Hard questions to keep Singapore going

Retired Straits Times managing editor Han Fook Kwang has put 40 of his favourite columns into a book outlining the challenges facing Singapore

SINGAPORE IN TRANSITION: HOPE, ANXIETY AND QUESTION MARKS By Han Fook Kwang

Straits Times Press/Paperback/ 200 pages/$25 with GST from major bookstores or on loan from the National Library Board under the call number English 959.57053 HAN

If you are a Singaporean, you may find Han Fook Kwang's new book one of the most discomfiting to read on your country and its people.

Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks, which he launched on June 16, comprises 40 of his favourite columns in The Sunday Times, from the more than 100 that have been published since late August 2012.

The latest among them is dated March 27 this year, when he mulls on the "transition" in the title, that is, from about five decades of shepherding by the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew to an uncertain age without him.

Han has given his columns context and brought them up to date, by writing six fresh pieces, one each for his sections on politics, Mr Lee, the economy, society, transport and what he calls "odds and ends".

  • Questions for Han

  • Journalist Han Fook Kwang is known for raising a lot of questions in his fortnightly columns inT he Sunday Times.

    For a change  ,he will try to answer your questions at The Big Read Meet on Wednesday from 6.30pm at The Possibility Room, Level5, National Library Board headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai will moderate the session during which Han, The Straits Times’ editor-at-large, will also sign copies of his new book, Singapore In Transition: Hope, Anxiety And Question Marks.

    Copies will be on sale before the meet starts. Sign up at any NLB e-Kiosk or go to www.nlb.gov.sg/ golibrary and look for The Big Read Meet.

Fans of his fortnightly columns find his incisive, clear-eyed writing a tonic for bettering themselves and, by extension, their nation.

Han, a retired managing editor of The Straits Times, does this chiefly by asking hard questions that most Singaporeans often wonder about, but seldom voice publicly, lest they be thought disloyal for criticising the safe and secure life they have in the world's third richest country today.

But, as he said in his speech at the book's launch, his questions are meant to stoke discussion and debate. "Asking lots of questions is the first step to greater understanding of the challenges and what the options are. As a society, I don't think we ask enough questions. And because we don't, we often do not know or do not want to know where we've fallen short."

The hardest questions that form the undercurrents of his book, then, are these: "Do the old formulae for growing the economy still work? Can the country make a successful transition to more pluralistic politics? Will it continue to be a place where lives get better for every succeeding generation?"

Condensed in the form of a book, his 40 columns come across as a very strong dose of medicine, meant to spur Singaporeans on so they can stand tall as world- beaters.

One of the best, if bitter, spoonfuls is his essay from Jan 25 last year headlined "What dark secret is in the Singapore basement?", written at the start of Singapore's Jubilee Year celebrations.

In it, he takes a leaf from American science-fiction writer Ursula Le Guin's 1973 short story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.

Omelas is a fictitious paradisical city of contented people. The rub is, they can enjoy that happy state only as long as they keep a child imprisoned in a basement.

Those who cannot stand to think of how deprived and tortured that child is are the ones walking away from their supposedly heavenly home.

So, Han wonders, who might the child in Singapore's basement be? He then proffers three answers: The country's poorest earners, its foreign labourers and those who oppose its ruling party.

For too long, Singaporeans have tended to wave away such soul-searching with a dismissive "so cheem" (Hokkien for "deep").

Han's most valuable contribution has been to broach sensitive concerns in a friendly, conversational way that shows everyone why these are not so complicated to contemplate.

Here, for example, is his assessment of Singapore today: "The baby might already be 50 years old, but it had led such a sheltered life, it wasn't about to wander too far off the beaten track."

He is so good at drilling down to the root of any issue that newcomers to the Republic will be able to grasp readily its exceptionalism, as well as existentialist woes, such as having an electorate that is still rather conservative, slow to adjust to the skills of tomorrow and that chafes at being displaced by incoming foreigners.

He notes that, in prickling the Singaporean conscience for the better part of 27 years, he has some people worrying that the country may be "falling apart".

But as he writes: "Far better to be in this state than to be inert, unconcerned and afraid."

His is a kind of tough love, but love nonetheless, and his writings should be required reading for anyone who cares about Singapore.


FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS


Singapore in Transition by Han Fook Kwang.

1 What does it mean to be Singaporean?

2 In what ways might Singapore have failed as much as it has succeeded?

3 What else do Singaporeans need to do to be world-class?

4 Why might it not be possible to resolve the problems of public transport here?

5 How to stay resilient in an ever-disruptive age?


Just a minute

THE GOOD

1. In prose so naked that wet and woolly thoughts have nowhere to hide, Han Fook Kwang cuts through thickets of ideas so surely that reading the book is a pleasure. His book is as much a model of clear thinking as it is of effective writing.

2. As a former policymaker- turned-journalist, he brings rounded perspectives honed from having a long view on how the old guard and their successors steered Singapore. He has also travelled widely to understand why the most effective people define themselves by what they master and how they hold themselves to the highest standards. They include sake-makers in Fukushima, Japan, those who harness wind energy in the Netherlands and wait staff in Taiwan.

3. Han combines intellectual rigour with compassion born of a keen understanding of how flawed people are. This pares the edges off his sharp observations about the areas in which Singaporeans still fall short of other First World countries.

THE BAD

1. His frank views of his countrymen give those jealous of them ample ammunition against the Singapore Story of success. Then again, his suggestions about how succeeding generations of Singaporeans could do better would take them beyond the reach of any global competitor and that is not a bad thing.

THE IFFY

1. Han says the "hope" in the title comes from the existence in Singapore of "abundant opportunities" for everyone and a social climate in which everyone respects everyone else. But his book is being published at a time when the Singapore economy has weakened greatly and friction among its diverse communities has been felt keenly in recent years. His upbeat assessment jars with the souring conditions on the ground.

2. He says feedback from his readers has been like oxygen and that their opinions are kernels for his columns. It might have been an even better experience for readers if he had identified those whose views he notes in his book.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 26, 2016, with the headline 'Hard questions to keep Singapore going'. Print Edition | Subscribe