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Post-LKY era, we are in the age of contestation

Members of the establishment are coming out with alternative ideas, sparking debate. Time for rules of engagement for such debate.

We have been in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era for just over two years, and it is already clear Singapore is deep into a different era. We are in the age of contestation.

Examples include the three-week-long public spat between Mr Lee's three children, as the two younger siblings Hsien Yang and Wei Ling took to Facebook to allege that their elder brother, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, misued his position to thwart their father's wish to have the family home demolished on his death.  The Lee siblings have since agreed to settle their dispute privately.

Private family feuds with political overtones used to be the stuff of television drama and a feature of other countries' political systems.

That it is now playing out in Singapore shows just how much the political landscape has shifted in the short 27 months since founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew died in March 2015, aged 91. In his time as PM and after, Mr Lee's iron will and people's reverence for him personally, kept in check more than family disputes. 

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With his passing, more members of the Establishment are openly quarrelling among themselves.

Foreign policy options have been the arena for another battle of words. Former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, in a candid, controversial article published in The Straits Times, said Singapore should learn from Qatar's plight and behave more like a small country. 

In his time, Mr Lee Kuan Yew had spoken freely on great power matters, but that was because "he had earned the right to do so because the great powers treated him with great respect as a global statesman," Mr Mahbubani said, adding: "We are now in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Sadly, we will probably never again have another globally respected statesman like Mr Lee. As a result, we should change our behaviour significantly. What's the first thing we should do? Exercise discretion. We should be very restrained in commenting on matters involving great powers."


Professor Kishore Mahbubani, the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. ST Photo: Chew Seng Kim 

Mr Mahbubani wrote: "Consistency and principle are important, but cannot be the only traits that define our diplomacy. And there is a season for everything. The best time to speak up for our principles is not necessarily in the heat of a row between bigger powers."

That article drew a fusillade of repartee. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam retorted that: "Mr Lee never advocated cravenness, or thinking small. Did we get to where we are now, by thinking 'small'? No."

Another seasoned diplomat Bilahari Kausikan launched a spirited rebuttal: "His first lesson - that small states must always behave like small states - is muddled, mendacious and indeed dangerous." He added: "I am profoundly disappointed that Kishore should advocate subordination as a norm of Singapore foreign policy. It made me ashamed. Kishore will no doubt claim that he is only advocating 'realism'. But realism does not mean laying low and hoping for the leave and favour of larger countries. Almost every country and all our neighbours are larger than we are. Are we to live hat always in hand and constantly tugging our forelocks? What kind of people does Kishore think we are or ought to be?"


Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan. ST Photo: LIM SIN THAI

Mr Kausikan's rebuttal was posted on his Facebook page. You can read about the whole exchange in a Straits Times article here.

Another diplomat Ong Keng Yong also responded with an article arguing that Singapore should not be cowed by others due to its size, and agreed with Mr Mahbubani that it had to uphold regional institutions.

A few other writers came out to defend Mr Mahbubani. One is Mr Marcus Loh who wrote that the article was consistent with Mr Mahbubani's role as a "naysayer": "Kishore too has never been shy of taking a contrarian viewpoint to trigger debates to arrive at out-of-the-box scenarios, or to stand up for one's principles."

Noting that Mr Mahbuban "railed against Western arrogance while standing up for" Asian values,  Mr Loh added: "Kishore's track record of standing up for Singapore runs contrary to the impression that the Dean had implied that Singapore should take on a subordinate position when dealing with larger powers."

Mr Lee Kuan Yew's death marks the ascendance of a new age of contestation. If we are to look at modern Singapore history in broad arcs, one could say that the 1950s and 1960s was the age of confrontation, when political parties fought for the hearts and minds of the populace. Political battles were intense and fraught, with anti-colonialists, communists and communalists jostling for power.

With the victory of the People's Action Party came the period of consolidation in the 1970s and 1980s when the country buckled down to build up the economy, build schools, provide mass housing, and build an army from scratch. So successful were most of those attempts that by the 1990s and 2000s, we were entering the age of consensus-building. Singapore was engaged in a widespread move to forge national values, develop a stronger national identity, give people a greater sense of ownership in society, and widen participation and build consensus. 

The period from 2011 can be described as the Age of Contestation. 2011 was of course the year when the landmark general election saw the ruling party's vote share fall to a historic low (albeit still 60.1 per cent). More political parties with credible candidates entered the political arena, and the rise of social media allowed a growing slew of public intellectuals and armchair critics to challenge the dominant intellectual narrative in Singapore and gain followers.

Mr Lee's death in 2015 gave momentum to the spread of contestation. With the exit of the "referee" of public discourse, so to speak, other members of the Establishment felt freer to offer alternatives to the Singapore way.

In the last few years, even before Mr Lee's departure from the scene, we have seen former permanent secretaries like Ngiam Tong Dow criticise government policies; former PAP MP Tan Cheng Bock challenge and nearly triumph over a government-endorsed candidate for the elected presidency; and a host of former senior civil servants like Yeoh Lam Keong and Donald Low challenge government policy on socio-political issues in their Facebook posts, many of which are widely shared.

I think this week's debate on foreign policy options is a precursor of more heated discussions to come on Singapore's fundamentals. Here, the doyens of the foreign policy establishment are countering each other's positions, openly and robustly.

As a citizen and a journalist, I think this is a welcome development. Foreign policy is vital to Singapore and we are living in changing times. Should our foreign policy stance shift? As Professor Chan Heng Chee commented in a speech at a launch of a book by Mr Kausikan before the spat broke out, Singapore has to balance pragmatism with principle, and has to re-think its options in a post-US world order. The way forward for Singapore to maximise its geopolitical space may be different from that of the past, when the Little Red Dot could nestle under the American security shield and hitch a ride on the US-centric bandwagon in the region.

Just what can change, and how, layman commentators like me can't say. So it is useful when the experts have public exchanges, as they are then educating the population on the realities of our shifting geopolitical landscape and exploring some alternatives. That can only be positive for a maturing polity.

But I think we can improve the manner in which that public debate is conducted in this Age of Contestation. Elite diplomats, retired or not, also have a duty of care to be civil in their exchange. Some rules of engagement to consider:

1. Attack the argument, not the person

Ad hominem attacks on a person's character, or discrediting someone's views by virtue of who he or she is, must be called out.

2. Don't put up a straw man to knock down

Describe your opponent's arguments fairly before you criticise them. For example, I don't think it was fair to characterise Mr Mahbubani's article as one that called for subordination to be the norm in foreign policy.  Mr Mahbubani advocated discretion and choosing one's time to speak - those are traits of prudence, not submission.

3. Engage strongly by all means, but with respect and civility

The tone of some exchanges and rebuttals, including from people in leadership positions, have sometimes made me cringe. It is incumbent on those in positions of power and authority to avoid bullying tones when they respond to criticism.

4. Facebook is not always the best avenue for an exchange of serious views

Taking time to pen a serious rebuttal for a newspaper Opinion page is probably, sometimes, a better option than shooting off a Facebook post.  (Disclosure: self-interested argument here, since I edit The Straits Times Opinion pages and am constantly on the lookout for well-reasoned arguments on issues of public interest.)

5. National interest first, ego second. Or third

Writers have egos. People who rose to high positions in the establishment tend to be even more sensitive about their ego and public image. But when engaging in a debate on Singapore's future, it is my fervent hope that Establishment figures, and all the rest of us, think of how the exchange is advancing the national interest. It is always satisfying to your ego to try to demolish your opponent; but I hope we can all desist if that means bringing down the national interest.

I am sure that many other issues will be challenged in the months ahead. It is incumbent on all of us, and especially those who are leaders of the Establishment, to engage with each other with civility. When government leaders or members of the leading family slug it out, there is no more referee, teacher or parent figure we can turn to to mediate; they themselves must learn self-restraint. 

The Age of Contestation is upon us in Singapore. I hope it does not degenerate into an Age of Conflict. Contestation can sharpen debate, make us consider alternatives, and result in a better Singapore. But only if we all learn to engage like adults with each other, civilly and with respect.