Tag Archives: Lee Kuan Yew

Democracy. Can Singapore take the next step?

“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation”

The transition from post-colonial or authoritarian rule to more democratic methods of government is something that Asia has witnessed a number of times in recent decades. It is important to see this for what it is – progress. People prefer to be free and attain self determinism, and that is precisely why the goal of building a democratic society is enshrined in the National Pledge. And while recent events in Hong Kong bring the question of democratic progress into focus today, it is the lessons of other countries in the region that are more relevant to the path Singapore is on. Can Singapore take the next step towards democracy?

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The truth about Temasek, CPF and Lee Hsein Loong

Temasek doesn’t really make 16%
Your CPF money isn’t really safe.
And Lee Hsien Loong is a coward.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the day-to-day arguments that crop up on Facebook, social media, and even in real life, that we lose track of the big picture. Despite the very obvious question marks surrounding the way CPF funds are managed, though the government, through Temasek, through GIC and ultimately by the Lee family, I realise that I’ve written almost nothing on the topic. Given Lee Hsien Loong’s sustained and ethically dubious attack on fellow blogger Roy Ngerng, now seems like a good time to visit these topics.

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Round One to Alex Au in battle with AGC

Alex Au’s civil society supporters have scored an important if subtle victory in round one of his looming legal battle against the AGC. In making their call for the statements in question to be publicly rebutted, it appears that the AGC’s hand has been forced. The AGC has apparently agreed to a public hearing of the case, an outcome that – perhaps surprisingly – was never guaranteed, and which may shine a politically awkward light on the details of the case against Au.

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DRUMS? Or noisy government propaganda?

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

Singapore government dials propaganda machine up to eleven in effort to drown out voices of concerned citizens

The importance of a compliant, government controlled media to support the misdeeds of authoritarian governments is not lost on the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew, the political godfather of Singapore, spoke eloquently in opposition on the evils that could be achieved in such an environment. As long as no voices exist to either contradict the lies or highlight the failings of a ruling party, there is almost no limit to the level of deceit that can be inflicted on unsuspecting citizens. The threat posed to such a government monopoly by independent voices online is increasingly forcing the Singapore government propaganda machine to be dialed up to eleven.

[A]n intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October, 1956

An intimidated press is the model under which Singapore’s ruling PAP have governed for decades, however in recent years increasingly vocal online critics have challenged the government’s monopoly on news and analysis. Missteps, greater numbers of corruption cases and unexplained policy u-turns have increasingly been cited by online critics as indications of a government that does not plan or execute with a level of excellence most would expect in the context of their self awarded gargantuan paychecks. In response to the threat independent critics pose to the government’s monopoly of mainstream news and analysis, the ruling party has recently resorted to ever-more desperate efforts to silence, intimidate or discredit online commentators – the most recent example came a few weeks ago when Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen went so far as to suggest that online sources of misinformation could hamper Singapore’s Total Defence efforts. It appears that the existence of online voices critical of the ruling party has forced the government to turn their own propaganda machine up to eleven in response.

This is a sign of how much times have changed since Lee spoke in 1956. Having gained power for his People’s Action Party he would ultimately perform the most hypocritical of u-turns. Over the follow decades practically every democratic principle he spoke in support of in the years before he became Prime Minister of Singapore was abandoned, and there are few examples of this which are more glaring than his cultivation of the sort of intimidated, government controlled media that he opposed in 1956. The seeds of this were sown in the 1970s (and well documented by Francis Seow in his book “Media Enthralled”) when Lee cracked down on independent newspapers, but to this day Singapore’s mainstream media remains moribund, languishing below even that of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in international rankings for freedom.

In recent years however the media landscape has changed significantly. In Singapore, as in practically every country around the world, the emergence of the internet represents a revolution in the way people communicate and share information. And for the government here, as well as authoritarian governments around the world, this revolution represents an existential threat to the power of the ruling party. By giving ordinary citizens a means to not just by-pass but also directly challenge and contradict government lies and propaganda, what Lee described as “the evil things that have already been done” are harder to forget. The carefully stage-managed reputation for excellence that has been cultivated over the years is ever more difficult to maintain. The rudderless policy u-turns can no longer be executed in complete silence, since it is hard to pretend one has not changed course when a dozen bloggers are on hand to remind their readers.

All the above brings us to the crossroads Singapore current sits at. In one direction lies greater freedom of expression and a government that is constrained from mischief by the voices of ordinary Singaporeans speaking up when they feel something is wrong. In the other direction lies a return to the past, where ever fewer Singaporeans have a voice or a platform to speak out if they are concerned about the way the country is being run, and where the government has greater freedom to distort the truth and cover up its mistakes. While most Singaporeans would prefer more freedom to express themselves – and most importantly be listened to – it is clear the government wants to take Singapore down the much darker, regressive path. We see this in the MDA’s recent licensing changes. We see this in numerous attempts to malign and discredit bloggers (not to mention making inexplicable late night phone calls). And now we see the government going so far as to suggest that careless online comments can threaten the very defense of Singapore itself – the desperation betrayed by such extreme levels of propaganda should be obvious.

The desperation of the government may be obvious, but we should be careful to consider the question of why? Why is the government so desperate to lead Singapore down a regressive path, restricting freedom of speech? Restricting freedom to criticise and critically analyse government decisions and mistakes? Does the government covet the power spoken of by LKY, to distort the truth? Does the government wish that we, as LKY warned, forget some evils that have been done in the past? Is government policy so directionless that complete u-turns on policy will need to be performed without explanation? Who really benefits from the government’s stance on this? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the government seeks to lead us down the dark and regressive path because it is the best way for the current leaders to maintain power, rather than because it is best aligned with the wishes of ordinary Singaporeans or the best way to make Singapore better. Is there anyone outside the PAP who believes Singapore would be better of with an increased rather than reduced government monopoly over news and information?

As Lee senior knew very well all those years ago, government controlled media is bad for citizens, but good for governments with dirty secrets to hide. So then why does his son’s government increasingly try to drown out the voices of ordinary citizens with noisy propaganda, intimidation and utterly absurd legislation? One can only guess.

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Millionaires in Singapore – A Success Story?

Singapore has been making headlines recently as the country with the highest proportion of millionaires. Is it something we should be proud of? Is it an advert for the economic success story that is Singapore? It is worth talking about this briefly as it says something important about how the world sees us. On the surface we appear to have a small government and rich citizens and many observers, particularly the right-wing and libertarian[1] segments of the American population, see us as having the best government in the world. Of course, this point of view is ridiculous, we have neither small government nor, for the most part, rich citizens. So let us ask, should Singapore be proud of having the most millionaires in the world? Is our high density of ultra-wealthy residents indicative of the quality of our government’s economic policies?

To shed light on the matter, let’s look at the most recent article to put this theory into writing – “Wealth Over the Edge: Singapore” in the Wall Street Journal. It mentions many million or even billionaires living in Singapore. For each of the people mentioned, I copy below how they are described.

A veteran of Manhattan nightlife and descendant of blue-blooded socialites

Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin gave up his American citizenship in favor of permanent residence

Australian mining tycoon Nathan Tinkler

Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India’s biggest telecom tycoons

New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler

U.S. investor Jim Rogers, who set up shop there in 2007

Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women,

Indonesian-born millionaire Frank Cintamani

one of Mongolia’s richest men

That’s it. All the ultra-wealthy mentioned in this article about Singapore are as described above. Is it obvious what the problem is? Not one of these people made their money in Singapore. They are all not just foreign-born but more importantly they made their money overseas. It is fair to say these people are not an advert for Singapore’s economic model. In fact I think it is fair to say none of these people made their money in countries with an economic model even remotely like Singapore. Is the government a monopoly land owner in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia or Mongolia? Does the state account for at least 50% of the economy in any of these countries? Do state controlled monopolies or duopolies or similar dominate the industries in which these people made their money? Probably not. Although of course, with the right connections, one can become very rich in a country with a state dominated economy.

There in lies the rub. Who are the local millionaires in Singapore? Of course, there are many. Lee Kuan Yew is probably one. Lee Hsien Loong another. In fact we can infer from their cash-only purchases of condominiums during the “Hotel Properties Scandal”[2 Must Read] that all of the extended Lee family are probably cash millionaires. Who else? Probably every member of parliament is or soon will be a millionaire. A lot of former and current civil servants are probably millionaires too. Just to give an example, I’ll let you in on a secret. The man who was Director of the ISD during the time of Operation Spectrum, Mr Tjong Yik Min, is now the CEO of beverage producer Yeos. His annual salary is declared to be in a range above one million per year. He has been on the board of Yeos since 2002. Do you think he is a millionaire? The previous CEO of SMRT, Saw Phaik Hwa had a basic salary of 700k, including bonuses her annual income was over 1.8 million in 2011. So government connections can be very lucrative in state-run Singapore.

The list goes on. I won’t even mention all the corrupt Indonesian politicians that bring their ill-gotten wealth to Singapore but mysteriously cannot be extradited [3]. Clearly Singapore is overflowing with wealthy people, but so what? They just contribute to inflation, the high cost of living, the crowded roads, the increasing COE etc. But what do they add to our society? Mongolia’s richest man, I would guess, made his money in natural resources. Australian mining tycoon Mr Tinkler obviously did. Can they bring their expertise in these fields to Singapore to enrich the nation? I doubt it. The Wall Street Journal article makes it clear – these people come to park their money and have fun – which is reasonably fine, the rich should be allowed their fun after all. Except the negatives are something of a concern for land scarce Singapore – we don’t have the space or the infrastructure to support large numbers of people who do not contribute. We don’t have land to build freeways for their cars. We don’t have enough land to build houses for our own citizens, let alone landed properties for the ultra wealthy. With no inheritance tax and no capital gains tax, what do these people give back, if anything? Are they an advert for the success of Singapore under the PAP? Or an advert for the fact that money can be made more easily in other countries – countries with sensible economic policies and government?

[1] https://andyxianwong.wordpress.com/2012/12/30/how-a-singaporean-sees-professor-bryan-caplan/
[2] http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Sg_Review/message/2335
[3] http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/06/indonesian-politicians-lam

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Is this an open, or is this a closed society?

Let us get down to fundamentals. Is this an open, or is this a closed society? Is it a society where people can preach ideas – novel, unorthodox, heresies, to established government – where there is a constant contest for hearts and minds on the basis of what is right, of what is just, of what is in the national interests, or is it a closed society where the mass media – the newspapers, the journals, publications, TV, internet either by sound or by sight or both sound and sight, people’s minds are fed with a constant drone of sycophantic support for a particular orthodox political philosophy? That is the first question we ask ourselves.

Let me preface my remarks with this: that it is not only under dictatorships where the mass media is used to produce the closed mind, because the closed society must produce the closed mind. I believe that Singapore was founded, if you read its constitution, as an open society, constituting peoples of various communities, of various religions, of various languages, of varying political beliefs, in which the will of the majority will prevail, and in which a large dissenting minority will not be crushed and intimidated and silenced.

I would like to see minds stimulated and debate provoked, and truth refined and crystallized out of the conflict of different evidence and views. I, therefore, welcome every and any opportunity to meet members of the government or opposition, online, on television, university forums, public rallies, whether to agree, or to dissent, or to discuss, or to disagree, so we can progress. I will never run away from the open encounter. If your ideas, your views cannot stand the challenge of criticism then they are too fragile and not sturdy enough to last.

Is this the open encounter? Is this the democratic system in which ideas compete for ascendancy, not brawn or the strength of one’s phalanx, but the idea? They crossed frontiers, they have brought people into space – and if we try to keep our people rooted, glued to the ground, fixed in an orthodox political society which resists change, the world will pass us by, and one day it will come down like a house of cards. It has not go the resilience, the sturdiness, the stamina. I am talking about the principle of the open society, the open debate, ideas, not intimidation, persuasion not coercion.

The basic fundamental we ask ourselves is whether the duties of the government are to produce closed minds or open minds, because these instruments – the mass media, the TV, the internet – can produce either the open minds receptive to ideas and ideals, a democratic system of life, or closed and limited. But I know that the open debate is a painful process for closed minds. Let me make this point: that 5 million minds in Singapore cannot be closed – definitely not in the lifetime of the people of authority. It is not possible because whatever the faults of the democratic system, and there are many, they generated the open mind, the inquiring mind.

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