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Why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy?

Posted by theonlinecitizen on October 16, 2007

By Andrew Loh

There is nothing unusual about MM Lee’s speech at the opening of the International Bar Association conference in Singapore on Sunday.

He outlined Singapore’s progress throughout the years and the steps his government had to take to get Singapore to where it is today.

However, what he said is also worrying – insofar as Singapore progressing further in this globalised world is concerned. If MM Lee’s thoughts reflect those of the government as a whole, and there is no reason not to believe it indeed does, then we should be a little concerned, at least.

It is natural for MM Lee, because of his founding stature in Singapore’s government, to hark back to times past and caution about Singapore’s vulnerabilities. Indeed, we should be alert to dangers lurking around the corner, but we also must not let these perceived or potential dangers freeze us in a mindset of the past.

Being selective

Take for example, MM Lee’s dismissal of the rankings and reports by international agencies Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty International and Freedom House. Implicit in his dismissal of these reports is that freedom (of speech, press, etc) is not important. It has been the government’s stance for as long as anyone can remember.

The contradiction here is that while he dismisses these reports by the agencies mentioned above, he also cites other international agencies’ favourable reports on Singapore – such as Transparency International, The World Economic Forum, PERC and The World Bank – to defend his government’s actions.

He is clearly, using selective data and reports to suit his arguments.

But what is most telling, if you haven’t noticed, is that MM Lee did not address the issues which those reports by Reporters Without Borders and the rest brought up. He painted over them with his usual dismissive, bravado-filled rhetoric:

“I do not measure myself by the yardstick of Amnesty International… I measure myself by the objective of governance of my people. What must a government do? They must establish a system and there’s peace, stability and opportunities for everybody to live a full life – which means good health, good housing, good jobs, good education, good hospitals.” (link)

I think it is important to keep in mind that if Singapore aims to be a “global city”, measuring ourselves to international standards is a pre-requisite – for even the MM himself cited international reports to back up his arguments, did he not? Except that, of course, his was selective.


The danger here is that if MM Lee’s thinking reflects the government’s as a whole, then it is quite clear that economics takes precedence over other “softer” values. This, of course, will come as no surprise to Singaporeans. We have all witnessed this in its many forms, especially in recent years.

The world is increasingly realizing that harsh (or if you like, realistic) economic considerations and necessities are intertwined with the “softer side of life”, that one cannot exist without the other. This is especially so if you consider that technology and the information revolution have increasingly made ordinary and individual lives more demanding. Singapore’s standard of living is one of the highest in Asia and the world, but we are also one of the most unhappy and one of the most stressed people as well. (See here, here, here, here, and here.)

There can no longer be a one-sided pre-occupation with economic progress without addressing the issues of the spirit, if you like.

Yearning for something more

Singaporeans, being more educated, better travelled and exposed to the world, yearn for something more – something more than just being the best or among the best in math, science, knowledge, work ethics or having an incorruptible public service.

This yearning is for something which will inspire the human spirit. And no amount of pure economic progress will address this. Economic Re-structuring Shares, Singapore Shares, HDB upgrading, Progress Package, a 1% increase in CPF interest, etc can only do so much. They are only temporary antidotes for economic malaise. The irony here is that these handouts are also dependent on economic progress. So, we are caught in a vicious cycle, going round in circles.


MM Lee said, “People in Singapore do not equate their political leaders with second-hand car salesmen.” That may be true but he must also realize that Singaporeans are also very cynical about their leaders – especially after the ministers’ salary hike and the recent talk of a compulsory annuity scheme. Singaporeans may not equate their leaders with second-hand car salesmen but maybe they equate them with money-grabbers or mercenaries. Which is worse?

Or even that Singapore’s leaders are devoid of compassionate values – as some have said with regards to the government’s stance on Burma.

The point here is that if major policies are implemented with a purely pragmatic eye on the economic, monetary imperative, it becomes a major problem for a nation as young as ours with its people trying to establish it own identity in the global arena.

Money does not create leaders nor attract them, neither does it give comfort to those whose spirits are hurting. Identity does not come from a fat wallet or a bulging bank account. An over-emphasis on these is therefore counter-productive.

What is needed to establish identity is freedom to be and to do – to have a say in this land we call home. This is why MM Lee’s out-of-hand dismissal of unfavourable non-economic reports is disconcerting, to say the least.

MM Lee being alarmist

In trying to explain the government’s actions on ethnic or racial integration through public housing, MM Lee’s remarks are, to my mind, alarmist. Referring to public housing and why the government had to install policies such as quota for ethnic minority groups, this is what he said:

“If we had not done that, today we’ll have a big terrorist problem.” (link)

I think, honestly, MM Lee is trying too hard – and not to mention that his words represent an undeserved indictment of our Malay Singaporeans. (As an aside, with remarks like this, I wonder if MM Lee is himself guilty of provoking racial sentiments, something which the government has been persuading Singaporeans not to do. Even racist bloggers were hauled up by the police recently.)

Singapore, or more accurately the government, doesn’t seem able to move beyond the artificial prohibition of discussions/debates of issues of race and religion. The words – “race”, “religion” – have become taboo, so much so that Singaporeans have been frightened into not even whispering them.

Indeed, MM Lee went on to confirm this when he said: “We do not allow certain subjects to be made bones of contention.”

So there. The State decides. The barricades are put up. The people are shut out. Game over. Everyone stay in your corner. And we call this “peace”?

Is this progress? Is this what an inclusive society is? Is this how we become a mature people? Is this how we get to a place of deeper understanding of who we are?

To conclude, while MM Lee may be stubborn in his ways, which is not surprising since he played a huge part in the government being what it is today, the rest of us Singaporeans should take a step back, ponder on what he said and ask if his words and thoughts are in tune with the 21st century we are living in – a Global City, an Inclusive Society, City of Possibilities and all.

Why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy?

MM Lee’s pre-occupation with the economic may itself be the biggest stumbling block to what may be truly possible for Singapore – a nation which places equal importance and value on both economic progress and a dynamic, inspiring human spirit afforded by freedom of expression and human rights.

Thus, perhaps what is most telling about MM Lee’s speech is not that he defended the government but that he continues to wield much influence over the government by his thinking.

That alone should give us pause.

Consider this. What if we take an honest look at the so-called “softer” indicators and see if we can do better instead of dismissing them outright, as MM Lee did? Would our new generation of leaders, who were touted as “people of substance” and out-of-the-box thinkers, be willing and able to explore new ways of being and take Singapore on a truly inspiring path?

Singapore was ranked 130th out of 178 countries for Happiness, 40th out of 41 countries for Libido, 30th out of 35 countries for Courtesy, 105th in the world for Income Equality, 140th out of 167 countries for Press Freedom, and 15th out of 16 countries in the Asia Democracy Index, and we have been 5th in the world for Prisoners Per Capita.” (link)

Let us not dismiss what would inspire the human spirit for pure materialistic considerations. MM Lee’s form of pragmatism may not be the best way we should go.

Thus, the biggest – and more important question – might be: Why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy?

Is his really the best way ahead for us?

Read also: The first tier of the first world : beyond the bottomline by Leong Sze Hian and Choo Zheng Xi.


23 Responses to “Why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy?”

  1. There is no doubt that LKY had to take the steps that he took to get singaporeans to where they are.

    My question, however, has always been, what steps did he NOT take in the course of also wanting to ensure his party’s tenure in power that did NOT bring singapore as far as it actually could. We must not forget that singapore had admirable infrastructure and a great resource – its multicultural composition. Somewhere along the line, the former was utilised to compromise the latter for the purpose of political longevity. Thus, amongst others, the need for ‘foreign talent’ and the singapore’s failure to outdo India in IT amongst others. Integration and multiculturalism is the key – and India is a great example of this, whilst singapore and china occupy the diametrically opposite end. The former are innovators, whilst the latter two are struggling to become ‘copycats’.

  2. Oh, in answer to your question, ‘why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy’?

    It’s because, as has been the case in china for more than 2000 years, the control of the media, education, etc; the exclusion of a myriad of ‘differences’ from significant and prominent visual and cultural podiums; and the focusing of the people on short-sighted (allegedly ‘practical’) personal needs as a corollary of economic pressures, which in turn engendered gross apathy; has developed the people in a way that leads to their failure to produce philosophies of their own.

    There is an interesting parallel between the intellectual and political history of china and singapore….just as there is an interesting parallel between the intellectual and political history of western europe and india. Most interesting.

  3. KitKat said

    Give him a break. He’s getting too old to fight.

  4. Tan Ah Kow said

    I would have thought the question ought to be posed this way: Why are so many Singaporean so in awe of him?

    Often wild claims of him seemingly single-handedly made Singapore what it is today are so well drilled into Singaporean consciousness that even so called “educated” ones accept it. Why is this so?

    If yes, should effort not be made to show up the old man’s flaws for example, his recent admission that his analysis of Burma as investment haven was way of the mark?

  5. Democratic Society said

    Hope MM Lee will live another 100 yrs to continue nanny the present government. Then we have more ‘good yrs’ Ha Ha Ha …..

  6. epilogos said

    Intel’s Andrew Grove once famously wrote, “Only the paranoid survives”. MM and Andy are cut from the same clothe.

  7. Eddie Loh said

    IMHO, I see MM Lee more a liabilities than an asset to Singapore future development. He has already passed expiry date but still refuse to let go. I find it very embarrassing when my overseas friends pose me this question:

    “Why does Singapore, a small little red dot needs a MM and SM to be on the constant look up for the PM. Your PM has been in the Cabinet for many years and held various important positions and functions. Can your PM charter Singapore future when MM and SM are no longer around to guide and nurture him?”

    In their countries which is much bigger in size to Singapore, it is norm to have previous PM in the Cabinet to assist or advise the current PM. But MM is definitely an overkill solution for this little red dot.

  8. macabresg said

    I agree that having a MM in the cabinet is an overkill as Singapore is only so small and we have already so many ministers and ministers of state to assist the PM.

  9. […] more than 2 cents « move along gimme shelter October 17th, 2007 Interesting piece from […]

  10. Lee Kuan Yew is the master. Lee Hsien Loong is the puppet.

  11. David said

    For $3 millions a year for MM, who wouldn’t want that kind of job ? Especially MM says that he is more relaxing compare to being a PM. Look like this millions is kind of pension for him.

    He just an old man that refused to die somehow. He lost the respect of many old generation and new generation, in other words, he’s irrelevant. Has he faithfully and truely step down, people will still recognize him as father of Singapore (yes, this is just one of the father, there’s still lot of fathers, remember there’re always a lot of M ! MM, PM, SM etc).

    Sadly, he clutched on to his power and rule Singapore with nepotism. That’s why Singapore is falling behind many developing countries and even welfare countries. It is only the media that make everything sound too good to be true.

  12. […] that we love Caesar less… – The Online Citizen: Why are we still being led by one man’s philosophy? – All and Sundry Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew Dismisses Low Press-Freedom Ranking for Singapore – […]

  13. Andrew Loh said

    Hi guys,

    What is amusing to me is that while the govt talks of a new dawn, new possibilities and what not, the govt itself seems stuck in its ways – and one man seem to still hold sway over policies, no matter how he or the govt try to convince us that he does not influence policies anymore or as much as he used to.

    The recent spate of bans and rejections of permits for various events and citizen initiatives speaks volumes about the mindset of the PAP govt.

    It is time, I think, that besides questioning the policies themselves, we also start to question the people behind those policies – and ask if they and their thoughts are still relevant to this time and age.

    And since MM Lee is, without doubt, the most influential person in govt (and in singapore) we should ask: Is his thinking and philosophy really the best for us?


  14. Alan Wong said

    Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for nailing him right to his coffin!

    I believe you have just SPOKEN OUT LOUDLY
    on behalf of a lot of right-minded Singaporeans.

    If only you had been his son, ….

  15. george said

    His method is only possible because of the backing of the local mass media. He would be nothing without these slaves.

  16. macabresg said

    We must agree that MM Lee has very strong leadership qualities but we should not allow his style of ruling the country to stifle our progress into the 21st century. In my opinion, it’s too rigid and unwilling to accept opinions.

  17. cleverdmsy said

    I think somewhere here there is this thing called the necessary lie? I see The Online Citizen was specifically mentioned by the Bro Press.

    I wonder why aren’t you people given a mention from time to time in the MSM. I notice when the TOC successfully organized the Burma “no post” day, it didn’t even receive one paragraph! Instead they were talking abt some story abt a JC girl losing her handphone etc.

    Who is fooling who? We all know what is going on!

  18. macabresg said

    Of course, as mentioned by the leaders, it’s not the media’s duty to champion any issues, campaign for or against the government. So why would the MSM help to publicize a credible To draw more people to read the articles here. Straits Times would be out of biz soon if that happens.

  19. […] I think my life is wonderful. First, the rating for freedom online is good, standing at 141 out of 169 countries, this is wonderful. Don’t you know that big numbers are the norm here? Oh, we shouldn’t be too bothered by it too. […]

  20. Andrew Loh said

    Hi Cleverdmsy,

    TOC did not organise the “no post” day – or more accurately, the “One Blog Post For Burma” Day. It was actually organised by Free Burma. TOC only supported the event and encouraged bloggers to join in. We are glad that many bloggers did.. 🙂


    Actually, to be fair to the MSM and the reporters, TOC has been featured several times in the MSM – particularly TOC’s editor in chief, Choo Zheng Xi. Other times, there were mentioned of us.

    But of course, TOC’s aim is not to get into the MSM. We are just a blog site where ordinary Singaporeans come and have their say or share their thoughts about the country.

    Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank everyone for the support we have received so far. It is indeed very heartening and encouraging… 🙂 We hope to do even better…


  21. AC said

    Personally I see it more as a case of the Elder Lee truly believing himself to be indispensable to Singapore – that he is the pillar without which Singapore will wobble and fall.

    He probably sees new age politicians as being soft, and that he is required to be around to make the ‘hard’, ‘no nonsense’ decisions – via knuckle-dusters if need be.

    Such is the problem of power – the sheer amount of propaganda, flattery and history revision that surrounds the leader with unbridled power will eventually make the man think that he is more God than man.

  22. He is a God. You also is a God.
    What I mean is we are all God.
    So feel superior not inferior of yourself.

  23. The political costs will be too high to bear one day.

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