Sunday, April 12, 2015

S'pore after LKY? That question's 25 years late

Many of his Big Ideas have been taken apart, and put together in totally new ways
Apr 12, 2015

Sunday With Chua Mui Hoong, 
Opinion Editor

Whither Singapore, post-Lee Kuan Yew?

Many commentators here and abroad have pondered this after Mr Lee died on March 23 at the age of 91, leaving three children and seven grandchildren, and the thriving, successful city-state of Singapore as his physical, tangible legacy.

Will Singapore's success survive Mr Lee? Will the so-called Singapore Model of soft authoritarianism built on a bedrock of respect for the law, a clean and efficient public administration, and a social habit of putting the community above individual interests, be able to withstand the test of time?

Mr Lee himself, it should be noted, always said Singapore was too small and unique to be a model for any other society.

I must confess to some impatience reading such musings on whether Singapore will survive Mr Lee.

The evidence is all around us today. To me, the question is a quarter of a century late.

Mr Lee handed over the prime ministership to Mr Goh Chok Tong in November 1990. He remained in Cabinet, but as he was wont to tell anyone who asked, he was a mere "data bank", and later a "mascot".

One might contend that while in the Cabinet, he would have held sway over many decisions. At the very least, he might have had veto powers accorded to his years of experience and moral authority.

Even if that were the case, the question of what next after Mr Lee is still four years late because he left the Cabinet after the 2011 election.

In truth, the post-Lee Kuan Yew years for my generation began after 1990. Those born after Independence and who came of age in the 1990s and later have always known a Singapore not led by Mr Lee.

We see the 1990s as Mr Goh Chok Tong's decade, not Mr Lee's.

In like vein, the period after 2004 is defined by the political values of current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his team; PM Lee took over from Mr Goh in August 2004.

The post-LKY years for Singapore thus began after November 1990. The 25 years since have seen an intense reinvention of values of the founding generation led by the senior Mr Lee. Many of the Big Ideas of Mr Lee have been quietly taken apart, and put together in totally new ways.

Let me just cite three.

The first is the move from an "every man for himself" society to an inclusive society.

The first PM Lee, bred in the crucible of the Japanese Occupation and the bitter struggle against communalists, communists and colonialists, was very much an advocate of rugged individualism. Each man - and his family - must stand on his own two feet. Welfare is a bad word. Only the indigent get state assistance.

PM Goh's mantra was for a kinder, gentler Singapore. As he pledged in his swearing-in speech, he would aim "to build a nation of character and grace where people live lives of dignity and fulfilment, and care for one another".

The current PM Lee, a pivotal member of Mr Goh's team through the 1990s, carried on in that trajectory. He made "an inclusive society" the hallmark of his regime.

At first, some thought it was about opening up avenues for the disabled and those with special needs. By now, it has been extended to the elderly (helping them stay employable); to single parents (who can now buy subsidised Housing Board flats); and even to political opponents (no more back-of- the queue treatment for opposition constituencies when it comes to estate upgrading).

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's rugged individual has become a caring citizen looking out for those less rugged than himself.

The second big change post-LKY has been in tempering the relentlessly competitive meritocratic system into one that Deputy PM Tharman Shanmugaratnam termed "compassionate meritocracy".

Meritocracy will remain a key lodestar in Singapore. But compassionate meritocracy means not slotting people into rigid academic and socio-economic classes based on their exam results.

Mr Lee had a tendency to ask people their grades; and he famously compared two candidates' O-level exam results (the one who did worse - Mr Chiam See Tong - won the election). He also had an unabashedly Darwinian view of life, believing some people are born smarter than others and if you were a dud, well, only God could help you, he couldn't.

Singapore has moved beyond those values, with an education system that provides many pathways to success, including for the less academically inclined.

The third big shift post-LKY is in the state as provider of last resort, to the state as co-provider when times are bad.

Mr Lee ran a government that intruded into the bathroom (Flush the toilets!), and the bedroom (Stop at two! And later, Have two or more if you can afford it!), but when it came to state handouts or welfare assistance, he favoured a decidedly minimalist government.

The modest Public Assistance allowance was virtually the only form of welfare right into the 1990s, reserved for those too sick or too old to work (often both) and without family support.

Today's Singapore has a thick social safety net to catch those who fall. From ComCare to Workfare, to the Pioneer Generation Package, to ever increasing subsidies for healthcare, childcare, eldercare and home-based care, the Government has been rolling out programme after programme. These days, the middle income and even those with incomes up to the top one-third qualify for various subsidies.

What's remarkable is that the broadening of the welfare state happened while Mr Lee was very much alive; indeed some of it while he was still in the Cabinet. Workfare, for example, began as a pilot project in 2006.

The shift is from viewing government assistance as "handouts" (long a dirty word in Singapore) to viewing it as giving people a "hand up" when they are down.

To be sure, some of Mr Lee's old ideas look more outdated than others, such as his way of tackling political opponents. But even here, his successors have adapted his methods - from using a bulldozer to using a microscope to scrutinise arguments, as PM Lee once said.

As long as Singapore's leaders and people continue to review guiding principles and policies, discarding those that don't work and updating those that do, the country should retain its solid footing.

Those who speak as if Singapore's success was built by one man do not do the country and its people justice.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a key torchbearer, but he was not the only one. Today's citizens and leaders all helped bring Singapore to where it is today. And we are the ones who will carry the torches forward.

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