HOW NOW SINGAPORE? Revisiting Lee Kuan Yew's Hard Truths
This essay revisits LKY’s hard truths in the light of changing world conditions. In doing so it has to propose some new ideas in brief but which will need to be developed in greater scope and depth later.
Lee Kuan Yew left a system and a governing philosophy embedded in the makeup of Singapore. It is premised on the health of Globalisation and a dim view of human nature. Its four main pillars are:
To survive Singapore must be relevant and competitive.
To do well there must be centralised power under a genetically gifted leadership well rewarded and thus incentivised.
Smallness exacerbates genetic limitations therefore foreign talent is a must.Meritocracy not race or class must be the social order.
There must be zero tolerance for corruption.
These are the “Hard Truths to keep Singapore Going.”
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Meanwhile the World has changed since 2011 when LKY spoke of the “hard truths to keep Singapore going.” The global economy is tanking and seizing the opportunity presented by the crisis, China proposed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This brings into sharp focus Singapore’s need to review LKY’s ideas and look ahead. But it is meanwhile necessary to take a close look at LKY’s ideas now so deeply embedded in Singapore mind-set at all levels of society from top to bottom. His greatest lasting legacy is his sense of realism based on a calculation of human selfish response. This is the perspective we set out to revisit but within a more complex sense of realism and human idealism.
To the question whether he was an optimist or a pessimist he unhesitatingly said he is neither, he is a realist. He was not interested in theory or romantic sentiment; only practical proof. His thinking came from confronting external and internal challenges. These internal challenges are how to incentivise and dis-incentivise human behaviour. Meritocracy is tied to incentives. To counteract corruption and spur effort monetary incentives are necessary.
Democracy notwithstanding, his basic drive was the attainment of power monopoly to ensure social transformation and to grow the economy. In the global order he aligned himself with, he therefore put down any hint of Marxist contagion or any other threat to his grip on power. In this he was ruthless and effective just like Otto Von Bismarck was. There were no shades of grey for him. He also knew Video: https://youtu.be/R1FYRZyYVs0?t=16s 2 first-hand that there are not only threats from enemies there are also threats from friends. He recalled the CIA’s attempts to manipulate and entrap him. His views on internal and external relations made him the modern-day practitioner of ‘Realpolitik’ in the manner of an Otto Von Bismarck. Unlike Bismarck’s militaristic methods of territorial conquest, LKY saw the future in terms of unification. He actively helped create ASEAN in 1967. Like Bismarck however he was also attentive to the distribution of social goods necessary to appease his support base. His socialism drifted towards corporate capitalism as his power grew. His only ideology was that of effective power.
This is ironical though not perfectly fitting but the German historical experience post Bismarck may have some relevant lessons for post LKY Singapore. This points to a missing component in LKY thought, the relevance of idealism and romance. The problem was that seemingly LKY was no romantic. Romance is that strange ingredient when added to pragmatic reason can inspire and humanise ambition. This may be that which sustains Germany’s technological precision and artistic creativity. The interaction of the likes of Goethe and Schiller and even Marx upon pragmatic reason, Prussian discipline and strategic “Realpolitik” may explain Germany’s vibrancy. Certainly it undermined lingering European elitism which then allowed the egalitarian hands-on, work-study-apprenticeship culture that sustains German economy and society. In relation to Singapore’s future, there has to be a shift in addition to LKY’s kind of functionalist realism. The Singaporean innate sense of fair-play and moderation can be the means to allow romantic imagination given our multi-cultural resources and from this may emerge a powerful idealism.
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LKY’s LOGICAL REALISM Through his regular conversations with World leaders, LKY shared the optimistic perception that the 2008 Wall Street financial crisis will sort itself out and the Neo-liberal global order will persist. After all the survival of Singapore depends on this. Instead we are witnessing a slow motion deconstruction of the present form of Globalisation where corporate capitalism games one country against another for favourable terms. The opiate of Financialisation, an off shoot of Globalisation, makes more money than productive investment! The winners are the financial oligarchs the losers are all the rest of us. The financialisation contagion spread to Europe. Its consequences are still unfolding as over extended banks face ruin. Meanwhile, anti-globalisation sentiments are turning national concerns inwards - Brexit, Trump and Marine Le Pen are symptoms of populist reactions. LKY’s hopeful view of external economic conditions on which his calculations are based must mean that this key basic pillar of his thought has to change too. This is where we are at.
How will these test LKY’s Hard Truths? Let’s first be clear what they are. I select the following:
1. Genetics: people are not born equal.
2. The best must lead: elite selected by merit.
3. To survive Singapore must be competitive; no welfare state.
4. Education is vital: create equality of opportunity.
5. Singapore is too small to have enough talent: import foreign talent to fill the gap.
6. Singapore must be strong, financially, militarily and be cohesive: political dominance is vital.
7. MNCs are the drivers of the economy.
8. The region can’t be trusted
9. America is our protector but China must be our friend.
When LKY’s ST interlocutors asked him whether his new ministers saw eye to eye with his hard truths, his considered reply was that they have “come round to it.” Leadership means everything in Singapore. What they believe in filters down to every aspect of life here. And thus Singapore reality is produced and reproduced everyday based on the finely tuned instruments of State crafted by LKY Thought. LKY’s thoughts are Singapore’s song line, its politics, its culture and its economics. Can it survive the new normal? Would LKY’s hard truths also be disrupted? Let’s see…
My Stance in discussing LKY’s Hard Truths
My approach is to cut across not against the torrent of LKY’s ideas. It is like fording a rushing stream made up of what I think are his salient concepts. These are the 9 key currents of LKY’s thought I select from among many others. Crossing the stream one needs to tread carefully to find footing on slippery stones to stay upright. Reason is on one bank, hope is on the other. My aim is to find a way across to imagine a New Singapore by acknowledging the great legacy but by traversing it.
“The improbable nation” as LKY said of this Nation was made from the trauma of the failure of a Malaysian Malaysia based on meritocracy he dreamed of. Its failure was the challenge and the opportunity to innovate or die. LKY’s emotional crisis was real and his powerful rhetoric after he recovered energised Singapore’s new role and purpose. Thus he and his colleagues crafted the concept of a new Globalised Singapore having lost its hinterland. This succeeded beyond his wildest imagination. But this time the crisis is of a different kind. It is a slow motion crisis. A drift to the precipice of irrelevance. Now, there is no high drama to kick start new energy. And because of this, it is difficult to speak plainly with emotion to spur new resolve. Instead, our leaders try to talk up the situation to prevent panic. This is unfortunate delay. The need for bold new ideas is smothered by palliatives. Also the challenges are also internal. This is time to return to the National Pledge. This is where we can start…. There is a crisis of leadership. Knowing more there can be paralysis. Knowing less as LKY himself said after he entered the political fray that head he knew what was in store he might have thought twice. We, in our naiveté may necessarily be bolder. And boldness may be just what is needed.
NO VISION NO FUTURE. COURAGE, EMOTION PLUS INTELLECT = VISION.What is needed in the case of crises in slow motion is to ignite smouldering embers. This is necessary but difficult in a state of general malaise. Let’s start with the National Pledge. THE PLEDGE, “… a united people to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.” (Proclamation of Singapore by Mr Lee Kuan Yew)
United People! Democracy! Justice! Equality! Happiness! Prosperity! Progress! These words have become jaded. Yet these are words need to rekindle a new the vision with the emotions they contain. My belief is that LKY was a visionary and an emotional person same as his colleagues who wrote the stirring words of the National Pledge. How else could LKY have been the master persuader he was unless he possessed a mighty store of emotional intelligence with which he reached into the hearts of Singaporeans.
A return to the way of the heart
Leaders must now awaken the innate emotional intelligence of our citizens so that they dare to fulfill the dream enshrined in the National Pledge to truly build the Democratic Nation lost to the world of monetized living and pragmatic politics. This is a return to the way of the heart and the head – both at individual as well as at societal levels. This is the real meaning of the awkward word “romance.” Because only through this adventure of the spirit- romance, can the blossoming of latent talent and pent up energy be freed from the limited genetics or small population size as LKY would have it. The Nation depends on this spirit more than ever in this hour of need.
This process has had to bide its time. LKY’s vision of progress enforced by political violence against opponents and suspected foes effectively but unfortunately lowered the intellectual and visionary gaze of Singaporeans. But fortunately he laced it with social provisions, social housing, schools, health care and CPF. Though these may be the result of his political calculation it also reflected his latent Fabian Socialism and his humanism. It worked wonders in building the infrastructure, placating the population and attracted foreign direct investment but it left the people without noble imagination.
Its unintended effect was it coddled the people and filtered away what emotional energy left of boldness. What is needed now is to free the spirit and mind to feel and imagine a new future. Crisis is opportunity for those who dare to dream and act. We need a new Singapore spirit! This will not be easy to awaken the dormant entrepreneurship that built early Singapore even before Lee Kuan Yew..
Ours is not the failure of knowledge or of skill. It is a failure of heart. Romance is an act of unrationalizable optimism. It is not a failure of imagination. Crisis breeds visionary action. Realism alone is schematic. It has no emotional energy. Set aside too long, idealism has atrophied. Thus LKY suppressed that side of himself. His own “Hard Truths” is a manifestation of his brand of pragmatism. Thus LKY’s hard truths infected the whole population save for a few congenitally obstinate individuals. May these stout hearted individuals now come forth!
MAJULAH! In the Pledge the key word is “progress.”
Progress is based on “freedom.” Freedom from want, from danger, from fear but ultimately freedom to express latent talent. “Happiness,” goes beyond momentary pleasure. Happiness is an outcome of freedom. It is not the mathematics of genes but the magic of mind that through the joys of self-realisation and creativity and social conscience that a new reality can be made. When happiness is self-actualising, fear is dispelled. What has been eating away the spirit that endured years of rapacious wealth extraction by the State of the labours of its citizens is now a huge resource to rebuild the Nation. It is now time for the State to truly live up to the National Pledge and with its Citizens to really “Build a Democratic Society based on Justice and Equality… and Freedom, Democracy and Happiness.” This has now to be the driving ambition of the Nation. It is its new survival strategy and mode of existence. Leaders who cannot lead in his way are unworthy. They must get out of the way!
This requires a new moral-intellectual leadership, one that does not rely on monetary justification but on a commitment to inspire imagination through personal example, vision and daring to commit to the cultural possibility of unleashing the creative genius of all our Citizens as per the Pledge. The downside legacy of LKY’s dim view of human nature and his conviction in Singapore’s lack of numbers and entrepreneurial DNA is a bind we have to discard. A new generation of imagineering Nation Builders must emerge. Singapore has to unplug the blockages to its epigenetics!
This is the definition of a new job to be done.
LKY‘s 1st Hard Truth: Genetics: people are not born equal but there must be equality of opportunity.
LKY’s legacy of universal equal opportunity is a very valuable pillar of our society past and future. This has to be maintained but the elitism that emerged from his gene theory logically led to an elitism that resulted in monopolistic centralism as the organising principle upon which political power and its administration is built upon. This is genetic logic is now challenged by the new science of Epi-genetics.
This is the creation of an enabling environment crucial for Epigenetics to switch on good genes and switch off bad ones. This is done by Epi-genes in the DNA sequence. The new science finds that the Epi-genes is conditioned by the internal and the external environments. Genetic endowment is therefore not as totally decisive as LKY supposed. Taken together Howard Gardner’s articulation of multiple intelligences posits that a much more richly diverse human culture than the linearly structured genetically determined meritocracy of LKY’s conception need not be a closed shop. LKY’s view has shaped policy assumptions and prescriptions up and down the bureaucracy and has assigned people according intellectual tiers. Tier 1 people run the government and corporations. Tier 2 the lower rungs in the professions. Tier 3 the SMEs. Centralisation and elitism is thus the result and rewards are thus structured this way. Imagineers who do not fit this scheme are ruled out!
E p i g e n e t i c s - F e a r c o n d i t i o n i n g Studies (Click on Image to play video) on mice have shown that certain conditioned fears can be inherited from either parent. In one example, mice were conditioned to fear a strong scent, acetophenone, by accompanying the smell with an electric shock. Consequently, the mice learned to fear the scent of acetophenone alone. It was discovered that this fear could be passed down to the mice of fspr ing . D es pite t he of fsp ring n ev er experiencing the electric shock themselves the mice still display a fear of the acetophenone scent, because they inherite d the fear epigenetically by site-specific DNA methylation. These epigenetic changes lasted up to two generations without reintroducing the shock.
Fortunately people are not mice. We have will. Some can overcome conditioning. The challenge today has to multiply talent through redesigning the epigenetic environment. Cognition by other than scholastic means testing is the creation of a stimulating environment enabled by both hardware and software. Knowledge is everywhere. Courage to ask tough questions in the information age is everything. What is the pedagogy of courage? This is the key question. We need to innovate a decentralised system of governance to increase competition among elites to open up opportunity for learning through contestation of ideas to spur inquiry and innovation. Inquiry and commitment to find solutions can only be gained through involved participation. Knowledge with compassion and broad understanding is the agenda for a new society. We must and can design and create an information-rich participatory environment. This way New Singapore pioneers a breakthrough in human development that has for ever bedevilled human civilisation. Singapore thus becomes the exceptional Nation!
CREATE AN INTELLIGENT ISLAND
This leads to why I had proposed to turn the entire Island into a brain starting by inserting a nervous system into every housing estate to turn these into intelligent living organisms not just liveable places. (Singapore version 2.0). This means that all existing schools would be redesigned to form a continuous web that makes up the nervous system of the community. This web threads through the entire town. It integrates schools with all the civic, commercial, social and cultural facilities so that as people go about the routines of everyday life everyone gains knowledge automatically. School upstairs, the rest downstairs. Hardware is integrated with pedagogical software. Students learn to ask questions and how to find answers. They no longer just memorise answers. Non-school time is fully used by residents nearby for activities and continuous learning. There should also be new social institutions.
These new institutions such as a community owned and run banks can be set up in every estate. These are seed funded by the State and it provides micro-finance and business evaluation advice. This way communities naturally cohere and develop a shared reality. This is actualised participatory Democracy! Such a participatory democracy has no place for power and moneyed aristocracies.
LKY’s 2nd Hard Truth: The best must lead: the elite must be selected by merit.
This is a truism. Leaders must be able. Yet equally exclusivism and elitism must be avoided. Merit must be measured by other than academic results. LKY’s saw people in tiers. The best in tier 1, the second best in tier 2 and the rest in tier 3. This is too narrowly based on academic test scores. Accreditation must include recognition of personal character such as courage, creativity, compassion and commitment. These are demonstrated qualities within the new institutions described in part 2a. Salaries and rewards are based on performance and level of responsibility instead of title.
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CREATE MANY SELF-GOVERNING DISTRICTS:
LKY’s insistence on equality of race, religion is foundational. This must be maintained. As said above the tendency of elitism that results from Centralised systems of organisation need to be deconstructed. We need to move towards poly-centrism. This is the new organisational principle that is participatory and democratic. It offers more inter-district competitiveness and therefore will be more innovative. This avoids the corruption of power-monopoly. Increases hope and commitment. It makes for a more creative environment. Imagine that there are several HDBs, MOEs, PAs and URAs, they will naturally compete to provide new ideas and better provisions and the results will be much better for everyone. There will still be central Government for monetary policy, defence and security, foreign policy, water, energy and transport infrastructure. All the rest are community concerns.
RAPID MIND-SET CHANGE:
Changing the mind-set of our students at all our tertiary level institutions is a crucial social change accelerator. This can get results in five to six years even as on-going changes take place in our school system. This will only see results in 20+ years. Let every tertiary level student live in campus at very low cost in modified shipping containers. This will mean net saving of cost and travel time and create a lively campus life where students run the campus systems thereby learning life skills. Turn all campuses into enterprise zones where start-ups enjoy cheap rent in exchange for mentoring and involving students in real life projects. Thus students are not only book-smart but life smart as well.
Elitism has become “Moneytheism” warned against by Mr Rajaratnam, one of Singapore’s early pioneer Ministers. This is hard to reverse. It is LKY’s greatest error in my view. His realism and his dim view of human nature led him to the view that idealism is unreliable and corruption can be minimised only by high monetary compensation and constant vigilance. Confident in his view that the guiding principles enshrined in his “hard truths” would ensure stability and realism, he let the matter rest concerning any moral hazard that may arise to dampen the spirit of innovation in the administrative system he designed. This is now put to the test whether the radical change that LKY and his colleagues were then capable of can now be seen among our new leaders. This is being watched expectantly by citizens. A shift may have occurred that emerged from LKY’s view of human nature. That financial incentive is necessary to drive righteous action.
Leaders that the LKY system selected are from those who have “over the horizon radar” as LKY liked to say. These would have the gumption to think radically and act courageously. How to reshape the Singapore mind to have the creative capacity to survive in a much changed World is the new challenge. The high pay system cannot be easily undone. What can be done is to create competition within a decentralised system of government. This is by dividing up the island into competing administrative districts each with its own complement of State Institutions. These can be achieved by transforming the existing five Community Development Councils into fully elected local governments Swiss Style. This way they compete with each other and in striving for excellence generate many new methods and ideas while increasing local participation and involvement. This way people take ownership of their environments, become involved and become smarter. As robotics displace jobs, this move also creates many more humanised jobs which become all the more necessary as automation displaces jobs. I believe that within 10 years, this process would create a vigorous new Singapore, confident, capable and savvy enough to take on the World. This new model of development will be the shining example of a new emancipated 21st Century society way ahead of the Western model of modernisation. The substation started by Kuo Pao Kun is a wonderful example of an alternative centre of excellence and experimentation. If there are several MOEs, HDBs, URAs and Nparks there will be rapid innovation in types of schools, ways of planning, new housing types and more intimate landscapes. Competition is transparency.
LKY’s 3rd Hard Truth: To survive Singapore must be competitive; no welfare state.
I agree with LKY that automatic entitlement must be avoided. Selfreliance, family and community solidarity must be fostered. As jobs dry up due to global slow-down and automation, we must create new self-employing job opportunities that tap nascent ingenuity, knowledge and creativity. There has to be a minimum wage for the bottom15% at say $1500PM. For those handicapped by age, disease and tragic burdens they must receive adequate state support. We can afford it! Economists have calculated that it make only a small dent on the budget. Reluctance reflects perverse ideology.
DE-TOXIFY THE RENTIER ECONOMY?
This is revolution! It will upset everything! It took Germany several economic catastrophes to change. We have first to understand how the economy is skewed towards asset holding entities through transfers of wealth in the form of unearned incomes. Tomas Piketty already noted that growth of wealth exceeds growth of economy. Property speculation must end. CREATE MANY HUMANISED JOBS! Jobs that machines cannot do. FOOD STREETS: For one, we can set up food streets in suitable places in all our housing estates that offer really low rent to encourage a lively food and service culture. Let these also become community gathering points for real community spirit to form as they become skills development locations as well for ordinary folk. The community banks should be located here. These food streets also serve the web of schools that form the nervous system of the town.
FOOD STREETS: For one, we can set up food streets in suitable places in all our housing estates that offer really low rent to encourage a lively food and service culture. Let these also become community gathering points for real community spirit to form as they become skills development locations as well for ordinary folk. The community banks should be located here. These food streets also serve the web of schools that form the nervous system of the town.
CREATE A TALENT BANK: A talent census must be conducted. This has to be very detailed to include for example: bridal makeup skill, tailoring of baju kurong, cheong sam, suji cake baking, and therapeutic massage etc. This way we really honour elders by validating their memories, knowledge and experience and create earning opportunities for them too. This Bank will be linked to a PEOPLE’S COOPERATIVE BANK that provides micro credit to subscribers. The bank is run digitally so as to be totally transparent to subscribers.
MONETIZING OUR FLATS: The issue of retirement income is a crucial issue as the population ages. The Lease and buy Back Scheme has to be reviewed FOSG is having a special session to discuss this and will make recommendations in due course.
LKY’s 4th Hard Truth: Education is vital: create equality of opportunity. Multiple school types related to different district MOEs under the different district governments informed by a polygonal policy making structure will ensure innovation and parent and local leader participation. The web based schools will naturally foster Space for Artistic creation by the community to build up aesthetic expression and identity. The New Singapore will dare to make Singapore the light house of the most advanced society in the New Asian Civilisation in the making where imaginative intellect and compassion are its inspiration towards social and environmental justice for all. This is the actualisation of our National Pledge.
BIG SCIENCE AND BIG ARTS NEED BOLD HEARTS AND MINDS: breaking away from the catch-up with the West syndrome, the New Singapore will dare to do Big Science in Traditional Medicine, Chi Energy, Genomics, Urban Systems and advanced Digital Research etc. (Watch “Traditional bio-medicines and harmony of the planet, TEDxWWF”
LKY’s 5th Hard Truth: Singapore is too small to have enough talent:
import foreign talent to fill the gap. LKY was obsessed with our smallness. He equated this with limited genetics and therefore talent. He was too impressed by bigness. The internet and digital technology is the new game changer. It needs imagination and courage to overcome smallness. Singapore is not too small if it has the gumption and is able to release courageous creativity in its people. Through E-commerce small producers augmented by robotics can market to the World. Smallness can be an advantage. Smallness makes it easy to communicate and aggregate ideas and talent. Its strategic location in a relatively poor region offers it huge opportunities to do well by doing good. It is also too small to be feared. Capitalising on this its regional initiatives do not threaten. It must therefore form friendships in the region even as it punches above its weight internationally by being unusual enough to be admired. This is the challenge.
THE PARADOX OF WESTERNISATION: Capitalising on Asian inferiority in relation to the West, Singapore’s strategy was/is to be as westernised as it possibly can be but at the expense of its self-awareness. This is paradoxical that while it taps into the modernisation imperative of its middle-classes, the blurring of a distinction between modernisation and westernisation may bring along with it nativist tendencies among the social classes left behind in development. This is why and how Singapore unfortunately treats its poor and the poor of the region. This is a crucial blind spot to remedy.
THE GLOBAL PECKING ORDER OF CITIES: Singapore is a 2nd Tier Global City. There are many cities globally vying to take their place as 2nd tier cities to service the world’s 1st Tier financial cities. Singapore must play two roles. The first is as service provider to 1st Tier cities the second role is with 3rd Tier cities. Batam is one such place. There are many 3rd tier towns in Asean to link together into an economic web. To raise the well-being of the poor rural masses is strategic for several reasons. Firstly economy is demand led. Raising earning power increases aggregate demand. This is essential in stimulating laggard investment in productive economy. Singapore directly benefits from raising aggregate demand. It in turn supports our economic growth. Secondly, to develop rural productivity is by leveraging off the existing infrastructure of the 3rd Tier city without the need to invest there. 3rd Tier cities need and want peripheral growth it needs this for its own well-being therefore they welcome investment. This can take the form of Modular cities and towns through land use master planning. With provincial government support for road and energy infrastructure, it should be possible to bring in investors to build what I shall call edu-production centres. These not only provide education it supports and trains new start-up enterprises from among its students. A University of the Maritime Silk Road in Batam is a distinct possibility. Once such a model of development is demonstrated, it will multiply all over Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Philippines. This is a role New Singapore can play within the AIIB framework.
NATIONAL RESERVES: My rough estimate of the accrued land value of Singapore is that it is enormous. It can be used to finance productive projects in Singapore and in the region. We can create a new automated economy, a robot augmented human economy but balanced by a large fully humanised economy to do things that humans do best. This is in the arts, in education, in health care and in crafts. I imagine a building design system that creates thousands of fulfilling and well-paying artisanal jobs all over Asean and within Singapore.
BUILD A BRIDGE TO CONNECT OUR IMMEDIATE REGION: design, research and implement a floating bridge to Batam and finally to Sumatra to rival but complement the proposed Malacca to Dumai in Sumatra bridge. The immediate traffic volume will ensure economic viability compared to the proposed Malacca Bridge. Land development in Batam and Bintan will immediately be to mutual benefit. Finally linking to Sumatra will offer enhanced livelihood through education, agricultural development and industrialisation to resource rich Sumatra generating an enhanced regional economy and final access to Western China’s growth strategy. The bridge technology and capacity will be essential to serve the needs of SEA’s archipelagic situation and its requirement for numerous river crossings. LKY’s 6th Hard Truth: Singapore must be strong, financially, militarily and be cohesive: political dominance is vital. LKY made efforts to promote ASEAN and repair relations with Malaysia. His overtures towards Suharto urged by Ambassador
Lee Khoon Choy did a lot to normalise relations with the giant in the south. Singapore needs to be even more proactive in a “prosper thy neighbour policy.” Turn Singapore into a major ASEAN financial and technological hub where big infrastructure and science projects can be initiated from here. This would mean organising the funding of an ASEAN energy grid based on geo-thermal and thorium nuclear energy network across the whole of ASEAN. We need to promote a new mind-set among Singapore’s young. We need to master ASEAN languages. National service should not only be for military training it should also be an education into local and regional realities.
Build the senses, the body and raise risk-taking capability. Exposure to regional cultures, natural ecosystems and histories acquired through actual job assignments in and around Singapore. Start a sort of Development Peace Corps assigned to the region. Girls are also required to do this kind of national service. Ruggedness through physical and emotional robustness should be the drivers in this curriculum. No more strawberry kids! The dispute is problematic because of big power rivalry. The asymmetrical relationship between China and Asean can only be resolved through a symmetrical agreement of mutual benefit rules of engagement. China’s Bridge and Road Initiative may be the context for such a resolution. China has to demonstrate sincerity towards ASEAN by agreeing to establish an ASEAN floating city within the neutral area defined by UNCLOS and within China’s 9 dash lines claim. LKY’s 7th Hard Truth: MNCs are the drivers of the economy. In casting about for the means of Singapore’s survival after separation from Malaysia and cognizant of the global hegemony of Western political and financial power interests, LKY set about to create the conditions favourable to Western MNCs as well as to court American and Japanese financial and technological investment in Singapore.
This shaped Singapore’s political culture of no tolerance for dissent and crack down on public mobilisation. Accordingly, MNC investments brought jobs while the government under LKY’s energetic efforts transformed the landscape with public housing and factories. What resulted from this was the decline of local entrepreneurship. Cash and talent strapped, rising rents, smallness of domestic market, planning and land-use regulations all work against risk taking. A new situation has however come about now. It calls for more innovation and self-employment, therefore SMEs. Globally there is a decline of all export based economies. This is a phenomenon resulting paradoxically from the success of neo-liberal globalisation. The MNCs profited too much. Wealth has so accumulated at the top of the social pyramid that income inequality has caused a decline in aggregate demand thereby disincentivising investment in supply-side economics. Thus big countries start to turn inwards to pay attention to domestic income-led demand. Singapore has a plan to incubate 1000 SMEs. It has thus far seen no positive results in spite of lots of money thrown at it. It is an ecosystem and administrative system problem that does not respond to quick-fix methods.
CREATE SME CAMPUSES: Turn every tertiary institution into SME enterprise zones. Since one cannot drastically scale back property prices as this will cause severe upsets in the property market, we can use existing zoning to affect the necessary change. We use zero value educational zones as enterprise places. We offer cheap rent in exchange for mentoring students. This way we address two issues together. We make students not only book smart but business and skill smart as well. It only takes policy leadership to affect this. Technocrats will not see this on their own.
CREATE COMMUNITY BANKS: inclusive and cohesive society cannot come about by exhortation and tolerance alone. There must be real and necessary shared interest for real community bonding. What better way is there than through establishing community banks that offer micro-credit to SMEs regardless of race or religion or social class?
CREATE PRODUCER COOPERATIVES: NTUC can be turned into a production cooperative owned by all Singaporeans. It can market to the World using e-commerce and also create joint ventures with 3rd tier regional cities.
LKY’s 8th Hard Truth:
The region can’t be trusted. LKY’s bad experience coloured his perception. His realpolitik view however tempered this. Since there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, the realist view the mutuality of national interests. This needs to be built on actively and creatively in a sustained manner. The tremendous goodwill gained in Singapore’s 2004 tsunami relief efforts in Sumatra were never followed up. In my discussion with Philip Yeo, then chairman of EDB, he said “our future is in Sumatra!” indeed, if our efforts focus on specific small towns and districts where mutual benefit can be developed, success will breed further success. Build Base of the Pyramid (BOP) economy to make friends and expand economy. Train selected foreign workers to become partners in BOP projects in their home villages. Singapore becomes a BOP hub, a world trade centre for the poor, as conceived by Jack Sim. Danger becomes opportunity. A new dynamism! Organise funding and technical expertise for enhanced food production in ASEAN, in health care and education through Rubanisation of the ASEAN countrysides to bring development to the poor in urban slums and in the poverty stricken rural areas all around. Achieve social and environmental justice.
LKY’s 9th Hard Truth: America is our protector but China must be our friend.
LKY saw the world in realpolitik terms. He saw the importance of regional power balance and security blanket. He was aware of rogue hegemonic ideas and dangerous ethnic and religious ideologies. He also saw the dynamics of implacable Western global financial interests and the rise of China. China’s intervention into South China Sea is a de-stabilising situation. It brings into sharp focus USA’s global power interests and China’s regional ambitions. All these he saw yet he also went along with the TPP that excludes China. Strangely, he was also favourable towards ASEAN’s proposal for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which included China but excluded USA. This is the strategic dynamics of Realpolitik. The advent of China’s recent Belt and Road Initiative is a challenge Clockwise: The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C. K. Prahalad; photo of C. K. Prahala; Prof Tay Kheng Soon’s concept of “Rubanisation” 19 against Western Hegemony and it spurs Singapore to accelerate ASEAN integration and joint development in relation to China’s initiative to achieve a win-win situation. Towards this end, the trigger project that Singapore can initiate is the Singapore-Batam-Sumatra Bridge. This offers a joint win for Sumatra, Batam, Singapore and Malaysia given the on-going highway and high speed rail developments plans to finally link SEA to China and onwards to the BRI.
FUTURE OF SINGAPORE: LKY’s realist outlook may conceal his idealism. The only hint of it was in the words of the National Pledge he co-authored. “To Build a Democratic society based on justice and equality…” necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, in the spectre of slow motion decline, Singapore has either to die or take off from its high plateau of achievement to fully realise the dream embedded in its National Pledge to become an example in the World of a new civilisation model. One that fully realises the latent potential of all its citizens’ creative courage, spiritual and aesthetic intelligence and compassionate concern for neighbours and the natural eco-system. These will be the final fulfillment of LKY’s foresight and meritocratic ideal!