Will Singapore Inc survive the passing of its long-time CEO, and more importantly will there finally be time for rhyme, asks Hamish McDonald?
When James Minchin, an Anglican priest from Australia who had lived in Singapore for many years, wrote an insightful book about its then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1986, he gave it the title No Man is an Island.
Yet when this week, after Lee died at the age of 91, his son and current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong broke the news to the nation by stating: “We won’t see another man like him. To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”
Now that his overpowering presence is gone, the question is whether the Singapore that was almost synonymous with Lee Kuan Yew will hold together or start to fragment (or free up, to use a less ominous term).
It was sometimes called Singapore Inc, reflecting its tight managerial style of government and directed thinking, but the island-republic has at times more closely resembled a family firm rather than an executive-run corporation.
Not only has the family provided two prime ministers, the Civil Aviation Authority, state-owned SingTel, the sovereign investment fund Temasek, and the Singapore Armed Forces have all had Lee family members in command positions.
The family law firm, Lee & Lee, for many years run by Lee Kuan Yew’s late wife, was one instrument used to break political challengers from outside the ruling People’s Action Party through the notorious defamation actions in a cowed judiciary.
The bureaucracy would dig up dirt on political defectors like former president Devan Nair or former solicitor-general Francis Seow. The details would then be slathered across the state-owned print and broadcast media. After standing as an opposition candidate, Chee Soon Juan lost his university job after alleged misuse of official stationery and postage was suddenly discovered.
Yet after continuous power since 1959, the grip of the PAP on the minds of Singaporeans has noticeably weakened.
The last elections in 2011 saw its vote share fall to 60 per cent, its lowest ever. Though the PAP still held 81 of the 87 seats in parliament, the first-past-the-post voting system could translate further electoral slippage into an avalanche of seats for the opposition.
With attractive young professionals like the lawyer-academic Sylvia Lim replacing the old soap-box orators like Jayaretnam in the Workers Party of Singapore, the opposition is much more presentable to the public vis-├а-vis the high-achievers typically recruited by the PAP, and perhaps seen as less elitist.
The PAP itself could break up along factional lines, especially if Lee Hsien Loong hands over to a non-family successor.
Beneath the glittering achievement of Lee Kuan Yew and his chosen successors in raising per capita GDP to some US$55,000, are resentments over rising inequality and a sense of identity loss, with Singaporean citizens now less than two-thirds of the island’s 5.5 million residents.
Lee’s tough-minded and blunt views on international strategy made him a darling of conservatives in the Western world, who overlooked his domestic restrictions on free expression and the corporatist economics of high mandatory savings funnelled into state investment funds (which were not always well-invested).
Yet Singapore remains unpopular in its closest region, one reason why it maintains the best-equipped and most battle-ready armed forces in Southeast Asia.
It is resented not just for its success, but for the reason that part of the success has come from exploiting the weaknesses of its neighbours. Singapore is regarded as clean on corruption, but possibly $200 billion in corrupt earnings from Indonesia is held in its banks. Singapore was the conduit of choice for the Myanmar military and its business cronies when sanctions held.
Recently even Australia has been querying the use of Singapore as a pathway for profit shifting, though Australian businesses and institutions find the island a comfortable regional base and source of partnerships, and the two peoples, with comparable hybrid immigrant popular cultures, get along well.
So where does Singapore go from here? One reason for the question is the zig-zagging path of Lee Kuan Yew himself, usually defined as commendable “pragmatism”.
His background made him a chameleon. His wealthy Straits Chinese family gave him a sense of non-British identity. Working for three years for the Japanese state news agency Domei during the wartime occupation he perhaps learned a lot about media control. Then he became Harry Lee, the Cambridge and Inns of Court barrister. Moving into politics he enlisted Leftists as allies, then crushed them mercilessly.
In office he stressed English language, then Mandarin. Races were ranked as “hard” and “soft”. The promotion of “Asian values” waxed and waned as the Western economic model was seen as in decline or revival. Population growth was discouraged, then promoted as wealthier Singaporeans showed unwillingness to propagate their genes. Strict morality was eased to accommodate a synthetic version of Bugis Street, the old transvestite hangout, and two lavish casinos to capture more of Asia’s stray money.
No doubt Singapore will continue to go with the global and regional trade winds.
Internally, its system and political culture seem ripe for change. As expatriate Singaporean writer Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan wrote in Foreign Policy this week, the island’s younger and educated people are no longer inclined to accept Lee’s 1960s statement that “Poetry is a luxury we cannot afford.”
Hamish McDonald is Journalist-in-Resident at the Australian National University’s College of Asia & the Pacific, and a former regional editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.