Leninism, Asian Culture and Singapore

first published 1999 in Asian Profile; other writings see

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1. Introduction

Singapore is a place that arouses deeply divided feelings among observers. Economically, it is one of the great success stories of this century, but it is also widely seen as an authoritarian state that limits freedom of speech and political rights. Even more importantly, its leader Lee Kuan Yew has set himself up as the proponent of an alternative model of economic and political development for the poorer nations, one that rejects western decadence while incorporating “Asian” values of studiousness, achievement through hard work, and deference to authority and group. That is, instead of humbly pleading guilty to liberal charges of sacrificing human rights for the sake of prosperity, he claims to have invented a superior ideology more applicable to the less developed part of the world than what North America and Europe wish to export. This elevates the polemic to a higher level of controversy, with western journalists constantly carping on Lee’s speeches and the actions of the Singapore government, hoping to detect chinks in their armours, while they answer in kind through their various public relations channels. In the end, neither side has been able to strike a knock-out blow, and a standoff has ensured.

This is not a simple standoff between good and bad; between democracy and dictatorship; not even between east and west. Lee’s stance is discomfiting to the western liberals precisely because it cannot be neatly labelled and then dismissed. If he were just an ignorant Asian dictator, on route to his inevitable downfall like, say, Ferdinand Marcos, then his ideas would pose no threat to the orthodoxy of the western nations.

The fact is however that his policies achieve economic prosperity while ignoring many of the sacred cows of standard political thinking, a situation that cannot be taken in without a serious and painful reassessment of one’s basic tenets; in fact, something that threatens the currently fashionable ideological paradigm. Considering that the great Soviet Union has collapsed like good old capitalists said it would, is little Singapore going to defy the most well proven liberal thinking? But what exactly is Lee’s so successful ideology?

There is nothing special about a belief in education, hard work, family, social hierarchy, and so on. These are not the particular inventions of Lee Kuan Yew, or even particularly Asian. Lee’s invention is much more original. It is a unique combination of Leninist organizational tactics with capitalist industrial and commercial technology implemented among a population with an Asian social background, resulting in a strictly controlled and paternalistic corporate entity that has delivered material wealth to its members. In this article, I wish to analytically examine the various facets of this structure.

2. Lenin

Few people would profess to be communists today. As everyone knows, communism brutalized and impoverished nations; perhaps even more importantly as no one likes to fail, it failed. Yet, we would do well to remember that the idea once attracted some of the best and the brightest, both in the East and the West. For example, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby, both highly intelligent and capable members of the British aristocracy, took up communism at Cambridge and willingly spied for the Soviet Union over several decades. To both radical intellectuals and disadvantaged classes, communism offered Marx’s highly seductive and supposedly scientific analyses of the shortcomings of capitalist societies, promising the inevitable arrival of the proletariat utopia in which money and exploitation will be unknown.

With such ideological inspiration, and with highly effective organizational techniques initiated by Lenin, communist parties triumphed, however briefly, in Russia the largest country in the world, and China the most populous, despite the backward development of capitalism in these countries and their weak working classes, while failing to make headway in the more mature capitalist economies that are supposedly more ready to move to the next stage.

The cases of Russia and China demonstrate that, for the purpose of achieving power, the political economy of communism is less important than its organizational technique. If you do the second well, you can succeed despite the low applicability of the first. For over half a century Communism was the favoured ideology of all revolutionary leaders, most of them of middleclass rather than proletariat background, because it provided a ready-made set of propaganda and organizational tools.

Communism might die, but Leninism lives on. The ideological buzzwords change, and photos of Yeltsin replace those of Gorbachev, but the same machinery of control can remain in operation. Lenin’s revolutionary machinery, the Bolshevik party, was a network of individuals whose total loyalty was devoted to the organization: personal feelings and common humanity were not only secondary, they were suspect and dangerous. Given such an “iron discipline” organization, the trusted individuals were placed into all the important parts of the society. Army units had their political commissars, and civil service units, collective farms, factories, schools, trade unions and sports clubs all had their party secretariats.

Among other things, the party achieved control over all parts of the economy; hence, private ownership of property ceased to exist, and a nominally Communist society came into being. Since all aspects of life were under control, moulding a new man fit for the communist utopia was realistic to contemplate. This seemed to be a very attractive scheme to highly power-conscious revolutionaries out to make a better world. The only drawback is: it did not work. But perhaps the failure was simply due to its trying to achieve too much?

The communist utopia envisaged a society of selfless individuals, who do not own and do not desire private property, and who, without coercion, would work to their best abilities and take only enough that satisfies their needs. The concept of economic incentive is eliminated. The consequence was that, with the suppression of market forces and individual initiatives that encourage the production of food and consumer goods, the old Russia and old China found themselves unable to deliver material wealth to its populace, and hence, unable to provide adequate rewards to enforce conformity.

However, there is no reason why a Leninist control structure cannot be imposed on a capitalist society that fully accommodates market forces and individual economic initiatives: you can still build up a network of trusted individuals and place them in the key positions of all organizations. It simply takes a higher and more refined level of knowledge and skill to carry this out, instead of the crude and brutal methods used by the communists. This was successfully achieved in Singapore, a success which many other nations, whether communist, feudal, colonial or already capitalist, seriously admire and are keen to emulate.

3. PAP and the Communists

Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, started his involvement in politics while studying law at Cambridge, by getting together with other Singaporean students sharing anti colonial sentiments. As a young barrister, he made his name by his legal defence of trade unionists and student activists arrested for sedition against the British colonial government, while at the same time impressing the British as a promising native leader who was both capable and well educated, thus offering good prospects of effective post-independence government along a generally pro-western line.

These were good credentials for an aspiring leader, but to successfully capitalize on such assets, he needed a mass organization that could appeal to the majority Chinese population, who were mostly poor and illiterate. They not only spoke no English; even the Chinese they spoke was provincial dialects rather than the official Mandarin. Cambridge trained barristers were not their idea of anti-British, anti-colonial leaders.

To overcome this problem, Lee and his British educated associates went into coalition with other activists whose main motivations were Chinese chauvinism and communist revolution. The partnership suited both sides well, with one side well versed in the thinking of the colonial powers and familiar with the legal/parliamentary tactics used in the overt struggle for independence, and the other side undertaking the street organization, mass campaigns and underground work. Everyone realized that Lee was riding a tiger: it was only a few years earlier that the Chinese communists of Malaya were engaged in a guerilla war against the British, who had the support of the feudal Malay rulers, and a little earlier against the Japanese.

They were defeated only after strenuous efforts through the implementation of the “strategic hamlet” policy that effectively cut the guerrillas off from the rural population, a policy which the Americans were to repeat without success later in Viet Nam. The communists still had an extensive underground network in both Malaya and Singapore, and could easily mobilize a large population of sympathizers in trade unions and schools. But Lee succeeded in caging the tiger, though the fight was very close indeed.

Shortly after self government was granted by the British and Lee was elected Chief Minister, his People’s Action Party split into two, with the anti-Lee left wing taking virtually the whole organizational machine out of PAP to form the new Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front), and Lee’s government survived in the Legislature by just a one vote margin (including one vote from a sick member who had to be dragged out of hospital to take part in the division).

However, the Barisan soon destroyed itself by its inept campaigning against Singapore’s move to join Malaysia in 1962, and by its illogical attempt to emulate the Cultural Revolution that took place in China in the late 60s, while its power bases were successfully weakened by selective detentions of key members, the establishment of rival trade union organizations, closure of propaganda channels, and the redirection of student energy towards career goals and other non-political pursuits.

So working with the communists gave Lee Kuan Yew the political start he required, but perhaps even more importantly for the future, it gave him and his associates a useful lesson on their effective organization methods, whereby a small, tightly linked minority can direct a much larger, and not necessarily sympathetic or comprehending, majority.

The question is whether the methods can, on a long term basis, be applied to a country without resulting in the kind of dead hand totalitarian society that was, even in the 60s, already quite obviously on the verge of failure in both Russia and China. In other words, whether one could invent a new, better kind of Leninism for the capitalist and technocratic society. To do that requires an amenable cultural base that was found to be already in existence among the populace.

4. The Mandarins

Almost alone among all the feudal societies, imperial China has had many intellectual admirers. While Europe was still ruled by petty princes governing small fiefdoms and engaged in incessant wars, a unified China as achieving high levels of stability and culture, with a government of scholars rather than warriors.

The imperial examinations were particularly praised: Hardworking and patient men who spent a life time practising calligraphy, poetry and essay writing were rewarded with government offices on the basis of their examination results. This gave suitable members of the lower class the chance to join the elite, rather than as potential troublemakers outside the system. It is no accident that two of the most famous leaders of peasant rebellions, Huang Chao and Hong Xiuquan, were both unsuccessful candidates in the examinations before starting their dynasty-wrecking careers.

The idea of achieving status, wealth and happiness through good scholarship is deeply engrained in Chinese culture. Chinese folktales and operas are full of stories of a young man marrying his dream girl after passing his examination – perhaps simply because of the increase in his eligibility; or in longer and more romantic stories, by using his position to rescue his girlfriend from prison, bandits, a rich man’s house hold, etc. Poems blatantly say things like “In the book there are houses of gold; in the book there is beauty like jade…” Even the more downmarket kungfu stories usually have the hero (or sometimes, heroine) achieving greatness after developing his/her fighting power by learning from a superior master or by coming across a wonder instruction text, nothing other than scholarship of a more physical kind.

In Singapore and other former colonies, there is a second important tradition: promising native boys (girls were not usually acceptable in those days) were selected for education in the ruling country and then appointed to the civil service at home, so that they could help their colonial masters to govern their own people. These two traditions form the cultural basis of Singapore’s meritocratic policy: Rulers must be well educated, and usually they must be educated in elite universities of the west, where they can absorb the ideas of liberal democratic government and modern capitalism, and form personal connections with future leaders of the host nations as well as others. Good scholastic achievements of this kind are the pre-requisite to higher things in later life.

To directly implement this policy, the government of Singapore, including the armed forces, education service, economic development agencies and government controlled corporations, recruits a large number of 18-year old high school graduates on the bases of their Cambridge A-level examination results and interview performances, as government cadets to be sent to universities in Britain, US and other countries on a kind of indentured labour contract: In return for the payment of tuition fees, living allowances and other expenses during the study, they are required to work in the Singapore government sector for a number of years; otherwise, repayment of the “bond” with interest is required, normally beyond the ability of the average indentured cadet. That is, there is a high penalty for leaving the system.

At the same time, the reward for staying with the system is also very high. A returned cadet’s job performance is carefully watched by his superiors and by the original sponsoring agency, and good performers are given fast promotions and are often placed into important positions very early. A rising star often commands power well above his official position, because he/she would usually have high level patrons whose direct access can be used to facilitate matters, and he/she also commands deference from his/her peers who would be reluctant to offend a person on the move up.

This produces a situation of “positive feedback”, where good performance leads to greater power and influence, and then even better performance. Despite these, the government has been constantly concerned about the difficulty of finding good candidates for high public positions. A somewhat paradoxical Newtonian dynamics seems to be at play with every action generating a reaction. A promising government cadet is immediately attractive to private companies, especially multinational subsidiaries in Singapore, because of their familiarity with the rules and regulations and of their access to powerful people. Cadets are often enticed to better paying jobs outside the public sector after a few years, sometimes with the new employer expending large sums of money to discharge the remainder of the bond.

Further, once a large number of fast track cadets are in the system, it becomes harder to recruit non-cadets: in the competition for promotion and for the attention of powerful patrons, it would appear that cadets should enjoy an advantage; among other things, they are less likely to quit and so are safer choices for critical positions and positions requiring considerable training and investment.

Hence, a marginally unsuccessful candidate for a government cadetship has the tendency to write off the possibility of a government career altogether, for his/ her prospects would appear to be significantly inferior to those of a marginally successfully candidate, even though the difference between their abilities is only marginal.

Consequently, another plank of the meritocratic system was introduced: public sector salaries must be pegged to private sector salaries. In particular the salaries of ministers and senior civil servants should be comparable to those of corporate chief executives, judges to lawyers in private practice, and so on.

The public sector executive salary scales were repeatedly revised upwards, such that now even junior ministerial salaries exceed that of the President of USA. With the strong economy generating high tax revenues, and with a relatively small civil service, the higher salaries are well affordable. They certainly showed their effect in reducing mid-level civil service staff turnover and increasing recruitment success.

A second justification, that highly paid politicians and civil servants have less temptation to be corrupt, is more difficult to quantify, but the argument seems logical enough in the abstract. So the official story is that Singapore has an efficient government controlled by well educated, well paid and honest public servants whose positions are attained for their merit and job performance. Because of this, the correct social and economic policies are implemented, resulting in productivity and prosperity, and generating high tax revenues to continue paying the public servants well. Here we have another positive feedback cycle.

Also, with money available and smart officials on selection panels, Singapore can afford to send even larger numbers of promising youngsters for overseas studies and to make them promising public servants of the future. Yet another feedback cycle. As one would suspect, such a picture is too simple to be exactly true. The life of a mandarin is no where so rosy. I now discuss some of the complexities not so readily visible.

5. From Guns to Butter

A government trying to juggle money between military and civilian expenditures is figuratively said to be deciding between guns and butter, a choice the surplus-laden government of Singapore rarely had to make. Its problem is usually how to handle more of both. The economic development of Singapore has followed two parallel tracks. First, multinational companies were encouraged to set up operations here, initially in manufacturing components and products for export back to their own countries, and later in regional servicing and production based on a Singapore hub.

This cooperation with foreign corporation has the advantage of generating technology transfers, and of minimizing the risk of raising protection barriers. Second, government- owned companies were established in certain key industries, such as those related to defence, and for infrastructure investments that may take long to produce a return and are thus unattractive to or beyond the abilities of private companies. Many of the investments have paid off handsomely. Singapore Airlines is now one of the largest airlines of the world and for year after year the most profitable as well as the most highly rated in customer satisfaction. Its turnover accounts for nearly 2% of the Gross National Product. While retaining control in the hands of the government, its shares were sold to the public and current market capitalization is $10 Billion.

Similarly, the Development Bank, shipyards (originally started by the British Navy), and the telephone service have all been floated, and electricity, gas, port, office buildings, airport ground services, etc. are to follow suit soon. The government finger is, literally, in every pie. The Singapore Technology Group, originally known as Chartered Industries because it had a special charter to manufacture weapons for the army, has a subsidiary called ST Automobiles, which runs an Opel car dealership and a taxi company. It originally started as part of a unit for maintaining military vehicles.

Another subsidiary, ST Computers, runs a Hewlett- Packard computer agency and a software house, which started as a small unit handling computer purchase and installation projects. Two other subsidiaries handle aircraft maintenance and installation of large scale electronic equipment. The ownership of a large number of government office buildings has just been transferred to the ST Group, with the expectation of floating the shares on the stock exchange one day. The company that controls all that valuable real estate, Pidemco, was itself an offshoot of the Urban Redevelopment Authority, the government body that handles the sale of public land to property developing companies for constructing residences, factories and offices, and the granting of permissions to re-develop private land.

Another listed offshoot of URA, Resource Development Corporation, operates stone quarries and ready-mix concrete plants, whose land would in due course also be developed for residences. The government finger extends well beyond mere ownership. The largest taxi company, Comfort, and the largest supermarket chain, Fairprice, plus an insurance company, some holiday resorts and other properties, are owned by the National Trade Union Congress, which is nominally separate from the government and the PAP, but always has a Minister Without Portfolio as its chief executive.

Singapore Press Holdings, the only company with licenses to publish daily newspapers, has most of its equity owned by the banks and private individuals through shares traded on the stock exchange, but its chief executives have always been persons with extensive working experience in the government, taken from their regular positions to manage the newspaper company. In fact, assignment of senior civil servants to run commercial corporations provides an additional mechanism for rewarding loyal performers.

While they continue to receive their pay from the government and have to hand over their business salaries and director fees to the treasury, they are allowed to retain the benefits of share option schemes. The assignments also provide them with experience to start second careers after retiring from the public service.

The episode of the Turf Club, the only body with a license to run a large scale gambling operation in Singapore, shows the difficulty of escaping government control. Over the years, the Club built up a betting surplus large enough to warrant government attention as to the proper use of the fund. A retired minister, Eddie Barker, was courteously nominated to be a member of the Club committee, but in a show of perverse independence he was rejected in the committee election. In swift reaction, a Totalization Board was formed by the government and given authority to oversee horseracing, and the old Turf Club lost its racing license, its use of the race course occupying many acres of prime land, and the existing surplus.

A new Bukit Turf Club, with Eddie Barker as chairman, was given the license and the premises (but the surplus fund stayed with the Totalization Board). Everything went on as before, except that the old club committee lost control. In another episode, the Island Club, which operates four 18-hole golf courses around the water reservoirs of the Public Utilities Board, was at risk of losing its land leases until it agreed to accept Board nominees on its management committee. It is easy to look upon this pervasive control with a sinister eye, but that would be rather unfair.

The government involvement in the various economic activities arose because for long it had the best educated personnel of all the organisations and the best means of accumulating capital. For example, it was natural that the defence ministry acted as the technology watcher and venture capitalist, because its particular needs were vitally involved, and because others were not sufficiently trained in technology to assess new developments. Ownership and supervision both arose, as well as other kinds of involvement that occur in the course of business, such as joint ventures with private businesses that receive certain incentives and subsidies, or organizations in trouble coming under government management, analogous to insolvent US savings banks taken over by the deposit insurance agency in the late 80s.

What is more interesting is the effect on the behaviour of the people, both those in control and those under the system. For the former, the taste of business success and corporate decision making is difficult to give up once acquired. Whereas in US or Hong Kong, government control is seen as inevitably inefficient and disruptive to normal market mechanisms, hence something to be minimized at all cost, the commercial success of the Singapore public corporations tends to foster a completely different set of beliefs.

In fact, it is usually agreed that nothing much can be done without government approval, support and coordination to marshall the necessary resources. Businesses require land from URA, building construction permits from Public Works, electricity and water from Public Utilities Board, phone and data transmission lines from Singapore Telecoms, plane trips with Singapore Airlines, capital from banks that operate with licenses granted by the Monetary Authority, advertising space in newspapers that operate with licenses from the Ministry of Culture, and so on.

By granting tax breaks and subsidies, establishing particular training programmes, permitting the import of certain types of foreign labour, or simply depositing its budget surplus with a particular bank, the government can make certain businesses more profitable almost overnight. Once an idea like this takes hold, it is self-fulfilling: any proposal not backed by the government, or by people known to be in favour with the government, would be given little support by everyone else and are consequently likely to fail.

For the individual Singaporean, the government is not merely the guardian of his rights, but the very source of it. Lee Kuan Yew was the person who brought the country into being; he and his associates formulated the economic policies that brought the people prosperity, just when nearby countries like China, Viet Nam and the Philippines were following slippery paths to near disasters in the 60s and 70s; the Housing Development Board established by him provides low cost accommodation to the majority of citizens; government schools provide cheap education and strict, though perhaps not very enlightened, discipline to the children.

The government directly provides employment in ministries, statutory boards, and increasingly, its numerous corporations. Even when one is not directly employed in the public sector, one has to work with it: A cooked food hawker needs a license to operate a stall; a foreign owned investment bank or currency trading unit needs a permit from the Monetary Authority. Various government rules and regulations must be observed lest one risks losing one’s livelihood, while offers of shares in government companies to the public provide opportunities for capital gains. And so on.

This results in a natural tendency to conform: wherever one might go, one remains “in the system”, and everyone seems to be working for the same ultimate boss. Despite it being a city of four million people, Singapore feels like a very small place, one single Singapore Inc. Everybody knows it is wise to always tread very carefully, since the peer you offend today, or someone connected to him/her, might turn up as your boss long after you have gone to work somewhere else. In reverse, given the monolithic system, bosses are not skilled in dealing with dissent and disagreement, most organizations do not have well developed machinery or traditions for consensus building and collective decision making, and people who speak their views forthrightly tend to jar the system and so are given rather little indulgence from above and little support from peers. So we have another “positive” feedback: because people conform, the risk of not conforming becomes higher, making conformity all the more necessary. But again it is not as simple as just that. Yet more factors are at play here.

6. Rule by book

We described earlier that the Singapore government owns, supervises or regulates a very large part of the national economy. Usually in such a situation, we see bloated bureaucracies, rampant corruption and gross inefficiency. How does Singapore avoid these?

In fact the prevailing management technique is rather basic: Get a group of people you trust and give them a simple set of rules that cover all situations. It is believed that, however sophisticated and complex the situations might be, and whatever expertise that might be involved, one can always codify the knowledge into a set of rules that relatively junior civil servants can apply, and just occasional high level reviews to modify rules to cover new situations and remedy shortcomings are required. So the system is, like Mencius’s presciption of “those working with their minds rule; those working with their bodies are ruled”, made up of those who write the rule book and those who follow it. Such a philosophy produces many benefits.

The management system is simple, room for corruption is limited, and most of the work can be done by persons with just some limited training: check that conditions X, Y and Z are met, and grant the request. At various levels, the operational structures shuffle papers, move money and grant approvals in simple steps, allowing the country as a whole to tick along. It was particularly suited to a post-colonial situation when a government has to work with ideologically suspect, mostly foreign trained civil servants, especially if there are frequent elections and government changeovers with new governments doubtful of the loyalty of the civil service.

It is also relatively easy to assess the performance of the officials: the good officials know how to collect the wanted information for a case quickly to allow the relevant rules to be looked up, provide clear and courteous replies and explanations to petitioners, and give superiors the right amount of feedback so that they know what is going on without getting distracted with details. But to move up, an official need to be more than just a good paper shuffler; he need to demonstrate capabilities and potential for the higher levels.

So in addition to the operational networks, one also needs to be plugged into a network of trust: to have the chance to show oneself before higher officials and demonstrate capabilities, receive unofficial information useful for one’s work, and to provide informal feedback. Such networks are important everywhere, but particularly so in Singapore because of the wide span of control of the public sector in the economy.

This network of trust is built up using various personal connections: school mates, past colleagues, officer cadet school, same cohort of government scholarship, and of course family connections. If a person is plugged into the network, there is greater chance of being remembered, when an important opening comes up, by the people who are going to make the selection. Conversely, a person has little future if he/she has been frozen out of the behind-the-scene network.

One could have a senior, well paid position, but yet be somehow “out in the cold”, whether because of below par (but not obviously poor) performance, the personal dislike of someone higher up, too independent an attitude, etc

The system is particularly susceptible to rumours of someone being “in favour” or “out of favour”, with people being deliberately deferential and cooperative to those rumoured to be the former and showing coolness to those rumoured to be the latter, whose work and life suffer accordingly. Again, the system tends to be self-fulfilling. In the end, the usual fate of an official out of favour is a sideway movement to some less critical(though often important sounding) position, and given the wide government control of the economy, there are many obscure corners which out of favour people can be shunted to

As I have said a while ago, a well performing official can rise very fast, but the corollary of this is: one can get out of favour very fast too. Indeed, given that the economy and the civil service can only expand and renew its personnel at some finite rate, fast upward movements for some people must mean downward or at least lack of upward movements for some others. Management changes of this kind are usually announced to the people affected and their subordinates with little advance notice, as decisions are made quickly by the “in” people after quiet discussion among themselves.

An official who suspects that he might be out of favour often undergoes long and tense periods waiting for what might eventually befall him/her. We frequently hear that Singapore’s political system has high stability, and social stability is often cited as the justification for various government olicies, but curiously, in some ways the system thrives on a kind of low level instability. With frequent promotions of high flyers into critical positions, usually bringing their retinues of followers with them so that they can establish their own networks of trust within their new territories, and out of favour individuals being moved elsewhere and their personal networks getting disabled as result, stable organizational cultures are rarely maintained.

A new manager is expected to “shake up the place a bit” by removing deadwood, improving procedures, achieving new levels of excellence, etc. Anyone not doing this would be suspected of leadership weakness and lack of dynamism, and the success histories of Singaporean organizations being created out of nowhere argues against conservatism and preservation of traditions. Pleading bureaucratic obstruction for failure to perform would only put one out of favour as an incompetent

With that kind of expectations on them, even the successful mandarins’ life is inevitably stressful. For the public, the main stress lies in knowing what the rule book currently says about something one currently wants, be it a government flat, a Certificate of Entitlement for buying a new car, registering a child in a good school, a public tender, permanent residence, etc. If a person happens to have a case that does not fit any item in the rule book, then the stressfulness is greatly multiplied. The junior official one sees is unable to grant the request, but he might have doubt about whether to simply reject the request or to create extra work by referring the matter higher up to another official, hoping that the latter’s rule book does cover the case, or that he has the authority to change the junior official’s rulebook.

The higher official might then find that his rule book also does not cover the case, and he is himself put into equal uncertainty. The result could be interminable delays and uninformative answers (“we are considering the matter” “please come back later”…) that infuriate the petitioner and embarrass the officials, but with both sides strenuously exercising self control and trying to avoid saying anything that might cause even more trouble.

To cite a small example: A foreigner offered a minor managerial post in Singapore rented a flat through an agency before arrival. A few days after moving in, a Housing Development Board officer came to his flat and informed him that the owner had no permission to rent it out: purchasers of low cost government flats are required to live in them except in certain situations (e.g., going overseas to work or study, moving to employer provided quarters, etc) where permission could be sought to rent out, and he was given a couple of days to vacate. Can some arrangement be made to allow him to stay? Can he have a few more days to look for accommodation? Can HDB take action against the dishonest (or at least very careless) house agent? Can HDB recommend some alternative agencies? The answer to each was no. These are not provided for in the rule book, and indeed could not be since such possibilities would easily generate opportunities for graft or favouritism.

Singaporeans hear enough such stories to be on guard. Indeed, in another Newtonian twist of action producing reaction, when they come to any office with a petition that could meet a negative reply, many would come prepared with arguments and stratagems designed to elevate the matter to a higher level where one hopes the rule book could be overridden.

In the reverse Newtonian twist, officials develop skills in not taking individual responsibility for decisions (“my name? oh it does not matter” is often heard) and not saying anything outside the rule book that might hint at opportunities for prolonging the discussion and higher level overruling (“see my superior? only if you meet conditions xyz”). Dealings between officialdom and the public frequently develop a deadly serious yet near-comical pattern.

Such a situation is however totally bewildering to a foreigner, especially those from liberal democratic countries where government officials behave quite differently. Officials who do not explain their decisions, do not tell you who they are, do not seem to care about any aspect of the problem other than those required by the rule book in hand, are immediately assumed to be hiding something, and their motives are automatically suspect

Singaporeans, on the other hand, are more likely to suspect that the officials know about, but refuse to reveal, some magic buttons that, if only the petitioner knows where to push, would produce the desired result. As already discussed, the standard management technique has allowed the government of Singapore to build up a large system of often quite sophisticated organizations in all spheres of life operating with unusual speed, honesty and efficiency, but it does not contain consensus building as an integral element.

While the ultimate purpose of the rule book is to serve the public interest, operationally an official does not do his work by considering individual cases through his own assessment of public interest, nor by discussion through some form of institutionalized decision machinery, but by what the rule book says. Whether in an individual problem the solution prescribed by the rule book is unfair or undesirable is not for him to judge. Applying the same current rule to every case that comes before him is by definition the fair and right things to do. That is the way everyone has been trained since childhood. Rules are handed down from above like examinations and model answers given by teachers to students.

At the organizational level, there is usually little attempt to make people feel they are all part of the decision process. In theory, as officials do their work they should report problem cases so that if necessary rule books can be changed. In practice, this has to be done very carefully, since it implies the superiors have made mistakes in writing the rules. It is very easy to have one’s motives or judgement coming under suspicion if one provides such feedback inappropriately.

For most people, the safe thing is to focus one’s attention to one’s own narrow domain and assume that everything is fine. Keeping a stiff upper lip is honed to a fine art, and with the great economic success and reputation for efficiency behind it, the system began to take on a look of omniscience that deters problem reporting even further. However, if one is plugged into the network of trust, then one’s room for manoeuvre is much greater. Problems can be reported to a higher level, instead of to people who need to protect their own backs and who have reasons to fear insubordination. The chance of being listened to seriously by persons with sufficient authority to change the rule book is much greater, provided one treads carefully and violates none of the unwritten rules of protocol. That is, if you are “in favour” and know the proper way to go about it, you can be more original and outspoken than other people, because your ideas get through, so that in the future you get listened to even more seriously. Positive feedback cycle again.

But once again there is a Newtonian twist at work: As the network of trust is better established, people outside the network are all the more likely to keep their heads down and consider anything out of the ordinary as the problem only for the people in the know. An “us” and “them” mentality began to pervade everyone’s thinking, with “us” not speaking out in any serious way because “we” will not be taken seriously, and “them” not bothering to ask because “you never get any useful feedback anyway”.

his is made worse by the frequent public exhortations of government leaders about “not rocking the boat” because the nation is very fragile, initially because of the communist threat and international crises like the Viet Nam War, then because of the difficulty of economic development for a nation without natural resources, then because Singapore faces competition from low cost countries, then the possible resurgence of communal intolerance and religious fundamentalism… The leaders seem to be telling the people “talk less, work more, and leave it to us to solve all the problems”.

While they might not have quite meant it this way, the result has been to reinforce a mentality that is already deeply entrenched. People who let their leaders do the thinking also would leave them to do the remembering, but stable corporate cultures and national identities require good collective memories that summarize the lessons of history. Occasional exhortations from the leaders to “remember where the good life came from”, and a few classes and tests at school, can do little to maintain such collective memories, which require daily enforcement by doing things in ways that embody the historical lessons.

Adopting a system that permits freehand decision making at the top and quick implementation below, so desirable for adapting to technological and economic changes, inevitably means that history, memory and tradition are secondary. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be figured out in the long term.

7. Would You Join My Party?

The network of trust is an informal and diffuse entity. It has no membership registers, holds no meetings and keeps no files. It is just a group of connected people who have some mutual interest in promoting each other’s career, very much in the spirit of free enterprise. While the network has some similarity to the party cell structure, it cannot be described as a party or movement as its members do not necessarily share a common ideology.

There is nothing sinister in a government wanting a support group of like minded people, but why has the network of trust not been formally established and incorporated into the People’s Action Party? Probably an informal structure was found to be better, since organizations can become static and obstructive. If I have a job to do, I just ask around and look at the names people I know give me, and choose one that looks best.

Traditionally, Chinese people have a deep suspicion of governments and ideology, since in their experiendce every government turns out to be a bad government in the end (just like the Mayflower puritans had to move to the new world to get away from bad governments everywhere in the old).

While Chinese entrepreneurs take readily to the rampant individualism of the Americans, they do not share the same enthusiasm for community organizations, which require a belief in law and ideology. To the Chinese, laws are just methods rulers use to extract money from the people and to make life hard for enemies, and ideologies are just nice stories to trick followers. In their eyes, political parties are just a cut above street gangs and kungfu societies, as the Taiwan members of parliament who regularly get into fist fights would readily illustrate.

The book “Tiger and Trojan Horse” by Dennis Bloodworth records another one of those deadly serious yet near comical episodes: a senior PAP official was found to be a communist spy, and a junior minister was shown to be aware of this all along without reporting it. When confronted with this apparent betrayal of the Party, he said to Lee Kuan Yew: “If I reported him I would be an untrustworthy person to you. A man who betrays a close friend would betray anyone.” His explanation was accepted and he was allowed to keep his job.

To a Chinese, even a highly western educated Chinese, personal loyalty above party discipline and ideological commitment is perfectly sound, provided of course he can depend on the personal loyalty to himself. It is therefore no wonder that, as the country became more wealthy under the PAP government, the party organization has all but lost its identity as a political party. It has ceased to have a party ideology that is distinct from the policies of the government, and its members at large, just a few thousand in a citizen body of 3 million, play almost no part in policy initiation.

In theory, the party can tell its members of parliament how to vote, and if it so chooses, can bring down the government by causing MPs to pass a vote of no confidence, but the chance of this actually happening is zero because there is literally nobody in the party with the influence to make any decisions other than those in the government itself. The leaders, the government, the important national institutions, and the country as a whole are so closely identified with each other that it is difficult to oppose one without coming under suspicion of being also opposed to the others; being against what policies the PAP has worked out for the country is almost automatically considered unpatriotic.

Further, given the career situation, it is easy to believe that the government and its network of trust encompass the best educated and most able people of Singapore; to oppose all these must mark one as a disgruntled incompetent or a deliberate spoilsport, motivated by alien thinking. The idea of several political partiesof equal legitimacy competing for power as alternative governments, seems very remote from reality.

Physically the People’s Action Party continues to have an organizational infrastructure. In each MP’s electorate there is a Party office that runs child care centres and other community services, hears voter grievances, and organizes occasional election campaigns. There is a central executive committee comprising of the top leaders, elected by the 1000 or so cadre members, who are themselves appointed from the ordinary members by the leaders, a circular process that Goh Keng Swee, a former deputy prime minister, compared to “Pope chooses cardinals, and cardinals elect Pope”

But these structures are all just appendages to the government, acting as the leadership group requires them to. Most significantly, the Party is no longer the structure through which individuals sharing its beliefs put in work to advance their political careers, with the hope of being nominated to stand for Parliament.

In the recent elections, few of the candidates were party activists in the traditional sense. Instead, like a company headhunting for senior executives, the leaders identified suitable individuals who have already made successful careers in various spheres and invited them to join the Party. They were then put through a process of induction and participation in community services in particular electorates, before being nominated as candidates in the next general election. They were almost to a man (few female candidates were found) well educated, usually possessing overseas degrees, with an increasing number of past government cadets being brought in recently. Several of the more successful members have since been appointed to the cabinet, including the current Deputy Prime Minister, Brigadier General Lee Hsian Loong, the elder son of Lee Kuan Yew, who has a Cambridge 1st Class Honours degree in Mathematics which he took on an armed forces scholarship.

The process of younger people being introduced into government has been called PAP’s political renewal, but it seems to be renewal to a very set pattern. Political career is now viewed as an extension of a normal career, like promotion in a company from operational staff to executive, instead of an alternative calling for people with particularly political interests. There is of course nothing wrong with the idea that only well educated and already successful persons should run the country, but the set pattern does raise the question “is there any other way to succeed?” If one is not selected as a government cadet at 18, does not have an Oxbridge/Ivy League degree and is not plugged into the network at an early stage, will there be any opportunity in life of reaching high places at all?

In theory, any school child has the chance to do well at A Level examinations and qualify for a government cadetship. In practice, the chance of a child from a wealthy or upper middle class family is very much greater. Its parents can afford to hire domestic tutors, have a home library, buy computers and take the child on frequent overseas trips to widen their exposure.

Whereas the better off children are whisked to school in cars by parents, or in some cases by family chauffeurs, poorer children spend long periods of time each day travelling by public transport or walking. They do their homework in cramped and noisy homes, sometimes in the shops and hawker centres where their parents work as there is nobody at home to keep an eye on them, whereas wealthy families hire Filipino maids to take care of the children’s needs.

Given an already unequal competition for better examination results, it could only make many parents even more upset that from 1990 onwards, a number of the top schools were privatized, and began to charge higher fees to pay for nicer campuses and better facilities. While wealthy parents have no problem affording these, average and lower middle class parents, who earn a little too much to qualify for tuition fee assistance from the government, find these a significant burden

In school privatization, the government was following its philosophy of “user pays”, so that market forces regulate supply and demand. If something like going to elite schools is desirable, then higher costs control the demand and ensure that only those genuinely benefitting from it would use it, while other schools are encouraged to strive for the same status, thus enhancing supply. the same principle is applied to medical services: charges for the better wards of government hospitals were raised towards market levels, and full medical benefits for public sector employees were reduced so that users share the cost and take the responsibility of insuring themselves.

Under the same philosophy, the government strenuously refuses to introduce welfare measures such as old age pension, unemployment insurance or child endowment, for fear of reducing the incentive to work and encouraging undesirable behaviours, such as children not taking care of aging parents, illegitimate childbirth by teenage mothers, etc. However justified, all this was taking place while the budget surplus was increasing to ever higher levels, giving people the impression of “greediness”, though to be fair, perhaps the motivation is not so much the money itself as the power it brings: the accumulated reserves make Singapore an important financial player and investor in the international scene, well out of proportion to the size of the country.

In the mean time, the recycling of the surplus through the banking system further bloated liquidity, encouraging the banks to generously lend money for home and automobile purchase, resulting in rapidly inflating prices particularly in the years 1992 to 1995, to the joy of the “have” and the anger of the “have not”, another division between “us” and “them”.

Again it is no wonder that, as this feeling of “us” versus “them”, the feeling that if you are not “in” at an early stage, then you are “out” for life, that you will not have much of a voice in anything because “they” control everything, gets more deeply entrenched, there has been a steady drop in the voting percentages for the government at general elections over the past 20 years, even as the country scores more and bigger economic successes.

During the 70s, PAP achieved clean sweeps in election after election, with some 80% of the national vote at one point. In 1984 the percentage fell to 65. Earlier in 1981, Anson became the first electorate to return an opposition party member in over a decade. In a by-election, a small practice lawyer leading a small Workers’ Party decisively defeated the well educated technocrat fielded by the PAP. Among the things that swayed the voters, it was noted that the PAP candidate had spent little time in the district and came only a few times for election rallies, driving his expensive European saloon, while the opposition candidate diligently went from house to house canvassing votes.

A new era had dawned, in which the voters need to be courted, even by a government with such a long and successful record of delivering the goods. The voters have no serious interest in the opposition parties as the alternative government. There is certainly no perception that these parties would be better at governing Singapore, nor that they have any chance of defeating the PAP and forming the next government in a general election.

Going with the governing system provides such great career advantages that, unless there is a very strong ideological motivation, which the Chinese people rarely have, a well qualified person with high career ambitions would have real difficulty justifying a decision to join an opposition party. The few opposition candidates that won elections usually performed poorly in debates and parliamentary manoeuvres. Nor were they obviously effective in delivering community and municipal services to their electoral districts, and opposition party cohesion is little present either within each or between them, with regular party switching by prominent opposition figures.

Producing a common programme has been near impossible, and it is difficult to come up with any kind of meaningful opposition party ideology, partly because it is difficult to identify a government party ideology to oppose. There is a governing ideology of course – Maintain tight control; Develop the economy; Share the wealth with those who help you – but it is hard to see how anyone running or political office and seeking power could be against that.

The opposition side is usually reduced to vague mutterings of “too much control is bad”, hardly a resounding platform for mass mobilization. With no ideological commitment to speak of, it is also natural that voters that want to cast their votes against the government show no significant loyalty to particular opposition parties. Within the same electorate, a party that did reasonably well in one election could do very poorly in the next, merely because another opposition party joins the contest and puts up an apparently more attractive candidate.

The main motivation for voting with the opposition is simply to have an opposition. In other words, the votes are not so much “gained” by the opposition as merely “lost” by the PAP, in a basically negative show of frustration and protest.

8. How Green Is My Valley?

On election night of 1991, television showed a grim faced Prime Minister of Singapore discussing the results coming in. Goh Chok Tong had taken over from Lee a little while ago, and had been preaching a kinder, softer style of leadership for the government to follow.

After receiving positive feedback about this new style, he called the election two years early in the hope of benefiting from this supposed goodwill, but instead of increasing or at least staying level, the PAP vote went down to 61%. The PM is personally popular: the vote in his own electorate was 80%, but the government’s network of trust had failed to do its job properly. It had, like any old bureaucracy, told its leaders what it thought they wanted to hear.

In fact, whereas in a bureaucratic organization, formal rules and procedures could be instituted to maximize the objectivity of information and opinion (though making sure the rules are always followed is not so simple), in a personal network the tendency to avoid being the bringer of bad news is all the greater. In the 1997 election the feedback machinery seemed to have done its homework better, and the government was effective in identifying weak electorates which were either incorporated into group electorates led by senior ministers, whom opposition parties would avoid running against, or were subjected to concentrated campaigns that, among other things, promised heavy expenditures for local estate and transport improvements,something rather reminiscent of western pork barrel politics.

A conscious effort was also made to recruit more candidates showing the ordinary man touch, particularly people with trade union background. After dropping for nearly two decades, the government vote rose back to around 65%, following a hardhitting campaign, with just two of the four incumbent opposition MPs (generally agreed to be the more effective two) managing to keep their seats.

The talk about a gentler style of government has been quietly dropped and not revived. The successful campaign was, however, quickly followed by a series of law suits involving opposition candidates, and from there arose a diplomatic row with Malaysia, but these need not be discussed here. Coming back to the issue of governance, other similarities between the informal network and an ordinary bureaucracy may be noted. Responsive though it is to concrete initiatives directed from above, it has its particular form of inertia in its manner of doing things.

Perhaps an informal system is even harder to change because there are no official rules and hierarchical structures that can be redesigned by order. Even when ost of its members might want to change, none can do so individually without getting out of sync with the rest of the system, resulting in confusion for himself and others. The structure also has its particular forms of vested interests. For example, with the good supply of educated manpower and high public sector salary, the government could probably recruit enough officers without resort to the cadetship schemes. Perhaps abolishing them would make everyone feel more equal and reduce the “us”/”them” mentality. But if one actually does this, there would be an outcry from high school students and their parents who have spent a lifetime striving for good A Level examination results in the hope of winning a cadetship and a headstart in a good career.

Factors like this make it difficult to envisage any real change in the way Singapore is managed. The network of trust is so essential a method of managing all parts of the country that no Prime Minister can do without it, and the most he can hope for is some small tinkering. Instead of asking for fundamental reforms, it is preferable to seek out specific shortcomings and see how these could be remedied.

It is sometimes said that Singaporeans are excessively materialistic because the tightly controlled social system denies them the chance to make spiritual self expressions, or that the system suppresses creativity. However, such statements are virtually unverifiable, e.g., how does one measure “materialistic”, or counter the argument that Singaporeans simply have more materialistic opportunities? If creativity is measured by number of scientific papers published or visitors to be museums, then there are ways to improve these “materially”.

Instead, I prefer to make the more measurable assertion that Singaporeans appear to be highly stressed: they grumble a lot about small things, and are highly aggressive when there are “rights” to be asserted, whether in drivers’ road manners or bidding for condos (at least during property booms), to the point that from time to time official clampdowns had to be introduced to deal with road bullys, excessive speculation, etc.

All the employers complain of high staff turnover, and normally a quitting employee would give no advance information of job change, and would refuse to divulge his/her new employer even after giving notice of resignation. The sullenness of shop assistants is so commonplace that complaining about poor service is rare – customers know that managers can do little about it. The high suicide rate is another indicator of stress.

Contrary to the rather priggish image of the country, sexual mores are far from conservative. Single American and European business executives working in Singapore, while they may complain about other things, rarely mention difficulty of meeting girls and getting sex, and the preference of some girls for such boyfriends has produced the term “Sarong Party Girl” to denote the type. Divorce rates, as high as those in Taiwan, Hongkong and Japan, are rising. Abortion is available on demand, with the number at nearly 15,000, in a country where live births are under 50,000 per year.

The number of abortions indicates widespread pre-marital sex: since contraceptives are freely available (in fact, packets of condoms are displayed at most supermarket cashiers booths), one would guess that for every teenager that gets pregnant, at least 10 would have used contraception. The prospect that a large proportion of children are raised in unstable family situations raises serious questions about future social conditions.

The past quarrel with the western media deserve a mention. The Singapore government looks at media purely from the business point of view: distributing publication in the country is an opportunity to make money, and right to do so is only granted to those that promote the national interest, and of course the government is the judge of that national interest. The western journalists take a “human rights” view: the duty of the press is, by definition, to propagate all plausible points of view, including those that might prove to be wrong, and any attempt to thwart such aims is considered authoritarian. In view of the fundamental divergence between the two camps, a settlement seems unlikely in the near term.

I see two practical shortcomings in the Singapore system: the difficulty of finding imaginative leaders and its vulnerability to infiltration by foreign agents. The system has the tendency to promote conformity, and those who thrive in the system are people who are good at conforming, or at least, at appearing to be conforming. The cautious and the sly have a better chance of survival than the frank

Such survival characteristics do not however associate with the vision and real convictions that the system needs in leaders. Obedience is not the same thing as loyalty, which often requires one to speak out and point out problems. It is not surprising that, despite the vast increase in the number of well educated people and the more effective machinery and database for identifying candidates, the government has often complained of the difficulty of finding enough good people to stand for parliament, especially those with ministerial potential.

There is a security risk in the practice of recruiting cadets and sending them for overseas studies before posting them to fast rising career tracks, because a foreign government can easily identify promising targets for agent recruitment. A combination of the cadet’s admiration for the host country, money, career assistance, participation in exciting secret ventures, and blackmail since young people living alone in a foreign country could easily commit indiscretions, may be used towards recruitment success. After the agent’s return, the foreign government could well provide help to enhance the person’s job performance in matters related to that foreign power.

Further, the prevalent use of personal networking makes it easier for the agent to place fellow agents of the foreign power into positions of importance. While in the past Singapore might not have been an important espionage target, in the post cold war era industrial and financial intelligence is given greater emphasis, and the economic growth of Singapore must draw interest to it.

Another problem likely to worry Singapore leaders in the years to come is emigration, with citizens who feel unsure of a place in the sun, whether for themselves or for their children, migrating to resource-rich, low-population countries like Australia. Given the high value of Singapore real estate and favourable exchange rates, a family could usually live quite comfortably in such countries from the sale proceeds of a flat, though the children would often return to Singapore to look for jobs after completing university because of better economic opportunities. Like expatriate workers coming here to work for a period, the returnees hope to accumulate savings and experience before going again to the more comfortable, but economically less dynamic, countries and enjoy their fruits of labour.

Emigration was briefly a public issue in the second half of the 80s, but it subsided after the start of the extended recession of the western economies in the late 80s and early 90s. While the number and qualifications of the emigrants were nowhere near those of pre-1997 Hong Kong, the possible recurrence of the trend has to be watched for. From the perspectives of classical Chinese political philosophy, Singapore is more Legalist than Confucian.

While both assume the existence of a hierarchical society with hereditary rulers, Confucianism emphasizes the ideal that rulers and their educated servants should act with moderation and self-restraint, always following established procedures and setting good examples for their subjects, who would stay in line with minimal application of legal sanctions. In contrast, Legalism emphasizes the use of generous rewards and severe penalties to keep people performing well and observing rules, but its main problem is the tendency for rewards and punishments to escalate: if officials making mistakes are severely punished and also stand to lose their rewards, then office holding is a risky proposition, so that only ever more generous rewards can attract people to come on board; further, people who make minor mistakes would try to cover up and avoid the severe punishment, thus committing additional infractions that ultimately lead to even more severe penalties

Is the Singapore system worthy of imitation by other developing countries? Or is it a unique case that cannot be successfully transplanted to other countries? I honestly do not know. While I am sympathetic towards the aims and objectives of the system, I also feel that the system can be more “Confucian”, the methods used can be more kindly, courteous and pleasant, and the gap between “us” and “them” can be reduced.

This is what the new generation leaders are still trying to work out, but I have no idea whether they can achieve this – it is not clear whether the problems are endemic to the system or mere shortcomings of implementation. The jury is still out on how green the valley will be.


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