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.

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