Singapore 2025

What of Singapore towards 2025? Thoughts of a Singaporean.

Archive for February 2010

The Rony Tan in each of us

Originally published in The Online Citizen on 23 Feb 2010.

It grabbed one’s attention, yet sat very uneasily in the hearts of the Sikhs who read it. Slightly more than two years ago, an article titled “Why Sikhism is the best religion” was uploaded onto the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board (a gazetted statutory board in Singapore) website. Occupying a place amongst other articles that did nothing more than to detail the nature, practices and scholarship pertaining to the Sikh faith, the article in question was unusual in that it ran contrary to the egalitarian basis of a religion whose devotees are not wont to public bouts of chest-thumping and flag-waving in support of their faith, but more importantly, are obliged to respect and protect the sanctity and religious beliefs of others.

The author of the article contended that the Sikh faith did not subject people to “valueless” rituals, before going on to refer to the caste system, bathing in holy rivers, facing a certain direction for prayers, slaughtering animals in the name of God and circumcision as examples of such rituals. Needless to say, this was hardly an oblique reference to our Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

Fortunately, after a complaint by a member of the Singapore’s Sikh community, the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board took down the article without fuss. In fairness to the Board, many of its members had no idea such an article was uploaded in the first place.

Interestingly however, some Sikhs contended privately that the offending article was a response to the increasingly aggressive and sustained attempts at proselytization by some members of cash-rich Christian churches. While the article in question may have been uncomfortable for some, it was a necessary response given the perception of a new climate of insecurity in Singapore’s public space viz. religion, they argued. Sikhism in Singapore needed to imbibe a “coolness” quotient, just like how some Christian ministries had done, so as to inspire and unite younger Sikhs. The way to do it was through a sharper identification of Sikh religious identity. Offence to others was incidental, not their intention, they would erroneously reason.

For sometime now, the increasingly prominent and public expansion of the Christian faith in Singapore has led to feelings of genuine discomfort among members of Singapore’s other faiths. This discomfort is not rooted in antagonism against Christianity or Christians, far from it – but solely in the insensitive proselytizing of a minority of over-zealous and small-minded Christians. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such proselytizing takes on various forms – from aggressive and unsolicited door-to-door one-on-ones with non-Christian HDB flat-dwellers, to unsolicited engagements at bus interchanges and other public places, and to other more subtler techniques. But one of its more painful and blunt manifestations was exposed by Pastor Rony Tan’s now infamous comments about Buddhists and Taoists.

In a country whose citizens live cheek by jowl, remarks like Pastor Tan’s stoke resentment and create a snowball effect, bringing out the worst in each of us. The Sikh who penned the offending article referred to above presents a case in point. The truth of the matter is that Singaporeans do not need to define themselves and their beliefs in reference to ill-conceived ideas of what adherents of other faiths purportedly lack, or do not believe in. To do so would be to exhibit insecurities about one’s own beliefs and convictions.

Separately, the fallout from Pastor Tan’s comments has had the effect of putting Singapore’s Christians in the spotlight – unfairly it must be added. A faith that has inspired so many Christians and non-Christians alike is erroneously cast as disrespectful, insensitive and exclusive because of a misguided Pastor’s callous remarks, broadcast over the Internet. The need of the hour calls for some empathy from Singaporeans of all faiths to assure our moderate Christian friends and neighbours that as a nation, we stand together with them and should put this episode behind us. Singapore’s non-Christian citizens must also remember that like the followers of many faiths (including my own – Sikhism), Christians are not necessarily a monolithic group. Many are not insensitive, but respect the boundaries of multi-racial Singapore. To surmise that the conduct of some misguided believers is representative of all Christians would not only be grossly simplistic, but more importantly, intellectually deficient.

If there is something educative the Rony Tan episode stands for, it ought to be that religious sensitivity and a respect for the secular public space must remain the central pillars of every Singaporean’s religious ethos. Apart from incidences where some members of any faith ridicule the religious beliefs and rituals of others, Singaporeans must be watchful against spreading hate against non-religious communities too, such as gays and non-believers, and call out such improper behaviour before it morphs into something uglier. In addition, our religious leaders must recognise that the advent of internet-based communication technologies have shrunk the concept of “private” space.  The scope of what constitutes as “public” necessitates greater self-policing among members of every faith in order to keep Singapore’s multi-racial landscape as free as possible from religious hatred and bigotry.

On closer scrutiny, it is clear, albeit understated that Singapore’s economic success has been partly underwritten by the leaders and members of our various religious communities who acknowledge the importance of managing inter-racial relations with sensitivity and mutual respect. As a citizenry, we would be turning the clock back if we allow religion to define, distinguish and divide us a nation. We may be Hindus, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is or even atheists, but we must be Singaporeans who acknowledge that the experience of mankind so far has proved that religion is a tinderbox that needs only a small spark to engulf entire communities. There can be no greater motivation to counsel and forewarn the Rony Tan in each of us of this historical reality.


Written by singapore 2025

23/02/2010 at 5:49 am

Making right choices in Singapore: From Adelman to Asian values

Originally published in The Online Citizen on 11 Feb 2010.

David Adelman’s remarks last week to a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee hearing over his appointment as ambassador to Singapore ruffled more than a few feathers in the Lion City. ‘Insensitive’ words and all the ‘wrong’ insinuations employed by the ambassador – “greater press freedoms, greater freedom of assembly and ultimately more political space for opposition parties in Singapore” – largely account for this chagrin. Allegations of interference in domestic affairs and the like began to circulate on local Internet forums even as some Singaporeans welcomed the remarks.

Pondering about US president Barack Obama’s choice of ambassador does warrant a look back at Singapore’s stance during the 2008 US presidential campaign. First, it was Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, no less, who allegedly labelled Obama as a “flash in the pan” at a local conference in early February 2008. He continued to exhibit public disdain and lack of enthusiasm for the then-Democratic candidate, right until when the financial crisis hit corporate America sometime early September 2008.

In contrast, the Minister Mentor spoke about John McCain in effusive terms, publicly complimenting the Arizona senator’s record and experience in government and all but endorsing him as Singapore’s choice for US president, until around September 2008. Even the Straits Times got in on the act, hosting a commentary written by McCain and fellow senator Joe Lieberman with regards to the US’ commitment to Asia on the opening day of the 2008 Shangri-La dialogue – an annual gathering of defence ministers held in Singapore. The Lieberman connection notwithstanding, this strategically timed commentary was published to ensure targeted readership.

For a small state heavily dependent on diplomacy to preserve its strategic interests, it was poor form to publicly back any candidate – an observation that need not have been afforded by hindsight. Furthermore, could Singapore through the Minister Mentor and the Straits Times be construed as having interfered in the domestic affairs of the US by virtue of their conduct in 2008?

As luck would have it, the Republican horse did not win the race. But it would be one-sided to suggest that this was nothing more than a shocking faux pas by Singapore’s founding prime minister. Singaporeans in support of McCain and conservatives in general are likely to argue that Republican leaders have traditionally made for better foreign policy allies for Singapore. More pertinently, it may have been in a People’s Action Party government’s national interest to back a Republican presidential candidate, since the Republican Party’s political ethos is closely linked with big business interests, which in turn is seen as beneficial for Singapore’s economic growth – a political selling-point that the PAP markets every election.

In contrast, Democrats tend to have a prickly habit of trying to politically better an imperfect world, putting democratic ideals on the table as one variable of its foreign policy calculus, or so it is perceived. Not that the Democrats abhor business, trade and economic growth. But between business and democracy, the PAP’s perception of national interest dictates that business ought to be the way to go.

Would the Adelman episode last week have unfolded differently had MM Lee not shown Singapore’s hand in the run up to the 2008 elections? Probably not. As one steadfast permanent secretary of the Foreign Affairs ministry remarked in a different context some years ago, in the game of international relations, Singapore is a price-taker, not a price-setter. Quite simply, there was no need to publicly choose between Obama or McCain.

Fortunately, the misplaced bet against America’s choice for their 44th President is unlikely to cause any serious long-term damage to Singapore and Singaporeans, the Adelman hiccup aside. Singapore needs the US for its geo-strategic purposes just as much as the US regards Singapore as its anchor in the region. And unlike the face that the US presents to the Middle East, the face it presents to Singapore and the post-Cold War Southeast Asia is a largely benevolent one. The maelstrom of Vietnam has been replaced by a normalisation of US-Vietnam relations, and the US enjoys a positive relationship with many Asean countries, bar Myanmar.

But there is another bet being wagered by some Singaporeans that may ruin the country should the political masters of the day decide to call it out at the gambling table – that of choosing between the US and China.

The pressure to place this bet is not as far fetched as imagined. In view of the large number (a figure this writer is unaware of) of recent immigrants turned citizens from China now living in Singapore, one disastrous scenario foretells of a bet on China on purely ethnocentric grounds. Given the doubts surrounding conceptions of loyalty among new citizens from any country, not just China, the growing confidence and assertiveness of China in the context of the US-China relationship may well mirror the popular opinion of some Chinese Singaporeans. The strong wave of support for the Confucian ethics discourse back in the 1980s and 1990s among culturally conservative ethnic Chinese suggests that these numbers may well constitute a significant minority.

In Washington late October 2009, MM Lee was conferred a lifetime achievement award for fostering US-Asean ties. Acknowledging that China was rapidly gaining economic and geopolitical clout, he observed that Beijing was neither willing nor ready to take on equal responsibility for managing the international system and therefore, the US should remain engaged with East Asia.

The Chinese were up in arms. Some argued that as an ethnic Chinese, MM Lee should have stood shoulder to shoulder with China. This prompted a riposte from the Minister Mentor, quoting Lianhe Zaobao, at a BusinessChina meeting in Singapore in December 2009: “Your leaders say you are not cheng ba (seeking hegemony) but the way you are talking, you are already cheng ba.”

Beijing continues to stress its ‘peaceful rise’, but there is an emerging consensus emerging that China will occasionally choose to flex its new-found power in potentially destructive ways, just like superpowers have always done. Many fear China’s rise is precisely because of its lack of democracy, media freedom and absence of civil society, amongst others. The unsuccessful climate talks in Copenhagen portend the potentially obstructionist role China can play should it determine that global flavour of the day is not in its favour.

In this regard at least, Singapore leaders have learnt from the events surrounding Obama’s election. At the aforementioned BusinessChina meeting, MM Lee stressed that Singapore will never do the biding of any country, be it China or the US. This may well staunch the rah-rah over China for the moment. But the Chinese genie is already out of its bottle. Given Singapore’s demographic realities, it may well tempt the political leadership to make a Hobson’s choice at great cost to Singapore’s multi-racial heritage and gradual political maturity in future.

A second phenomenon fuelling this choice between China and the US is the reincarnation of the Asian values debate – something that looks to be fusing itself with the shift of power from West to East thesis. Worryingly, Singapore appears to indirectly champion this debate because of the nature of its one-party dominant political landscape.

The intellectual snobbery emerging from the East today is better understood in light of the 1997 financial crisis when the West allegedly castigated Asians over governmental excess and mismanagement. Today, the financial meltdown in the US is used as a haughty riposte along the lines of “see, so much for your democracy!” even if democracy had little, if anything, to do with that episode.

One cannot help but notice a childish and palpable sense of ridiculousness to this apparently intellectual jousting. The greatest shortcoming of any attempt to describe human societies is the lack of analytical rigour and practical difficulty of encapsulating the essence of human civilisation within the walls of general theory. Almost akin to a tit-for-tat fight in a schoolyard, some Asians have traditionally spoken of Asian values as if the West has no values. Equally, some elements in the West, hardly an innocent party at this game, fare no better with much of their academic discourse providing poor disguises for a blunt cultural superiority complex.

Unfortunately, some of Asia’s most foremost intellectuals have mistakenly dismissed democracy as a Western construct – a political philosophy unsuitable for Asian or, more specifically, Chinese culture. The intellectually honest among them, however, recognise that every society will have to deal with forces clamouring for a democratic tradition after a period of sustained growth. In their heart of hearts, these same intellectuals acknowledge that concepts of equality, justice and fairness have a universal appeal and that these values are best expressed within a political and legal system that jealously guards them, not one that determines their contours every now and then from above.

Even the most enthusiastic proponents postulating a shift of power from West to East agree that any shift is destined to be more elegant in theory than reality. The best minds in the world still go to America – it remains a hotbed of creativity, research and development where the virtues of justice, equality and fairness resonate more deeply as compared with China’s experience in modern times. The latter values may not explain the neo-conservative Republican aberration of Guantanamo and extraordinary renditions in the wake of 9/11, but the intense soul-searching over the use of torture and the reinstatement of due process evince the existence of a self-correcting mechanism that is evident in many democratic political systems.

Economic power may well have shifted in some capacity to Asia in general and China specifically, but soft power remains firmly in the clutches of the West, even if they make no effort at claiming its mantle. This should not surprise anyone. The combination of a democratic process, free press and a capacity for the individual to air grievances and take ownership of the democratic process may partly explain the regeneration, bottom-up pride and economic success seen in many democracies throughout the world, including those with remarkably Confucian characteristics, such as Taiwan and others that are quintessentially Asian, such as India.

The challenge of accommodating modern China’s political ethos – one that is found wanting in light of mankind’s universal and millenarian struggle against arbitrary and oppressive rule – remains a difficult proposition. The informal Chinese relationship concept of guanxi, while extremely useful in spreading wealth and prosperity among the selected, is ultimately underpinned by a non-democratic allegiance to a superior – somewhat akin to many patron-client relationships. If the patron is malevolent, the entire system breaks down and society pays a high price through the breakdown of law and order.

To a large extent, guanxi explains one of the fundamental tenets of Singapore’s economic growth. The patron, in the shape of the PAP has been largely benevolent, lifting an entire generation out of poverty through between the 1970s and 80s in particular, something the Chinese government to its credit, is also underwriting today, albeit, to a different extent. However, guanxi is also very unforgiving to individuals who believe in ensuring that the patron is subject to the rule of law. In the short-run, tangible signs of progress and economic growth also relegate and obscure demands of accountability and transparency.

But going forward, good governance in context of a more complex and layered global city may well have to be managed by a greater appreciation for a democratic tradition, such as a free press and respect for fundamental liberties within the framework of a multi-racial society. For a young nation like Singapore, whose only real resource is its human capital, the government is likely to be more successful at unlocking this wealth through substantive democratic reform and encouraging the citizenry to be more vocal and pro-active in taking ownership of their lives and country. With immigration and citizenship becoming such hot-button issues, a de-politicised allegiance to the fundamental liberties as outlined in our constitution may well kill two birds with one stone.

While no political system is perfect, and some democracies do fail spectacularly at different points in history, the capacity of a broadly democratic system to unleash inclusive and creative forces critical for economic growth whilst facilitating good governance ought to be attractive for a small and vulnerable country like Singapore. This is especially relevant at present, when growth is expected to plateau in concert with the current evolutionary stage of our economic development.

Instead of turning blue in the face over accusations of a lack of democracy and freedom of expression and castigating Western commentators over their alleged imposition of a gold standard for democracy and human rights, Singaporeans would be better served by a flexible, ideologically neutral and ultimately syncretic political ideology. One that acknowledges the cultural peculiarities and norms required to manage a multi-racial polity on the one hand, whilst reaping the economic advantage of a substantively democratic society on the other.

Like the false dilemma of choosing between Obama and McCain, the even more misplaced discourse pitting Asian values against Western democracy does nothing for Singapore except to miss the wood for the trees. While the PAP has done admirably in guiding Singapore through its first forty years since independence, even the party’s staunchest loyalists would agree that a new generation of Singaporeans expect and demand greater accountability from their political leaders. Rather than dismiss democracy as a Trojan horse of Western machination, the party would be better placed, in concert with its pragmatism, to embrace democratic traditions such as freedom of expression and the press in order to unlock the wealth of talent within each and every Singaporean.


Written by singapore 2025

11/02/2010 at 5:41 am

Posted in Asian Values, Democracy

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