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Amanda Lee Koe: On the 50th Anniversary of Singapore’s Independence

Singapore may be one of the world’s leading financial centers, but is governing against ideology risky business for democracy?

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Image courtesy of Sheng Long Lua.

By Amanda Lee Koe

Henry Kissinger broke down in front of Lee Kuan Yew’s casket when he paid his last respects to Singapore’s first prime minister in March. Part of the narrative arc of the twentieth century came full circle as Kissinger eulogized his “close personal friend” in the Washington Post as such: “Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current US constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery.”

Brush aside its anachronism and one is left with Kissinger’s admiration of the fruits of Lee’s realpolitik. Kissinger—an unfashionable name to bring up in today’s vogue leftist intellectualism—is himself the American politician most linked to realpolitik: an equally unpopular term, most associated with an era of excesses in aggressive American foreign policy, most often under the auspices of “spreading freedom,” which have led to Kissinger being charged by some with war crimes.

Lee’s death this year coincides with the fiftieth year of Singapore’s independence, for which a grand jubilee celebration had been state-manufactured way in advance—and for which, it was widely hoped, Lee would be able to preside over. The long arm of the state coined the hashtag-friendly term “SG50”, and has actively been wooing artists, ad agencies and common citizens alike to participate in the festivities, which culminated in 9th August’s National Day Parade.

Baubles hung from angsana trees, state-commissioned films by eminent local directors, headlines in the papers and stickers on supermarket food products commemorate SG50 at every turn. Yet in countries where official media leans towards the state, true revelations of insecurity may be directly proportionate to the excesses of its celebrations of achievements.

At fifty years of independence, Singapore is the youngest first world country in the world. It began coming into its own proper in the 1970s, a time of global technological excitement—the birth of the microprocessor; the launch of the Voyager—and an epoch of rising Asian economic power as much of the western world saw a stagflation/recession. Having arrived without undergoing radical paradigm shifts (that made the Enlightenment a turning point in western history, for example) or deep national trauma (of dictatorial genocides as in choice countries), Singapore is perhaps better disposed to take a would-be dewy-eyed position of pure pragmatism in the name of survival, of scientific objectivity without the inexorability of moral, philosophical or ideological conscience drawn from native history.

Statistically, there is much to celebrate. Lee built up a metropolis with one of the world’s highest number of millionaires and GDP per head in exponential turnover time. In 1959—the year Lee took office—the average Singaporean’s per capita GDP was as low as that of the average American in 1860. Today, in real terms, the Singapore economy has advanced more in half a century than the American economy has advanced in a century and a half.

In 1954, when Lee first founded the People’s Action Party (PAP) and entered politics in Singapore after graduating with double-starred first-class honors in law in Cambridge, he was an opposition member, wet behind the ears, championing anti-imperialism, workers rights and unequivocal democracy—card-carrying leftist axioms. “But we either believe in democracy or we do not,” Lee charged the colonial British government in an impassioned speech at the 1955 Legislative Assembly. “If we do, then, we must say categorically, without qualification, that no restraint from the any democratic processes, other than by the ordinary law of the land, should be allowed.”

Through the years, Lee has often been painted by the western press as draconian, iron-fisted, authoritarian—words picked from the same waistpouch of high-minded “western” democracy.

Since then, the PAP has been Singapore’s ruling party from 1959 till today. Whilst Lee and his party have done much in captaining Singapore to where it is today, its sheer dominance of Singapore’s political landscape since the country’s pre-Independence makes the SG50 celebrations fraught in the sense that celebrating the nation’s jubilee is almost a tautology in celebrating the party’s political sovereignty.

By 1986, in power as the Prime Minister, Lee remarked at the National Day Rally that his party’s priorities were first and foremost the welfare and survival of Singaporeans, not democratic norms and processes, “which from time to time we have to suspend.” Lee innovated the law to allow the government detention without trial, and persecuted political enemies in this way through the years. This year, elderly exiles—some broken and tired, others still impassioned and tireless—the living legacy of his oppression, live on elsewhere in the world and on celluloid in the independent documentary To Singapore With Love, banned from all screenings in Singapore for “reasons of national security”.

In America, with a political system so yoked to ideals of liberty, justice, democracy and fairness, political actions based on pragmatic—rather than humanitarian—ideals may be regarded immoral or amoral. Accordingly, through the years, Lee has often been painted by the western press as draconian, iron-fisted, authoritarian—words picked from the same waistpouch of high-minded “western” democracy. Yet, there are American political, intellectual and even theological traditions that parse the realpolitik principles of pragmatism over ideology as an ongoing dialogue between American ideals and actions.

Kissinger was far from alone in singing Lee’s praises in the key of political realism—the Financial Times alluded to Singapore as “the concept of good governance” next to DC’s “Dysfunctional Capital”, while The Atlantic spoke of the irony of “authoritarian envy” when presented with the conundrum of the lofty pride Americans have in their democracy, when juxtaposed with the banal reality of Washington’s logjam. Lee might have been amused by these nuggets of reportage, having once had to declare forcefully to humanitarian-minded western press: “It is my business to tell people not to foist their [political] system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work.”

Idealism was to be filtered through the reality of time and place. Yet at the same time—and despite his burgeoning success and power—Lee had the discretion to not attach an -ism to his name.

Despite the praise Lee received by contentious American figures, realpolitik in the US is widely understood as power politics—and more often than not, used disparagingly, with an implication of the coercive and amoral. But realpolitik’s origins were, in fact, more progressive, and more focused on state affairs rather than foreign policy. The term was coined by one Ludwig von Rochau, a radical German writer since forgotten by history. Disconcerted by the languid failure of 1848’s Springtime of the Peoples, Rochau styled himself “a liberal mugged by reality.” The liberal gains of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions that swept Europe that year had all but evaporated by 1849, subsumed as they were by more organized reactionary forces. Seeing that the bloodshed and enthusiasm of his contemporaries had yielded no lasting outcomes, a pained Rochau wrote that “to bring down the walls of Jericho, the Realpolitiker knows the simple pickaxe is more useful than the mightiest trumpet.” Realpolitik is practical governance over the ideological.

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In modern Singapore there is little real speak of ideology at all (if ever) in recent decades. “Ideological” and “critical” are somehow perceived as pejorative terms even though both words are, in and of themselves, nonpartisan. To date there have never been quantitative polls of note on ideological self-identification in Singapore, though the “conservative Asian society” label is often trotted out by the PAP when it is seen to help contextualize a policy.

Part of the realpolitiking efficiency—some might say facileness—of the PAP of today is that on the surface they seem able to lay claim to a broad spectrum of ideological positions. They can almost be both Democrat and Republican at once, changing hats on an issues-basis. They can inhabit positions from left to right to center, and everything in between, by asserting a putative lack of ideology in their politics, via a seemingly value-free allegiance to pragmatism and meritocracy, science and progress, which also gives an impression of absolute party unity. With the upcoming elections in Singapore, the PAP’s recent claims towards so-called collective responsibility for schemes benefitting underprivileged elders, sounds opportunely left-of-center. Yet when wooing investors one can only imagine the right-wing neoliberalism sell.

The PAP sidestepped the very question of morality from very early, by presenting itself as unavailable in the moral arena. The test of morality is one they cannot fail, because it is a race they were never interested in participating in. Lee never hid the fact of his iron-fistedness. Au contraire, he scoffed openly at the “sound and fury” of American libertarianism. “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters,” Lee said in 1987. “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Idealism was to be filtered through the reality of time and place. Yet at the same time—and despite his burgeoning success and power—Lee had the discretion to not attach an -ism to his name. Either he was shrewd and unsentimental about the pseudonymity of power in a country that regarded him as its founding father, or he had faith in the longevity and legitimacy of the institutions and policies that he had established and that he envisioned would live on after his death.

“You’re talking about Rwanda or Bangladesh, or Cambodia, or the Philippines. They’ve got democracy, according to Freedom House. But have you got a civilized life to lead?” Lee drily asked Western reporters in 1997, referring to Asian and African countries that identified as democracies. “People want economic development first and foremost. The leaders may talk something else. You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like?”

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On the stock-taking occasion of the country’s fiftieth year of independence, amongst the ambit of things that remain to be seen following Lee’s passing, is firstly, whether a pick-and-mix culture, drawn alternately and sometimes spuriously from Confucian values and laissez-faire economics, can stand the test of time as the Singaporean body politic grows more sophisticated.

Lee’s utilitarian commingling of best practices plucked from Mainland Chinese deference and American ambition might have allowed him to create a technical framework within which to achieve the goals he had set for Singapore. But the patchwork quality of these traits—divorced from their original ideological and traditional dimensions in the tabula rasa of freshly-independent, multi-racial Singapore—have made for half a century of a “value-free” political system in Singapore. Many of the best people in power may be seen as highly-efficacious paper pushers or policy makers rather than inspiring leaders, where national identity is an ongoing item of discussion (as if it could be discussed into life), and where culture feels, unsurprisingly, corporate.

Singapore’s size and demographics may make it suited to being viewed as a test-bed for future cities, but it is worrying that its best practices are being exported as value-free exercises in effective governance and urban outlining.

Second is whether the Singapore experience is replicable, scalable and sustainable. An oft-leveled charge against centrists who bring up Singapore as an effective model of authoritarian capitalism is that Singapore is anomalous to itself. Lee’s success is seen as contingent upon specific intersections of physical geography, population demographics and transitional nation-building time; Singapore is not seen as having a standing impact on geopolitics. But when Singapore-as-model city/urban experiment is pushed to its furthest logical conclusion, we see that Singapore’s geopolitical traction might move in ways more liminal than we expect to notice, at large. 150 kilometers away from Beijing, China is the site of the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city, a collaborative project (if a city can be called a project) between Singapore and China that is currently undergoing construction. When completed, the city, which will house 350,000 residents, is meant to be a model for sustainable development and will be subject to Key Performance Indicators such as ambient air quality, proportion of subsidized public housing and the generating of jobs within the eco-city.

Nixon considered it “an incalculable loss to the world” that Lee’s breadth of vision was not blessed with a broader stage. Despite this, it seems that following Lee’s passing now, his legacy of authoritarian capitalism and efficient statecraft is being contemplated as part-model, part-anomaly, part-dangerous precedent by a broad swathe of concerns. Regional and international presses are both critical and admiring as are democrats studying anti-corruption and corrupt technocrats alike.

It remains to be seen if the Sino-Singapore Tianjin Eco-city will come to fruition, and to what degree, though further projects are already being planned for western China, and Singapore’s authoritarian capitalism model-at-large was an inspiration for the economic reforms that Deng Xiaoping enacted to open China’s market up in the 1980s. Of course, the realpolitiker would point out that the pragmatic use of studying Singapore’s successes is not to emulate it wholesale, but to engineer relevant strategies of transitioning from the status quo to an enhanced v2.0 of cosmopolitan imaginations, rooted and adapted to the particularities of the reality of its host country.

Singapore’s size and demographics may make it suited to being viewed as a test-bed for future cities, but it is worrying that its best practices are being exported as value-free exercises in effective governance and urban outlining. If cities are increasingly envisioned as projects and reverse-engineered within a pragmatic framework to achieve maximal productivity, then they retrogress into featureless, hypertrophic real estate.

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The measure of a country’s worth can no longer be connoted by its surface area or its natural resources, its space program or its active forces. North, South, East and West anticipate somatic shifts in power narratives and capitalism/socialism binaries circumnavigate White House/Kremlin/Beijing divides.

Much of America still holds dear its allegiance to freedom, fancying democracy the only ideologically-tenable stance, even as democracy has been downsized to personal liberty—and not people power—in a time of late-capitalist neoliberalism where individuals are reduced to consumers and market actors, when activities are evaluated as per market terms, and institutions—businesses and countries alike—are run as enterprises. What does it mean to have freedom if one’s choices are all, at the end of the day, consumerist? Even so, those who still hold fast to the ideal of democracy forget that the realist is not opposed to all the things the idealist believes in. What vexes the realist is not idealism per se, but the results (or lack thereof) of unchecked idealism.

Affluent, emergent city-states like Singapore cannot be content to run like seemingly value-free enterprises complicit with the marketization of every sphere of life; cannot contend that the ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society establish conditions that improve the standard of living for the majority of its people. Singapore regularly tops indexes for GDP, higher education, life expectancy, global competitiveness, whilst holding some of the lowest graft, infant mortality and crime rates in the world: there is much to appreciate in the city-state. But now, on the cusp of its fiftieth year of independence, it teeters on a hotbed of concentrated wealth vis-à-vis growing inequality, a dearth of organic culture alongside a still-paternalistic government that over-coddles, and in the process, underestimates, its people (which includes, for better or worse, a growing middle-class millennial generation—more exposed to global arts and political culture—that is entering the electorate, who wonder, in good faith, why “ideological” and “critical” are bad words).

For a country to have a culture of its own, it has to have ideals. For ideals to mean something real to its people, a government cannot pussyfoot around ideology. For revolution to be real, it has to be realist.

Realpolitik may deliver results, but results become abstract if they are not accompanied by intuitive values and ideals to hold them dear by. The citizen can then only feel his country’s accomplishments at a remove. For all the pyrotechnics and glitz of its SG50 parade, Singapore has yet to build up a cogent core that will allow it to own its achievements with the equanimity of self-assurance. This core, this narrative, has to be built from the inside out, not the outside in. It has to be built bottom up, not top down. It has to be innate, not learned. And it cannot be value-free; it cannot elide ideals and morality, or only pay lip service to them and dispense from them when they become inconvenient.

If a country is not built on ideals, but on practical exigencies, how can it mature into its own when it moves into a time where the practical and the exigent have largely been taken care of? For a country to have a culture of its own, it has to have ideals. For ideals to mean something real to its people, a government cannot pussyfoot around ideology. For revolution to be real, it has to be realist.

Amanda Lee Koe is the fiction editor of Esquire Singapore and a 2013 Honorary Fellow of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She is the youngest winner of the Singapore Literature Prize for the short story collection Ministry of Moral Panic, which was long listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University’s Writing Program where she is working on her first novel.

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2 comments for Amanda Lee Koe: On the 50th Anniversary of Singapore’s Independence

  1. Comment by K on August 12, 2015 at 1:33 am

    Hi.

    Thanks for an eloquent article and the stimulating read. You stress greatly on the importance of a system in which ideology plays a foundational role in pushing a nation forward. I’m curious to know if you have any specific ideals or values in mind.

  2. Comment by Mark on February 9, 2016 at 11:13 pm

    Lee/PAP/Singaporean ideals? How about freedom from poverty? Or equality of opportunity? Multi-racial harmony? Can’t these be considered ideals? I think that some people–the article’s author included–draw a false binary between the so-called ‘ideals of America’ and the ‘pragmatism of Singapore.’ Just because Lee said he was into non-ideological, pragmatic governance does not mean that he lacked ideals. Indeed, I would argue that he–and Singapore–always had them.

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