Question: Which senior world statesman, should he deign to pay you or your organization a visit, demands that the meeting take place in premises in which no-one has smoked tobacco for a minimum of two weeks? There may several such pretentious, self-important old frauds floating around, but the only one I know of is Lee Kuan Yew, former prime minister of Singapore and the planet’s greatest living expert on everything. Lee has finally retired from the city-state’s cabinet at the age of just 87, after a mere 50-odd years in government; he will still be sitting in parliament.
One of many prized curiosities in my library is a book called What If There Had Been No Lee Kuan Yew? by Anthony Oei. The title sums up the Lee self-image, which thanks to years of cultural reinforcement and journalistic cowardice and laziness has been absorbed into accepted wisdom: a towering genius solely responsible for creating a pristine, ultra-modern, prosperous city out of what would otherwise be a desolate patch of jungle infested by impoverished, bribe-taking, drug-addict cannibals. (On occasions Lee has humbly acknowledged the contribution played by the invention of air conditioning).
Lee’s immeasurably overdue departure from government (officially, at least) comes soon after a groundbreaking election in Singapore that fits in rather pleasingly with the Arab Spring of Middle Eastern popular uprisings and the paranoid freaking-out going on among the Beijing leadership as a result, complete with bans on jasmine (the plant). Opposition parties overcame a rigged electoral system, censored and biased mainstream media, and traditional subliminal barriers such as the threat of legal action to get the ruling People’s Action Party down to 60% of the vote.
New, uncensored media played a vital role in this, spreading the word that it is OK to be sick of the PAP’s smugness, elitism and arrogance and unhappy with rising prices, a widening wealth gap and an influx of low-earning migrant labour. The result reflects a backlash by a younger generation against a remote leadership that has lost touch with public opinion.
To give credit where it’s due, the PAP administration refrained from taking some its old Lee-style methods to their fascistic logical conclusion by arresting opponents, harassing bloggers or stuffing ballot boxes. This is a back-handed compliment; no self-respecting Singaporean autocrat would stoop to blatant, third-world extralegal thuggery. But it is hard to imagine the tough egomaniac-psycho LKY who ground JB Jeyaretnam into the dust out of sheer spite taking a slap in the face like the ejection of foreign minister George Yeo’s team without having a tantrum and hitting someone. Something has changed.
Hong Kong has long largely ignored Singapore as smaller, desperate and boring, but as Tom Holland points out in today’s South China Morning Post, the Lion City has actually been growing while we weren’t watching. Its population has reached 5 million to our 7 million, and its GDP is likely to briefly spike above the Big Lychee’s in 2012, before falling back below. Singapore, on the other hand, has traditionally benchmarked itself against Hong Kong almost obsessively. Noting that Beijing’s policy now apparently requires Hong Kong to be governed by impotent, mediocre nonentities, will an imaginative, more sophisticated post-Lee PAP leadership come to see continued pluralism and liberalism as vital ingredients in Singapore’s continued drive to surpass its rival ex-colony?
Meanwhile, a nurse takes Lee Kuan Yew by the hand, leads him over to the big soft chair in the corner and leaves him mumbling to himself, occasionally shouting out: “Make sure you include women graduates in the breeding pool.”
This just in. Out of the mouths of babes and innocents – in this case a young relative currently backpacking around Southeast Asia – an email saying…
I thought Singapore is supposed to be really clean but actually there’s cigarette butts and stuff all over the place just like anywhere else. The beer is incredibly expensive so we left after two days.