Disagreeing with some hard truths
By Tommy Koh
WE MUST thank Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and the seven Straits Times journalists for sharing with us Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. Taken together with Mr Lee's two-volume memoirs, the three books constitute his intellectual legacy. The Q&A format of Hard Truths and Mr Lee's trenchant and unvarnished views make the book both interesting and easy to read. I also found the endnotes, at the end of each chapter, helpful.
We owe it to Mr Lee to take his views seriously. They are distilled from the experiences and reflections of an extraordinary man and leader. I agree with many of his hard truths. I agree with his assessment of the United States, of the historical importance of Deng Xiaoping and his deep belief in meritocracy and integrity.
However, we also owe him the responsibility to contest his ideas if we disagree with them. It is in this spirit and with great respect that I wish to comment on the following three points.
First, I do not agree with the Minister Mentor's view that Singapore is too small and lacks the critical mass to produce a world champion in manufacturing. His conclusion is that we will always be dependent on multinational corporations. We should accept the truth that, because of our small size, we are destined to play the secondary role of being suppliers and contract manufacturers. I am glad that Mr Michael Dee and Mr Sam Goi have expressed their disagreements with Mr Lee's view in this newspaper.
Is the view supported by the facts? I do not think so. Let us look at the achievements of some small European countries.
Switzerland, with a population of 7.6 million, has 15 companies in the Fortune Global List of 500 Companies. Sweden, with a population of 9.2 million, has five; Finland, population 5.3 million, has one; Denmark, 5.5 million, two; and Belgium, 10.7 million, five.
The point of this survey is to demonstrate that it is possible for small countries to produce world champions. In a globalised world, it is possible for small countries to overcome their limitations by borrowing the land, resources and talent of other countries. Thus Singapore builds industrial parks and new towns in other countries and welcomes foreign talent to work here.
If size were destiny, we would not have produced SIA, NOL, PSA, Changi Airport, Keppel, Sembawang, Temasek, GIC, SingTel, Tiger Beer. The Singapore Story - of which Mr Lee is the chief architect - is the story of how the people of a small country dared to dream and overcame seemingly insurmountable odds.
[If LKY is quoted correctly, his point was that Sg would not be able to produce a world champion manufacturer. Most of those mentioned by Tommy Koh are service industry. Two of them are SWF investment companies. Is ship/rig-building manufacturing? Only Tiger is a manufacturer and while it has some brand recognition world-wide, I would not call it a world champion.]
Second, I wish to comment on Mr Lee's assessment of the state of nation- building in Singapore. His view is that we are not yet a nation and that you cannot create a nation in 45 years. He thinks that it may take us another 100 years before we become a nation. He also thinks that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.
But according to the results of surveys and polls carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and others, it would appear that Singapore is more of a nation than Mr Lee believes. The overwhelming majority of our citizens regard themselves as Singaporeans first and, only secondarily, as Chinese, Malays, Indians, Eurasians, and so forth.
This happy state of affairs is due to the success of our proactive policy of mixing Singaporeans of different races in our schools, housing estates and in national service. It is also due to our policy of meritocracy.
[I wish I could share Tommy Koh's optimism. But there is a rebuttal below from another writer. I will just say nationhood and patriotism needs a rallying call, a "handle" if you will, for the concept of patriotism to be securely grasped. People can fight for freedom, for liberty, for independence, for democracy, for equality, for civil rights, and for many other noble values. I just don't see our boys charging the enemy shouting, "For Meritocracy! For HDB! For Multi-Culturalism! And for Ethnic Integration!"]
Finally, it is due to the evolution of a set of shared values uniting citizens of all races, religions and languages.
Again, it was Mr Lee himself who was the chief architect of these policies - and I wish to assure him that he has succeeded to a greater extent than he gives himself credit for.
I do not agree with his assessment that the surveys by our think-tanks are unreliable because the respondents were merely giving politically correct answers. I also do not agree with his view that Singapore is not ready for a non-Chinese PM. I think I speak for the majority of Singaporeans when I say that we are ready, should one emerge who is the best in his or her cohort, as all our prime ministers thus far have been. We do not regard race as a criterion for high office in Singapore.
Third, I was disappointed with the Minister Mentor's views on race. He revealed that if his daughter had wished to marry a black African, he would have had no qualms telling her: 'You're mad.' He also expressed reservations about inter-racial marriages.
We should not judge a person on the basis of colour, race or religion. There are good men and bad men, good women and bad women, of every colour, race and religion. I know some black Africans who are smart, kind and honourable. If I had a daughter and she had wanted to marry such a man, I would be supportive and would certainly not call her mad.
[Well, if you have a daughter. On this I am more inclined to feel as Tommy Koh does, but I hesitate to extend my attitude to ALL Singaporeans. Perhaps LKY represent an older mindset, a less integrated, less modern Singapore. Or perhaps he is right, that there are deeper, baser instincts that do not easily get rooted out and smoothed over by nobler ideals.]
I know of many happy and long-lasting inter-racial marriages. One of the Minister Mentor's closest comrades, the late S. Rajaratnam, was married to a Hungarian. The marriage was a very happy one and endured till the end of their lives.
The writer is the chairman of the Centre for International Law, NUS. Think-Tank is a weekly column rotated among eight leading figures in Singapore's research and tertiary institutions.
A hub is not a home
Mar 04, 2011
Prof Koh disagreed with Mr Lee's view that we are not yet a nation, stating instead that its people identify as Singaporeans first and as Chinese, Indian, Malay or Eurasian second. While I admire Prof Koh's spirited rebuttals, I am inclined to agree with the Minister Mentor on this one point.
I am a Singaporean. I moved here in 1991, became a citizen in 1999 and, over the past twenty years, I have interacted with young Singaporeans and immigrants from all walks of life. Our generation - those of us in our 30s - has learnt the textbook lessons of Singapore's success perhaps all too well. But I would hardly say that these lessons have stirred a feeling of nationhood.
Instead, the moral behind these lessons is that pragmatism is the order of the day. Prioritising pragmatism above all else appears to have resulted in the following set of attitudes about life which I have anecdotally observed.
First, that one must do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. If that means Singaporeans should leave Singapore to take up jobs and buy property abroad to carve out a second home, so be it.
Our social and economic mobility has not engendered a sense of loyalty: It has ensured that we will work hard to achieve the Singapore dream. But it has also ensured that if the going gets tough in Singapore, Singaporeans will not necessarily suffer through a crisis. They have been taught to have a back-up plan and to take care of themselves and their families first. Patriotism does not feature in this picture.
Second, I have met Singaporeans who feel disenfranchised because they do not have a stake in Singapore, their country of origin. While it is easy to dismiss these people as armchair critics, Singapore would do well to take heed of their concerns.
A nation cannot be built even if a small segment of society feels deeply disconnected from the country's future and are unsure as to how they can contribute to meet the challenges ahead. Moreover, Internet-based social media these days has enabled such Singaporeans to realise others share their sentiments, creating a strong sense of community among them.
Third, I encounter Singaporeans I would call the progeny of the Singapore success story. They went to the right schools, acquired the right jobs and are financially successful. Yet, their interest in Singapore appears to only extend to changes that affect them individually.
I am often startled to discover that they do not care to understand Singapore's position in the regional context, let alone in the global one. They are wary of immigrants, and frustrated by the competition that foreigners increasingly present in the professional job market, regardless of the fact that such internationalisation is inevitable.
These attitudes go hand in hand with a larger project to turn Singapore into a "hub" for everything from manufacturing and education to the arts and international organisations. Singapore is the ideal place to work and do business - it has great infrastructure, is corruption-free, is efficient and safe, and has clean air to boot. Many are migrating to Singapore for these reasons.
But calling ourselves a hub suggests that we are a port-of-call, a one-stop-shop, a base. Each of these concepts spells transience, not permanence and rootedness. A hub is not a home, and patriotism must be heart-felt. Like Singaporeans, immigrants too have come to feel that to be loyal to Singapore is virtually synonymous with being loyal to one's own needs. But that cannot be the driving ethos of a nation.
Nations are built when its people are invited to participate in the process and are given a stake in the outcomes; not when they are handed a finished product, which they cannot, or dare not, alter.
My recent trips to Sri Lanka and East Timor were revelatory in this regard. Both countries endured over 25 years of civil strife and uncertainty about the future. When I spoke to nation-builders in both countries, I found that the Timorese and Sri Lankans have a deep love for their country. Yet, they are intuitively aware of what is wrong with the current state of affairs, and what needs to be done to include its citizenry in the nation-building process.
[I wonder about the relationship between "deep love" and "wrongness" with the state of affairs. When there are no flaws, do we feel compelled to work to eliminate those flaws? And when there are no deep flaws, are we less compelled. And is this lower compulsion the cause of the less than deep love? ]
I met people who said they would die for their nation and with what they have gone through, I had no doubt they meant it. Coming across patriotism in its purest form is a truly profound experience.
The Minister Mentor is correct to note that a nation cannot be built in 45 years. However, for it to become one in the long run Singapore needs to closely examine its driving ethos and ask itself if, and how, it will give Singaporeans and residents a deeper stake in the country. Without this, we really are venturing into troubled waters.