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The Singapore Difference

In response to:

The Man Who Would Be King from the June 10, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Ian Buruma’s negative review of Lee Kuan Yew’s book and mine [“The Man Who Would Be King,” NYR, June 10] was predictable. The pity is that NYR readers were deprived of an opportunity to learn the real story of Singapore’s early development: that of an underdog surviving and thriving against all odds.

Singapore’s survival was never a certainty. Between 1923 and 1965 (the years covered in The Singapore Story), Lee and his generation had to battle against real demons: third-world poverty, British colonialism, brutal Japanese occupation, an expansionist Communist tide, and bloody communal riots. Born in 1948, I only partially experienced this. But as a six-year-old, I was put in a special feeding program for malnourished children in my school. And I saw my neighbors beaten and killed in racial riots.

Without the exceptional leadership of the founding generation, led by Lee Kuan Yew, there would be no Singapore story to tell. It succeeded because of the social contract, the bonding between the leaders and the people, forged in a series of severe crises from 1961 to 1965. In theory, Singapore’s development could have taken place without strong discipline, just as it is theoretically possible for a plane to rise steeply in the air with passengers walking down the aisles and banging on the doors of the pilot’s cabin. In the real world, the people of Singapore accepted the “fasten seat belts” sign as they experienced the steepest increase in living standards any people have experienced in any point of history. Today, as Singapore reaches cruising altitudes, the seat belts will have to be loosened. And this too (contrary to Buruma) is happening.

Buruma portrays the people of Singapore as a population of sheep or robots. He says, “The result of fifty years of PAP government is that most Singaporeans are too frightened to think” and “Henceforth almost every aspect of life in Singapore would be regimented under the aegis of the PAP. This might appear to be relatively benign, and compared to, say, North Korea, so it is….” North Korea? Regimented? Unthinking?

If true, it is a miracle that this population of sheep or robots (living with no natural resources in the most densely populated country in the world) have developed the busiest port in the world, the most efficient airport, the fourth-largest financial center, the third-largest oil-refining center; and achieved the highest per capita international trade dependency and foreign exchange reserves. Various blue-chip organizations (including IMD World Competitiveness Report and the US Heritage Foundation) have rated Singapore the second most competitive country after the US, the best in Asia and seventh in the world for “justice fairly administered in society,” number one in the index of economic freedom, the least corrupt government in Asia, and seventh most transparent in the world. Could this have been possible without a highly motivated and thinking people and rational systems?

In the key human needs of nutrition and health, housing and education, personal safety and social security, Singapore’s successes are also off the charts. One reality that no Buruma can erase is that Singapore’s citizens lead a decent and meaningful human existence.

Of course, Singapore is neither a utopia nor a paradise. It has flaws. But neither is it the nightmarish society portrayed by Buruma. The simple reality is that Singapore is different. And this is essentially why The Singapore Story is worth reading. It describes firsthand the unique story of Singapore which, despite its shortcomings, stands as a monument of human achievement.

The great mystery to me is why some liberals, who champion tolerance and diversity, cannot accept Singapore as a different society. But these liberals have also come to see the world in black and white terms: free or unfree, open or closed, totalitarian or democratic. To challenge this black and white perspective, I decided to republish my essays of the 1990s: to provide a non-Western worldview in a world dominated by a Western Weltanschauung. Both Lee’s book and mine try to convey this. Independent readers have posted positive comments on the Amazon.com pages of both books.

Arguments alone should not convince NYR readers. Instead, armed with Buruma’s review, they should walk the streets of Singapore, safe at any time of day or night, and see the reality for themselves. They will find that circulating in the “closed” society of Singapore are 5,500 foreign publications (including the NYR), dozens of foreign TV channels, BBC World Radio all day on FM, and an Internet penetration among the highest in the world.

Buruma concludes his essay by claiming that the Singapore government treats its population as “naughty or backward children…[who] cannot be expected to think for themselves, for they are not responsible citizens.” Would a government that does not have confidence in the ability of its people to think and to learn spend over $1 billion to open up the world’s information flows and pipe them straight into every living room in Singapore?

Kishore Mahbubani
Permanent Representative of the Republic of Singapore to the United Nations
New York City

Ian Buruma replies:

Singaporeans can be justly proud of their economic achievements. I never said otherwise in my article about Lee Kuan Yew and the struggle for Singapore’s independence. Since Mr. Mahbubani has no factual criticisms to make of my review of that history, I assume our dispute concerns something else. From the frequent use he makes of the word “difference,” I believe it is about the uniqueness of Singapore’s history, culture, and society. Since the history of every nation is unique in its way, I am quite prepared to believe that, as Mr. Mahbubani points out, “the simple reality is that Singapore is different.” But if Singapore is indeed so different, then how can its spokesmen presume to represent something called “Asian values,” or, in Mr. Mahbubani’s words, the “non-Western worldview”? Now, it may be so that there is a Third Way between free and unfree, or open and closed societies: half-open societies, or societies where you are free to do business but not to criticize the government. My difference with Mr. Mahbubani is that I do not believe this is the best way to conduct political affairs, and what is more, nor do most Asians. Recent events in the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia appear to bear this out. Possibly, Singapore is again an exception. But I would like to hear that from Singaporean citizens, in a free press, and not from an official government scribe.

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