Singapore 2025

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9 Jul 2011: The New Social Compact in Singapore

I spoke at a public forum hosted by the Young Sikh Association on 9 Jul 2011, alongside Zakir Hussain of the Straits Times, PAP MP Inderjit Singh and Dr Tan Chi Chiu, Chairman of the Lien Centre for Social Innovation, Singapore Management University on the new social compact in Singapore. It was yet another fascinating discussion where I found Dr Tan’s views particularly thoughtful and worthy of greater circulation. Specifically, he shared many insights on how the government could move forward together with civil society.


Pritam Singh: YSA Speech 9 Jul 2011

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Before I begin I would like to thank the Young Sikh Association for inviting me to share my thoughts with all of you.

From the outset, I would like to say that the public discourse on a new social compact is not something new. The questions that are being posed this afternoon were already being asked by Singaporeans 10 years ago, as the second generation of PAP leaders handed over the reins of the power to the third generation. Let me take you on a short journey, thanks to the mainstream media to make this point.

First, I present an article entitled, “Poor get more help in PM’s new deal” dated 21 August 2001 by then Straits Times journalist and current PAP MP Irene Ng. The article was a reference to then PM Goh Chok Tong’s 2001 National Day rally. The article outlined the new social contract as follows, and I quote, “The new contract continues the emphasis on self-reliance and family ties. But it goes on to say you must work or at least go for retraining, and if you do, the Government will give some support if you earn too little to support your family. And if you fall in the low-income group, you will get more. It is an approach that has been introduced into the system over the years in an ad-hoc and piecemeal fashion, with an announcement of a CPF top-up here, a HDB service and conservancy rebate and worker-upgrading programme there.

In 2003, Paul Jacob of the Straits Times in a very appropriately titled article called, “Is the social compact changing?” commented (quote) “something has changed when ordinary members of the public take on new ministers and policies. (unquote)” So by 2003, the reality of a more questioning and critical population had been readily noted, and evidently, Singaporeans were no longer just pragmatic individuals.

In 2005, former Chairman of the PAP, Lim Boon Heng, openly noted:

In the past, better education, better health care and better housing were clearly seen as key components of this social compact. Today, low-income Singaporeans may feel that they are shouldering a higher share of the costs than before.

‘Will this lead to social tension? Not if we can show the lower income that we care and play our part to help them.

‘So, how do we reshape the social compact, without destroying self-reliance and the incentive to work, and without loading the cost on to business?

In 2006, in an article written by Daniel Buenas in the Business Times, current DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam noted:

Not only has income distribution become unequal, but lower-income groups, particularly unskilled workers, have experienced stagnation, or sometimes decline, in their standards of living.’

He added that, if left unchecked, these developments will lead to a breakdown of the social compact required for Singapore to continue to participate in a global economy and reap the benefits of globalisation for the majority of the population. ‘We have to address this,’ he said. ‘Through the CPF system, in particular, we have to continue to do that – saving for the future needs of the lower-income, including their medical needs and their other retirement needs, not just provide for the present.

‘It requires some political stamina. But, well, I think that is the most responsible thing to do.‘”

Now if you forgot what I have said so far, its ok, because now is the time to sit up and take notice of the most lucid and thoughtful analysis of the new social compact that Singaporeans were thinking about over the last decade. The next article I am going to refer to appeared in the Straits Times on 23 Nov 2007. It was written by a gentleman by the name of Yeoh Lam Keong. Today, he is the Managing Director and Chief Economist at the Economic Strategy Dept of the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC). The article was so profound that the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek found it appropriate to write a piece on the basis of his insights and revelations. And yes, no surprise, the title of Yeoh Lam Keong’s article was “A New Social Compact for Singapore”.

I tried to select appropriate excerpts to share with you, but there is so much of value in that piece towards our discussion today that I have decided to spend a few minutes reading out what he so presiently delivered 4 years ago in 2007:

Since the late 1990s, a fundamental change has taken place. Median real wages are no longer rising with robust growth. Instead, they have been roughly stagnating since 1998. For the bottom 60 percent of workers, individual wages have, in fact, cumulatively declined by 7 to 15 per cent over the past five years up to last year, despite 5 to 7 per cent GDP growth.

The poorest and least skilled have been the hardest hit. Median monthly starting pay for cleaners and labourers has fallen by nearly one-third, from $860 to $600, between 1996 and (2006). While household incomes especially of the bottom 30 per cent rebounded last year, this is due to jobs being plentiful enough for more family members to work. Yet the poor have to run faster just to stand still. The bottom 30 percent have now experienced stagnating real household incomes for eight to 10 years.

In the long run, this malign combination of median wage stagnation and rising inequality is potentially poisonous for the social compact underpinning Singapore’s virtuous circle of strong governance.

If the median worker faces long-term wage stagnation, the credibility of tough policies – will be undermined. Many will feel their stake in the common enterprise of prosperity has been eroded. What remains may be the bitter, zero-sum politics of envy and dead-end populism.

Current net Workfare payments of around $80 to $100 per month are a long way from being able to bridge the poverty gap between bare subsistence and the small surplus needed to invest in human capital at the household level. Yet Workfare remains the fastest way to get there without compromising the work ethic.

The political will and policy framework to deal with wage stagnation may well be one of the biggest tests of compassion, pragmatism and policy innovation Singapore has faced. However, some subtle risks also arise from our traditional policy distrust of large-scale welfare, or direct social spending to address poverty.

The latter is perhaps more difficult to deal with, as it reflects a policy paradigm that may also need radical change. A stronger, direct social safety net may now need to be seen by both policymakers and the public as an institution that enables policy to take advantage of globalisation more quickly and boldly, rather than one that erodes the work ethic, drains the Budget or hamstrings economic reform.

Can we, policymakers as well as citizens, be bold, compassionate and creative enough to re-imagine and remake our social compact, one that includes a social safety net more suited to the current mega-trends of globalisation?

The last government official to speak at length on the social compact was current Emiritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong at the Singapore-China forum in 2010. ESM Goh explained Singapore’s success through three key elements that defined our social compact. ESM Goh identified our education system, our multi-racialism, and the decision to pay public officials competitive wages as central to our social compact.

So there you have it – six articles sourced from the mainstream media, from 2001 to 2010, some very quite presciently premonitioning the drivers of a new social compact for Singapore. Without doubt, the new social compact did not become a reality after 7 May 2011. It has been in gestation for the last 10 years, under the PAP’s watch.

In the aftermath of the elections, we finally see the PAP responding. Why did it take them this long, that is not for me to say. But during our rally speeches, the Workers’ Party did allude to the reality that the PAP listens to the wishes of the electorate on polling day – your vote is indeed very powerful. In 1991, when 4 opposition members of parliament were elected, the PAP duly formed a cost review committee to address cost of living issues, which were raised by the opposition during those elections.

In the aftermath of the 2011 elections, we have already come to know that three central planks of Singapore’s social compact are being reviewed: HDB policy – any review of which has a direct impact on CPF, healthcare, and ministerial salaries. Lets be clear about it, the shape of the new social compact is in the PAP’s hands. The Workers’ Party, and I am sure many Singaporeans, certainly look forward their recommendations.

Ladies and gentlemen, so far, I have alluded to the hard aspects of the new social compact. Let me conclude, with a view to provoke more discussion later about the soft aspects of this new social compact. For the longest time, from the time of the first-generation of PAP leaders, the public discourse has not been about individuals, but about community.

At its height, this national ideology was framed with a view to reject individualism. But over the last few years, even concepts of community have been shaken with 1/3 of Singapore comprising of foreigners. Some well-meaning Singaporeans fear that we have become more xenophobic. However, this fear of xenophobia may not be a function more foreigners in Singapore, many of whom are not socialized to the no spitting and no littering campaigns of the Singapore many of us grew up in. On the contrary, it is also helpful to remember that we are the third or fourth most densely populated countries in the world today – many Singaporeans also feel a sense of dislocation, unfamiliarity and discomfort with the Singapore they grew up in. Let us not underestimate this emotion as we deliberate and consider what the new social compact will look like. It may well be timely to conceive of the new social compact not only in terms of community as the PAP has done for the longest time, but in terms of what individual Singaporeans like you and me, and I hazard even PAP supporters desire as well.

Thank you very much.

Written by singapore 2025

15/07/2011 at 1:00 am

Views on building an ideal Singapore in the next 25 years

31 January 1990

The Straits Times

(c) 1990 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

The first programme of SBC’s discussion series Points of View was broadcast last week. The panel comprised Mr K. Shanmugam, MP for Sembawang GRC, Mr Leslie Fong, Editor of The Straits Times, Dr Khong Cho Onn, lecturer in the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore, Mr Ken Lou, an architect, and Dr Hong Hai, MP for Bedok GRC. We publish below excerpts from the transcript of the discussion “Fashioning the Next 25 years”.

MR K. SHANMUGAM: It is quite easy to paint the picture of an idealist’s ideal state … economy that’s continuing to grow, greater distribution across the board of national wealth. A more just society.

But I would like to focus on one aspect of the political system which forms or provides the framework within which you try to achieve such a society.

And in my limited experience, what I think is lacking now and what I hope to see in the future is a society that’s more participative.

You can have democracies and democracies. The idea of a larger segment of society being able to operate and use the democratic process which is not, after all, just voting once in every four years. Something more than that.

I would like to see a society that’s able to understand issues, that’s willing to participate.

MR KEN LOU: What’s important now is that central to the idea of the intellect and culture is what we would like to call myth, and I think in this generation young people are beginning to look for a myth about culture.

It’s about expressions and impressions and from this creation of the myth, we would then go on to the next level of desire when we have already fulfilled most of our material ones . . .

An intellectual is a real intellectual probably only in the third generation when he’s not snatching up scraps of culture but growing up surrounded by it.

DR HONG HAI: I would put it a little differently. A human being has a body, a mind and a soul.

I think a nation also has a body, a mind and a soul. In Singapore, the body is in good shape. We have excellent infrastructure. We are quite developed as a city. The nation’s mind, I think, is doing quite well.

We are a disciplined society. We are numerate. We are literate. Our children are quite well educated.

MR LESLIE FONG: Can I jump in to say that I agree with Dr Hong Hai on broad principles, but I’m not as optimistic as he is, because I’m by nature a pessimist, and I think before we can even go to that stage, I can see quite some dangers ahead of us.

It is in this context that I give my wish list, which is my hope that in the next 25 years, we stay together as a nation because I think the chances of us staying together as a nation are by no means to be taken for granted.

I worry, in particular, about how we, as a people, would react with each other. In particular, I’m talking about relations between races and communities.

I’m beginning to see fissures opening up in our society which, if we are not careful, will lead us to grief.

In particular, I can see, for example, Malay Singaporeans going through a stage where I think, they have to decide for themselves whether they want to be more Malay or more Singaporean.

I think the rest of Singapore, in reacting with them and in trying to respond to their anxiety, must collectively, together with them, help them come to terms with themselves.

Basically, we are all Singaporeans, regardless of whatever our ethnic and religious pull.

I, for one, wish that Singapore would take pains to come to terms with these realities, and hope we can stay as a nation and build a more tolerant society because I think at the bottom of it all, must be tolerance, the ability to accept each other for what he really is, not what we want him to be.

DR KHONG CHO ONN: I would like to say I agree wholeheartedly with Leslie – that there is a need for greater tolerance in this society, a need for a greater sense of unity, a greater sense of one community in this society.

I think if we want to talk about being more Singaporean, I think all of us should talk about being more Singaporean and less Chinese, less Malay, less Indian as well.

I don’t think it’s a question of the minority races. I think it’s a question we should all address ourselves to. And perhaps this doesn’t quite find reflection in some of the Government’s policies.

DR HONG HAI: I think the way to have racial harmony is not to pretend that differences are not there.

I think it’s perfectly consistent with racial harmony for the Chinese to feel very Chinese, the Malays to feel very Malay and the Indians to feel very Indian, but at the same time, also feel Singaporean.

I think it is totally consistent with a multi-racial society that the Chinese promote the speaking of Mandarin and the Tamils the speaking of Tamil.

I don’t think we ought to pretend the differences are not there. It would only lead to more problems.

MR SHANMUGAM: That’s one perspective, I agree. But quite a different perspective could be that well, when you emphasise the individual cultural identity, you cannot pretend that they don’t exist.

But when you start emphasising it, then what? It would inevitably be at the expense of a common culture or development of a common culture even if we don’t have one now.

It’s all a question of emphasis, and I think the point that might have been made is that – is the emphasis overly on the individual races rather than a balanced approach?

DR VIVIAN BALAKRISHNAN (National University Hospital doctor): I’m of the younger generation. We’ve grown up for the past 20 years with a fairly good propaganda machine which led us to believe that we were all Singaporeans regardless of race, language and religion.

Recently, however, you have government ministers questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society to this nation.

You can’t expect people to be loyal to you when you question their loyalty outright at the beginning. That’s your first premise.

That is the surest way of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

MR SHANMUGAM: The way I perceive it is that for the first 25 years, the focus was on developing that common culture, a strong bond within.

And of late, the emphasis has been maybe slightly shifted. And it’s moved over to emphasising the individual cultural identities, perhaps as a realisation that we were losing what little we had by trying to forge something.

So it may be a difference of perception rather than one of a propaganda machine putting forward a certain line, trying to get to the first level of common unity, and then from there on, trying to develop individual cultural identities and hope that the common cultural identity will evolve slowly.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: How can you get to the first level by questioning someone’s loyalty?

MR SHANMUGAM: Granted, you cannot question loyalty if you want loyalty. But let me put this as a hypothesis, if you feel that a certain factual matrix exists, is it better to face it and say how you can overcome the problem or is it better to avoid it?

DR BALAKRISHNAN: Now that’s precisely the problem. What evidence does the Government have, or what facts does the Government have to make a statement questioning the loyalty of certain segments of our society?

MR SHANMUGAM: I don’t think that statement was ever made. I think that’s the way some people have perceived it.

I think what was said was with the frank attitude of trying to discuss the issue on why we have to try and bring the Malays into the mainstream, and why they are not in.

That sort of question-and-answer session, I think, has been blown out of proportion into one of questioning the loyalty.

MR KENNETH LIANG (Chairman): And if I can move on to another area of what you said, Mr Shanmugam, about wanting to see greater participation in the next 25 years, can you elaborate on that?

MR SHANMUGAM: The large majority have no intention of participating. And I don’t know that you can really proceed with the status of developed country when, a large proportion of your population is in that state.

What was said was that we could ossify. So … we certainly don’t seem to be able to encourage people.

The complaint has always been that the Government is not participative.

My own feeling, having been elected for a year, is that the people are not willing to participate.

DR KHONG: Today there is a sense of stasis, there is a sense of waiting for directives, there is a sense of people being unable to formulate coherent alternatives of their own to put forward to the Government, to the people in power.

And there is therefore a need in encouraging participation to further open up the political process, to further encourage people to come forward with ideas, initiatives and opinions. In other words, to offer alternatives to just one orthodox view of doing things.

MS GERALDINE LOH (Circulation Promotions Manager): I’d like to just elaborat e on the point that you brought up, Mr Shanmugam.

Now you said that you’d like to see more participation from the public. I think I’m from your generation, too. But I think that most people would not want to speak up simply because of the past.

And then the Government has got to ask themselves, why do people not want to speak up?

And I’d like to say something about the civil service. I used to be in the civil service and I resigned for the simple reason that you could not speak up.

If you wanted to write a letter to the Forum Page, you had to get clearance.

You’re willing to identify yourself, and yet you have all that red tape. So when the Government has barriers like this, obviously people are not going to speak up.

And from the public’s viewpoint, I think that if you’re going to open up, the civil service has got to open up first before you can expect the other people to come in.

MR FONG: I think, having watched the flow of letters to The Straits Times’ Forum Page, and having observed a lot of these discussions and participation, before we even talk about participation, I would dearly like to see people taking pains to understand issues first before they jump in with views . . . I think there is this myth about participation, everybody jumps in with a view and then if there are 75 people, there are probably 78 views. Some change their minds half-way.

I think the key to a more tolerant society, the key to a more participative society, lies in the people themselves taking pains to understand the issues . . . while it’s good to say, let a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand schools contend, we had better take pains to make sure that issues are understood in all their complexity before views are fired left, right and centre, because I think a cacophony of false voices would lead to even more confusion rather than enlightenment.

MS LOH: Next question is how.

MR FONG: The question can be answered this way. It can be achieved by first, the people who have the information upon which to make decisions or upon which to at least make contributions.

Now I think a good example would be the car issue. I could remember a time some years ago when the question was very much – why not leave things alone – why do you have to tinker with transport measures and so on?

But I think, because of constant exposure, because of information being made available to the public, Singaporeans have, by and large, moved away from questioning why something needs to be done at all, to what should be done.

And that is a step forward because people are now talking on the basis of some knowledge, that there is a finite number of cars you can allow on the road, that there is just so many kilometres of roads that you can build.

So the first step, to answer your question, is that the people who have in their possession – and let’s not just point the finger at the Government, because it is a problem that spans the whole society – people who have information ought to make available that information if that information is conducive to public discussion and the enlightenment that follows from it.

That I think is the first critical step to take.

DR KHONG: I think you put your finger on the problem. The fact of the matter is that at the end of the day, only a very small minority would be fully conversant with any given issue. There has to be a perception, among the majority though, that there has been a free open debate on that matter at the level of that minority perhaps.

There has to be a perception that there are channels of information flowing down through which people can have access to all the relevant points of view on any particular debate – not just those aspects or just those points of view which the Government wants them to be conversant with.

And I think there is a sense of misperception that this is not taking place, that only certain points of view are put forward to them.

MR FONG: I just added another item to my own wish list, which is that, let’s lay this ghost of the past 25 years to rest because there is always this constant reference a big brother Government over the past 25 years suppressing dissent and whatever.

Now I am not going to debate the rights and wrongs. I think different people have different perceptions.

MR JON ONG (National University of Singapore Society): I think that I have faith in the future. I am bullish about the next 25 years.

I mean, just judging from the things that have occurred over the past decade in Singapore gives me enough confidence that Singapore is one place that the young of today will find a place where they can express themselves more freely than their parents could ever have done.

More opportunities to break out from job moulds and other types of moulds and more opportunities for expression, not only in political matters but also in culture and the arts. I think the Government has done a great job in the past few years to bring about the environment that we have today. I believe this environment will likely prevail in the coming years, thereby giving people the opportunity to mature and, as Mr Shanmugam has said, the participative democracy will come about.

I don’t think we need to force this process. I foresee the Government, a strong Government, taking the lead.

MR SHANMUGAM: I think this was precisely the opposite of what I was suggesting because there is a tendency, I think in Jon’s perception, to equate strong government participating with the people for a more glorious future.

To me, that somehow doesn’t sound right. This total emphasis on what the Government does should no longer be the focus. It’s what the people want and what I hope will happen is that we would have a significant substratum of people who are able to engage in informed discussion and have points of view which need not necessarily tally with the Government’s. It should not be up to the Government. It should be up to the people to decide what they want.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I like to interject on this point. There’s been a lot of discussion on this issue of leadership transition.

Most of us have thought of it in terms of the old guard passing the baton to the younger leaders but I would like to bring up the flip side of that coin. That an essential element of democracy is the option to have a smooth and peaceful transition of leadership to a group which may not be in power today and I therefore like your opinion, of the politicians here, perhaps as to that impression of the role of a future viable alternative government.

DR HONG HAI: I think it would be naive to expect a ruling government to create its own opposition, to create its own alternative and to ensure that it is competent and will take over.

It’s not done. If the PAP does weaken, if it fails to win the mandate of the people, then it is for Singaporeans to ensure that an alternative party comes up that it attracts good people and good talent and that it provides a viable alternative government.

What we have in Singapore today is what political scientists call a one-party dominant Government. You have an opposition but it’s not strong enough to form an alternative government.

One-party dominant governments are not at all uncommon. Japan has had a one-party dominant government for well over 30 years and nobody doubts that there is political freedom in Japan or that Japan is a very efficient and successful society.

DR BALAKRISHNAN: I’m just suggesting that PAP should perhaps play cricket. And give other players a chance in the field.

MR MARTIN SOONG (Business Times Journalist): I see obstacles now to freer more informed press. There is an inordinate emphasis on face-saving where political figures are concerned and this is sort of tied to deference to authority. Is there anything we can do about it or should we do something about it?

MR FONG: Let me answer it this way. If it is face-saving at the expense of truth, then as an editor I would opt for truth rather than face-saving. But as an Asian, as a Singaporean, I would also subscribe to the motion that face is very important in our society. I don’t think we have reached the level of emotional maturity where people can take . . . a drubbing in public. So where face-saving does not impede truth, I’d say, yes, by all means, let’s try to observe that.

The alternative would be a society in which everybody goes at everybody else and nothing is sacred and you can denigrate and you can mock, and you can caricature. Is that really good for us? Just because somebody else has done it does not mean we have to follow.

I think there is nothing wrong in accepting that there should be a certain degree of deference to authority because the alternative is that you again have a breakdown of social discipline and order. But it should not obsequious deference to authority, to the point where you surrender your mind.

MR LIANG: Can we just round up this discussion now with perhaps some very brief comments from the panel?

MR SHANMUGAM: I think I opened a Pandora’s box with my comments on participatory politics or participatory democracy. I am glad to have received the views. My own wish is that this sort of participation would extend down to a much greater proportion of the population. If that is achieved, I think, we would have achieved a lot.

MR FONG: I wish we could really, collectively, build a more tolerant society , with tolerance at every level, not just the political but the social, religious, community. Then there is plenty to look forward to in the next 25 years.

DR KHONG: I think the discussion has showed how difficult the next 25 years is going to be because in the past 25 years, you could set quantitative targets on what you want to achieve and you could then go ahead and achieve them. In the next 25 years, people want a diverse range of alternatives, most of which are not quantifiable, and which will therefore be harder to identify and to achieve.

MR LOU: Well, I think the basic question really is a sense of identity and a sense of place. If we have a home to call our own, we will stay here. And at the end I believe it has to do with people. We can have technology, we can have computers, we can have high-stress life. But essentially if the government and also the private sector can place more stress on meaning and what people are looking for themselves, I think that’s the society we would want for the next 25 years.

DR HONG HAI: We are worried about this problem of immigration from Singapore. I think the solution to our emigration problem is not just in making life more easy, making the growth rate, economic growth rate, higher here or better housing and so forth. These factors will help.

What is going to stop Singaporeans from emigrating is the sense that this is home, this is the place where they can identify with the sights, the smell, the sounds. This is the place where their friends are. This is what will keep Singaporeans here.

And I hope that in the next 25 years, we will develop this spirit of belonging, we will develop the culture, the arts, the unity of purpose that will make us a nation and that will keep us together here in Singapore.


Written by singapore 2025

27/12/2010 at 11:05 am

Clutching at Straws: Shanmugam’s hollow defence of PAP media myths

This article was first published in The Online Citizen on 8 Nov 2010:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

In a talk entitled “The Role of the Media: Singapore’s Perspective” delivered at Columbia University on 4 Nov 2010, Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam perpetuated the same well-rehearsed myths that justify the PAP’s ironclad grip on the mainstream media in Singapore. The Minister was spot-on about one thing though – the arguments he raised were a function of PAP paranoia.

Myth Number 1: It is in the interests of Singapore (or the PAP?)

The Singapore media scene is dominated by two government-linked publishers, Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp. In the years after independence in 1965, Singapore hosted a vibrant media scene comprising various English and vernacular presses that ran a wide range of views on issues of national interest. Shanmugam argued that today’s PAP was not going to be an irresponsible government and gamble with the lives of Singaporeans by hosting a free media. Going by Shanmugam’s argument, was the PAP of the late 1960s and early 1970s “gambling with the lives” of Singaporeans in allowing numerous independent and privately controlled newspapers to operate? Was it an irresponsible government? Surely not. With men like Goh Keng Swee, Hon Sui Sen and S. Rajaratnam helming the fort, such a suggestion is ludicrous.

Until the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act 1974, the first-generation PAP leaders not only survived and lifted an entire generation of Singaporeans out of poverty, they also set the foundations for extraordinary growth in the face of a flourishing media environment immediately after independence. The logic follows that the current crop of PAP leaders, unlike their predecessors, are incapable of handling the real-world realities of the competitive media environment. This is in spite of the million-dollar annual salaries that Goh Keng Swee would have been loathe to pay today’s PAP ministers.

Myth Number 2: The media will exploit race and religion

The history of mankind has shown that race and religion can be exploited for political purposes – in fact, Singapore’s experience with the 1964 riots makes this point out. Never mind for a moment that the predominant catalyst of those riots resided in the political tension between the PAP and UMNO, and not with the media.

What Shanmugam conveniently left out is the positive role the media can play, and has played, in bridging and bringing differences between different racial communities together.  Sometime in 1992, in an extremely sad episode in modern India’s recent history, a country that gained independence slightly more than 15 years before Singapore, Hindu zealots destroyed the Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh. The rabid act of Hindu religious violence was rooted in contested claims to the land on which the mosque was built. In late September 2010, the High Court of Uttar Pradesh delivered its judgment with an order to divide the disputed land three ways.

The role of the media in the run-up to the judgment was noteworthy. In response to the government’s request to the hyper-competitive Indian media to exercise restraint in reporting the Ayodhya verdict, the country’s media responded by coalescing opinion from faith, business, industry and political leaders, amongst others, restating India’s commitment to secularism, diversity, tolerance and respect for religious minorities. Even though India hosts a very significant minority of 150 million Muslims, the verdict was dissected and argued over vigorously. Yet, no violence ensued and the media’s positive influence had equally positive knock-on effects on Indian society and economy.

In his tiresome justification on the dangers of racial and religious strife, Shanmugam seems to have conveniently ignored the giant strides made by Singaporeans in building a multiracial society. National Service for one, has been an incredible adhesive.

While one can portend the possible existence of a radical and lunatic fringe that is racially chauvinistic – there simply isn’t a multiracial utopia anywhere in the world. Yet, larger and far more complex multiracial polities in the developed and developing world have accommodated a free media in the name of an informed citizenry. In fact, in appealing to paranoia as the foundation of the PAP’s media policy, Shanmugam effectively put the brakes on the organic development of a tolerant Singaporean society.

Myth Number 3: Singapore is a small country with a small population and short common shared history

Shanmugam’s points about Singapore’s population size, physical size and short common history were curious defences that were left intellectually unsubstantiated.  What the new Minister of Home Affairs must acknowledge is that size is paradoxically one of Singapore’s greatest strengths in dealing with racial and religious disharmony. Possible racial tension is nipped in the bud and the support of grassroots leaders can be quickly canvassed to return a potentially fractious situation to a state of normalcy. In fact, when the tudung issue of 2003 blew up, causing some consternation within some elements in the Malay community, the government was quickly able to bring Malay leaders to dialogue and diffuse the situation.

It appears that as far as Singapore’s short common history is concerned, this was yet another red herring that Shanmugam is quickly earning a reputation for invoking. If true, it must mean that other multiracial countries that secured independence in the two decades after World War 2 – not very much older than Singapore – would equally have too short a common history to accommodate a free media. The absurdity of this argument speaks for itself.

In keeping the media under the purview of the government so as to determine the boundaries of any public discourse in the media, the PAP has shrewdly ensured that Singaporeans end up looking to the government for answers to even the most fundamental aspects of their existence. This is the same PAP government that ironically insists Singaporeans cannot expect the PAP to have all the answers to public grievances!

As for Singapore’s small population, this writer certainly does not hope the Minister was alluding to the cerebral incapacity of Singaporeans to decide on what type of Singapore Singaporeans want for themselves and their children.  Although given the elitist and eugenically inspired mindset of not a small number of PAP leaders, it would be surprising if the Minister was indeed of the opinion that only the elite in Singapore can deal with a free media. If true however, the arrogance and conceit of this position is very much in line with the PAP’s elitist belief system.

Myth Number 4: Journalists are biased and subject to vices, media companies sacrifice journalistic values at the alter of profit, both journalists and media companies can be bought, and the advertising dollar compromises ethics

In casting doubts about the professional integrity of journalists, Shanmugam seemed to be suffering from an irrational fear of the media. But his fears were misplaced and unreasonable. He ought to know better that rotten apples are found in any profession, not just journalism.

Only two years ago, the fat cats in a number of Wall Street banks proved equally, if not more susceptible, to vice, greed and ethical compromise as compared to journalists. As a reputable lawyer himself, the Minister must be acutely aware of the not insignificant number of Singaporean lawyers running away with clients’ monies over the last decade. In fact, in 2005 a lawyer and member of his own party was found guilty of “grossly improper” unprofessional conduct.

In singling out journalists while overlooking their vitally important mission of educating the mass public of the ongoings in society, Shanmugam gratuitously cast journalism in bad light. This unusual fear of journalism is perhaps a classic symptom of a paranoia complex. This is why mature and rational politicians in many developed countries speak of codes of conduct for the media, in addition to the prospect of legal penalties in cases of egregious violations. Even light regulation for any profession can go a long way to reduce the temptation of unethical conduct.

Myth Number 5: Singapore does not want to be like the US

Shanmugam shrewdly predicated his defence of the PAP’s media policy by claiming Singapore did not want to mirror the US media. When Singaporeans cajole the government for greater press freedoms, no one is specifically identifying one media model for the country to follow. Most Singaporeans would be rather proud if Singapore Press Holdings could report and detail issues of national interest with the same vigour and relative objectivity as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or even Malaysiakini, an online Malaysian news publisher that has even been complimented by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, no less.

In fact, Singapore is in a great position to select best practices from media the world over and adapt a system that works best for Singapore’s needs. The current editor of the Straits Times, Han Fook Kwang, was once quoted as saying, “We’re aware people say we’re a government mouthpiece or that we are biased.” It is publicly known that the SPH’s group president from 1995-2002 was a former director of the Internal Security Department under the auspices of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The current political editor of The Straits Times is a former Internal Security Department officer. Rather than claim that Singaporeans reject a US-style media scene (yet another red herring reeled in to obfuscate the substantive issue), Shanmugam should focus on removing the wanton perception in Singapore of a mainstream media that is manipulated behind the scenes by the PAP.

Whichever way any Singaporean looks at things, a government-managed media scene will only provide one shade of the truth for its people. Alternate sources of news and information that are factually unimpeachable and evince a very high quality of journalism play an incredibly important educative role in any society. There is no reason to posit that Singapore society will descend into chaos should Singapore choose to amend the Newspapers and Printing Presses Act and open up its media scene to private publishers that are subject to the rule of law.


In concluding his speech to his American audience, Shanmugam compared Singapore with US cities like San Francisco where the incumbent political party has remained in power for a long time. Even though his speech was about the media, Shanmugam seemed to conveniently forget that San Francisco hosts a free media where the political opposition is not politically hamstrung by obstacles put in place by the incumbents. More pertinently, in San Francisco, politicians do not live in glass houses but can cope with and shake off personal attacks with comprehensive political proposals, and critically, without resort to defamation suits.

In the final analysis, Shanmugam’s ill-advised remarks – like the attempts of many politicians throughout history to justify press-control and manipulation in favour of the incumbent leadership, authoritarian regimes and to minify alternative views – confirmed an unhealthy PAP paranoia that is effectively retarding the evolution of a tolerant and socially attuned Singapore society. Taken to its logical end, this paranoia and irrational fear of the media can cloud good judgment and may end up irreversibly inhibiting the intellectual development of the very society the PAP claims to protect.


Comment posted by Pritam Singh to this article on 9 Nov 2010 at:’s-hollow-defence-of-pap-media-myths

Dear Traveller,

Thank you for your inputs and my apologies for this late reply. There is a political dimension that you do not account for in your defence of the PAP media policy. Please bear with me and allow me to explain.

I would advise you to visit the Internal Security Department (ISD) Heritage Museum at Onraet Rd. You have to write in for permission, and I understand you have to go as a group. You could potentially arrange for a visit with your Community Centre, town council, RC, CCC, school, or with a registered Singapore society of which you are a member etc. From the briefing given by retired ISD officers, I was informed that about 40,000 Singaporeans have visited the ISD Heritage Museum since it opened in 2002.

Once there you will realise that racial incidents DO occur in Singapore, in fact, more often than you think. George Yeo himself alluded to this some years ago when he recounted an episode where a hawker carrying bak kut teh (or some pork dish, maybe it was wanton mee, can’t remember) accidentally spilt the dish on a Muslim and a couple of people got involved leading to a rather ugly incident. Fortunately, the matter was resolved (go to the National Library [or any of its branches] and search the online archives for a fuller narration of this incident). There have also been other episodes best left for you to find out more about with a visit to the ISD museum.

Many Singaporeans think Singapore is heaven on earth and nothing actually goes wrong here because of the sterling work of the PAP. This is not wholly correct. Things DO go wrong, and the state-managed media almost always does not report many of these issues, except when they become very public (I don’t think the mainstream media mean ill when they don’t report the issues – but their decision making calculus/mandate is rather curious – they cannot understand that reportage actually goes a long way to educate Singaporeans, heals rifts and builds bridges).

One copy of any police report that reports on or details a racial or religious incident in Singapore, I understand goes to the ISD for their follow up. This simple procedure informs us that there is a mechanism in place to deal with race and religious problems should they take on an endemic, organized or externally manipulated (foreigner) dimension. I am quite sure there are other macro and micro measures in place that we the public are not privy to.

Shanmugam’s paternalism viz. the local media denies Singaporeans a look into the reality of Singapore society, and more pertinently, to learn and appreciate what we must do collectively to improve race relations in Singapore. Wong Kan Seng not inaccurately observed today that Singaporeans are complacent about security.

But has he asked himself why and how it has come to this? Perhaps it could be because Singaporeans have been fed on a diet of omissions, no thanks to the government-managed media, from which we hear only good things about the PAP and everyone who supports them.

It is important to realise that a freer press environment doesnt mean the rule book is thrown out of the window. On the contrary, the rules remain and the government or an independent body (preferred) can censure publishers who engage in inaccurate or irresponsible reportage. Foreigners who play with religious fire can have their views firmly rebutted not just by the government, but ordinary Singaporeans as well (who ultimately count more than any government of the day).

Even so, the “market” will decide. Any newspaper whose content is suspect, simply cannot survive, especially in a market that hosts a well-educated population. You probably have a fear that the damage to Singapore will already be done before the “market” makes a decision. Traveller, this is not a concern I want to wish away for it is a relevant concern – but it is my belief is that Singapore is better served by a media that educates our population about the realities of Singapore – that means having a more investigative media that seeks out the truth, and indeed its various shades, only for the purpose of better policy responses, in addition to providing a check on the quality of the government of the day.

More pertinently, I am convinced we have the structures and systems in place to tackle racial and religious problems. I cannot promise you that there will no racial or religious incidents if the government loosens up on our media policy. But as my visit to the ISD Heritage Museum informed me, even a controlled media environment cannot guarantee a Singapore without racial or religious incidents.

There is much more Singapore and Singaporeans stand to gain from a free media. We have got to have faith in our people, and if 45 odd years of nation-building have not done it, then I fear we already have the “divided” society you speak of.

I believe that the liberal elements in the PAP also want a substantively free media. However, I would opine that the conservative elements of the PAP are more interested in retaining a firm grip on the public discourse so as to determine its exact contours for the foreseeable future. Allowing the media a free rein would fundamentally take power (evinced through information dissemination and providing solutions) out of the PAP’s hands and into the hands of Singaporeans. This position politically benefits the PAP of course, as it has for the last 30-over years.

But it does Singapore and Singaporeans a huge disservice with regard to our growth as a people, and evolution as a society.


Written by singapore 2025

15/11/2010 at 4:52 am

David Marshall of Singapore

Some years ago, David Saul Marshall, a Jew and Singapore’s first Chief Minister (1955) was interviewed by lawyer and blogger, Dharmendra Yadav:

The interview was conducted in 1994, when Marshall was a consultant to law firm Drew & Napier in Singapore, and Dharmendra, a student at St. Andrew’s Junior College. I read this interview some months after Dharmendra uploaded it onto his blog in August 2006.

David Marshall founded the Workers’ Party of Singapore in 1957, making it the oldest functioning political party in Singapore today. Marshall’s leadership style was characterised by humanity, empathy, honesty and determination. He was a Singaporean all Singaporeans can be incredibly proud of. I would encourage readers to discuss the issues Marshall raises in this interview with your family and friends, for the very same issues continue to remain broadly relevant today.

If you enjoyed reading this interview, please drop a note to Dharmendra thru his blog site or post a comment on the article thread that can be sourced from the hyperlink above.

Dharmendra: In the past, when you were chief minister, youths played a politically-active role. How has the role of youths changed as compared to the past?

Marshall: The role of youths! Ha!

In my time, I tried to educate our people in an understanding of the dignity of human life and their right as fellow human beings, and youth was not only interested but excited about what I consider things that matter. Things of the spirit; the development of a human being to his true potential in accordance with his own personal genius in the context of equal rights of others.

Today, youth is interested in getting paper qualification and, as soon as possible, shoveling gold into their bank accounts. It’s a different world, even the law.

I am a consultant here [Drew & Napier]. When I left in ’78, there were three partners – it was supposed to be a big firm; two assistants – we were a big firm; 17 staff. This office has four floors. They think that it is a waste of time to use the lift so we have an internal staircase. We have more than 90 lawyers, more than 200 secretaries and I don’t know how many staff.

The law is no longer a vocation, it is a business. Everything is geared to business!

Of course, there is this pragmatic development of our country. Ah, our rising expectations of a pragmatic character! It is a fantastic and almost a miraculous development in my lifetime.

When I was Chief Minister, there were men dying of starvation and because of ‘beri-beri’. I took my PA [personal assistant] and an

Credit: Singapore Archives

Inspector of Police for night at midnight. For two hours, we toured Singapore and we estimated there were two ten thousand men sleeping on the pavements. No homes.

Today – no unemployment, no homeless. I started this business of building homes for our people. Compare the puny work I achieved and the fantastic HDB homes that are available today for our people. I am deeply impressed and I take off my hat to this very able honest government. Dedicated!

But I am seen as a critic and I am a critic.

I am frankly terrified by this massive control of the mass media, the press, the radio, television, antennae, [and] public meetings. You can’t write a letter to the Straits Times; if there is a shadow of criticism, it’s not published. And the Chinese press follows suit. It’s a very dangerous position because experience proves that no one group of human beings has got all the wisdom in the world.

I mean…well, two of you are Chinese and one Indian [Ed: actually, the interviewers were one Chinese, one Jew and one Indian]. I don’t know much about Indian history but look at China. You had Confucian authoritarianism for more than 2500 years. What happened to China? She was a fossil. She had to reinvigorate herself with the Western ideology of communism. Another authoritarian ideology! And what was the result?

There must have been a million decent people who were transformed into vipers, vicious obscene vipers. I’m afraid of this control of the mass media.

And are youths the miasma of apathetic subservience to authority? But you say to yourselves, “Well, you know, what do we seek in life? We seek a rice bowl, full!”

It is full and overflowing, in fact. They serve you your rice in a jade bowl with golden chopsticks; not that it makes much difference to the taste of the rice. But you’re empty!

You’ve got technocratic skills and you are seeking more but internally you are empty. Money is your acid test of success.

I’ve got nothing against money. I’d like to have money myself! I’d like to have a house and a garden and dogs and a car and a chauffeur but, look, I’ve got a flat. I’ve got a swimming pool attached to the flat. I’ve not even got a car but I use taxis. I have a dignified way of life without being wealthy.

I don’t see the necessity of owning a Mercedes-Benz and a swimming pool and a couple of mistresses. I think we’ve got our values all wrong.

You know $96,000 a month for a Prime Minister and $60,000 a month for a minister. What the hell do you do with all that money? You can’t eat it! What do you do with it? Your children don’t need all that money.

My children have had the best of education. In fact, I’m very proud of them. One of them is a senior registrar to two major hospitals in Oxford. Another of them is a consultant in European law to the Securities and Investment Board in the United Kingdom. They’ve had their education. There are no complaints.

I never earned $60,000 a month or $90,000 a month. When I was Chief Minister, I earned $8,000 a month. Look, what is happening today is we are encouraged to and are becoming worshippers of the Golden Calf.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman flanked by MCA leader Tun Tan Cheng Lock (far right) and Chief Minister of Singapore David Marshall at the Baling Talks with communist leaders in 1955. Credit: The Star, Malaysia

We have lost sight of the joy and excitement of public service, helping our fellow men. The joy and excitement of seeking and understanding of the joy of the miracle of the living the duty and the grandeur. We have lost taste for heroic action in the service of our people.

We have become good bourgeois seeking comfort, security. It’s like seeking a crystal coffin and being fed by intravenous injections through pipes in the crystal coffin; crystal coffins stuck with certificates of your pragmatic abilities.

What has changed?

The self-confidence of our people has grown immensely, and that is good to see. Our pragmatic abilities have grown magnificently, and that is good to see. Very good to see!

You are very able. You’re ambitious, and the government has heroic plans for the future. It hasn’t finished.

I take off my hat to the pragmatic ability of our government but there is no soul in our conduct. It is a difficult thing to speak of because it is difficult to put in a computer, and the youth of Singapore is accustomed to computer fault. There is no longer the intellectual ferment, the passionate argument for a better civilisation. The emphasis on the rice bowl!

Tell me I’m wrong, come on.

Dharmendra: That PAP government has indeed done a great deal for Singapore. However, there is an increasing degree of discontent growing amongst our youths against them. Why do you think this is happening?

Marshall: Our lives are empty. We don’t understand the joy of living is not in the gold coins. It is not in the bank account. The joy of living is in human relations. We are not in appreciation of this miracle of life.

We are giving a lop-sided view, an unfairness to the government! We come out of a morass of imperial subjugation where people were dying of starvation and now?

You know, when I won a case once years ago, I was presented with a lovely porcelain Buddha with a big flowing belly and ears that reached to his shoulders and a chubby face.

I said to my client, “Look, you Chinese got a real feeling for aesthetics. How can you worship something so obscene?”

He said, “Mr Marshall, try and understand. China is a land of starvation where millions of people die for lack of food, and to be able to eat that much, to be that fat, that is heaven!”

Now, that is the attitude of our government: to be able to eat that much, that is heaven and you should be content.

So are youths not content? They are not anti. Our youths frankly, very honestly respect the pragmatic achievements of the government, and I’m grateful, but they feel empty.

There isn’t this joy of living which youth expects and youth needs – to learn the joy of living. How do you teach it?

I think you teach it through respect for the individual. That’s our tragedy. If you want to put it in a nutshell, our tragedy is that we emphasise the primacy of society as against respect for the individual. Mind you, both are right.

I mean both sides have the liberty. Of course, there should be respect for the needs of society over the right of the individual but you must respect the individual too in seeking the expression of the needs of society. Here, we have no respect for the individual.

Cane them! Hang them! There are more than a hundred queuing up to be hanged, you know that?

[Minister for Law] Jayakumar said, “I have plugged the loop-hole whereby they could escape being hanged and just have twenty years of imprisonment!”

Oh, wacko the ducks – you need a monument!

The joy of hanging people; flogging them, every stroke must break the skin. I don’t like it. I don’t believe it is a deterrent. I see no proof. Look, it seems to me logic! If every year we have more death sentences, how can you say death sentence is a deterrent? If it were, there should be less death sentences.

But you know I’m in a minority and my father had one saying which I’d like you to publish. It is a beauty. He was a true democratic heart although he didn’t know it.

He used to say, “David, if ten men tell you your head is not on your shoulders, shake it and make sure. Don’t accept it. Just shake it and make sure!”

Well, I’ve shaken my head again and again and again and I still think I’m right. I know I’m in the dog-house.

The government doesn’t see I do respect them immensely. They don’t see I’m a genuine friend. They only see me as a critic and to be a critic is to be an enemy who must be erased and destroyed. There is no such thing as an honest critic to the PAP. It’s a blasphemy to criticise the emperor, spoilt son of heaven.

[Lee] Kuan Yew says you mustn’t lampoon a Chinese gentleman. Oh, dear me! Ya, what happened? What happened to China?

In Europe, they institutionalised the court jester and the court jester had total immunity against any result from his public criticism of the kings and emperors and the courtyard. Open public criticism – that was his job! They tried to laugh it off but at least there was one person to prick the bubble of their overgrown egoism.

And which civilisation has progressed better for the development of humanity? The Western civilisation or the Chinese civilisation?

You talk of Asian values. I only know two Asian values and, I wish someone would really pinpoint them instead of pontificating ponderously in humbug and hypocrisy.

Family values – I think we have more family cohesion in Asia than in Europe; more family warmth and I like that. I accept that there is a greater tradition of family warmth and family cohesion.

Two, we have a greater passion for education. My secretary – I asked her once what her background is. She said her mother is a washer-woman and, here is this lovely secretary doing a damn good job. She was educated. How her mother could save enough to give her the education?

So these are the only two values I know. Somebody tell me what other values that are Asian, which everybody talks and nobody mentions the exact parameters.

And you know we use this concept of family cohesion to place on our youths the burden of caring for aging and ailing parents and grand-parents.

The young have got their own lives to make. To carry in your own homes aging irritable ailing parents and grandparents can destroy the family life of the young.

But then, the alternative is for the government to pour so much mountains of gold into building homes for the aged. That’s sacrilege – gold is to be gathered and not to be spent.

I want to see more crèches, more homes for the aged.

Our Prime Minister [Goh Chok Tong] talks about gracious living. Where is the gracious living?

So I am a bad boy, I’m ostracised. The Straits Times makes slimy remarks about me.

The [press are] running dogs of the PAP.

Dharmendra: What would you tell youths who intend to pursue a career in law?

Marshall: Try and understand that the law is a vocation and not a business. Respect your client irrespective of the fees. I used to charge $1 for a murder case if he was Malay because he had no money. I used to charge $1 to trade unions; all Malay unions, I charged $1 a year. And the $1 is simply because, if you do it for nothing, you are not liable in negligence whereas $1 makes a contract and, if you are negligent, they can sue you.

I’d like them to also understand that justice is a meld of law and humanity. Law and humanity; decency in concepts; if we administer law by the soulless logic of the computer, we aren’t on our road to progress.

You’re too young but ask your parents – the Japanese times, their draconian approach to anti-social activities. Ask your parents how they welcomed the returning British soldiers in 1945.

I was stunned when I heard about it; that we a colonial people, a subject people, should welcome rapturously the armed forces of Imperial power. How was that possible?

I learnt that they had a sense of relief to be back in the ambience of British justice; out of darkness, out of the draconian attitudes of the occupying power.

If you want to make money as a lawyer, you can. I see marble palaces. My juniors, ha! Marble palaces, swimming pools, Mercedes-Benz! Oh, bravo!

They work till nine o’clock at night. I don’t know how their children survive. They work very hard, they make a lot of money. Yes, it’s true.

If you are going for corporate law, insurance law and the non-litigant aspects of law, you can make a lot of money.

If you’re a particularly good litigant – our litigation lawyers in civil cases – we’ve got some outstanding local lawyers. Yes, you can make a lot of money.

Don’t go in for crime. The Criminal Bar is a very frustrating Bar today.

Dharmendra: You have fought many cases. You have some brilliant cases that you managed to sweep the jury off their feet in words?

Marshall: And I’m according to Lee Kuan Yew in Parliament when he sought the abolition of the jury, “David Marshall is responsible for 200 murderers walking freely the streets of Singapore.”

I’m proud of that. I told him to put it on my tomb. If there are 200 people walking freely the streets of Singapore, it means they are contributing to Singapore. Singapore would have been poorer by hanging them. I have no compulsion.

Look, the purpose of criminal law is really two-fold: as a deterrent and as a catharsis of society to express its vengeance. If you escape it, you’re no harm to society so long as you maintain a good police force and so long as you maintain a certain human justice in understanding.

For me, the punishment must not fit the crime, the punishment must fit the criminal and the punishment must fit the needs of society.

Recently, I accepted a brief – a Sikh sentenced to death. He was 21 when he was arrested. His appeal came on five years later. It was dismissed.

But during those five years, he studied religious knowledge. He got distinction in the New Testament and he became a Christian.

He’s now 26 or 27. He’s going to be hanged. I like that man. I think he can be a real asset. He is a delightful chap.

I asked his family, his elder brother. I said, “You Sikhs are really close in the family. How did your family take his becoming a Christian?”

He said, “What could we do? The poor man is going to be hanged. How can we be angry?”

There are more than a hundred people queuing to be hanged. There are decent people there.

Look, there’s a lovely phrase – I forgot who coined it – who said, “There but for the grace of God go I, I know no man who stood totally spotless that he can say I committed no anti-social act.”

And so in our criminal code, if some escaped, that’s an asset.

I’m reminded of a lovely story of Sir Walter Raleigh. On the scaffold, he went up and tested the axe with his thumb and turning to the master executioner, he said, “This is the surest cure for all diseases. If you want to eliminate all crime, you got to eliminate all humanity.”

I have absolutely no bad conscience about the men I have helped escape the gallows and escape the prison. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have done that.

I say this, perhaps in conclusion, we have a judiciary of tremendous integrity. I’ve been practising since 1948, except for three and a half years, there isn’t a single case of financial corruption, neither in the High Court nor the magistrates’ courts. It’s wonderful to practice in the ambience of total integrity.

Dharmendra: Have you ever regretted becoming a lawyer?

Marshall: No! I think it was a guardian angel that brought me there.

I suppose you know, you must have read that I wanted to be a psychiatrist. First, when I was young, I wanted to be a doctor. I thought medicine was the greatest profession in the world – helping heal and comfort the sick and the helpless. And as I grew into adolescence, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. Not to practice but to do research: why the goodwill of the young?

All youths no matter what race, no matter what country, goodwill flows from their hearts. They want to help the world, but by the time you reach 30, your goodwill like good wine turns to vinegar – the vinegar of crabbed egoism.

I wanted to study the wise and whether these could be some antidote for this unhappy transformation of the goodwill of youths to the crabbed egoism but I didn’t have the money. Fortunately!

I don’t know if I could have achieved anything that vast. I don’t know whether I have the intellectual ability to do first-class research into the mind and emotions of man.

I fell, by accident, into the right career at the right time and it has been wonderful.

Regret? I’m full of gratitude for having become a lawyer and, especially, a criminal lawyer; for having helped thousands of people terrified, helpless before the silly forces of society. They’ve looked into me as their protector. I have no regrets at all for having helped them; humanity, if you can understand this.

If you ever become a criminal lawyer, never look down upon your client. He may be a murderer or he may be a thief; he is a fellow human being. You must try and respect your client no matter what he has done. It is very important in your own self-respect in your work, and to help who is helpless in seeking help.

Look, at the age of 86, I can say in all earnestness, the thing that matters most in bringing human satisfaction is human relations. To be able to care for your fellow human beings, to be able to give! Never mind about receiving.

Even today, my friends say, “Oh, David, stop it! Why do you have to keep making public noises that annoy the government? Live in dignity and retirement. They’ll respect you and you’ll have the honours.”

Ha, honours! I want to fight till I’m dead!

What matters most in life is the right of human beings to live fully in the context of their own genius. In one word, perhaps, to fight for human justice. I once said humanity’s cry for human justice reverberates down the corridors of the centuries, and it is still crying for human justice.

Dharmendra: An unforgettable moment in St. Andrew’s School?

Marshall: I was coming. That was the old building and I was coming along the corridor carrying a set of books. It must have been morning and, outside my classroom, there was a Chinese boy much slimmer than you [Dharmendra] with his back to the wall – absolutely pale, full of fear.

And in front of him was my friend, an American boy – same student, same class – and dancing an Indian jig saying, “Chink! Chink! Chinaman!”

Without the slightest warning, I dropped my books and lunged at him [the American boy].

Dharmendra: Do you have any message in general?

Marshall: Recognise there is a lot of satisfaction in public service, foreign service, judicial service. A great deal of satisfaction in public service, even honorary public service in committees.

[If] you are totally engrossed in self-promotion, at the end of the day, you’ll find it’s dead seafood.

Try and give up yourselves to others.

I am so alien to this worship of the Golden Calf and the draconian attitude; the brutal attitude towards our fellow citizens. Here I ask people and, no doubt, if I ask you, “We’re all in favour so long as it’s not me having my bottoms cut! Yes, whip ‘em!”

Try to put yourself in the other man’s shoes.

And, of course, what have I got to say?

You, the young – you’ve got a fantastic, absolutely fantastic potential before you; economic expansion, heroic plans that the government has for the future not only the present. You are so lucky! No unemployment! Great potential even beyond your capacity to fulfill.

It’s an exciting country, Singapore. It’s a lovely country. And you have to make your own space for your own spiritual and intellectual needs and have the courage. Have the courage to serve your fellow men with integrity.

I’ll put it in one nutshell: have the courage to live, don’t be afraid!

You know, I’m told I’m fool-hardy and always criticising, although I have such a gracious life. But fool-hardy or no, this is me; I am prepared to take what you give.


Written by singapore 2025

22/10/2010 at 3:31 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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