chee’s party and the [other opposition] Workers’ Party do not see eye to eye and there might be a split in votes for the opposition.”
Lee, modern Singapore’s founding father, and Goh have frequently and successfully sued opposition leaders and other critics for defamation. A report published by Human Rights Watch in January criticised the country for resorting to charges of contempt of court, criminal and civil defamation as well as sedition to rein in its critics.
And new readers may find some background helpful.
Filed under: Event | 3 Comments
Tags: bankruptcy, chee soon juan, defamation, discharge, indonesia, lawsuit, lee kuan yew, loan, singapore democratic party, suharto
Lee Kuan Yew, of Seremban, Malaysia, is dead. Borneo Post:
A motorcylist died after he was ran over by a lorry following his machine going out of control and skidding on the main road of Taman Bukit Galena here last night.
In the 8pm incident, the victim, Lee Kuan Yew, 48, died at the scene of serious head and body injuries.
Police said Lee was passing through the housing estate on his way back to his house in Taman Mutiara Galla when the incident happened.
The victim’s body was sent to the Hospital Tuanku Ja’afar mortuary.
Filed under: Event | 5 Comments
Tags: accident, death, lee kuan yew, not that lee kuan yew