Friday, March 25, 2011

Hard truths on hard culture

Guest essay by Robox on Yawning Bread

I had been prompted to write this in response to a comment following this Yawning Bread article in which Alex Au reports Peter Lloyd as having observed in his book Inside Story, that three in four prison inmates were Malay or Indian. I would urge readers who have yet to read that article and the comments that followed to do so first in order to be able to follow this better.


The comment in question, by reader Christopher, proffered that in examining the causes of this gap, one would have to investigate it from two angles: circumstances – the “fault” or “shortcomings”, evidently cultural ones according to him, of Malays and Indians themselves – and government policy. Christopher arrived at the conclusion – somewhat pre-emptively without examining, even cursorily, any policy or administrative acts that might have been a contributing factor – that:

In terms of policy, I would hardly think that [there is] any socio-economic disadvantage faced by our minority groups [that] are the direct result of government policy. On the contrary, I believe that Singapore has good and fair policies in place in regard to race that not only do not discriminate, but they also promote multi-racialism, and serve to improve the social mobility of the minority races. In this regard, the government does subtly admit that there is a socio-economic gap that exists between the race majority and minority.


Hence we are left with circumstance. Adopting a pragmatic point of view, different races have different cultures and these will inevitably churn out different socio-economic outcomes. Closing the socio-economic gap would require one or more groups of people to adopt a different set of thinking, or adapt their lifestyle accordingly for progress…[Emphasis added]

I take a diametrically opposite position to Christopher’s: There is, to me, sufficient evidence existing in the public domain that point incontrovertibly to government policy being a possibly major cause of the disparity between the Chinese population on the other one hand, and the Malay and Indian ones on the other, in the prison population.

At the same time, I posit that, in the absence of any explicit admission by the PAP government to the existence of such a policy, and exacerbated by the lack of transparency by them even when queried in Parliament, we are left to a more unorthodox method of intellectual inquiry, though one that is in widespread informal use, to make these deductions. We perform intelligent guesswork by matching the following:

1. the public opining of government officials;

2. administrative acts, such as the police work that takes place on the ground; and,

3. anecdotal evidence provided from a variety of sources, only one of which is Peter Lloyd’s book.

The pre-requsite for performing the above though, I might add, is a healthy distrust for the PAP government which I am happily and amply endowed with.

Public Musings

In his paper, Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes that is well known to Singaporeans in cyberspace, Michael D Barr recites a 1967 parable attributed to Lee Kuan Yew in which, out of three women – presumed to be Chinese, Indian and Malay – admitted into hospital in the same condition and needing a blood transfusion, only the Chinese woman survived. As Barr explains:

…”hard” and “soft” countries not only produce “hard” and “soft” cultures, but their people acquire “hard” and “soft” physiological characteristics. This explains why in Lee’s parable of December 1967, the woman from the “hard” East Asian society lived after her operation, while the women from the “soft” South Asian and Southeast Asian societies died.

(see footnote 1)

Neither would it seem that these idiosyncrasies are confined to only one man and would have been abandoned with the passage of time (footnote 2).

Fast forward to the present day, and by sheer coincidence, the same Yawning Bread article on which this one spins off from relates an observation made by Peter Lloyd in his book: “[Lee Wei Ling’s] first contribution of 2009 [to her Sunday Times column] was a startling assertion that Singaporeans are guilty of becoming too soft and comfortable in their affluence”. While Ms Lee did not attribute this softness to any cultural contamination of “hard” culture by the “soft” cultures, her comment does belie her uncritical acceptance of her father’s beliefs. Even more recently – just last week in fact – Goh Chok Tong would praise the “stoicism” that he observed in the Japanese in the face of calamity and personal tragedy, and then make the outrageous leap as to conclude that it was a necessary ingredient in nation building (footnote 3).

Indeed, Barr notes that, “[Lee Kuan Yew’s] speeches also reveal a fear that he and the ethnic Chinese of Singapore will lose the drive which has made them successful, not only because they have left the “hard environment” of their forebears and are now living in the tropics, but because they are also living in a more prosperous, but “softer” and thus inferior culture.”

While it is clear that Lee Kuan Yew is not alone in his fear, it is indeed frightening that what should have been denounced as just more of Lee Kuan Yew’s many idiotisms, instead permeates all strata of state and society, the latter of which was also exemplified in Christopher’s comment.

The Mounting Evidence

What then is to become of Malays and Indians who espouse “soft” cultures, and who are believed by government officials not to have contributed to the nation’s success nor to nation building itself? It stands to reason that the only course of action open to the PAP government, one given to punitive action to accomplish behavioural change, are exactly those reserved for all who betray their nation on any account: punishment and rehabilitation (footnote 4).

Sylvia Lim’s assertion in Parliament in that ‘the Government had been reluctant to publish figures on ethnicity and crimes’ was an expression of the disquiet that already exists on the Indian and Malay grounds. Peter Lloyd’s book offers some of his own observations; Alex Au‘s article itself should be viewed as an expression of that same disquiet. In response I cited my own observations and those of others. Though there was one detractor in the discussion that ensued, another commenter Prison Volunteer wrote that, he could ‘vouch that there is an over-over-over representation of Malays and Indians in prison especially those under 25’. Indeed, the SDP website even published an email more than year ago from a Malay reader making the observation that Malays seem to suffer harsher sentencing in the justice system.

All of these constitute the anecdotal evidence. It would have been quite normal in a more mature society with democratic public institutions to have treated anecdotal evidence as raw material for further empirical investigation. The stumbling block here seems to lie in the not infrequent observation that the government insists on a monopoly in information as well as a monopoly on its flow: the hard evidence could have been made available in Parliament but wasn’t, leading one to suspect that a policy that could cause the government untold embarassment had to remain under wraps at all costs.

The information in this and the previous section leads me conclusively to believe that government policy does in fact play large a role in the disparity between the numbers of Chinese inmates on the one hand, and Indian and Malay ones on the other, in the prison population.


One possible rationale for the government’s evasiveness might be understandable, though only from the perspective of protecting their own backs. It could provoke questioning such as the type that I have already made. It could provoke the emergence of the true stories of police action. And it could result in accusations of government racism. Beyond just the matter of the lack of transparency, the flipside of this evasiveness goes far beyond. It does nothing to quell the disquet that is already on the Malay and Indian grounds, and which is moving beyond the two communities. It also has the potential to perpetuate the culture of rumor mongering so prevalent in all autocratic states

All in all, we have a government that cannot, even in our wildest imaginations, be described as possessing well-honed problem solving instincts. If anything, they are the net cause of more problems.


1. It has to be noted that Lee’s beliefs in “hard” and “soft” countries, cultures and the resulting physiological traits are at its most fundamental level sexist ones. Applied to cultures, “hard” or “soft” ones, and with no regard for the heterogeneity within them, it acquires all the connotations of ethnic superiority and inferiority, such as it does in the power disparity between the sexes; Lee’s beliefs are undeniably racist.

2. I have often wondered what Lee Kuan Yew could have meant by “hard” culture. While this is by no means authoritative, it would seem to me that he really refers to an orientation towards militarism, a culture complete with rigid hierarchies with room for exactly one person at its apex, unquestioning attitudes, blind loyalty, and a steely exterior suggesting a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s public duties: the ingredients that predispose a people to autocratic rule. The belligerence that often accompanies militaristic attitudes would become immensely useful in fending off the Islamist hordes at our gates.

By sharp contrast, consider a possible reason for Indian cultural rehabilitation in Singapore. In Ethnicity, Gender and Entrepreneurial Tendencies: The Singapore Perspective by Ramin Cooper and Christopher Ziemnowicz, the authors cross reference Hofer (1997): “…Hinduism accepts the validity of many paths leading to the same goal.” This in effect precludes, in the average Hinduism-impacted Indian mind, a singular source as an absolute authority, a pre-requisite in democracy and anathema to Lee’s penchant for totalizing. Though I am not suggesting that this attitude is present uniformly in all Indians, it is also that quintessentially Indian attitude that might have given rise to the common stereotype of Indians as being ‘difficult to control’, providing justification for cultural rehabilitation as well as for being denied employment..

I suspect that a parallel rationale for punitive action against Malays exists as it does with Indians. In the past, it could have been due to some Malays having placed the authority of the Malaysian government in their lives over that of the Singaporean one helmed by Lee Kuan Yew. Lately, it seems to have morphed into an antagonism against Islam as the penultimate authority in the lives of many Malays.

3. One would have thought that good coping skills might have sufficed to cope with disaster, however, I surmise that Goh fancied that the militaristic attitude I wrote about in the preceding note, ‘a determined refusal to factor in feelings and emotions in the course of executing one’s duties to the state’, would not only be politically expedient for his autocratic government, but it presents yet another opportunity to reinforce the notion that Singapore’s success could only come about by the espousal of East Asian cultural attitudes and behaviour.

4. It is in this light that the recent Thaipusam controversy might be viewed, with the event producing a bumper crop of arrests of Indian individuals annually by the Singapore Police Force for “crimes” such as drumming on plastic pails. It’s also a matter of curiosity that in the same Yawning Bread article, Alex Au describes rehabilitation services as such: “The daily routine of prison life was one of obeying orders. Roll calls came several times a day. Inmates had to snap to attention, saying “Yes, sir” this and “Yes, sir” that when spoken to by prison officers.”

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

All Woks of Life (Exhibition)

Seelan: I am one of the participating artists in this exhibition.

Time: March 19 at 7:00pm - May 19 at 10:00pm
Location: Your Mother Gallery, 91A Hindoo Road, Singapore

Facebook event page:

This group exhibition project is inspired by the signboard of Your MOTHER Gallery. The idea of using a wok as a signboard is to remind us about our mother or family using this utensil to make food for us everyday.

The wok is a very special and unique tool that we use everyday and especially in Asia. There's a saying “What we eat is what we are”. And this is part of our Asian culture.

Opening night 7pm on 19 March 2011 with performances by Bani Haykal, Kai Lam and more. Other dates viewing by appointment only HP 97877874 (Jeremy Hiah).

Participating artists:
Kai Lam, Gilles Massot, Chin Chin, Jeremy Hiah, Ezzam Rahman, Seelan Palay, Urich Lau, Jason Lee, Jacklyn Soo, Lina Adam, Angie Seah, Mary Anne, Bani Haykal, Andree W, Justin, Tien Wei.

Supported by NAC, Arts Fund & Your Mother Gallery.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Singapore is not a model for Australia

By Dr Michael Barr
17 March 2011, The Interpreter

Dr Michael Barr is Senior Lecturer at Flinders University. His most recent book, written with Zlatko Skrbiš, is Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-Building Project.

Australians looking at Singapore as a model for pulling the poor up by their bootstraps (such as Noel Pearson in The Australian) will be disappointed. Singapore's success is not replicable or desirable.

Singapore had its economic take-off by turning itself into a regional manufacturing and exporting base while China and India were sleeping and the US was booming and buying. If China or India had been competitors in the global market during the 1960s, '70s and '80s, then Singapore would never have followed the path it did and could not have succeeded as it did. Needless to say, China and India are no longer sleeping, and the US is no longer booming or buying.

Furthermore, the manufacture-for-export pattern of development upon which Singapore relied and continues to rely to this day, is already past its prime. The Singaporean Government recognises this, and is desperately trying to find alternative models. To suggest that Australia revert to a model that worked for Singapore in the 1970s and is being systematically abandoned as we speak would be a foolish move indeed.

Pearson argues that Singapore has developed without the creation of an underclass and that the country has 'free(d) itself from poverty'. In fact Singapore has two underclasses. The first consists of poor Singaporeans who live in a high-cost city, but who work without significant political or industrial protections: without a minimum wage, without independent unions, without much by way of welfare or health benefits and without much hope of themselves or their children ever climbing out of the poverty trap.

There are many Singaporeans working 10 and 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, for as little as Singapore $3-4 per hour (S$1 is worth about 80c Australian) with few social security benefits. Members of this underclass become very visible late at night in food courts, where aged grandmothers and grandfathers work for a pittance serving food and cleaning tables and toilets.

This Singaporean underclass includes people of most of Singapore's races, but the indigenous Malays are over-represented because they are the victims of systemic racial discrimination by the Chinese-dominated Government. Furthermore, the entire system is sustained politically by a system that tells the 'losers' it is their own fault. The 'self-help' systems that have so impressed Mr Pearson as a substitute for welfare are part of the story of this marginalisation. Because communities are forced to look inwards for assistance, 'self-help' becomes a system of restricting the pathways of public assistance: resources are redistributed within the poorest sections of the community, with minimal contribution from either government or from the better-off segments of society. The middle and upper classes are then free to focus their resources on helping themselves and their own children.

The second underclass is comprised of 'foreign guest workers' who come from other parts of Asia and work for even less than the locals. They make up nearly 40% of the island's population and they have the added vulnerability that they can be repatriated in an economic downturn or if they get sick, pregnant, or make trouble.

Let us take just one of the arguably more positive examples of Singapore innovation: the Central Provident Fund (CPF). The CPF is a national superannuation scheme in which all employees and their employers contribute proportions (at one time 50%) of their salaries to a Government-managed retirement fund. The British saw it as a cheap way of providing a hint of social security, but Lee Kuan Yew's Government used it to fund national infrastructure projects, housing and mortgage schemes, and eventually even 'self-help' health cover. For several decades it was central to funding economic development, and I do not dismiss its contribution to the Singapore success story. Furthermore, I think Singapore's emphasis on systematic personal saving and the deliberate conversion of those savings into a resource for national development is worthy of note by those looking for a development model.

But — and it is a big 'but' — let us not forget that this project operated on the basis that the Government kept most of the profits from personal savings and commanded their investment choices. It has loosened up a bit in the last couple of decades, but in the crucial period in which Singapore's success was built (1960s-late 1980s), the Government was appropriating most of the profits of the retirement investments of millions of Singaporeans, and paying nominal interest rates to the account holders. Is such a proposal politically possible (or necessary) in Australia in the 2010s? I doubt it. In any case, one of the unintended but entirely predictable consequences of the Singapore practice is that it never came close to providing security in retirement.

There are lessons from Singapore's experience on matters such as strategic investment for job creation, the creation of a savings pool for strategic investment, and the advantages of professional management, but we should be cautious about thinking that Singapore's model of success can be transplanted in any significant degree to Australia. Such a model probably does not exist anywhere. It is certainly not found in Singapore.

Photo by Flickr user Amizyo.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Experts Help to Rebrand Burma’s Failed Dictatorship

With special mention of Singapore's Institute of South East Asian Studies (ISEAS) of course.

Experts Help to Rebrand Burma’s Failed Dictatorship
By Dr Zarni
16 March 2011, Irrawaddy

Every time Burma’s military dictatorship is framed as “new,” it is being rebranded, to use the lingo of corporate advertising. The spoils of the positive public relations are shared as it were between the experts and their organizations that prostitute themselves by spinning for their neo-liberal governmental patrons and corporate “donors” in the West and Burma’s despotic regime, the former’s actual and potential business partner.
Dr Zarni ( is research fellow on Burma at the London School of Economics and Political Economics.
“While the underlying power structures have shifted significantly, dramatic change is highly unlikely in the short term. … Change will be gradual, but will accelerate over time,” reads the latest report of the International Crisis Group (ICG), titled “Myanmar: Post-Election Landscape” and released on March 7. The report on the whole reads more like a series of astrological calculations—which are all-too-familiar to the Burmese—than an empirically verifiable, serious work of analysis.

This portrayal of the so-called post-election political landscape in my country as “significant” is an insult to the common sense of the ordinary men and women of Burma, if not to the commercial and political elites who have concluded that they have more to gain by collaborating with the dictatorship than by standing against it. The ICG’s rebranded image of “post-election Burma” stands in sharp contrast to the political and institutional realities lived by the Burmese public, including ethnic nationalities in the country’s cease-fire regions or active war zones and the dominant majority living under direct military rule.

The loose network of local and global actors framing what the Burmese public knows first-hand to be the same old dictatorship in new garb as something genuinely new needs to be subject to empirical scrutiny in terms of these framers’ ideologies, interests, and the substance of their arguments or lack thereof.

From high-level policy lobbies such as ICG and the Burma experts of Chatham House (see “Burma Elections: First Step Out of the Impasse”) and Singapore’s Institute of South East Asian Studies (see “The army's new clothes”) to less articulate elements from within Burma’s local political and commercial elites, those who advocate for the normalization of “aid relations” (and in due course resumed and expanded commercial relations) view the opposition’s flagship organization, the National League for Democracy party (NLD) and its influential leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as a key obstacle to business engagement, economic development and even incremental reforms. Accordingly, these advocates are bent on chipping away the NLD’s legitimacy as the most representative voice.

One of their discursive strategies is to help reinforce the regime’s propaganda—a dictatorship under a new management evolving slowing in the right pro-democracy direction—while attacking the NLD’s claim as the last democratically elected party with a moral authority to speak for the Burmese public at large.

Two individuals stand out: Burmese writer Thant Myint-U, the grandson of the late UN Secretary General U Thant (and himself a second-generation former UN official), of Singapore’s quasi-autonomous Institute of South East Asia Studies; and Marie Lall, a senior lecturer with the University of London’s Institute of Education and an Associate Fellow of Chatham House.

In a recent New Yorker article by Joshua Hammer (“Letter from Burma: A Free Woman,” Jan. 24, 2011) Myint-U made assertions about Burma’s flagship opposition that are important but manifestly and verifiably false.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Burma elections ‘similar to Singapore’

Seelan: I sometimes wish to archive certain articles on my blog, the article below was first published in June last year.

Burma elections ‘similar to Singapore’
9 June 2010, DVB

The lengthy and arterial process of registering for elections in Burma this year mirrors that of Singapore, one of Burma’s principal economic backers, a prominent would-be candidate has said.

Political parties in Burma continue to await confirmation from the government-proxy Election Commission as to whether they can participate. The National Democratic Front (NDF), comprised of members of the now-disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD) party, expect to get a response by the end of the week.

But there are several hurdles that parties must conquer before being permitted to run: an application for party registration must be submitted; upon approval, a policy guideline must then be approved before a second phase of party registration takes place. Once this is granted, parties can erect a signboard and set out on the campaign trail.

“We generally understood that the [system] is similar to that of Singapore – to put the political parties under control by the law – which in reality will cause difficulties,” said Thein Nyunt, head of the NDF.

Analysts also claim that Singapore’s election commission is controlled by the prime minister’s office, while parliamentary seats are allocated to cronies prior to balloting: similar accusations have been levelled at the Burmese elections, the country’s first in 20 years.

Several parties have complained that election rules are severely restricting their progress in terms of establishing themselves within the election realm. Ohn Lwin, from the registered National Political Alliances party, said that parties must inform township and division-level authorities of their activities.

“If [the Election Commission] was not satisfied with our conditions and we do not qualify [to be a party] then why not just deny our registration? It’s not right to restrict us after approving the registration,” he said.

“Now different townships…are swarming with [government] intelligence people and locals are scared to attend our meetings or to join the party after seeing them. When we asked [intelligence] why they were there, they said that they were just collecting information assisting in case we needed help from them. But people are afraid of them.”

Thu Wei, head of the Democratic Party, a member of Burma’s ‘third force’, allied to neither opposition nor incumbent, said that the ruling junta had made sure there “wouldn’t be any worries for them” in elections this year.

“So I think they will make the elections free and fair. It doesn’t matter who gets hold of the power…[because] even if some other party has won, they will still transfer [the power].”

Additional reporting by Khin Hnin Htet

Related reading: Burma mentors Singapore in sham elections

Monday, March 7, 2011

Burmese Dictator adopts Singapore President Model

5 March 2011
By Myin Kyaw Kyaw, Temasek Review

Burma’s most hated dictator, Than Shwe, has adopted the Singapore President Model with regards to budget. He has granted the commander-in-chief of the military—who is currently himself—the absolute authority to use unlimited “Special Funds”. These funds are supposedly to help him in performing his duties of protecting the Constitution and preserving national sovereignty. What is interesting is that this was enacted as a law but it was done secretly.

Just like how the Singapore President has no accountability, the newly passed Burmese law also stipulate that “for the spending of the Special Funding, no person or organization can question, propose and audit.”

Quoting official information distributed to members of the Burmese government, The Associated Press reported Tuesday that 1.8 trillion kyat (US $2 billion), or 23.6 percent of Burma’s budget this year, will go to defense. The health sector, meanwhile, will get 99.5 billion kyat ($110 million), or 1.3 percent.

The funds used by the commander-in-chief under the Special Funds Law will be over and above those allocated to the military in the defense budget.

It is clear how Than Shwe has structured this using the Singapore President model. In fact one can also see parallels between how both governments keep several budgets but when they talk to the public they only talk about one. They chose to keep absolute secrecy about the other budgets and transfer money across budgets arbitrarily.

The late President Ong had a massive fallout with the PAP leadership when he wanted basic level disclosures on the various budgets PAP has been managing. Till today the situation has not changed. While US proudly call Singapore an ally, least do they see that their close ally is also the key inspiration and ally to the biggest dictatorship in the world.

Friday, March 4, 2011

‘Foreign’ doesn’t always mean ‘talent’

4 March 2011
Letter by James Ang to ST Forum, reposted on Temasek Review

WHILE I agree that Singapore needs foreigners to stay competitive, there are levels of foreign talent (‘Levy hike ‘not a push for locals”; last Thursday).

At a basic level, there is a need for work permit and S Pass holders in the service, construction and manufacturing industries, given the shrinking population and comparative lack of appeal for these sectors among most Singaporeans.

There should be some control to mitigate the negative effects of attracting foreigners at this level, like falling productivity; and this year’s Budget has started to address this issue with the revised levy. However, when it comes to foreign talent on employment passes, are we certain that Singaporeans who graduate from one of the best education systems anywhere are unable to fill such vacancies?

As much as we need multinational companies (MNCs) to invest and create jobs here, there must be a delicate balance to reap the optimum benefits of combining local and foreign talent.

To achieve optimum balance, the Government should have a process of checks to manage the quantity and quality of white-collar foreign talent. I have been working in MNCs for more than 26 years and my experience informs me that it is not always the case that the foreign help is cleverer or more productive than his Singaporean equivalent.

In fact, there are many Singaporeans who are better and cheaper.

In fairness, I have also worked with talented and experienced foreign managers from whom I have learnt much.

However, it is troubling when the term ‘foreign’ becomes synonymous with ‘talent’, though that is not always so.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

We need more Chee Soon Juans in Parliament

3 March 2011
By Chua Chin Leng, My Singapore News

Chiam See Tong may be able to anchor a team to win a GRC. I hope he delivers. But what is badly needed in Parliament is more Chee Soon Juans. Personally I think he is the most wronged person in politics. He has given his all, his career, his family and his life to politics, to serve Singapore. If this is not sacrifice, what else is? It is time that the people appreciate his contribution and give him their votes to bring him into Parliament.

Having one Chee Soon Juan is not the end as a lonely figure in Parliament is not a joking matter. He could be drowned by laughters, and that is all there is to keep him on the defensive. He needs a team of several Chee Soon Juans to stand up to the wolf pack. And a few Chee Soon Juans can only do good for the people of Singapore.

There is a need for an opposition voice, a real opposition voice, in Parliament. And if there is a time for it, this GE is the best opportunity to make it happened. The set back in the Reform Party must be taken in its stride and the best of the opposition must be given a chance to represent and speak for the people.

Without an opposition voice, we can expect more of what we have already knew, and more akan datang. More of everything is affordable. No matter how good a solitary ruling party is, I think by now the people are wiser and know what is for their own good. A bigger and louder opposition voice is begging to be represented and heard in Parliament.

Our first world country with first world political and economic system, with first world citizens, now with more foreign talents becoming citizens, more first world, must surely be able to withstand the presence of a few more opposition members in Parliament. Not the NMP or the NCMP kind. It would not collapse. If it does, like sand castle, then it is not worth keeping. We need a more resilient and durable political system that can last.

Chua Chin Leng

* The writer is an ex-civil servant, and he blogs at My Singapore News

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

What’s Up With Kishore Mahbubani?

Comment from a friend:
This Kishore Mahbubani's greatest fault is not that he criticizes the west unfairly. Some of his criticism in fact is spot on. But that guy has a bigger problem. He has the idea that Asian societies are progressively becoming more liberal, and western societies are progresively becoming more oppressive, and his favourite examples are -- you guessed it -- Singapore, and also China, Myanmar(!!), etc.
That guy loves to take superficiality and turn it into a linguistic art form -- looks good on camera no doubt, but does a horrible injustice to the victims of human rights abuses that take place in Malaysia, in Burma, in China. He is the perfect example of taking PAP ideologically and applying it globally.

27 January 2011
By Alastair Su, Harvard Political Review

By many measures, Kishore Mahbubani is one of the leading public figures in Asia. He is currently the Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, a man with an enormous intellect and an illustrious career that few can compare with. From January 2001 to May 2002, he held the position of president of the United Nations Security Council, a considerable feat for anybody who comes from my country.

It puzzles me, therefore, why he wishes of late to become another Amy Chua.

Since his 2008 interview on BBC’s Hardtalk, and the release of his book, The New Asian Hemisphere, Kishore’s arguments have become increasingly polemicized, aggressive and vapid. Here’s an excerpt from his most recent article on the Financial Times, where he writes:

Most crises are known by their origin, from the Mexican peso crisis of 1994/5 to the Asian crisis of 1997/8. Given there is no doubt who caused our world’s latest troubles, it should adopt its logical name: the western financial crisis. This reluctance to call a spade a spade reflects an inability to reckon with changes the US and Europe have to make to avoid a repeat…There is a simple reason why the west has not noticed: Asians are too polite. Sometimes it takes a relatively rude Asian, like me, to express our continent’s true feelings.

Kishore then goes on to make two main criticisms. The first at the West, somehow, is living in a bubble of its own ignorance, unaware of its own relative decline in the changing world order. While I can see where he’s coming from, I’m wondering whether Kishore is the one really being ignorant here. Not all Westerners are parochial; for simple evidence, consider Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday.

The rules have changed. In a single generation, revolutions in technology have transformed the way we live, work and do business… Meanwhile, nations like China and India realized that with some changes of their own, they could compete in this new world. And so they started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and science. They’re investing in research and new technologies. Just recently, China became the home to the world’s largest private solar research facility, and the world’s fastest computer.

So, yes, the world has changed. The competition for jobs is real. But this shouldn’t discourage us. It should challenge us.

Is this evidence of parochialism? I’ll let you be the judge.

The second criticism is that since the financial crisis originated in the West, the West should take full responsibility for it. He writes:

What must be done? Domestically, the US must cut spending and raise taxes, no matter how politically difficult. Europe must resolve its flawed monetary union – with the overhaul of its bailout fund and the rewriting of Germany’s post-Maastricht “grand bargain” with the periphery a necessary start.

By analogy, this is just about as helpful as a person who stands outside a burning house and shouts: “Hey, your house is on fire!” These facts are already painstakingly obvious to policymakers in the West. As always, the devil is always in the details, and details is something his piece is desperately short of.

So, how does one go from a learned diplomat to a not-so-learned polemicist? I propose two theories.

My first theory is that Mahbubani is simply attempting another “Amy Chua.” In a room where everyone is shouting, the only way to get yourself heard is to shout louder. Even if it means sacrificing the quality of your ideas, the most important thing is to be heard. His article was written to generate more heat than light, to provoke rather than to stimulate meaningful discussion.

Given the right context, this approach has its merits – in politics, for example – though given Mahbubani’s stature as a public intellectual, it would be unbecoming of him if it were true. If so, he may as well go on to write the sequel to Amy Chua’s piece, “Why Indian Fathers Are Superior.”

My second theory is that like the uncompromising football coach, perhaps Mahbubani is only outwardly condescending, where he secretly possesses benevolent motives. From his previous books, you get the sense that he commands a healthy respect for the West, so maybe there is a distance between what he writes here and what he really thinks. His real agenda is to provoke the West, so it might wake up to its own woes.

While this is certainly a tried-and-tested method in the sporting world, I’m not quite sure if it works in the realpolitik of nations. As the British will tell you, making an angry Frenchman more angry will – surprise – only make him angrier. While Kishore is right on target when he says that world’s institutions need to be overhauled, this is hardly the way to get there.