June 25, 2017

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by Bertha Henson

THAT was a masterly response from Madam Ho Ching! Read her post and you can see an Asian aunty tidying up after pampered children. You can see her with a broom and a dustpan carrying out the dutiful daughter-in-law responsibilities – or being a “dogsbody’’, as she put it rather old-fashionedly.

This image hardly tallies with the Lee siblings’ first description of her as a power hungry matriarch with too much influence over civil servants. She was, they said, the opposite of their mother, the late Madam Kwa Geok Choo.

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“Singapore has no such thing as the wife of the prime minister being a ‘first lady,’” they said in a joint statement released on June 14, 2017. “During those many years, his [Lee Kuan Yew’s] wife (our mother) consistently avoided the limelight, remaining his stalwart supporter and advisor in private. She lived discreetly, and set a high bar for the conduct of a prime minister’s wife. She would never instruct Permanent Secretaries or senior civil servants. The contrast between her and Ho Ching could not be more stark. While Ho Ching holds no elected or official position in government, her influence is pervasive, and extends well beyond her job purview.”

So far, the Lees have only brought up one example which they think is unwarranted intervention on her part and that is regarding the removal of items from the house. She was painted as the wicked daughter-in-law who removed items from the house even as the late Mr Lee was lying in hospital. “She had no business doing this when LKY was in ICU and it is deeply troubling that someone can represent the PMO despite holding no official position,” said Mr Lee Hsien Yang.

Then there was a mix-up over dates, which seems entirely to be the fault of the National Heritage Board. She only did so after Mr Lee’s funeral. Undeterred, Mr Lee Hsien Yang then calls her a thief. “This is even more troubling. By LKY’s will, the estate’s residual items, such as personal documents, fall under the absolute discretion of the executors Wei Ling and myself. Unapproved removal of these items, even by a beneficiary, constitutes both theft and intermeddling.’’

The incident looks clearly like a domestic saga among family members. Why should it concern the rest of us? It should, only insofar as the siblings clarify or justify their earlier statements on Madam Ho exceeding her role as Prime Minister’s wife. What sort of leeway should the spouse of a minister have with civil servants?

If she does direct civil servants to do something, should they do so? Is it implicit that what she wants is also what the Prime Minister wants?

She doesn’t have to say she is Mrs Lee Hsien Loong. People know. What is the bet that the ordinary person knows that Madam Kwa Geok Choo is Mrs Lee Kuan Yew?

Of course, this might be jumping the gun. It may well be that Madam Ho never tried to influence G agencies and that Lee siblings are talking nonsense. In Madam Ho’s case, it is imperative that she stays out of matters that are not under her purview given that her connection with Temasek Holdings already lays the Prime Minister open to charges of nepotism. After 15 years at the helm of this powerful entity, it has become a non-issue. She is a smart, capable woman in her own right. So let it remain that way.

As a contrasting case, the United States (US) has “a longstanding tradition of public service by First Ladies”. But even in the US, former First Lady Mrs Hillary Clinton was served with two lawsuits for leading a highly-secretive health-care reform task force, which counted government staff among its members. The American public seemed to shun a powerful First Lady whose public service was shrouded in secrecy.

Here in Singapore, Madam Kwa Geok Choo was well aware of her role as a staunch supporter of her husband. She once said: “I walk two steps behind my husband like a good Asian wife.”

Spouses and family members of leaders should be careful about keeping out of governance matters. There’s no problem rooting for your spouse or the political party he belongs to but it’s quite another to use them as leverage to get anyone to do anything, however pure the intentions.

G ministers here have a Code of Conduct last revised in 2005, which draws a line between the personal and the professional. It states that a minister must “scrupulously avoid any actual or apparent conflict of interest between his office and his private financial interests”. This may arise “from the exercise of powers or influence in a way that benefits or may be seen to benefit private interests held; or from using special knowledge acquired in the course of his activities as Minister to bring benefit or avoid loss in relation to his private financial interests”. It extends to: Ministers must not “use official information that comes to him… for his own private profit or the profit of any family member or associate”.

Perhaps the code should include some guidance for family members. Unlike in other countries, we’ve never had a problem with family members abusing their privileged position, we should keep it that way. Madam Ho is not the First Lady, but she must be Caesar’s wife.

 

The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our past articles on the issue:

  1. FamiLEE saga: That internal ministerial committee should go (Jun 21)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Will parliament session end saga? (Jun 20)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Some leeway should be given (Jun 19)
  4. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it”. (Jun 18)
  5. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17) 
  6. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  7. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  8. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  9. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  10. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  11. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  13. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  14. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  15. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  16. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  17. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  18. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)
  19. Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 30, 2016)
  20. Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle (Apr 10, 2016)
  21. Dr Lee Wei Ling gagged? (Apr 2, 2016)

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Bertha Henson

Looks like the G is digging in its heels over the internal ministerial committee. There is a very quick riposte to Mr Han Fook Kwang’s column yesterday (Jun 21) in The Straits Times on whether the committee was even necessary. Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Teo Chee Hean, whom we knew only a few days ago heads the committee, said the Cabinet “cannot outsource decision-making”.

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He reiterated that the committee was only interested in the Will only insofar as it sheds light on the late Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes over the Oxley Road house.

That’s the problem isn’t it? A committee trying to come to a conclusion on a dead man’s wishes by interviewing family members, one of whom happens to be its leader.

Committee members, two of whom have spoken to the younger Lees before, would have known how fractious this would be given Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s suspicions over the validity of the will which he had spoken to Mr Teo about. Plus, some of the acrimony between the siblings has surfaced in public before this saga, such as the quarrel over documents kept in the house.

Evidently, the G thought its investigation would be kept quiet. They didn’t reckon that the Lees would make it public. Perhaps, the G believed that unless it said something first, no one else would take things out in the open without its say-so. It’s a common G affliction.

Mr Teo’s point is that the Cabinet has a responsibility especially since there are laws such as the Planning Act and Preservation of Monuments Act that need to be considered. So it has to consider the legislation plus the late Mr Lee’s wishes, to come to a demolish-preserve-hybrid decision.

What this means is that it is not accepting that the last wishes of Mr Lee in his will, that is, the demolition clause, could be final. (To a layman, it looks absolutely clear that he wanted it razed.) So the committee now has to do some detective work, which will surely upset the Lee siblings because the assumption is that the Will was “tilted’’ their way through some nefarious means.

The committee should be disbanded, because it is tainted.

The G can argue till the cows come home that it’s a routine committee and not “secret’’ but it would have to acknowledge that it could have been more transparent, if not with the public, at least with the Lee siblings on, say, the composition of the committee.

It can say that it has the right and responsibility to decide on the fate of the house but it can’t deny that the public would also be interested – just as they are interested in giving views about the Founders’ Memorial. In this regard, there has been some unbending: “But this [setting up of a Ministerial Committee] does not preclude public consultations or the involvement of some memorial committee at an appropriate time. Indeed members of the public have already written in offering suggestions.”

It can say it is only interested in ascertaining the late Mr Lee’s last wishes and nothing else, but is it also saying then that it would not get relevant agencies involved if there was some hanky-panky that went on?

In any case, the ministerial committee can’t make a “decision’’ on the house, because it can only recommend a position for the G of the day to take when Dr Lee Wei Ling vacates the place. That G of the day might choose to ignore its recommendations for whatever reason.

The Cabinet should have taken itself out of the picture, set up another committee to ascertain the last wishes, and later decide, without PM Lee, on whether to accept its recommendations. That would surely have been a neater method and would not be seen as an abdication of responsibility.

It’s likely that DPM Teo will speak in Parliament on July 3. He might first want to acknowledge that the G is in a pickle, rather insist that the committee did everything right.

 

The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our past articles on the issue:

  1. FamiLEE saga: Will parliament session end saga? (Jun 20)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Some leeway should be given (Jun 19)
  3. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it”. (Jun 18)
  4. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17) 
  5. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  6. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  7. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  8. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  9. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  10. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  13. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  14. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  15. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  16. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  17. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)
  18. Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 30, 2016)
  19. Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle (Apr 10, 2016)
  20. Dr Lee Wei Ling gagged? (Apr 2, 2016)

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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by Lee Chin Wee

IN A country where one man’s view of the world still authors the national narrative, it is grimly appropriate that one family’s feud has bitterly divided Singapore. Dr Lee Wei Ling and Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s explosive public statement – tactically released while Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was on family holiday – has been brushed aside as “airing dirty laundry” by pro-PAP supporters and simultaneously held aloft by PAP detractors as evidence of PM Lee’s alleged corruption.

It is easy to dismiss this saga as family drama writ large. And to some extent, I agree that too much ink has been spilt on the fate of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s home at 38 Oxley Road. It’s too far removed from the concerns of most Singaporeans, and is something for the Lee family to settle privately in court. But the accusations are not regarding the house – the house is but context surrounding what Dr Lee and Mr Lee claim to be the “misuse of [PM Lee’s] position and influence over the Singapore government and its agencies to drive his personal agenda.”

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PM Lee stands accused of using his political power, vested upon him by a democratic majority to serve the public good, to resolve the personal matter of 38 Oxley Road. There are two claims in the statement that are of particular concern:

  1. That PM Lee used his position as Prime Minister of Singapore to obtain the Deed of Gift from Minister Lawrence Wong, then handed it to his personal lawyer for the purpose of personal gain; and
  2. That PM Lee supported the appointment of the current Attorney-General (A-G) of Singapore, Lucien Wong, for less-than-meritocratic reasons. It was revealed that Lucien Wong was PM Lee’s personal lawyer who was appointed as A-G soon after the family dispute over 38 Oxley Road began.

On (1), the Deed of Gift was a legal document executed between Dr Lee and Mr Lee with the National Heritage Board for the “donation and public exhibition of significant items from (their) parents’ home, with a stipulation that Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s wish for the demolition of 38 Oxley Road be prominently displayed. It is alleged that PM Lee, acting as Prime Minister instead of a private citizen, tapped on Minister of National Development Lawrence Wong to obtain said Deed of Gift via political means (rather than appropriate legal channels as per a private citizen). PM Lee then allegedly passed on the Deed of Gift to personal lawyer Lucien Wong, without the knowledge of either Dr Lee and Mr Lee or the National Heritage Board.

This is a serious allegation, and if true, may constitute an abuse of power. It is effectively the same as if the Minister of Social and Family Development obtained legal documents pertaining to his own marriage without going through the proper channels as a private citizen – and then passing the documents on to his own divorce lawyer to gain an edge in the proceedings. The powers of political office should never be used to enrich the personal purse.

On (2), Dr Lee and Mr Lee claimed that soon after they donated the items to the National Heritage Board, they “soon received letters with spurious objections from Hsien Loong’s then personal lawyer, Lucien Wong. Lucien Wong was made Singapore’s Attorney-General in January 2017.” The insinuation here is that Attorney-General Lucien Wong’s appointment was made in a less-than-meritocratic manner; perhaps as a quid pro quo for the services provided to PM Lee as his personal lawyer. What may support this claim is that, at the time of appointment, Wong was the first A-G who had “no experience on the Bench, nor acted for the State in legal matters”. Moreover, while Wong is a top corporate lawyer, he had little criminal prosecutorial experience before he became A-G.

At this juncture, it is important to note that nothing concrete has yet been proven. PM Lee has denied all these allegations, particularly the “absurd claim” that he harbours political ambitions for his son. It is possible that everything which Dr Lee and Mr Lee have raised is completely baseless and defamatory. Which raises the question – why should we bother ourselves with what Dr Lee and Mr Lee have to say? Why should we give more weight to their words compared to the inane ramblings of some other private citizen?

I believe the answer lies with their previous track record of public service and their proximity to the centres of political influence in Singapore. They are familiar with government over-reach in the civil space, and are likelier to have access to insiders who can provide insight as to the (ab)use of executive power. In no way does this mean we should take their statement at face value. But we should evaluate their words with greater weight and charity, than that of the average Singaporean. It is for this same reason that former government insiders such as Philip Yeo should be taken seriously when he says that the top leaders in Singapore may be “infected with eunuch disease”, or ex-GIC Chief Economist Yeoh Lam Keong alleges that the current CPF schemes are “inadequate”. Since this controversy is quickly developing into a “he said, she said” standstill, it stands to reason that the identities of the people involved in the issue (and hence the information they are privy to) should matter.

Make no mistake, Dr Lee and Mr Lee did not wake up one day and decide to become bleeding-heart liberals because they had a guilty pang in their hearts. This statement was triggered by the 38 Oxley Road home, something that both individuals have a personal interest in. It is this selfsame interest that led to them issuing a statement against their elder brother and subsequently fleeing Singapore. In the absence of such a problem, I have no doubt that both siblings would have remained quiet. But that is how most political revelations and challenges to the status quo occur: Because of how concentrated power is and how ossified the elites are, it is when the interests of a few formerly-powerful elites come into tension with the interests of those in charge that the most explosive conflicts occur. A good example of that happening right now is former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock’s stubborn refusal to back down from contesting for the Presidency – first at the ballot box, and later in court.

At this juncture, what is to be done? It is clear that Singapore is built on the principles of incorruptibility, governmental transparency, and the rule of law (instead of rule by law). And even if one disagrees with this, it is still important that we strive toward these ideals. But before we jump to any conclusions, one should understand that this story is still developing – what we need right now is more information and less recrimination. We need to demand of Dr Lee and Mr Lee, along with PM Lee, to provide more details as to their side of the story. In the days to come, whichever party is more forthcoming with information and less prone to character assassinating their opponents should be trusted more.

If there is some meat to the allegations (because as of now they are very unsubstantiated), then there should be an impartial inquiry conducted to ensure the impartial discharge of executive duties. At the very least, justice must be seen to have been done. If the allegations turn out to be baseless – either through the failure of Dr Lee and Mr Lee to provide convincing evidence or by PM Lee revealing sound legal and evidential backing for his actions – then legal action against Dr Lee and Mr Lee for defamation could be pursued.

It is tempting to take harshly partisan sides on this issue. But when something as complex and murky as a private affair is yanked into the public realm, some temperance is sorely needed. Here is to cooler and calmer heads prevailing in the weeks ahead.

 

Lee Chin Wee is a prospective undergraduate at Oxford University… And no, he’s not related to the famiLEE. This article originally appeared on his blog, BANALYSIS

 

Updated June 18: The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our articles on the issue:

 

  1. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it” (Jun 18)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  4. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  5. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  6. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  7. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  8. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  9. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  13. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  14. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  15. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)

 

Featured image by Jacklee from Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0.

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by Bertha Henson

THE first we heard of the ministerial committee was in the Lee siblings’ statement early Wednesday. We’re told that it is headed by Minister Lawrence Wong and that it has been querying the three Lee siblings about their late father’s will. The siblings said that Mr Wong informed them of its existence last July. It is an “internal’’ committee, said Cabinet Secretary Tan Kee Yong, which seems to imply that no one else need to know about it and that it is well within the Cabinet’s right to do so. Since PM Lee Hsien Loong has recused himself from all G decisions regarding the family house in Oxley Road, he shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have directed its establishment.

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So, someone had the bright idea to set up a committee because it doesn’t look like everything about the house has been settled yet. What exactly has happened with the house? The short answer is nothing will happen to the house as long as Dr Lee Wei Ling lives in it. After that? That isn’t clear but the three siblings put out a statement that they would like the house demolished in line with their parents’ wishes. PM Lee said he was expressing this as his personal desire. In other words, he’s separating his private and official capacities. If the G (without PM Lee) decides to keep the house, it’s not clear how he, in his official capacity, would react. Maybe, he would say: “I will abide by the wishes of the Government of Singapore.’’ It’s been clear to many that the death of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had put PM Lee in the invidious position of having to act as both eldest son and Singapore leader. We watched closely whenever he spoke of his father because we’re voyeurs who want to see if the son or the PM shone through his words.

Why the need for such a committee? Who is on it and what is its job scope? Is this a routine thing like MRT trains being sent to China for repairs? Or was it set up to “persecute’’ the two Lee siblings, as Mr Lee Hsien Yang alleged?

According to Cabinet Secretary Tan, while nothing will be done with the house while Dr Lee lives in it; “the committee will be listing out the different options with regard to the House and the implications’’. This, he said, “will help a future Government when a decision needs to be taken about the house’’.  It will be looking at the historical and heritage significance of the house, besides taking into account the late Mr Lee’s wishes for it. 

Since the committee is supposed to help the future government of the day, we can assume its recommendations are just that. Not binding.

Mr Lee Hsien Yang’s response: “Why, when the Government says the government of the day will decide when Lee Wei Ling is no longer (living there)… is the Government of today convening this Cabinet committee?’’

So this mysterious committee has been summoning the three Lees to make representations. Should PM Lee be allowed to make representations since he has recused himself and the committee is made up of his subordinates? One argument would be that it was natural that PM Lee would be asked to give his views as the eldest son. And the committee should be trusted enough to give the PM’s opinion the same weight as those of his siblings.

The other two siblings, however, have painted their brother has having a firm grip on power and who would use organs of state to get his way. Dr Lee put it even more bluntly in her FB : “(If) PM can misuse his official power to abuse his siblings who can fight back, what else can he do to ordinary citizens.’’ They also said that PM Lee had queried the circumstances of the late Mr Lee’s will. Confirming this, the Cabinet secretary shed more light: Mrs Lee Suet Fern, wife of Mr Lee Hsien Yang, and lawyers from her firm played a role here and the committee wanted to know what it was. PM Lee has responded with a statutory declaration, but the two others have yet to do so.

But Mr Lee Hsien Yang said his wife had nothing to do with the will and was upset that the siblings were being asked the same questions repeatedly.

“If Lee Hsien Loong had any doubt about the validity of the Last Will, he should have challenged it in court,” he said in an interview with TODAY. “Frankly it is completely improper to use a cabinet committee to pursue an issue like this when the proper channel was at the court and probate.”

“… in his attempt to punish Hsien Yang for blocking what he wants to do with the house, (PM Lee) stipulated that in addition to paying Hsien Loong the market value of the house, he must also donate 50% of that value to charity.” – Dr Lee Wei Ling

It’s getting way too ugly. There’s even a money angle: Like how the settlement between the three Lees prescribes that Mr Lee Hsien Yang pay PM Lee, who was bequeathed the house, its full market value. And how, according to Dr Lee, that PM Lee, “in his attempt to punish Hsien Yang for blocking what he wants to do with the house, stipulated that in addition to paying Hsien Loong the market value of the house, he must also donate 50% of that value to charity.” In other words, Mr Lee Hsien Yang has to pay out 150 per cent of the value of the house. In 2015, property consultants estimated that the house could fetch $24 million, The Straits Times reported.

It looks like the breach in the family cannot be mended given the kind of words that have been levelled on both sides. In fact, they seem to border on the defamatory.

Let the siblings fight. On our part as citizens, we should be more concerned with the use of authority against individuals. For that, the G, now led by Acting Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, might want to think about lifting the veil on this mysterious ministerial committee. There is no need to wait for PM Lee to return to Singapore over the weekend, since he has recused himself from all government decisions over the house.

 

Updated June 18: The famiLEE affair has been brewing for a while now. Read our articles on the issue:

  1. FamiLEE saga: 10 things from the academic paper “When I’m dead, demolish it” (Jun 18)
  2. FamiLEE saga: Who’s involved (Jun 17)
  3. FamiLEE saga: Is a grant of probate really final? (Jun 17)
  4. FamiLEE saga: Somebody should just sue (Jun 17)
  5. FamiLEE saga: PM Lee’s version of events (Jun 16) 
  6. FamiLEE saga: Let a third party tell all (Jun 16)
  7. FamiLEE saga: The past three days (Jun 16)
  8. FamiLEE saga: How Lee Suet Fern got LWL her inheritance, according to leaked emails (Jun 15)
  9. FamiLEE saga: Singaporeans react with confusion, humour and CSI skills (Jun 15)
  10. FamiLEE saga: From 38 Oxley Road to 1 Parliament Place, not just a family affair (Jun 15)
  11. FamiLEE saga: Headlines around the world (Jun 15)
  12. FamiLEE saga: Now about that mysterious ministerial committee (Jun 15)
  13. Not just a famiLEE affair (Jun 14)
  14. Third generation Lee weighs in (Jun 14)
  15. “We do not trust Hsien Loong as a brother or as a leader. We have lost confidence in him.” (Jun 14)
  16. Mystery deepens over secret tapes of Lee Kuan Yew (Sep 30, 2016)
  17. Time for the famiLEE to end the public spectacle (Apr 10, 2016)
  18. Dr Lee Wei Ling gagged? (Apr 2, 2016)

 

Featured image by Wikimedia Commons user Michał Jozefaciuk.

If you like this article, Like The Middle Ground‘s Facebook Page as well!

For breaking news, you can talk to us via email.

 

 

by Skyler Wang

PERHAPS more than any of the iterations before, this year’s Pink Dot is being afflicted by a series of peculiar developments. One after another, attempts were made by both Pink Dot detractors and the State to curtail the success of the event.

The most recent incident, concerning a Pink Dot advertisement found on an escalator in Cathy Cineleisure, broke just days ago. Members belonging to the Facebook group “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” heavily criticised Pink Dot organisers for the ad placement, as well as the shopping mall for agreeing to display it. The contention around the ad eventually found its way to the tables of The Advertising Standards Authority of Singapore (ASAS), which, upon deliberation, came to the conclusion that the ad’s slogan, “Supporting the Freedom to Love”, violated one of the general principles of the Singapore Code of Advertising Practice (SCAP) – those of “family values”. According to the authorities, public advertisements should not “downplay the importance of the family as a unit and foundation of society.” They ultimately instructed Cathay to “amend the advertisement”, adding that follow-ups will be made to ensure its compliance.

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Beyond highlighting the State’s limited and inadequate definition of what constitutes a family unit, this incident exemplifies a persistent strategy the Singaporean government uses to quell public dissent—by exerting its influence in the form of policy and legality. In fact, what occupied much of the media attention on Pink Dot prior to this latest episode illuminate this exact pattern. To those unfamiliar with the issue, amendments made to the Public Order Act by the Ministry of Home Affairs in Nov last year imposed a blanket ban on foreign involvement from all future Pink Dot assemblies. There are two ways in which this policy takes shape. One, the State has limited sponsorship rights solely to domestic corporations. Since the inception of Pink Dot in 2009, the event has largely relied on the funding provided by multinational companies such as Google, Facebook and Barclays. When juxtaposed to the collective amount traditionally pledged by foreign enterprises, local sponsorship, although not insignificant, pales by comparison. More specifically, for Pink Dot 2016, only five out of the 18 corporate sponsors were domestic entities. By circumscribing Pink Dot’s fundraising process, the government created artificial barriers that hinder the execution and success of the event.

Aside from restricting sponsorship rights, the new amendments also banned foreigners from showing up at the event itself. Before, a participant’s citizenship status was irrelevant to his or her attendance. Immediately prior to last year’s event, the government imposed sanctions on foreign involvement by prohibiting non-Singaporeans and permanent residents from participating in a demonstration, allowing them only to peacefully observe (holding up placards was still acceptable). According to the most recent amendments, “the law no longer distinguishes between participants and observers, and regards anyone who turns up to the Speakers’ Corner in support of an event to be part of an assembly.” Foreigners, thus, are altogether barred from the Hong Lim Park event on July 1 this year (only Singaporeans and Permanent Residents can be physically present).

In response to media queries on these new circumstances, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued the statement below:

“The Government’s general position has always been that foreign entities should not interfere in our domestic issues, especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones. These are political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves. LGBT issues are one such example. This is why under the rules governing the use of the Speakers’ Corner, for events like Pink Dot, foreigners are not allowed to organize or speak at the events, or participate in demonstrations.”  

I take issue with several of the State’s claims. First, note that by exclusively highlighting the need to protect political and social issues from foreign interference, the State strategically leaves out economic issues. This reflects the State’s ideology when it comes to managing foreigners, where the relevance of these ‘outsiders’ is confined to their economic contribution. It suggests that foreign talents, labor and investment are encouraged in our country to the extent that they help with our economy, but these entities should not have any further influence beyond that. This not only assumes that the social experiences of foreigners are external to our sociopolitical and cultural makeup, but it simultaneously reinforces the falsehood that foreigners are somehow unaffected by the workings of today’s inequalities. This is highly problematic because the criminalisation of same-sex acts and relationships do not exclusively affect Singaporeans—LGBTQ-identifying foreigners face similar forms of discrimination both at work and in their personal lives. Sometimes, we forget that foreigners who attend an event like Pink Dot may share some of the very same grievances as their Singaporean counterparts. Pink Dot could be as much about standing up for one’s own rights as it is about advancing a particular brand of politics for these non-Singaporeans.

Furthermore, it is important to remind ourselves that social issues have economic consequences. The State likes to use terms like ‘domestic’ or ‘social issues’ to trivialise the effects of certain inequalities, disregarding the fact that these very issues lead to real crevices in one’s material life. For example, and as aforementioned, the criminalisation of homosexuality (a social issue) could prevent LGBTQ individuals from gaining fair access to job opportunities (an economic issue). By failing to recognise same-sex unions (a social issue), same-sex couples are deprived of the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual couples when purchasing public housing (once again, an economic issue). For those LGBTQ-identifying foreigners who desire to naturalise in this country and settle down with their partners, their aspirations may not differ that much from other queer Singaporeans. This universal yearning to belong is what that propels both citizens and non-citizens alike to mobilise.

As sociologists love to say – humans are a product of society, and our thoughts and actions are never independently formulated. When the State claims that there are “political, social or moral choices for Singaporeans to decide for ourselves,” there is an underlying assumption that Singaporeans possess an intrinsically different set of morals from foreigners, and that it is vulnerable to foreign disruption. This assumption, of course, stems from a long-held belief that homosexuality is a western-imported concept that remains incompatible with Asian values or ‘true’ Singaporeanhood. This assumption also situates Singaporean culture as static and ahistorical, and that it somehow contains an essence that is ‘pure’ and non-evolving (even though the greatest irony is that in almost all other aspects of our lives, we have wholeheartedly embraced foreign technologies, cuisines and ways of being). It further suggests the fact that it is almost inherently wrong to be both gay and Singaporean, insofar as these are contradicting and irreconcilable qualities. This is a carefully engineered social narrative that still holds much cultural influence over Singaporean society today, oftentimes used by the older generation to denigrate young LGBTQ Singaporeans for their cosmopolitan and westernised worldviews.

This urgent need to restrict outside influences (“foreigners are not allowed to organize or speak at the events”) is also an unsatisfying explanation for the new changes in law because Singaporeans are leading increasingly interconnected and transnational lives. Democratic ideals travel across the world through mainstream and social media outlets. We lived through the events that led to the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defence of Marriage Act in the US in 2015, just as how we witnessed the Taiwanese’s high court’s ruling that brought same-sex marriage to its legal fruition this May. These historic events do not exist in social vacuums; we hear about them and they have the power to shape how we understand and navigate our world. Moreover, in this day and age, websites such as Netflix and YouTube grant us instant access to content that expose us to the lives of LGBTQs and the sexual activism that is happening all around the world. This global diffusion of narratives, values and knowledge have happened, is happening and will continue to happen, whether the Singapore government likes it or not. Banning foreign speakers and participants from an LGBTQ rights event for the fear that they would transmit un-Singaporean values to its attendees should be the least of the State’s concerns.

Singapore prides itself for being a diverse and multicultural nation, oftentimes flaunting its cosmopolitanism as a means to legitimise its position in the global arena. An international city puts people of all creeds and citizenship into constant social intercourse, facilitating the formation of friendships and partnerships between citizens and non-citizens. Singaporeans befriend and date folks who are non-citizens—this is a social fact that could not get anymore mundane. However, under the new Public Order Act, couples, families and friends with mixed citizenship status will be unable to attend this year’s Pink Dot together. This laboured and politically-motivated effort to separate particular forms of social union poignantly points to the reality that underpins the need for Pink Dot’s existence, where notions of “freedom” and “love” have yet to transcend the rigid boundaries of socially constructed categories such as gender, sexuality and incidentally, citizenship.

To sum up—queer politics in Singapore cannot and will never become a purely Singaporean affair because amidst an increasingly cosmopolitan and global world order, it is impossible to trace and defend what one might call an ‘authentically Singaporean ideal.’ In fact, we need to move away from the pursuit of this false sense of pureness by aspiring to become critically aware global citizens (by balancing values and morals from a wide array of cultures and traditions), rather than the static and non-evolving Singaporean our government so desperately wants us to be.

Besides, take a minute to think about what the State just tried to accomplish—by removing foreign involvements, the governing power, as I believe, ventured into slowing down the momentum of Singapore’s first and only LGBTQ movement. This suggests that the State’s imagination of the average Singaporean is someone who is politically apathetic and unsupportive of, or at best, neutral towards the idea of gay rights (‘without foreigners, the movement would fail’). For galvanised Singaporeans, showing up and mobilising is one of the most powerful ways to overcome such an inadequate conception of themselves.

In addition, the idea that only someone with the right documentation can participate in a social movement is not only fundamentally undemocratic, but it sends a disturbing message to non-Singaporeans living in the nation state—that your voices do not matter, and that you do not get to mess with the status quo. Foreigners who disagree with such a treatment should also find meaningful avenues to express their discontent towards this form of exclusionary politics (e.g. voicing your concerns through both online and offline platforms). Regardless of whether this could lead to a tangible change of heart by the government, getting the conversation going is key.

Perhaps a heartening outcome that emerged amidst all of this controversy is that in just under six weeks, more than 100 Singaporean firms have stepped up and committed financial support for this year’s event, a size twenty times larger than last year’s five. According to The Straits Times’, as of early May, Pink Dot organisers have raised a total of $201,000—surpassing their initial target of $150,000. It is important to remember though, that in a country where 30 per cent of the population is made up of foreigners, most domestic firms have foreign representation. Embedded deep within the backing of Singaporean firms lies the support of their non-Singaporean constituents as well.

Online, many overseas Singaporeans have expressed their intentions to return home to attend this year’s Pink Dot (to make up for some lost numbers). I assume that during their time abroad, many of these overseas Singaporeans would have accumulated new cultural values and understandings of democracy. Perhaps their way of navigating the world resembles more closely to the foreigners residing in our country than those who never left. In the eyes of our government, might these individuals also be unworthy of civic engagement in Singapore?

Ultimately, what matters most for us is that when faced with the State’s repeated attempts at redrawing the contours of the Pink Dot, movement organisers and their allies need to fight to ensure that the integrity of the movement is not lost. How the story develops depends less on the shape or size of this one dot, but how many new ones we can inspire as new and imminent waves of activism await us.

Skyler Wang is a PhD student in Sociology at UC Berkeley. Broadly, Skyler’s research foci include sexualities, culture and the global economy. His interest in the sociology of sexualities was sparked by his personal experiences growing up queer in Singapore. He can be reached here.

 

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by Bertha Henson

SOME people who meet me for the first time are crestfallen when they think, based on my name, they should be expecting a Caucasian. They look even more flummoxed when a stream of quintessentially Singaporean phrases issues from my mouth. Quickly, they adjust their mannerisms and language. I think they feel relieved.

I couldn’t have faked an accent to save my life. That’s because I’m no actress. I did attempt an exaggerated version of myself in an episode of The Noose. I became a caricature of my character. I am not sure I succeeded.

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So it got me wondering when a young man started complaining on Facebook about having to be more “Indian’’ than he already is. He was auditioning for a part in Ah Boyz to Men, the Jack Neo comedy. He felt disgusted at having to put on an exaggerated Indian accent when he was supposed to be portraying a Singaporean Indian doing his military service. It’s amazing the wide variety of views that his post elicited, from the heinously disgusting to outright support.

I think about the movies and television shows that I have seen all my life. I don’t think I’ve ever wondered about American comedies that take the mickey out of a person’s race, language or religion. So an African American is always a rapper and a Chinese in America always runs a restaurant while Arabs are New York taxi drivers. Each will have their own “distinctive’’ accent. Then there’s the classic British comedy Mind your language, which I find hilarious. When the comedies are great, we laugh out loud. If not, we dismiss them as lousy slapstick.

Then again, these stereotypes are not about my fellow countrymen.

These days, we talk about casual racism and Chinese privilege. (Link to our three-part article series on racism.) Usually, the minority castigates the majority for not understanding its feelings, because the majority are so secure in their, hmm, majority. This, however, shouldn’t mean that the Chinese cannot talk about other people’s race, so long as it is done maturely and not in an effort to ridicule. The Chinese, despite being the majority, lost their dialects, Chinese-medium schools and had a whole generation of lost Nantah graduates as well. So let’s not use “Chinese privilege’’ to represent all the ills that we think have beset the minorities. All of us have lost something or other in the pursuit of racial harmony.

It’s easy to get prickly about race. There’s no rationality or reason for feeling what you feel about race. You get all sensitive – even over-sensitive – about slights, whether real or imagined. Like taking offence when a bunch of people yabber on in Mandarin while non-Chinese are in their midst. In such cases, I tell them to speak English, and they always do. That, I suppose is casual racism, which I prefer to describe as poor EQ.

But if someone calls me a half-breed or chap cheng, whether casually or in a derogatory manner, I will get upset. You cannot expect me to laugh it off. If I get it all the time, then I’m likely to explode at some point. That breaking point could be when I’m told to act a part I dislike for the umpteenth time. I can, of course, insist that the script should be more politically correct and decline to take part because it demeans my race. But I would be more cautious about castigating a movie-maker’s right to cast his actors.

Also, you know what? I will still be watching comedies which supposedly denigrates other people’s race.

I can hear people now saying that those who do not know about acting, shouldn’t talk about acting. But as I said, I watch a lot of TV, and viewers should be able to pronounce on the acting.

I believe the young man is trying to surface the bigger issue of the paucity of minority roles in local productions that don’t descend into stereotypes. You can complain about the movie-maker’s lack of imagination or the script-writer’s inability to go beyond using race as a gag line. If so, it is a reflection on the quality of artistic work – or the audiences’ low-brow appreciation of slap-stick comedy. We’re moving now into the territory of artistic licence and even community norms. I’m not sure we want to go there and invite more restrictions on expression.

While I don’t stress my brain over comedies, I’ve always wondered what the Germans and Japanese, including immigrants in the US, say about Hollywood productions of war movies. So many years have passed and they still keep popping up as the villain of the piece. These days, the Chinese and North Koreans are the Americans’ favourite bogeymen – and man, their caricatures are too funny for words, even though they are not acting in a comedy. Perhaps, they’ve sent private diplomatic protests or, as the prosaic Chinese have done, invaded Hollywood to buy up movie studios.

When I think about the young man’s feelings about having to caricature himself for a role, I think about how Singaporeans react when the country’s name pops up in a television series or a movie.

I ask you: don’t you perk up when you hear Singapore mentioned?

You even wonder if the movie makers have got the Singapore skyline right… Then there’s the slight discomfort when we’re portrayed as some exotic place amid Chinese and Hindu temples or a place where hi-tech pirated software are illegally sold. That’s because an image of Singapore is being broadcast to the world – and movie-makers should get it right! Frankly, my favourite is Singapore, the pirates’ haven, in Johnny Depp’s Pirates of the Caribbean. I don’t think we can get upset about an outrageous portrayal or Singapore’s past, especially if we don’t know if it’s fact or fiction.

Perhaps, it’s because we are small in the world, so we get prickly about our place in the world. Just as members of the minority community feel insecure in the larger place called Singapore.

I suppose it all depends on the context of the supposed racial slight, and the extent of political correctness we want to achieve. Take aside race, language and religion, there are many ways to “offend’’ people in comedies. Like having someone in a handicapped role fumbling about the house or making fun of forgetful old people.

There will be people who will argue that whether or not the portrayals are comedic, these groups are unreal or segments of people have been put in a bad light. Racism is not used in such cases; the word is “tasteless’’.

Perhaps, the road to harmony is for minority members to stop thinking of ourselves as a minority – and for majority members to remember that they are in the majority.

We all have to think bigger on this little red dot – and laugh along, together.

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by Johannes Tjendro

WHEN I read about the $10,000 super-interns in The Business Times (May 22), I decided to chat up an ex-super-intern friend, who had an eight-month stint at a foreign investment bank, to see how he was doing. As he had just graduated and landed a full-time job in investment banking, I asked him if he was ready for the “high life”. To this, he replied emphatically: “Not high life bro, no life…” He said he was making the most out of his vacation time before starting work this week.

Why do students take on internships? The most important reason is probably to “test-drive” a career. Do I have the talent and temperaments for it? Will I fit into the culture of the industry? Am I truly passionate about the work? What skills do I need to acquire before graduating?

Notice how money is nowhere in my list of questions. Not that money is not important, but borrowing what another friend said: “I’m not interested in earning extravagant amount of money or living an extravagant life. I’m more interested in finding a career and an industry that suit and interest me. If it pays well, then that’s a bonus.”

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It is not without reason that super-interns are so highly paid. Super-interns are reported to be putting in long hours at work (one person cited 6.30am – 9pm as his regular working hours in the Business Times report), often staying back late in the office to prepare reports beyond what their job scope requires.

They are expected to take on roles performed by full-timers, ranging from “executing client mandates to financial analyses and modelling”. In fact, my ex-super-intern friend told me that some of the full-timers have better lives than the interns.

Daunting as the work sounds, the money does sound pretty good. Assuming a three-month stint billed at $10,000 per month, a super-intern would earn a jaw-dropping amount of $30,000 in a typical “summer” holiday. “Summer” is what today’s university students call the mid-year holiday between May and July.

But I realised I wouldn’t know what to do with $30,000 except to use it to pay back my study loan. Perhaps I am not made for the “high life”. But then again, I am not a super-intern and have never been offered the opportunity to become one.

As a TMG intern, I work regular 9-to-6 working hours. Sometimes, when an article needs to be published the following day, I would continue working on it at home after working hours. Otherwise, I would be out catching up with friends or attending to my voluntary work in church.

Although I have only been working at TMG for slightly more than a week, I have begun to recognise that I do enjoy writing and editing. In the past week, I encountered many different types of people, especially on social media. I am learning to understand other perspectives and appreciate the fact that I have my own biases.

I have also been trying to “unlearn” the often complex academic style of writing that I have been using in the past three years. I need to consciously write for the general audience that make up the bulk of TMG readers. “Write simply, but not simplistically”, as Bertha would say.

Most of all, I enjoy the friendly company of the other TMG interns and full-time colleagues, who have been extremely helpful in getting me familiarised with the idiosyncrasies of our journalistic work.

Personal experience aside, perhaps it is fair to ask whether the salary is commensurate with the work that interns do. Most interns in Singapore, including myself, are reported to get between $600 and $1,000 per month. This is, for me, a fair amount that adds on to the rewarding experience that I have described above. Still, it is a small fraction of what super-interns get.

But I suppose the difference is logical: Super-interns usually work in the financial sector. When you are in the business of making money for other people, it makes sense to have greater emphasis on financial reward.

Does this mean, then, that super-interns are destined for greatness apart from the rest of us? I think not.

One of the things that attracted me to TMG is in the name. As Aristotle once said, and I paraphrase, good things come in the middle.

After all, what is the point of living the “high life” if you don’t even have a life?

 

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by Hasan Jafri

CHINA’S reported snub of Singapore by not inviting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) meeting in Beijing last week is being blown out of proportion. Keyboard warriors have rung alarm bells that relations have hit rock-bottom; politicians and analysts have advocated a shift in Singapore’s position to mend fences.

Are bilateral relations strained? Yes, they have been for more than a year now. Are they broken and heading over a cliff, as some claim? Absolutely not. Neither Beijing and clearly not Singapore wants an escalation. There is no war of words at the leadership level, no withdrawal or downgrading of diplomatic ties, no international campaign to discredit Singapore, no economic sanctions or barriers and the People’s Liberation Army is not coming anywhere near Singapore. Differences between two friends manifest occasionally – and sometimes irritatingly.

So, chill.

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Beijing knows Singapore can be prickly and it also knows that the cost of escalation could be high. Why? Because there is interdependence. China is Singapore’s third biggest trading partner and a source of many jobs here at home. China is an emerging power, one with which Singapore has cultivated a deep, multifaceted relationship.

Will Singapore miss out on BRI because of a little friction? Reports playing up PM Lee’s absence from the meeting overshadowed the presence of a delegation from Singapore in attendance, led by National Development Minister and Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong. That can hardly forbear the exclusion of Singapore from the BRI, but does point to some friction between the nations. Cooperation, officially, is still strong.

Take a few examples, beyond the BRI. For China, Singapore is a key offshore RMB trading and clearing centre which China needs because Tokyo, the other major hub, can’t be tasked with its long-term strategic objective of turning the RMB into a global reserve currency. Two, China is a recipient of more than a $100 billion in foreign investment from Singapore. Singapore has benefited but so has China, gaining expertise, global connectivity and intellectual property, some of which it can now export to developing countries under the BRI.

This flow of financial resources, expertise and know-how is not disrupted. In fact, former DPM Wong Kan Seng – whom the Chinese respect – was at the World Cities Summit Mayor’s Forum in Suzhou. While Singapore may not be seen as an active participant in the BRI or court China for investments, it is deeply involved in upgrading China’s western region, which is critical for the BRI to succeed.

To be sure, the relationship is strained, primarily around the issues of relations with Taiwan and the South China Sea (SCS) dispute. Singapore has taken a strong position on the SCS issue as a non-claimant state but one that has a strong political interest in maintaining Asean unity when it is under strain and to protect its economic interest to ensure sea lanes remain unhindered.

That position is for protecting Singapore’s interests, not one at the behest of the US, as some have argued.

If Singapore had bent to the US over the years, there would be a permanent military base in Changi and there would be a treaty-level relationship like the US has with Japan, Australia or New Zealand. If Singapore didn’t sell out to the US, why should we sell out to the Chinese? It’s strategic balance – tough to execute but necessary because the cost of “alignment” for Singapore is too high a price to pay.

It is different scenario for others. Some of our neighbours court China because they need the investments and the deeper political ties as they also do not have the deep international economic, political and military ties that Singapore has. They have their own interests, different from Singapore’s. In fact, if Singapore were to bend, some in the same countries would conveniently sneer: See, Chinese Singapore sold itself to the motherland. Singapore is not dependent on China and can afford to take an independent line, articulating and advocating its own interests – sometimes forcefully.

So why all this fuss? It is to influence public opinion, a drip-drip-drip strategy to force Singapore to bend. Highlight that PM Lee was not invited but ignore that he was in China only last September at the invitation of the Chinese for the G20 annual meeting. Highlight the Taiwan issue but ignore that the Chinese and the Taiwanese met face-to-face – in Singapore.

There are times when states disagree – and this is one of those moments. But this is not a disaster. If anything, this is a time to continue engaging even more frequently from a position of strength.

Hasan Jafri is a regional political risk analyst.

 

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by Bertha Henson

I RECALL reading Dr Benjamen Gussen’s piece in ST in January and thinking to myself: this can never fly. So I was surprised to see that Mr Peter Ho had raised it as an example of thinking beyond national boundaries in his final S R Nathan lecture.

Dr Gussen, a law lecturer in the University of Southern Queensland, had proposed that Singapore and Australia set up a charter city in Australia. Think of it like a Special Economic Zone. Except that his concept was quite extensive, with equity partnerships and a constitution with a 10-year transition period after which the residents can choose their own representatives. He even called his hypothetical city Dilga. You can read it here.

Dr Gussen saw it as a demand and supply problem. Singapore needs space; Australia has plenty. Both sides have plenty to offer each other in terms of resources and know-how. It will be win-win.

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Why did I dismiss it out of hand? After all, it is true that Singapore needs space and Australia isn’t far away. There are plenty of Singaporeans working and living there. I suppose it’s because I’m used to the idea of Singapore as a little red dot on the map. Plus, immediate problems of national identity come to mind. We are a country that doesn’t even allow dual citizenship and chafes at the presence of so many foreigners within its borders. Then there are practical problems, like should charter city residents do National Service?

I’m afraid the cons came to mind much faster than the pros. Mr Ho is right to say that we shouldn’t let our physical size constrain our thinking. Perhaps, we wear our little red dot badge rather too proudly. Perhaps, we’ve been so conditioned by the vulnerability narrative that we only think in terms of what we can do here, get people and products here and how to prosper here. Mr Ho, a nice man, said it’s natural that we cling to what we’re familiar with and project the future from what we know of the present. But given the accelerating change that technology brings, the present is not a good predictor of anything.

Acknowledging that establishing a charter city would be difficult, he said: “But even if this specific idea may not gain much traction, it raises this possibility – that the idea of Singapore need not be confined to this small island.”

Have we done what we can with the space we have? At 719 sq km, Singapore is now 25 per cent bigger than it was two centuries ago. Late last year, the G said a new method which doesn’t rely so much on sand will be used to add to Pulau Tekong. We’ve built artificial islands, like Jurong, we’ve built upwards and we’re building downwards . Over the past two years, we’ve been talking about digging tunnels and developing spaces underground. We already have caverns to store liquid hydrocarbons and ammunition. We can also also build more intensively (we’re not as densely populated as Hong Kong), while, hopefully, remaining a liveable city.

Dr Gussmen and Mr Ho are futurists who believe that we should think about living somewhere else or even virtually – while still remaining Singaporean.

Mr Ho gave examples of what a few other small countries are doing to extend their boundaries – and he doesn’t mean land reclamation.

There is Luxembourg, with just 600,000 people, which is reaching for the stars. It introduced legislation in November last year to let companies own resources such as platinum, obtained from space. It has set aside money and attracted American companies dealing with the space industry. We shouldn’t laugh because the country happens to know quite a bit about space. It founded one of the largest satellite companies in the world. It’s no space cadet.

By the way, Singapore has a space and satellite industry too. It currently comprises 30 companies and employs 1,000 people. Late last year, the G said that the industry is a new cluster it will focus on growing.

There is Estonia, with 1.3 million people, and where babies get a digital identity at birth that would allow them later as adults to sign contracts and do transactions. It is pioneering e-residency, said Mr Ho.

“You may live abroad. If you become an e-resident of Estonia, you can use some of the digital services available to Estonian citizens, such as setting up an Estonia-based company. E-residency helps Estonia generate business activity for Estonian companies, from independent contractors to small companies with clients worldwide. More than 18,000 people have since become e-residents,” he said.

Come to think of it, if this concept was applied here, it would solve our manpower shortage problem. It’s like having Singapore permanent residents who live somewhere else. One condition needs fulfilling though. Singapore would have to be a really, really Smart Nation which is extremely “networked”.

Then this may happen: “In the future, digital platforms can tap into labour based abroad, without even setting up a Singapore-supported industrial park abroad. Such platforms, like Konsus, already exist. Konsus matches high-end independent contractors or freelancers with projects, including when the freelancer and the project client are based in different places. If cross-border supply of services increases, Singaporeans may be able to work with co- workers and clients based abroad, as if they were physically present in Singapore.”

Mr Ho thinks that Singapore is capable of overcoming constraints because, ironically, its small size makes it easy to change course – or do a course correction – quickly. Quick changes are inherent in Singapore’s DNA, which was why it succeeded from moving from Third World colony to global city.

But who’s going to steer the boat and will the people row? It comes back to politics and leadership.

“A key source of Singapore’s strength has always been our people’s trust in fair competition and just reward for effort and achievements, compassion for the unfortunate, and a restless yearning for continuous progress. The points on trust and compassion bear emphasising. This has to be carefully fostered by the leadership because, without it, it would have been impossible for our leaders to forge consensus on far-reaching policies and tough trade-offs between different priorities, interests, and groups.”

The above is from his fourth lecture.

But I prefer the way he discussed leadership in his second lecture.

“Change requires leadership, because it means leading people out of their comfort zone. Getting them to change is an act of will. The future-fit leader has to persuade his people to believe in the need for change, instil confidence in change, and empower his people to change.

“Successful leaders of change also make their people brave enough to express their opinions, change their behaviour, take risks, and learn from failure. They tolerate mavericks – even if they do not embrace them – because all future-fit organisations need mavericks. They are the ones who are prepared to challenge conventional wisdom and come up with the ideas that can change the rules of the game.”

Yup. Everyone needs to open up their minds, challenge orthodoxy and even slaughter some sacred cows. And if it’s done in the country’s interest, no one should be batting an eyelid. That’s the way to find our future.

Majulah Singapura.

 

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by Bertha Henson

IT DIDN’T escape notice that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wasn’t at the biggest diplomatic event held in China over the weekend. The guest list was filled with luminaries including his counterparts in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. There were in all 29 heads of state or government. Singapore was represented instead by Minister Lawrence Wong.

Asked why the PM Lee wasn’t there, he said that the invitation was decided by the Chinese.

So on Sunday, PM Lee was giving out flowers to his Ang Mo Kio constituents on the occasion of Mother’s Day, rather than hobnobbing with other leaders over what seemed to be the most ambitious economic project in recent time.

His absence in Beijing is intriguing and only serves to raise questions about whether Singapore and China had papered over their differences since the seizure of Singapore Armed Forces vehicles by Hong Kong authorities in November last year. Or are the Chinese still pissed off at Singapore’s lack of empathy over its position on the South China Sea?

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You wonder if the invitation was extended to a Deputy Prime Minister or a senior co-ordinating minister like Mr Khaw Boon Wan. After all, Mr Wong, in charge of national development, told the media himself that Singapore didn’t have any infrastructure projects under the One Belt, One Road initiative. In fact, he spoke more about “brokering’’ opportunities for Singapore banking and city planners.

Even as it seemed that the PM had been snubbed by the Chinese, we’re told that a Chinese delegation is in Singapore to discuss leadership development. The Singapore side was led by Mr Teo Chee Hean, who is also Coordinating Minister for National Security and Minister-in-charge of the Civil Service. The Chinese were headed by Mr Zhao Leji, Communist Party of China (CPC) Politburo member and Central Committee Organisation Department Minister.

Is this a meeting of political equals? Or should we be glad that a Chinese delegation has deigned to visit Singapore even as China chose not to invite its PM over for its biggest shindig? And we’ve been asserting that Singapore is its “all-weather friend’’ – who also wants to be a friend to all. In other words, we don’t want to take sides. The question then is the definition of an “all-weather friend’’.

All this illustrates the rather prickly situation of the little red dot. Obviously, the Chinese want Singapore firmly in its camp, and might even be wondering why a Chinese majority country isn’t behaving like Muslim-dominated Malaysia and Indonesia or a Catholic country like the Philippines.

Education Minister Ong Ye Kung tried to explain this in TODAY : “In Singapore, we have a majority Chinese population. But other than the Chinese traditional culture, what is very deeply rooted in Singapore is a collective awareness that there is also the tradition and wisdom of the Malay and Indian cultures. We are small, and we are open. We have been very much affected by Western cultures, but basically, we are still an Oriental* society.” Presumably he means Oriental as Asian opposed to Occidental or Western, rather than the perception that Oriental means Chinese.

To business people here, the chief concern is probably whether the political atmosphere would affect the economic environment and their chance of exploiting the massive One Belt, One Road project.

It doesn’t help to read about the deals inked by Asean counterparts with China, even though most of them are for infrastructural projects which aren’t relevant to Singapore.

Is the initiative a boon or a bane for Singapore?

There is the question of whether the plans for rail links cutting through Europe, Asia and Africa would affect Singapore’s premier port status. Maybe not, as the One Belt initiative includes a maritime route which cuts through Singapore and it’s still cheaper to go by sea.

Then again, there is the other question of whether ships will skip Singapore since the Chinese are helping different countries build their ports and industrial parks along the route. “With the Belt and Road (initiative), new infrastructure will be built all around us… Trade routes will be adjusted as these new roads and ports get built and developed,” noted Mr Wong.

That’s why Singapore is going full-speed to expand its port and airport facilities to gear up for the competition, he said.

The competition looks daunting. We’ll need to make and save money, if we don’t want to ask for Chinese money. And even if we do, there will be an insistence that significant projects must remain in Singapore hands rather than those of foreign (Chinese) companies.

It’s interesting that after Chinese leader Mr Zhao met PM Lee at the Istana, a statement was released which affirmed the “strong and substantial relationship’’ between the two countries. (Of course, nothing was said about the snub)

The statement also harked back to the old days: “The two leaders noted that bilateral relations dated back to 1976, when then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew first visited China, and 1978, when then-PRC (People’s Republic of China) Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. Mr Lee and Mr Deng provided a strong foundation for the friendship and cooperation that the two countries now enjoy.’’

That was a long, long time ago. Circumstances are different now and China is a mighty power with the ability to project its military and economic might. Singapore is its biggest investor and it is Singapore’s biggest trading partner. How do we proceed from here and on what basis so as to secure our own independence and prosperity? Despite exhortations about strong ties, everything still looks pretty murky.

*According to the Mandarin speech delivered by Mr Ong, the appropriate word is Asian.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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