Taking the wrong exit from the expressway late one night in Singapore, the taxi driver braked, backed into the expressway and was off again murmuring, “Never mind lah, Lee Kuan Yew sleeping now!” It sounded amusing but revealed how much Singapore’s brilliant success story owes to the vision and efforts of one man who is now a venerable 89. Also, how easily it might all crumble once his grip is loosened without effective institutions and dedicated personnel to uphold the standards that make Singapore one of the world’s finest cities.
That spectre returned to haunt Singaporeans on December 12 when the parliamentary speaker, a bright young Eurasian lawyer, quit after being caught out in an extramarital liaison. Actually, it had been worrying people since the 2011 election, but especially since November 26 when 171 bus drivers defied the ban on strikes while a Chinese internet site urged others to join their illegal demonstration. It was the first strike in 26 years. But the strike that made history was 57 years ago when Hock Lee Amalgamated Bus Company workers went on the rampage against low pay, long hours, poor working conditions and the company’s manoeuvres to prop up a dummy union. Thousands of Chinese schoolboys supported them. Four people, including an American reporter, were killed, and dozens injured. That was four weeks after David Marshall, a Baghdadi Jew with Indian family links, was sworn in as the self-governing colony’s first chief minister.
Lee listened impassively when I told him we lived for a while in Hock Lee’s house under the watchful eye of his daughter, a woman of uncertain age, indeterminate marital status and unsurpassable skill with money. But that strike paved the way for his People’s Action Party’s rise. Blaming Marshall, a mild man despite his rhetoric, for the unrest, and fearing more communist-instigated violence, the British rejected his demand for independence. Marshall resigned, and after an interregnum, Lee became the first prime minister. An early priority was to destroy left-wing trade unions and launch the still dominant National Trades Union Congress. Being used to Britain’s robust and India’s rumbustious trade unions, I regarded the NTUC as another government department. No wonder only 11 per cent of 1.16 million foreign workers are members.
Beneath the gloss, Singapore bristles with many such anomalies. Despite heavy emphasis on private enterprise, there are few truly independent companies. Lee retorted when I mentioned this that all companies were quoted on the stock exchange. Of course, they were. But in one way or other they were officially controlled. For instance, the device of management shares allows government nominees to outvote all other shareholders. What passes for competition is often between two government companies or two government-managed newspapers. A taxi driver claimed if he applied to run his own transport company, he would be given a licence to ferry schoolchildren only on Sundays on a route without any schools! Cynicism runs deep. When I asked in all innocence when the many “associate professors” I met would become full professors, the straight-faced answer was “When they join the PAP”. Whatever else they may lack, Singaporeans are not without a sense of humour.
They call changing times and dissolving certitudes the “new normal” after an American television comedy. The rumours and reports are trivial compared to scandals that bedevil other Asian nations. London would have dismissed Singapore’s recent flash floods and metro breakdowns as minor irritants. Singapore’s “invisible poor” pale into insignificance against Oxford’s distressingly visible destitutes. A littered Singapore pavement is spotless by Delhi standards. The election of six opposition legislators in what K. Kesavapany, a local diplomat and academic, called the “Orchid Revolution”, would not have ruffled parliamentary feathers in France or Italy.
But physical smallness magnifies everything. Singapore justly prides itself on its squeaky clean image and on the PAP’s austere rectitude and administrative excellence. I recall how displeased Lee looked at the burst of applause when P.V. Narasimha Rao asserted that the answer to the problems of democracy was more, not less, democracy. He was delighted when Narasimha Rao, whom he had earlier hailed as India’s Deng Xiaoping, was defeated in 1996. Lee probably felt the applause suggested that though he had taken Singaporeans out of the kampong, he had not taken the kampong out of Singaporeans.
The talk now is of “tripartism” with the government, workers and employers working together for the common weal. It’s a noble ideal but a balanced partnership demands equal weightage for all three parties. They needn’t be adversaries (indeed, they shouldn’t for constructive cooperation) but each must have sufficient clout for genuine bargaining. That requirement could have been dispensed with in the early years when Lee was battling communists and China’s subversives in trade unions, Nanyang University, Chinese-medium schools and Chinese-language publications. It was part of his war for survival against the PAP’s “Chinese-educated pro-Communists” who split in 1961 to form the Barisan Socialis (Socialist Front), leaving the stage to a triumphant Lee and his PAP. If it hadn’t been for that victory, Singapore might have remained the cesspool it was as Britain’s colony.
Lee’s successors can best preserve his legacy by devising imaginative new forms of governance to address the needs of a multiracial society in a constant state of flux. A stream of migrants from China and India cannot overnight be recast in a Singaporean mould. Something of the buccaneering spirit of these newcomers is bound to rub off on the conservative heartlanders (the term for residents of government housing estates) who were yesterday’s pioneering immigrants. Sign of the times, people grumble about high ministerial salaries. A part-time cleaner, Vellama Marie Muthu, took the government to court recently. Though her plea that the prime minister has no discretionary right in deciding when to hold a by-election was rejected, the judge held she had raised “public law issues of general importance” and should not be saddled with costs.
Earlier this year, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister who is too nice for the job, some say, sacked the civil defence force and anti-narcotics unit chiefs and charged them with corruption for allegedly awarding business contracts in return for sexual favours. The government has deported some strikers, arrested others, and let some off with a warning. The NTUC is reportedly trying to attract a more inclusive membership. But living standards, real incomes, discriminatory wages and working conditions for foreign labourers need examination. A vast gulf yawns between rich and poor. Scholarships for brilliant students to study at prestigious universities abroad before being absorbed at high levels in all professions are creating a new elite. People talk of “scholars” and “commoners” like C.P. Snow’s “two cultures”. Elsewhere, the revolution of rising expectations means demands for additional material benefits. In a sated Singapore, it stands for rights. No one knows this better than Lee whose theme when addressing foreign correspondents was “Man does not live by bread alone”.
Like the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, he used to exhort Singaporeans to run faster just to stay in the same place. The knowledgeable few who know Singapore was administered from Calcutta for 48 years sometimes wonder whether, deprived of his guidance, it might not one day resemble the erstwhile Indian capital that is the international metaphor for urban squalor. The comparison was noted when Goh Chok Tong, then prime minister, visited Calcutta in 1995. Though the PAP enjoys 60.1 per cent support, the message seems to be it cannot take its monopoly of power for granted. That in itself may not give the world sleepless nights. But the PAP is Lee Kuan Yew, and — as our taxi driver knew — he is the Singapore that works. It would be the world’s loss if the bus strike damages that ideal in the “new normal” looming large in an uncertain future.