The S'pore way: the way to go?

This article was first published in The Straits Times on April 6, 2013

COMMUNICATION of many kinds - verbal as well as symbolic - is required to govern well. Mass politics requires a leader's persuasion to maximise political effectiveness.

Lee Kuan Yew - Singapore's founding prime minister, and by history's assessment the long-running elected PM ever - knew what he wanted for his country, but a driven utilitarian, Lee judged himself, almost ideologically, by standards that could be scientifically measured.

He was almost always in a deliberate rush to achieve. Per capita income. International competitiveness. Scholastic scores. Low inflation. High employment. He wanted nothing to stand in the way of measurable achievements.

He hated unnecessary delays, such as from uninformed debate, which of course is the essence of mass democracy. But unless he were to do away with elections altogether, he had to know what his people thought, even if much of it seemed to him thoughtless - or in any event, uninformed. The leader always has to carry the people with him, as he'd say.

The ancient Greek thinkers understood the core problem. One perceptive modern-day interpreter was Michel Foucault, the late French philosopher who used to lecture about Greek thought at the College de France. He accepted their insights about the severe contradiction at the heart of the very concept of democracy.

And the Greeks had a word for that. Two words, actually.

The first was parrhesia, which sort of means "truth-telling" or "free, frank speech" in a profound way. The theoretical sine qua non of superior governance means the best decisions are produced by the best thought and information and discussion. Not everyone can do that.

So ongoing tension exists between parrhesia and its opposite, isegoria. This latter means (sort of) "everyone has an equal and absolute right to speak in public debate, whatever the truth value". (This is to say: no matter how uninformed or, arguably, even stupid.)

The first speaks to Maximum Truth, political correctness notwithstanding, people's feelings notwithstanding; and said parrhesia speech must be pure and wise and, above all, anything but self-seeking.

The second speaks to accepting that everyone is speech-equal and every citizen needs to have her or his say and should be equally involved in the public debate, no matter how little they may know or however self-seeking they may be.

Everyone and anyone can do their isegoria. That's easy enough. But parrhesia - this is something else entirely. The two are in opposition: Truth-telling and speech-equality are anything but the same.

Foucault used to suggest that democracy could either affirm equality of public speech at the expense of parrhesia or affirm quality of public discourse at the expense of isegoria. My hypothesis is that LKY, who did not suffer fools or foolish comment readily, was a fervent admirer of parrhesia and not of isegoria. He thought the latter, if left unchecked by proper educated authority, would degrade Singapore's polity and handicap its rate of progress.

To extrapolate, Lee followed in the footsteps of Plato, who describes his mentor Socrates as sometimes distrusting the utility of truth-telling to the masses. Wrote Foucault by way of explanation: "The powerlessness of true discourse in democracy is not due, of course, to true discourse, that is, to the fact that discourse is true. It is due to the very structure of democracy."

Bring Lee back into this discussion.

Remember, he honestly admitted to us (with a plain-spoken directness I had not seen elsewhere before, and have not heard from him since) that the ideology of democracy left him cold. And I have to tell you that, when he said it towards the end of our first day of conversations - with absolutely no apology whatsoever - the comment seemed to me breathtaking in its utter disregard of political correctness or polite qualification.

Said Lee to us: "I do not believe that one-man, one-vote, in either the US format or the British format or the French format, is the final position."

Public truth-telling and real-world politics make for a very rough fit when trying to co-exist in a political system. This is not something political leaders say publicly. But the difference between the individual speaking the truth and wanting the truth to predominate, on the one hand, and the equal right of all to speak in comparable volume even if it runs the risk of advancing untruthfulness - this is a tough one.

Lee of course was no Old Testament prophet but a modern Machiavellian political leader with a strategic vision - perhaps even of a Plato. As a utilitarian pragmatist who mainly wanted to get good things done properly and, if possible, rapidly, he was not a sainted ideologue about this, or about anything else.

He knew what he could get away with and was a master of rhetorical nuance. He was often accused of controlling the courts but - whatever the truth of that - in fact, as a close associate put it to me, "everything he did or said had to be legally defensible". He could rouse a crowd with the best of them.

His goal was not to stay in power for its own sake and loot, as with some Third World despots, but to deploy that power to improve Singapore dramatically and impress on neighbours how it can be done. He was often in a rush. Failures slammed progress into reverse. So what he could not tolerate was ineffectiveness, especially cloaked in ideological purity. Ideological arguments were for professors of the academic and arcane.

"Singapore is not a 4,000-year culture," he told me in an interview in 2007.

"This is an immigrant community that started in 1819. It's an immigrant community that left its moorings and therefore, knowing it's sailing to uncharted seas, is guided by the stars. I say let's follow the stars and they said okay, let's try. And we've succeeded and here we are, but has it really taken root? No. It's just worked for the time being. If it doesn't (continue to) work, again, we say let's try something else. This (Singapore's current way) is not entrenched. This is not a 4,000-year society."

Though educated in England, he said he was not much the student of one of the great European political intellectuals of the 20th century - the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, whose short book, The Hedgehog And The Fox (1953), helped frame our conversations for this book. We had a light tussle over my proposal that he was a Hedgehog (a big ideas man), but he took the view that, if anything between the two extremes, he was a Fox (a man of hundreds of practical ideas, not just a few overriding ones).

Lee always emphasised his ad-hoc pragmatism. I fought him on this point, at best to a draw. But I may have been wrong. In Berlin's terminology, Lee is indeed a Fox, not a Hedgehog. I may have underestimated the overall impact of the tremendous atmospheric pressure of empiricism at Cambridge, where he read law and graduated with double first class honours. This successful experience at such a hallowed institution would have left a deep impression on anyone. It might have made me almost religious about what I had learnt, made me even unyieldingly Hedgehogian about my British pragmatism.

Fox or not, Lee was a steel icon for what we Americans would label the law and order thing. He was stricter than the sternest father. His insistence on the virtues of discipline, hard work and respect for authority put the filial piety of a nation to the test.

A joke at his expense. And so two dogs are swimming in the waters between Singapore and Borneo - but in opposite directions. They pause halfway to exchange greetings. The dog headed towards Borneo asked the other dog why he's swimming to Singapore. The answer: "Ah, the shopping, the housing, the air-conditioning, the health care, the schools. So why are you going to Borneo?" Says the dog from Singapore: "Oh, I just want to bark."

The hurry-up game plan of the Lee Kuan Yew ambition to First World Singapore was competing against the ticking clock of competition and globalisation. The rush to build and grow was understandable and the performance exceptional. But it was predicated on a political system that, in quieting the news media, put enormous pressure on the Government and the People's Action Party (PAP) to monitor corruption and inferior performance.

This was the system's Achilles' heel. Inevitably some bad stuff had to have been kept from public view. But in time it will come out - and for all anyone knows, there may be a good deal of it.

The system of control Lee clamped on the small island city-state was somewhat suffocating. Arts and literature were slow to develop even as the scientific, mathematical and engineering skills soared to exceed the achievement level of almost all nations. Singapore's per capita income level, greater than even the US and probably Japan, were a testament to the economic success, brilliantly achieved in the flash of a few decades. But there was a downside, a cost, as there is with almost everything. His daughter Wei Ling hints at it (earlier in this book) in her critique of mere materialism as a measure of exemplary national achievement. But asked about it, her father (who like all of us fathers always knows best) is defensive and dismissive.

Lee was all but blind to that because he was hell-bent to see his country escape from Third World poverty. And that he did. But there was tunnel vision to the route of the canal he burrowed. He felt that if he took his eye off the economic ball, the juggernaut that was Singapore would slow down, lose momentum and slide into reverse. Every day he woke up, he would look for new coal to fire into the engine.

And in the end he got his way. In Singapore, politics it usually went Lee's way - and that of PAP, which he dominated. And that rather nicely characterised Singapore politics for decades - Lee Kuan Yew getting his own way. Right, enemies might face jail time if necessary, critics faced costly litigation in the courts, and the mere sight or voice of Lee could scare.

But there was a payoff to the public: Singapore got to the land that Lee had promised - to be a first-class First World nation. It was almost a textbook success, except he was the one writing the book, and writing it as he went along, as he'd be the first to admit.

The achievement was not always pretty. Leaving aside the relentless drumbeat of criticism from foreign human rights groups, mostly those in the US (as if the US hasn't its own issues in that regard), it is true Singapore had less "freedom" than classically defined. Yes, it has more money, more stability, more social cohesion, more international clout - but not more freedom to… well… bark.

Lee was well aware of what he was doing. Effective leaders usually do. They will do what they have to do. In classical political philosophy, the "Doctrine of Dirty Hands" postulates that all leaders will have to do things that otherwise would be morally (and probably legally) unacceptable in less authorised hands.

Let us note mild-mannered, professorial President Barack Obama - the former lecturer from Harvard Law School - keeps a hit list of possible terrorist targets at his White House desk. And so on around the globe.

Power is not pretty. Whether it comes from the barrel of a gun, from the gavel of a judge, or from the mouth of authority, it is inherently forceful and coercive. People tend not to understand power. Even when used for a good cause, it is not a nice thing.

Lee earlier in the book denies he was a soft authoritarian, as that term of political art goes, on the grounds that the PAP had put itself before voters and had been repeatedly validated. But without the decades of dazzling economic success, what would have happened? The suspicion is that by and large, voters would have been too intimidated to vote otherwise. But they never had to see the worst. Lee delivered. He used power-absolute and persuasive - effectively. He got the job done that he set out to do.

By fax once I once asked him to offer some self-criticism. He referred me to Catherine Lim. This fine writer, perhaps his most persistently perceptive critic, at the end of a long lecture in the summer of 2012 that contained quite a listing of his alleged errors and foibles, nonetheless was forced to conclude this way:

"We are indeed in the midst of one of the most exciting times in Singapore's history, a time fraught with paradoxes, perils and promises, brought about (by) a general election (2011) that has been described as a watershed, a sea change, a transformation, not least because it ended the era of Lee Kuan Yew.

"Mr Lee's legacy is so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste.

"But whatever the emotions he elicits, whatever the controversies that swirl around him, it will be generally agreed that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the present nor the future holds an equal."

No definitive, measured assessment of the Lee Kuan Yew era is possible right now. History needs to sort through the basic metrics and give them some ranking. Consider the daunting question of the true value of electoral democracy - one citizen, one vote. Is this system a moral imperative? As we have seen, Lee thinks not.

Many people admire the US but they also give enormous credit to China, despite its authoritarian system. Is any kind of political system that delivers very good governance and economic development, as did Lee's, a manifest social good? And is a democracy that fails to do that still justifiable, simply because it is a democracy?

The mystery of Lee Kuan Yew and what his successful Singapore represents is not for the simple-minded or those impatient for quick answers. It is profound.

But at the end of his story, he stood as the longest-serving prime minister in world history. However much we admired his governance policies, we cannot ignore his politics. At the same time, however harsh they were, they worked.

The writer is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University, and the author of the best-selling Giants Of Asia book series, of which Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew was the first volume.