Archive for the ‘Impartial Views’ Category

Bloody Joker

November 8, 2012 2 comments

Will be doing a bit of flying, so won’t be writing much any time soon. Did I mentioned I respect and love (not in the literary sense though) Ngiam Tong Dow? We need people who are decisive and give straight answers and honest opinions. Enough of vagueness and hiding around the bush. You hear that NUS? Why is a university of such standing be afraid of announcing any punishments met to a student who have no qualms or social logic in publishing sex videos and destroying years of reputations hard built by hard working honest university employees and students?



SINGAPORE – Instead of giving scholarships to foreigners who might not sink roots here, the country’s resources could be better used to help Singaporean undergraduates, some of whom have to work part-time to support themselves financially, former top civil servant Ngiam Tong Dow said yesterday.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a higher education dialogue hosted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), Mr Ngiam, who is an NUS Pro-Chancellor, also remarked that NUS law student and ASEAN scholar Alvin Tan Jye Yee should be expelled.

Mr Tan made headlines last month after he and his girlfriend posted explicit videos and pictures of themselves on his blog. The Malaysian has been disciplined by the university but NUS was tight-lipped about the nature of the punishment.

“This ASEAN scholar, bloody joker, we should sack him,” Mr Ngiam said.

While he acknowledged the need for overseas talents, Mr Ngiam argued against having too many foreign undergrads on Singapore-sponsored scholarships. “That is very unfair… That is nonsense… you have to import talent but how many of them want to stay back here?” said Mr Ngiam.

Over the years, the percentage of foreign student intake in universities here has fallen from about 20 per cent to the current 16 per cent. The Government has said that the proportion will be cut to 15 per cent by 2015.


I have mentioned before in my post, I have seen too much so called scholars that are not achieving the kind of academic standing that is fit for a ‘scholar’. I don’t know how you see it. To me, a scholar shouldn’t be anything less than a first class (under NUS’s grading system; or summa-cum-laude under SMU’s US grading system). The worst you should get as a scholar should be second-upper, nothing worse off.



November 4, 2012 Leave a comment

Sorry my dear readers of this blog. I haven’t been writing as I am not in the country due to work commitments. I have received some emails and comments to ask me to continue to write. Thank you for your support. Of course I will continue to write, that is only when I got back to Singapore.

Being away from the country, I haven’t been able to follow the news happening back home. The only news I got recently that appears on my Facebook feed is the article on a taxi driver earning $7,000 a month by ST that is causing much hoo-har over the reporter and the authenticity of the report.

Personally, I have no comments over this article. I have always wonder why would Straits Times always publish articles like these that don’t really give readers much value. So what if you know that taxi drivers can earn $7,000 so long as they ‘work hard’? Quit your current job and become a taxi driver? The article smells of propaganda that screams ‘work hard and you’ll succeed in any field’. And I thought moral education stops after primary school. Obviously someone down there (well, technically, I live in a building with many floors and levels compared to some houses that has 4 levels at most) doesn’t think so. Or maybe it could justify some extra honey for cab companies after the fare rise some months ago, since this article must proved that taxi drivers are having a ‘good life’?

What I do know is ST’s penchant for publishing ‘good-morals-feel-oh-so-good’ articles that tried to influence and moderate your perception of the country’s economic growth and, of course, the good work of the government’s policies, whether or not it actually works doesn’t really matter. Try comparing it to, say, the New York Times or the Economist, Straits Times reads more like something Mickey Mouse and friends would publish in Disneyland. It always end with happily ever after.

Categories: Impartial Views

Happy New Year! Goodbye 2011 and Hello 2012

December 31, 2011 Leave a comment

I would like to wish everyone a very Happy New Year in advance and may the new year brings you lots of joy and happiness 🙂

Looking back 2011, it has been a pretty bad year for the government. Votes going down, loss of a GRC, loss of a popular minister in exchange for a clueless kate spade lover who hopefully stops giving clueless speech either in public or on Facebook, taxi fares raising thanks to monopolistic player ComfortDelgro, unhappiness over the issue of population and foreigners, worst breakdown in history for SMRT, hundreds of millions and possibly billions of losses by Temasek and GIC (and for some reason they are still giving out bonuses in GIC according to my sources), heavy rains that causes flooding that are supposed to happen every 50 years became every few months (the world coming to an end??), a new word called ‘ponding’, inflation persisted throughout the year, prices for public housing remains stubbornly high……

Then again, the government had it lucky the worst part of the events occurred after the General Election and the Presidential Election. Personally, I am happy to sense and see real social changes happening with increasingly importance played by social media and increasingly vocal Singaporeans.

Okok, that’s all for now since I can’t write much comfortably on my tiny phone. Stay safe people!

Categories: Impartial Views

Meritocracy needs a social net

May 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Meritocracy, the ethos of the Singapore model, allows social mobility and the filtration of the best of the best to lead the country to greater progress. However, such a system would also mean that those who can’t catch up end up being left behind further and further away as the nation continues to move forward. We should enlarge our social net to catch the increasingly number of needy people who fell through the cracks.

A dominant political party with suppressive laws on expression runs contradictory to any claims on willingness to listen to ground feedback. Minister George Yeo became the first to openly agree that there is a disconnection between the ruling party and the citizens. Such admittance was unthinkable before this election came about. The benefit of having more opposition party is already showing before polling day. The question is: Will the ruling party truly act on their words of willingness to listen to ground feedback and solve the issues that gripes most Singaporeans? Or will they turn back to their old ways, amend the constitution and tilt the next election in 2016 more to their favor? The only guarantee to compel the PAP to come down to ground level is only via pushing more alternative voices of opposition parties into Parliament.

I applauded the PAP for leading the country to great economic growth since Independence. While I critic on some of the PAP policies, there are some which I totally agree. Economically, some policies such as ERP actually makes sense in theory. What other ways are there to prevent an increasingly crowded road? Hitting the wallet makes great economical sense as money is the most utility maximizing–meaning it has the greatest motivational force to alter human behavior. That is why you see policies in Singapore are mostly crafted around money. High fines to prevent people from littering. An auction system for COE to make sure the consumers always pays the highest price to prevent prevalent buying of cars. However, ERP is only a short term solution. Sooner or later, those who can afford will internalize the cost, some will normalize their reaction towards ERP, and some will simply give up on owning a car. The long term solution is not restricting people from entering some parts of the city. A longer term solution would be diverting human activity to other parts of the country such as promoting office buildings and entertainment centers in other parts of Singapore.

Going on with a policy without feedback from the ground and not even bothering to convince the people only exacerbates more resentment against unpopular policies. Not many citizens are educated enough to understand the complexity of policy modeling and not many are trained in the fields of policy making and economics cost and benefit analysis that hardworking and highly educated civil servants can comprehend. The ability to convey to the greater mass in simple words and the willingness to put in effort to convince people of the merits of the policy are also important factors.

More importantly, I look for better explanation of policies implemented, more consultation, more transparency, more feedback mechanism, more inclusiveness, and greater inspiration in a leader in today’s new world.

Categories: Impartial Views

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

This article strikes a cord with me when I surfed Facebook, exemplifying the disconnection between the PAP government and the ground, as well as the loss of national identity. For the actual article, please click here.


by Alvin Tan on Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 5:21pm

A letter to my friends on the General Elections

by Joo Hymn Tan on Wednesday, 20 April 2011

We don’t talk about politics, but I feel so strongly about these elections, I would like to find out what each of my friends think, and maybe persuade them at least a little!  🙂

Why all the excitement?

Over the last 15 years, I lived in:  Tanglin, Newton and Bukit Timah

Each time I checked the electoral rolls, it was the same:  Tanjong Pagar

Now, without having moved, I am in Moulmein-Kallang.

My neighbourhood was in three different constituencies in the last three elections:

Holland-Bukit Panjang 2001

Tanjong Pagar  2006

Moulmein-Kallang 2011

Question: Is there really a need to redraw boundaries every election?

I have never voted in all my 40+ years. It was always walkover since GRCs were implemented. In 1991, when it was still al Single Member Constituencies, my constituency was contested, and I was 21 years and 9 months old. However, that year, it was announced the the electoral roll of voters was only updated till July 1990!

Question: Has this ever happened before or since? Why the sudden inefficiencies in government?

PAP in 1950s is not the same as the PAP now

Yes, in the early nation building years, the PAP could have been said to comprise of highly principled, intelligent and dilligent people, like Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, Lee Kuan Yew etc.

The PAP leaders today are completely different individuals (except for LKY), and their capabilities, outlook and values can also be said to be vastly different!

Question: would any of the existing PAP Ministers really be able to handle a crises?

Usual way mistakes are handled

Mistakes made in the last 5 years:

–           Mas Selamat’s escape (and subsequent failure of the police and military to search the homes of all his close relatives)

–           the floods in Orchard Road, and Bukit Timah immortalised in the dramatic photographs of overturned cars

–           the Youth Olympic Games being severely over-budget (and depending on who you speak with, under-publicised oversesas

Policy inadequacies:

–           the over-heating of the housing market, where government housing aka HDB flats cost half a million dollars (where government housing is supposedly for the less well-to-do)

–           the inadequacy of CPF monies resulting in the elderly being cleaners in hawker centres and fast food restaurants all over Singapore

–           the huge and sudden influx of foreign workers, at all levels of employment leading to depressed wages for Singaporeans, and worse, loss of jobs

It’s not about not making mistakes. We are all human, Ministers, civil servants etc not less so. The issue is there is little post-mortem or reflection to ensure that the same mistakes do not happen again. The most important thing is to take collectively responsibility and learn all we can from mistakes to make sure they don’t happen again.

However, the usual focus by the Government is to place blame, remove the offending persons and brush everything under the carpet as quickly as possible. There are few avenues for the public to engage in meaningful dialogue with the Government over important issues.

Question: Did the Cabinet do enough soul seraching and reflection behind closed doors away from public eyes? Were there enough diverse opinions to help them see the issues from all perspectives?

Double standards?

Contrast Mas Selamat’s escape: “It was an honest mistake. Let’s move on”.

With the hoo-ha over James Gomez claiming he had filed his minority certificate when he had not during the 2006 elections. At least 4 days’ worth of campaigning and media headlines were focussed on this minor mistake.

Groundhog day of mistakes

After the first flood, the Minister said that it was a freak accident and would happen only once every 50 years.

Barely a month later, a second flood happened.

A better response would have been to be less defensive and stating that the matter would be looked into to find out the real reasons etc, and acknowledging the public’s concern that overbuilding along Orchard Road (Ion, Somerset 313) may have contributed to poorer water drainage.

An older example:

Remember “Two is Enough” in the 60’s and 70’s?

By mid 80s, it had become, “have 3 or more if you can afford it”.

Around 20 years for a complete reversal of policies.

Round two:

In the early 90’s, the Government limited the number of universities in the Commonwealth where law and medicine degrees would be “recognised” due to oversupply

By 2000, the number of “recognised” universities were increased, and soon after, they were recruting foreign doctors due to short supply.

Around ten years for a u-turn.

Not exactly comparing apples and apples here, but surely some lessons could have been learnt about how an “oversupply” could quickly become an undersupply? And in the second scenario, the reversal came only 10 years after the initial policy.

Yet, there seemed to be no in-depth inquiry into why the initial policies were made and what led to the reversal and what lessons could be learnt to prevent making similar errors in judgment. This unwillingness to take long hard looks at Government policies has really affected the ability to address many issues.

Question: Is the undersupply of HDB flats now another example of this short-sightedness?

Fixated on the same solution whether or not it works

1. Throwing money at the problem when main issue is not money

Since the 80’s, the Government has been encouraging WOMEN to have more babies, with very little success. AWARE has brought up the issue of paternity leave since 1989, but has always been rejected, seemingly right off the bat without serious consideration or research to back it up.

The Government’s preferred solution? Throw money at the problem.

Round One: Baby bonus and tax breaks for women having 2 or more children below 30 years of age

Results not good. Solution? Throw more money at the problem:

Round Two: Baby bonus and tax breaks for all women having 2 or more children

Results still not good. Solution? Throw yet more money at the problem:

Round Three: Baby bonus and tax breaks for all women having children

(Note: Babies must be Singaporean at time of birth, and babies’ mothers must be married to babies’ fathers to enjoy benefits, so single unwed mothers and their babies are discriminated against and disadvantaged even as the Government keeps emphasising that human resources are all we have.)

It has been said time and again by various organisations and individuals that financial matters feature to only a minor degree in the decisions to have children, yet the Government seems “deaf to all criticisms” and suggestions yet again. The more pressing concerns such as work-life balance arrangements, including flexi work, quality of life issues, education stress etc, were all not adequately dealt with.

2. Not throwing money at the problem when the issue is chronic need of money

Contrast this with the issue of the poor who are on Public Assistance. They have to be unable to work, have no assets and little or no family support to be eligible in the first place. Clearly an area where some extra money would be an enormous help.

In the debate to increase it by around 10% to $290, in reply to arguments for larger sums by MP Lily Neo, the Minister replied infamously, “Do you want three meals in a restaurant, food court or hawker centre?”

3. Throwing money at everybody whether or not they need it

Contrast again to the new Grow and Share package (and previous New Singapore Shares etc etc), where each citizen receives at least a few hundred dollars. The top 20% certainly don’t need this handout at all. So why waste money by giving them any money at all? Wouldn’t it have been better to allocate it to the lower income groups?

Question: What kind of persons could blithely vote themselves 8 months’ bonus while quibbling for $100 increase in Public Assistance for the poorest of the poor?

Rich-poor divide reaching alarming levels

There are 100,000 households earning less than $1000 per month. That is households of 4 members (default definition by Government. Could actually have more than 4 family members). And over 800,000 employed persons earn less than $1000 a month. In a country where costs of living are spiralling upwards and even the middle classes are feeling the pinch.

Question: Whatever became of social support and social harmony?

So, what?

So what would more Alternative Parties members in Parliament achieve? At the very least, more debate on issues and and more reflection. Each MP is only allowed 15 minutes max (I think) to speak on an issue. So the more alternative voices, the more points of views can be raised, and more food for thought, not only for the Parliament but the public at large, to generate more informed debate.

Why now?

It’s also important to vote in Alternative Parties members now, because I believe in the tipping point theory of 30%: you need at least 30% of new people to feel the effect of the change. Which probably explains why the 22% women in Parliament have not been able to make their presence felt.

It is also because as Workers Party has said, they are not able to form the government right now. We need to give Alternative Parties time to grow into the political process and mature. Because I believe there will come a time when the Alternative Parties form the majority in Parliament.

To me, it’s not a question of if, but when. At the last elections, 66% voted PAP. I do not think it will take that long for the 16% to erode given all that’s happened, even with the influx of new citizens and the constant redrawing of electoral boundaries. At some point, the balance will tip, and the “unimaginable” will happen. And honestly, I rather that it happened when Lee Kuan Yew is still around. Whatever criticisms has been levelled at him, at least he is capable, and more than anyone currently in government, I trust him to handle a crisis. Most people predict rifts in the PAP after LKY’s demise, so that a swing to Alternative Parties after that is even more likely. Hence, I rather it happen now. (see also   for discussion on why it will be sudden and not gradual).

Chasm between rhetoric and reality

There are many many more reasons why I will unhesitatingly vote Alternative Parties, given my experience as a volunteer in AWARE and elsewhere, I saw such a huge chasm between policy/rhetoric and what was actually happening on the ground, and the hypocrisy of it all. And now as a mum of a primary school child, I see how flawed the education system is. I hear horror stories of students being kiasu, nasty and perfectionists from a very young age because of the environment. I fear for the future of our country.

Learning from history so as not to repeat it

Maybe I’m more pessimistic, but with politicians with such a non-reflexive mindset, I am not sure we can make it through many more uncertainties and crises. There are more than enough examples of corporates being taken over or wound up, and historical examples of empires and dynasties falling into decay when their leaders stop listening to the public and insist on doing things their way.

Please do consider my points, and I’d like to hear what you think!

A foreigner’s (true) perspective of the Singapore government

April 17, 2011 1 comment

Enjoy the readings:

The Singapore Solution
How did a sleepy little island transform into a high-tech powerhouse in one generation? It was all in the plan.

By Mark Jacobson

If you want to get a Singaporean to look up from a beloved dish of fish-head curry—or make a harried cabdriver slam on his brakes—say you are going to interview the country’s “minister mentor,” Lee Kuan Yew, and would like an opinion about what to ask him. “The MM?Wah lau! You’re going to see the MM? Real?” You might as well have told a resident of the Emerald City that you’re late for an appointment with the Wizard of Oz. After all, LKY, as he is known in acronym-mad Singapore, is more than the “father of the country.” He is its inventor, as surely as if he had scientifically formulated the place with precise portions of Plato’s Republic, Anglophile elitism, unwavering economic pragmatism, and old-fashioned strong-arm repression.

People like to call Singapore the Switzerland of Southeast Asia, and who can argue? Out of a malarial swamp, the tiny island at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula gained independence from Britain in 1963 and, in one generation, transformed itself into a legendarily efficient place, where the per capita income for its 3.7 million citizens exceeds that of many European countries, the education and health systems rival anything in the West, government officials are largely corruption free, 90 percent of households own their own homes, taxes are relatively low and sidewalks are clean, and there are no visible homeless people or slums.

If all that, plus a typical unemployment rate of about 3 percent and a nice stash of money in the bank thanks to the government’s enforced savings plan, doesn’t sound sweet to you, just travel 600 miles south and try getting by in a Jakarta shantytown.

Achieving all this has required a delicate balancing act, an often paradoxical interplay between what some Singaporeans refer to as “the big stick and the big carrot.” What strikes you first is the carrot: giddy financial growth fueling never ending construction and consumerism. Against this is the stick, most often symbolized by the infamous ban on chewing gum and the caning of people for spray-painting cars. Disruptive things like racial and religious disharmony? They’re simply not allowed, and no one steals anyone else’s wallet.

Singapore, maybe more than anywhere else, crystallizes an elemental question: What price prosperity and security? Are they worth living in a place that many contend is a socially engineered, nose-to-the-grindstone, workaholic rat race, where the self-perpetuating ruling party enforces draconian laws (your airport entry card informs you, in red letters, that the penalty for drug trafficking is “DEATH”), squashes press freedom, and offers a debatable level of financial transparency? Some people joke that the government micromanages the details of life right down to how well Singapore Airlines flight attendants fill out their batik-patterned dresses.

They say Lee Kuan Yew has mellowed over the years, but when he walks into the interview wearing a zippered blue jacket, looking like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino, you know you’d better get on with it. While it is not exactly clear what a minister mentor does, good luck finding many Singaporeans who don’t believe that the Old Man is still top dog, the ultimate string puller behind the curtain. Told most of my questions have come from Singaporeans, the MM, now 86 but as sharp and unsentimental as a barbed tack, offers a bring-it-on smile: “At my age I’ve had many eggs thrown at me.”

Few living leaders—Fidel Castro in Cuba, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe come to mind—have dominated their homeland’s national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has. Born into a well-to-do Chinese family in 1923, deeply influenced by both British colonial society and the brutal Japanese occupation that killed as many as 50,000 people on the island in the mid-1940s, the erstwhile “Harry Lee,” Cambridge law degree in hand, first came to prominence as a leader of a left-leaning anticolonial movement in the 1950s. Firming up his personal power within the ascendant People’s Action Party, Lee became Singapore’s first prime minister, filling the post for 26 years. He was senior minister for another 15; his current minister mentor title was established when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.

Lee masterminded the celebrated “Singapore Model,” converting a country one-eighth the size of Delaware, with no natural resources and a fractured mix of ethnicities, into “Singapore, Inc.” He attracted foreign investment by building communications and transportation infrastructure, made English the official language, created a superefficient government by paying top administrators salaries equal to those in private companies, and cracked down on corruption until it disappeared. The model—a unique mix of economic empowerment and tightly controlled personal liberties—has inspired imitators in China, Russia, and eastern Europe.

To lead a society, the MM says in his precise Victorian English, “one must understand human nature. I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I’m not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined.” In Singapore that has meant lots of rules—prohibiting littering, spitting on sidewalks, failing to flush public toilets—with fines and occasional outing in the newspaper for those who break them. It also meant educating his people—industrious by nature—and converting them from shopkeepers to high-tech workers in a few decades.

Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become “less hard-driving and hard-striving.” This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country’s new subjects as “hungry,” with parents who “pushed the children very hard.” If native Singaporeans are falling behind because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide,” that is their problem.

If there is a single word that sums up the Singaporean existential condition, it is kiasu, a term that means “afraid to lose.” In a society that begins tracking its students into test-based groups at age ten (“special” and “express” are the top tiers; “normal” is the path for those headed for factory and service-sector work), kiasu seeps in early, eventually germinating in brilliant engineering students and phallic high-rises with a Bulgari store on the ground floor. Singaporeans are big on being number one in everything, but in a kiasu world, winning is never completely sweet, carrying with it the dread of ceasing to win. When the Singapore port, the busiest container hub in the world, slipped behind Shanghai in 2005 in total cargo tonnage handled, it was a national calamity.

One day, as part of a rehearsal for the National Day celebration, I was treated to a veritable lollapalooza of kiasu. Singapore armed forces playacted at subduing a cabal of “terrorists” who had shot a half dozen flower-bearing children in red leotards, leaving them “dead” on the stage. “We’re not North Korea, but we try,” said one observer, commenting on the rolling tanks, zooming Apache helicopters, and earsplitting 21-gun salutes. You hear it all the time: The only way for Singapore to survive being surrounded by massive neighbors is to remain constantly vigilant. The 2009 military budget is $11.4 billion, or 5 percent of GDP, among the world’s highest rates.

You never know where the threat might come from, or what form it will take. Last summer everyone was in a panic about swine flu. Mask-wearing health monitors were positioned around the city. On Saturday night, no matter how stylo milo your threads, there was no way of getting into a club on trendy Clarke Quay without a bouncer pressing a handheld thermometer to your forehead. It was part of the unending Singaporean state of siege. Many of the newer public housing apartments come with a bomb shelter, complete with a steel door. After a while, the perceived danger and excessive compliance with rules get internalized; one thing you don’t see in Singapore is very many police. “The cop is inside our heads,” one resident says.

Self-censorship is rampant in Singapore, where dealing with the powers that be is “a dance,” says Alvin Tan, the artistic director of the Necessary Stage, which has put on dozens of plays dealing with touchy issues such as the death penalty and sexuality. Tan spends a lot of time with the government censors. “You have to use the proper approach,” he says. “If they say ‘south,’ you don’t say ‘north.’ You say ‘northeast.’ Go from there. It’s a negotiation.”

Those who do not learn their steps in the dance soon get the message. Consider the case of Siew Kum Hong, a 35-year-old Singaporean who thought he’d be furthering the cause of openness by serving as an unelected NMP, or nominated member of parliament. With only four opposition MPs elected in the history of the country, the ruling party thought NMPs might provide the appearance of “a more consensual style of government where alternative views are heard and constructive dissent accommodated.” This was how Siew Kum Hong told me he viewed his position, but he was passed over for another term.

“I thought I was doing a good job,” a surprised Kum Hong says. What it came down to, he surmises, were “those ‘no’ votes.” When he first voted no, on a resolution he felt discriminated against gays, his colleagues “went absolutely silent. It was the first time since I’d been in parliament that anyone had ever voted no.” When he voted no again, this time on a law lowering the number of people who could assemble to protest, the reaction was similarly cool. “So much for alternative views,” Kum Hong says.

The Singapore government is not unaware of the pitfalls of its highly controlled society. One concern is the “creativity crisis,” the fear that an emphasis on rote learning in Singapore’s schools is not conducive to producing game-changing ideas. Yet attempts to encourage originality have been tone-deaf. When Scape, a youth outreach group, opened a “graffiti wall,” youngsters were instructed to submit graffiti designs for consideration; those chosen would be painted on a designated wall at an assigned time.

Similarly, the government has maintained a campaign against the use of “Singlish,” the multiculti gumbo of Malay, Hokkien Chinese, Tamil, and English street patois that is Singapore’s great linguistic achievement. As you sit in a Starbucks listening to teens saying things like “You blur like sotong, lah!” (roughly, “You’re dumber than squid, man!”), Singlish seems a brilliantly subversive attack on the very conformity the government claims it is trying to overcome. Then again, one of Singlish’s major conceits is the ironic lionization of the flashy, down-market “Ah Beng” culture of Chinese immigrant thugs and their sunglass-wearing Malay counterparts. You know that won’t fly in a world where the MM (“minister de-mentor” in Beng speak) has advocated “assortative mating,” the idea that college graduates should marry only other college graduates so as to uplift the national stock.

Perhaps the most troubling problem facing the nation is a result of its overly successful population control program, which ran in the 1970s with the slogan “Two Is Enough.” Today Singaporeans are simply not reproducing, so the country must depend on immigrants to keep the population growing. The government offers baby bonuses and long maternity leaves, but nothing will help unless Singaporeans start having more sex. According to a poll by the Durex condom company, Singaporeans have less intercourse than almost any other country on Earth. “We are shrinking in our population,” the MM says. “Our fertility rate is 1.29. It is a worrying factor.” This could be the fatal error in the Singapore Model: The eventual extinction of Singaporeans.

But there is an upside to all this social engineering. You could feel it during the “We Are the World” production numbers in the National Day show. On stage were representatives of Singapore’s major ethnic groups, the Chinese, Malays, and Indians, all wearing colorful costumes. After riots in the 1960s, the government installed a strict quota system in public housing to make sure that ethnic groups did not create their own monolithic quarters. This practice may have more to do with controlling the populace than with true multiracial harmony, but at the rehearsal, as schmaltzy as it was, it was hard not to be moved by the earnest show of brotherhood. However invented, there is something called Singaporean, and it is real. Whatever people’s grumbles—and as the MM says, “Singaporeans are champion grumblers”—Singapore is their home, and they love it despite everything. It makes you like the place too, for their sake.

The kicker is that things are about to change. In a famous quote, Lee Kuan Yew said, “If you are going to lower me into the grave, and I feel something is wrong, I will get up.” But this is beyond even him. “We all know the MM will die someday,” says Calvin Fones, a psychiatrist who runs a clinic at Gleneagles Hospital on Orchard Road. Fones likens his homeland to a family. “When the country was young, there was a need for wise oversight. A firm hand. Now we are in adolescence, which can be a questioning, troublesome period. Coming into it without the presence of the patriarch will be a test.”

The great engine of cultural change, of course, is the Internet, that cyber fly in the authoritarian ointment. Lee acknowledges the threat. “We banned Playboy in the sixties, and it is still banned, that’s true, but now, with the Internet, you get much more than you ever could from Playboy.” Allowing pornography sites while banning magazines may seem contradictory. But attempting to censor the Internet, as has been tried in China, would be pointless, Lee says. It is an exquisitely pragmatic reply.

And so bloggers, like the satirist Mr. Brown and the urbanely pugnacious Yawning Bread, are free to broadcast opinions unlikely to be found in the pages of the government-linked Straits Times. As a result, more and more young people are questioning the trade-off between freedom and security—and even calling for freer politics and fewer social controls.

Last August, a wide-ranging speech by new NMP Viswa Sadasivan created a lot of buzz on the blogosphere: “I do lament our lack of freedom to express ourselves, and the government’s seemingly unmitigated grip on power and what appears to be an inconsistent willingness to listen to public sentiment that does not suit it,” Viswa said before parliament. “Accountability requires the government to go beyond lip-service in addressing the call for greater democracy … If not, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated.”

Irked by Viswa’s criticisms of the way some ethnic groups are treated in Singapore, LKY interrupted a medical treatment to angrily refute the “highfalutin” speech in a rare appearance on the parliament floor. The patriarch, in case anyone needed reminding, was not yet in his grave.

Singapore can be a disconcerting place, even to the people who call it home, though they’d never think of leaving. As one local put it, “Singapore is like a warm bath. You sink in, slit your wrists, your lifeblood floats away, but hey, it’s warm.” If that’s so, most Singaporeans figure they might as well go down the tubes eating pepper crabs, with a couple of curry puffs on the side. Eating is the true national pastime and refuge. The longer I stayed, the more I ate. It got so I’d go over to the marvelously overcrowded Maxwell Road Food Centre, stand in the 20-minute queue for a plate at the Tian Tian food stall, eat it, then line up again.

On my last day, I climbed the hill in the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, at 537 feet the highest point on the island and the closest thing in Singapore to the jungle it once was. In the unexpected quiet, I returned to what the MM had said about Confucius’s belief “that man could be perfected.” This was, the MM said with a sigh, “an optimistic way of looking at life.” People abuse freedom. That is his beef with America: The rights of individuals to do their own thing allow them to misbehave at the expense of an orderly society. As they say in Singapore: What good are all those rights if you’re afraid to go out at night?

When I got to the top of the hill, I thought I might be rewarded with a view of the entire city-state. But there was no view at all—only a rusting communication tower and a cyclone fence affixed with a sign saying “Protected Place” and showing a stick figure drawing of a soldier aiming a rifle at a man with his hands raised.

Later I mentioned this to Calvin Fones, the shrink. “See, that shows the progress we’ve made,” he said. “Until a few years ago, we had the same sign, except the guy was lying on the ground, already shot.” And then, being a Singaporean, living a life he didn’t believe possible anywhere else in Asia, he laughed.

Categories: Impartial Views