The Sage of Singapore – Part 2

This is the second part of the three part series on Lee Kuan Yew , commemorating the 48th independence of Singapore. For the first part, click here.

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LKY’s domestic policies for governance were not always popular with the western media  but were useful for Singapore to develop. To the western media and the ‘liberal’ intellectuals, his government was kind of soft authoritarian in nature. LKY was not apologetic about it. He did the best that he could do – ignore the armchair critics and go ahead with nurturing his baby – Singapore.

Well known policies such as zero tolerance to corruption and drug smuggling are not  the only ones that made LKY stand apart from the rest of the world leaders. Some strange rules such as ‘no-littering’ , ‘no-spitting’ and ‘no-bubble gum’ are some that evoked mirth and a kind of look-down stare from the developed world. But LKY and his government went ahead with the strictest implementation of these. The surmise is simple. These are basic disciplinary traits that needed to be inculcated at home. As Singapore was a melting pot of cultures such as the different strains of Chinese, Malay, different strains of Indian, Javanese and Burmese, these basic traits were not uniformly developed. Hence they had to be cultivated among the masses so that they are passed onto the next generation of Singaporeans. Two generations of Singaporeans had to be subjected to this seemingly ridiculous rules and at present, these have been ingrained in the genes, if I may say so. Enforcement of these rules have resulted in these becoming a habit.

LKY insisted on the rule of the elite for he firmly believed that in a nil-resource land, if the rulers are lackadaisical and incompetent, the country would go down the drain. So he carefully observed as to how the western multi national companies recruited and promoted leaders, how the chosen ones were subjected to several psychological and psychiatric screening and then put on the job and adopted a similar approach towards grooming of Singapore’s leaders.   He says,” Good government of Singapore did not happen naturally. It needed a thorough and meticulous process of selection and testing…We have assembled together the best persons available and willing. There is no alternative team or group of people outside of government who can replace the present team“. Very true. The leadership is chosen from diverse fields such as medicine, law, banking, engineering and the armed forces. People are observed from their secondary schools and lists are prepared. The really elite students are provided scholarships and are trained in some of the best universities of the world. After that they pursue their professions and are observed for performance over a period of time. Once they are someone in their positions, they are called in for counselling to become legislators where they are trained and filtered by means of a very stringent evaluation method. Out of a 500 people who are chosen thus, only a handful make it as candidates to contest elections. The only difference between Singapore’s democracy and the rest of the world is that in Singapore those that are to contest the elections are chosen for their intellect, merit and caliber while in the rest of the world they are chosen for their popularity and other considerations.  And the results are out in the open for anybody to see. The system obviously works for Singapore.

And that means the government is constituted by the elites in their own fields. LKY says,” I have learned that one high-calibre mind in charge of a ministry, or a statutory board, makes the difference between success and failure of a major project… There is a heavy price to pay if mediocrities and opportunists ever take over control of government.  Five years of such a mediocratic government or a coalition, and Singapore will be down on her knees. What has taken decades to build in industry, tourism, banking and commerce will be dismantled and demolished in a few years“. And there is a price to pay for having these high ranking professionals in government. They need to be paid at least a part of corporate salaries. And the end result – Singapore has become a country that is run like a company – efficiently and sensibly, where after the annual budget, citizens are paid dividends. So Singapore is actually Singapore Inc with social obligations and it does that remarkably well, the foundation for which was effectively laid by LKY.

Nowhere in the world has a government with no natural resources been able to provide subsidized housing for all its citizens. And those houses have running water and power all through. That in itself, I would say, is a feat. LKY says that during the 60s people used to live in shanties in some parts of Singapore. Today Singapore is a modern metropolis that is able to provide housing, education and to a reasonable extent jobs for its citizens. And at the same time it is able to compete with London and New York and Hong Kong to become the leading financial and trading hub of Asia.

Coming to the accusation of ‘soft authoritarianism’ – the term I find amusing. It is agreed that democracy is the best form of government available. But a free for all and chaotic democracy like what we see in Philippines has done the country no good. Obama, however well placed his intentions are, will not be able to move ahead with  gun control. And the USA is the leader of the free world and a precursor to world’s democracies! Churchill says that democracy might not be the best form of government and that all other forms of government have been tried and have been found to be no better. So some constraints on ones’ own liberties for the sake of the good for a vast majority of people is not essentially a bad idea. After all, what good is a democracy if it cannot ensure the welfare of a maximum number of its own people ? Therefore, reasonable restrictions on the media is not in itself inimical to the country as long as the ruling group is good and works for the common good of the citizens. That is what happens in Singapore and hence it is no big deal. A Fox News kind of channel that always criticizes the government would prove to be more inimical to Singapore and its people. When the US president was making a passionate plea in the Congress during his  State of the Union’ address, Fox News began to criticize the speech terming it “Obama-care”. Obama had not even completed his speech in the Congress then. What good does Fox serve the USA ?

If a government is able to provide for the majority of its citizens reasonable standards of life with safety and security, then how does it matter if the country is not run on the ideals of western democracy that is most of the time dysfunctional, to say the least ?

LKY’s unique approach to tackling the drug menace is noteworthy. While the West goes after the source of the drugs ( that is what they said when they invaded Panama), LKY’s government enacted extremely strict laws that provided capital punishment for those who had something to do with drugs. The idea is to take on the carrier and end-user actors which is controllable and within Singapore’s capacity. Singapore obviously cannot punish the opium farmers in say Afghanistan. If there is a suspicion that a person is a drug addict, his blood and urine are tested and they are sent to re-rehabilitation centers if found positive. Repeat offenders are dealt with differently while knowing smugglers are provided the harshest punishment. And this approach works and helps to keep Singapore relatively drug free.

Some of the above might not confirm to any of the known ideas or philosophies in full. LKY says that he is no follower of any particular philosophy. He just takes up a course that works for Singapore unmindful of the fact that the course of action might not fall into the realm of any known ideology. What works for Singapore and its people, he says, is what needs to be pursued rather than be bogged down by the unnecessary burden of ideology. He says,” I chase ideas provided they work. When they don’t work, I say, look, this idea maybe sounds bright, but lets’ try something that works“. And that is pragmatism at its very best.

LKY’s attention to detail went to the level of deciding who your neighbor would be in the public housing estates. In an inter-racial Singapore, to prevent ghettoization based on races, the government needed to interfere and ensure proportional allotment of government subsidized flats to the citizens. There could not have been any better way to ensure racial harmony than this. Probably this is against “free-choice” etc of the western ideals of freedom. But for Singapore, given its unique demography, the western model would have resulted in chaos.

To quote Prof.Jeffrey Cole of the University of Southern California: “Singapore is a city-state that had poor odds for surviving, let alone thriving : no resources, tiny size and population, and surrounded by difficult and sometimes hostile neighbors. Through sheer intellect and will power, LKY carved out a country that is a model for economic growth, has little or no corruption.. and delivers a first-rate education and life for its citizens.”

In the next part let us see about LKY’s views on International relations and how they have helped Singapore.

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