Bilahari Kausikan – Loose and at Large

By Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss

The day was 31 October 2015 and I was in the famous university town of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

I was there to attend a conference with the enticing title “The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Future of Singapore”.  The Conference featured an impressive line-up of speakers comprising distinguished Singaporean and non-Singaporeans with in-depth knowledge of Singaporean history and politics.

Oxford historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin and Singapore’s Ambassador-at-Large Mr Bilahari Kausikan were among the Singaporean speakers I was eager to hear.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin

Dr Thum’s topic was “Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy”.  In his presentation, Dr Thum reviewed the historical context of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s rise to prominence and the political ascendance of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in the pioneer years of Singapore.

In the course of his comprehensive historical analysis, Dr Thum made the point that the era which saw the independence of Singapore was marked by robust political competition. Democracy, debate and dissent characterised the early phase of Singapore’s political history.  However, the subsequent period was marked by intolerance for dissent, which has become the one enduring legacy of Mr Lee.

It was interesting to hear Dr Thum because his perspective of Mr Lee’s role in Singapore’s history dissented from the narrative circulated by official sources in Singapore.

Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss at Fitzwilliam college

Mr Bilahari Kausikan

Mr Bilahari’s topic was “Lee Kuan Yew’s cast of mind and its lasting influence”.  As I leaned forward to listen, I had not bargained to be in for some unpleasant surprises.

To my amazement, Mr Bilahari departed from his prepared transcript at least twice to take two digs at Dr Thum – to make it clear to the audience that he was not in agreement with Dr Thum’s point of view.

On Dr Thum’s view that the PAP government was intolerant of dissent, Mr Bilahari argued that since Dr Thum was able to express his dissenting views about Mr Lee’s political role, then Dr Thum can’t be right to complain that the PAP government was intolerant of dissent.

I was taken aback. I failed to see the logic of Mr Bilahari’s reasoning.  Dr Thum had expressed his dissenting views to an international audience at an overseas conference, not in Singapore.  Has Dr Thum been free to express his dissenting views in Singapore without adverse repercussions?

Mr Bilahari’s second swipe at Dr Thum was more caustic. He called Dr Thum “a young academic trying to make a name for himself” – implying that Dr Thum was propagating an alternative version of Singapore’s history so as to draw attention to himself.

Some in the audience booed Dr Bilahari on hearing his ungracious words against Dr Thum.

I was shocked – and ashamed – that a high-ranking diplomat would deem fit to speak against a fellow Singaporean speaker at an overseas conference in front of an international audience.

By trying to attack Dr Thum’s credibility, Mr Bilahari only succeeded in proving Dr Thum right about the PAP Government’s intolerance for dissenting views.

But there was one more unhappy surprise in store for me.

“Some” opposition politicians

As Mr Bilahari drew his speech to a close, he said the key challenge ahead for Singapore was whether young Singaporeans would take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted and be persuaded that Singapore was no longer vulnerable.

Having articulated what challenge laid ahead, I expected Mr Bilahari to conclude his speech by mentioning how the Singapore Government would handle the mindset of the next generation of Singaporeans.

Instead, Mr Bilahari opted to bring out the proverbial bogeyman, namely, PAP dissenters.

The exact words of Mr Bilahari’s concluding remarks were as follows:

The key challenge is internal: that a new generation of Singaporeans will take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted and be persuaded that Singapore was no longer vulnerable.  Some opposition politicians and their fellow travellers among the intelligensia have tried to do just that. They either do not understand their own country and region or place their ambition above the national interest. Fortunately, as the results of our recent General Election have demonstrated, the majority of my compatriots do not believe them.[1]

Thus, Mr Bilahari thinks that “some” opposition politicians (and their sympathisers) are busy working against the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans; but fortunately, most Singaporeans are wise to the ruse, as results of the recent General Election show.

Mr Bilahari’s remarks are disturbing. Inherent in his choice of words is the insidious attitude that “some” opposition politicians are a pain in the neck, self-seeking and distracting our good government from protecting our nation and serving Singaporeans.

Mr Bilahari is entitled to his own personal views.

But Mr Bilahari was not speaking at the Cambridge conference in his personal capacity. He was invited to speak at the conference on the basis of his credentials as Ambassador-at-Large and Policy Advisor in the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr Bilahari was speaking at the overseas venue in an official capacity, as a diplomat and civil servant.

The Singapore civil service and the salaries of civil servants are funded by taxpayers’ money. Singaporeans are entitled to be served by a non-partisan civil service in which civil servants do not comment on politics or on politicians or take sides with any political party.

I do not think that a country with a functioning democracy would have a civil servant, much less a senior diplomat, speak against opposition politicians at a public forum.

Mr Bilahari is a civil servant and has no business to comment against opposition politicians in public platforms.  By so doing, Mr Bilahari has provided observers with clear evidence that our civil service is partisan and partial to the ruling party.

Moreover, Mr Bilahari is a diplomat. I am at a loss as to how Mr Bilahari can be said to be serving his country and his countrymen by highlighting the electoral victory of the ruling party.

Singaporeans will be best served if our civil servants spend their time thinking of ways to improve their efficiency instead of using opposition politicians as lame excuses for their inadequacies.

Mr Bilahari and his fellow diplomats should focus on dealing with our foreign foes and on how to fix them[2], instead of thinking about how to defeat opposition politicians.

PAP dissenters are not “the enemy”. On the contrary, political dissenters and opposition politicians serve the nation by holding the PAP Government accountable to Singaporeans.  Their continued presence in the political arena is indispensable to the operation of democracy in Singapore.

That day in Cambridge, I was saddened to see Mr Bilahari throwing punches against his own countrymen in front of an international audience in his capacity as Singapore’s official representative. I do not understand how our Ministry of Foreign Affairs could allow its diplomats to express sardonic remarks against our own Singaporeans at an overseas venue.

A “sardonic diplomat” is a contradiction, an oxymoron. Till now, I am still pondering the enigma of the oxymoron which is Mr Bilahari.

[1] Extracted from the transcript of Mr Bilahari’s speech posted by K Shanmugam at his Facebook page on 3 November 2015 

[2] “Instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I have to spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what’s the right way to buy my own supporters over,” Mr Lee Hsien Loong, General Elections 2006