Book Review: Hard Choices

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The opening line of this book is as follows:

“Singapore’s economic success masks some uncomfortable truths about life in this city-state.”

The text is very neatly organised into three sections:

I. The Limits of Singapore Exceptionalism
II. Policy Alternatives for Post-Consensus Singapore
III. Governance and Democracy: Past, Present & Future

The chapters cover a wide range of topics, from economics, to inequality, to land mass / population challenges, housing policies, democracy, meritocracy, as well as the concept of defining a national identity.

I like how most of the chapters have a distinct two-part feature, in terms of first explaining the issue at hand before offering viable and constructive solutions.

For instance, Chapter 9 explains why the trend of increasing income inequality in Singapore is worrisome.

Far from it simply being an issue about money, the authors cite an academic paper which correlates a high initial level of high inequality with the decreased likelihood of establishing social programmes that enhance social trust. And why is social trust important? Because it leads people to be “more inclined to have a positive view of their public institutions, participate more in their civic and political organisations, [and] to be more tolerant of [others].”

Historian Thum Ping Tjin’s chapter, “The Old Normal is The New Normal,” is a condensed version of Singapore’s political history (dark events included). This chapter is notably hard-hitting for it demonstrates how the lesson of history is clear — that “only democracy, dissent, and diversity can offer the leaders and ideas required to meet Singapore’s challenges.”

In Chapter 12, Donald Low analyses what went wrong for the PAP during the 2011 General Election (GE 2011). He writes that the Singapore population has become “more demanding of transparency [and] accountability.” Wise advice is laid out, such as how high ministerial salaries contribute towards the weakening of political discourse which is “not conducive to mature, reasoned public debate of our policy problems.” The chapter also suggests that political reforms “founded on the virtues of fairness, equality and resilience” will help sustain Good Governance.

Donald Low ends off the book on a personal as well as social note. He concludes:

“As a liberal, the policy and institutional changes I wish to see are those that would make Singapore a more just city-state, one that prioritises the well-being of its citizens over narrow measures of economic progress.”

The biggest strength of Hard Choices is the diplomatically critical tone throughout the writing. The style is moderate and objective without being too inaccessible to the general reader with an interest in Singapore’s politics and/or policies.

It is this consistency throughout the chapters which renders the writing as effectively persuasive, in terms of why Singapore needs to undergo vital and constructive change in terms of governance. This happens to coincide with a new generation of Singaporeans that are “empowered by the internet and social media,” which as Mr. Low and Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh write in the preface, has enabled citizens to “openly question many of the PAP’s long-held assumptions and beliefs.”

I would definitely recommend Hard Choices to people who may find “anti-government” or “anti-establishment” websites a bit too critical. I believe more than a few Singaporeans would be able to appreciate the book’s presentation of a wide range of pertinent issues, along with real alternatives that should be considered for the betterment of the nation and its citizens.

After all, it’s hard to argue with cool hard logic.

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More Information:

Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus (Amazon)
Hard Choices (NUS Press)
Hard Choices (Kinokuniya)
Hard Choices (Review by Howard Lee / TOC)

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AUTHOR BIOS:

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I. DONALD LOW is Associate Dean (Research and Executive Education) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

Donald Low Online: LKYSPP | Facebook

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II. SUDHIR THOMAS VADAKETH  is author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore. He also writes for a variety of publications, including The Economist and Yahoo! SG.

STV Online: Website | Facebook

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III. LINDA LIM is Professor of Strategy at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michian, where she also served as director of the 53-year-old Center for Southeast Asian Studies.

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IV. THUM PING TJIN (“PJ”) is a Visiting Fellow at Green Templeton College, University of Oxford; Senior Research Fellow at Sunway University, Malaysia; Research Fellow at the Jeffrey Cheah Institute on Southeast Asia; Research Associate at the Centre for Global History, University of Oxford; and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia.

Thum PJ Online: Academia.edu | Project Southeast Asia | Wiki | YouTube | Interview | TOC | Facebook

Book Review: Dare to Change

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The dedication of Dare to Change is a memorable one:

“Dedicated to: all the political detainees who struggled for democracy and all Singaporeans who long for openness, humanness, and justice for our nation.”

Dare to Change is Dr. Chee’s first book (published in 1994). Do not be fooled by the book’s slim size — the content is possibly more relevant than ever, and would still be eye-opening to people who are not familiar or conscious of Singapore’s political system and situation.

Over the course of seven clear and concise chapters, the reader is given a substantial evaluation of the PAP government’s authoritarian policies on the nation.

The main message of the book is apparent from beginning to end: that change is imperative if Singaporeans are to be allowed to “lead their own lives” in order to achieve a higher “quality of life.”

In the first chapter, Dr. Chee writes that society would be more robust if the Government did not compartmentalise and pigeon-hole everyone into its grand scheme of things. He also makes the argument for a country needing a society that is “courageous in its participation of the nation’s politics,” if that country is to be stable and successful in the long run.

In the next chapter, Dr. Chee puts forth the notion that the biggest fear of the PAP could be the “thought of having to share political power with other parties,” as well as having “non-political organisations form a proper check and balance system.” He writes that “if the control of power is all that the ruling party cares about, Singapore is in for a very unpleasant journey into the future.” Fast forward a couple of decades since the book was first written — has the journey been more pleasant or unpleasant, with socioeconomic forces such as rising inequality, stagnating wages, and a growing foreign population?

Two chapters are dedicated to the economy and distribution of wealth and resources. Dr. Chee mentions that funds for public welfare in 1994 amounted to about 1% of total government expenditure compared to an international average of 30%. He also points out that the Prime Minister of Singapore gave himself a monthly salary of $96,000 at the time, while the government carefully studied whether a man who was unable to look after himself deserved $150 a month.

The closing chapters give a comprehensive overview to major violations to Press Freedom and the Rule of Law. The local press is described as having been “reduced to a mere mouthpiece for the government,” with a note that totalitarian and dictatorial regimes have long used censorship and the restriction of information to “subjugate their people.” Dr. Chee notes the role of the ISD in the 1987 Marxist Conspiracy, and points out that physical abuse and torture “cannot be used by leaders to justify ends” in a society which claims to “have a sense of civility and decency.”

Dare to Change does not strike me as being written by a “dud” or “near psychopath” (to mention a couple of colorful adjectives Lee Kuan Yew reserved for Dr. Chee Soon Juan). The content reflects common sense logic throughout. A list of alternative solutions are presented at the end of the book along with the rationale on how these changes are beneficial to the country (this is the inspiring “appendix” section at the back of the book, which is like an ultra-summarised version of the book’s contents).

The book ends with the underlying hope and motivation to create more openness and progress in Singapore in the long-term. This gently reminds the reader of a quote which features at the start of the book:

“We cannot resist change.”
— Goh Chok Tong, 1994
(Prime Minister, Singapore, 1990-2004)

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DR. CHEE SOON JUAN is a politician and political activist from Singapore. He is currently the leader of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). Recognised by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience, Dr Chee has been arrested and jailed more than a dozen times for his political activities, mainly for repeatedly breaking Singapore’s laws requiring organizers to obtain a police permit before staging political demonstrations or making public speeches on political issues.

CSJ Online: Website | Facebook (CSJ) | Facebook (SDP)

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More Information on Dare to Change:

Amazon | NLB | SDP | Excerpts

Book Review: Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore

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An online blurb describes this book as “a penetrating analysis of the policies and predilections of [this] controversial leader.”

The table of contents accurately reflects the sequential and exciting tone of the content:

1. The Making of a City State
2. The Making of a Man
3. The Making of a Prime Minister
4. The Battle for the People’s Minds
5. Marriage and Divorce
6. Strategy for Progress
7. Strategy for Repression
8. The Mould of Conformism
9. From Athens to Israel
10. Under the Banyan Tree
11. Alone against Tomorrow

As someone born in the late 80’s, a lot of the details were new to me upon my first read of the book from cover to cover.

What is fascinating about the book is that it was published in 1973. The author displays an uncanny ability of astute perception and prediction for Singapore’s style of government and political situation in the ensuing decades since the book was first written.

The first half of the book is akin to a comprehensive history lesson of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s background and subsequent ascent to power. The author takes a careful and perceptive look at LKY’s actions to come to the conclusion that Lee’s concept of Singapore is partly “a way of [making] a society in his own image — the projection on to the national scene of an individual’s complex psychological problems.” This is justified by the Singapore of the 1970s mirroring “not the collective aspirations of a people or a generation but the ideals, convictions and prejudices of Lee Kuan Yew.”

The first notable aspect of the book is how it reveals the destructiveness of one man’s (and by extension, one party’s) policies and actions upon an entire nation, society, and generations of citizens. The author sticks to the facts with a writing style that displays lively touches of wit and humanity, so the reader is presented with a “study of Lee in action,” instead of a frenzied personal attack.

Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 were particularly outstanding for the thorough and well-selected cases that showcase the extent of Mr Lee’s policy of repression, with respect to any form of dissent or sharp criticisms.

In a brief yet comprehensive manner, the author analyses various contradictory statements by Mr Lee; the sequence of events associated with Operation Coldstore; the application of the Internal Security Act to dispose of political rivals; the subsequent treatment of political opponents and/or prisoners; and how all aspects of the state were subjected to government control (from the education system, to the mass media, and the rule of law, in order to cast “Singaporeans in a carefully prepared mould”).

The second notable aspect of the book is its prophetic nature. T.J.S. George foresaw that the “prosperity” Lee heralded would be “accompanied by deterioration in the quality of life.”

To casual observers and citizens who are impressed enough by “Singapore’s apparent glitter,” this deterioration in the quality of life would seem to be a misnomer. The last chapter of the book reveals how LKY’s “dictatorial” practices disregard “the citizen’s right to respect and equality, that basic right which enables each ‘digit’ in a social whole to stand up and express his views.”

The book shatters many myths with regard to the state of democracy and civil rights in Singapore. Above all, it gives an insightful account of the side of Mr Harry Lee Kuan Yew which will not be seen in state-sponsored portrayals of the ruler as a faultless man.

A quote from a blog post by the author to end off this review:

“The West has spread the impression that Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew is Asia’s outstanding economic miracle man while Malaysia’s Mahathir as a cantankerous ogre, hater of white people and dictator to boot. Both are dressed up portraits. What makes Mahathir special is that while pursuing economic progress he never lost sight of the larger picture of human values. That cannot be said of Lee Kuan Yew and certainly not of Indonesia’s Suharto or Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra.”
— TJS George (June 2011)

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Author Bio:

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T. J. S. GEORGE is a former political editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the founding editor of Asiaweek (Hong Kong). He is a writer and biographer who received a Padma Bhushan award in 2011 in the field of literature and education. A veteran senior journalist and one of the best known columnists in India, he continues his fight against social injustice, corruption and political anarchies through his columns.

T. J. S. George Online: Blog | Wikipedia

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More Information:

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (Amazon)
Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore (NLB)
Excerpts from Book (blog)

Book Review: Beyond Suspicion

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Towards the end of Once a Jolly Hangman, Alan Shadrake shares some details about his arrest in Singapore. There is one paragraph where he says:

“Was I in danger of being arrested? I consulted well-known Singaporean Francis T. Seow, a former president of the Law Society. His advice: as long as it’s all correct, you have nothing to fear.”

We can thus hold Francis Seow to his word, in the sense that the research in his book, Beyond Suspicion? is based on facts, not fiction. This was yet another book that I would have thought was a tragicomical political movie script or novel, had I not already been familiar with some of the well-known, real life members of the cast.

As the former solicitor-general of Singapore, Francis T. Seow was one of LKY’s right-hand men — the top man after the attorney general (the attorney general being the principal legal officer who represents a country in legal proceedings and gives legal advice to the government).

The publication’s core strength lies in Francis Seow’s references to a complete set of court documents to present his points. That this book is written in a vibrant, intellectually lively style makes it both an educational and entertaining read. For example, Francis Seow doesn’t simply use the word “corrupted” to describe Singapore politics — he describes it as “a dirty gladiatorial game [that’s] also dangerous.”

No time is wasted with giving the reader a bit of background information on Yong Pung How (“an old crony from Lee’s college days”), who became the chief justice of Singapore in 1990. This happened despite the fact that Yong never actually practiced law in Singapore. To paraphrase an insider’s quote, “no judge [in Singapore] who values his rice bowl” would dare go against his political masters’ expectations when it comes to political court cases.

Amnesty International underscored the “notoriety of Lee and his government’s use of defamation laws to stifle the opposition via compliant courts.” Garry Rodin, Director of the Asia Research Centre from 2002-2009, wrote about “the PAP’s manic desire to crush the slightest semblance of serious scrutiny” in his blurb on the back cover of the book. These quotes further illustrate the extent of the politicization of the judiciary.

Even when armed with this knowledge, the reader will still come across an array of mind-boggling dialogue and logic-defying actions (thanks to the PAP leaders of the time), through Francis Seow’s intense presentation of the case involving Tang Liang Hong.

Tang’s “crime” was questioning the Lees’ controversial purchases with the Nassim Jade properties, and asking why the matter wasn’t handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau.

In Tang’s own words:

“[The CAD or CPIB] are government departments. . .well-known for being [firm and impartial]. They would be more detached and their reports would have been more convincing to the people.”

The real crime is that Tang Liang Hong was in opposition politics, an individual whom the PAP elite recognized “as an immediate threat to their electoral prospects in the Cheng San GRC” during the 1997 General Election. Back in 1981, LKY once dismissed the value of a political opposition as being “irrelevant.” How can someone or something be a threat and irrelevant at the same time?

The rest of the chapters give a detailed account of the political gangsterism and character assassination Tang Liang Hong experienced. One would think that the text was describing the bullying that occurs in a children’s playground, and not the behaviour of highly-ranked politicians in a court of law.

We are shown how The Straits Times provided coverage that was “more favourable to the PAP leaders than reports from foreign journalists,” and how Tang Liang Hong was branded by PAP leaders as an “anti-Christian, anti-English-educated Chinese chauvinist,” with Goh Chok Tong taunting Tang as a “coward and a liar.”

As if these obnoxious epithets were insufficient, LKY likened Tang Liang Hong to “a serial killer” during an hour and a half monologue in court. LKY and his “PAP digits” were “like ravenous hyenas in a feeding frenzy” when they demanded a grand total of S$12.9 million for the lawsuits over Tang’s remarks on the Nassim Jade purchases, along with his other actions.

Other memorable gems include the Singapore government misusing taxpayers’ funds to support a private quarrel, LKY’s comments on how J.B. Jeyaretnam — who represented Tang Liang Hong in court — should be “skinned alive like a skunk,” and Wong Kan Seng, then the leader of the House, “loyally leaping to the patriarch’s rescue” when LKY made a grave and thoroughly unsupported allegation that Tang was backed by people who wished to destroy Singapore. There are plenty of other juicy details which I can’t include in a book review, though I will endeavour to feature bits and pieces in future articles.

The nature of the PAP leaders involved in this dreadful fiasco can be seen in the final outcome of Tang’s case. All the charges against Tang were dropped when the main property asset of the Tangs was no longer worth as much, due to the Asian financial crisis and other factors (and therefore less of a boon than the PAP leaders had originally hoped for, in terms of being awarded their millions in damages).

After all the litigation costs, mental/emotional distress, and disruption caused to him and his family, Tang was declared a bankrupt, so that he could not hold any political position in Singapore and directly partake in politics. Tang himself succinctly described the law in Singapore as being an unequal struggle, and “a test of financial strength, not of legal arguments.”

As a June 1997 editorial by The New York Times wrote:

“Singapore’s leaders are masters at using libel suits in a compliant court system to silence or intimidate their domestic opponents. . .”

The purpose of books like Beyond Suspicion is not to ridicule or be derisive. It is to expose flaws in a political party or system, and provide a record of history. Note that on Page 241, it is mentioned that one of the legal documents to do with Tang Liang Hong was ordered by Justice Chao Hick Tin to be destroyed — at the request of LKY, via his counsel, Davinder Singh. Who knows what else has been requested to be destroyed?

Another purpose is for future generations to remember what this party has done to opposition members whom they viewed as a threat. Were the opposition members viewed as a threat to Singapore; good governance; or to the PAP’s own stronghold of political power?

If leaders are wise and less arrogant, they would seek to produce less scripted videos which appear to be more propaganda-inspired than patriotically inspired. Instead, they would seek to learn from mistakes of the past — and make genuine amends — so that they can prove to current voters/citizens why they should still be in office, as well as justify their high salaries drawn from taxpayers’ dollars.

In the context of Singapore’s political scene, it is only by the party’s own words and actions that they make the choice to be regarded as the “People’s Action Party,” or a “Perpetually Arrogant Party.”

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More Information:

Beyond Suspicion? (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
TLH Legal Saga | SW S’poreans Appeal (Singapore Window)
Yale University / Monograph 55 (Publisher)
Beyond Suspicion by Dr. Michael Barr (Book Review)
To Catch A Tartar by Teo Soh Lung (Book Review)
Francis Seow (Wikipedia)
Francis Seow (Profile)
Francis Seow: The Interview (YouTube; where a certain “bosom pal and crony of LKY” is mentioned, and much more)

Book Review: Once A Jolly Hangman

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once_a_jolly_hangman* Also on The Online Citizen and The Real SG.

The contents of this well-researched book were so depraved and disturbing, that it took me several weeks to (1) finish reading the book in its entirety, and (2) gather my thoughts about it in order to write a cohesive review.

I would have thought that the book was a work of fiction were it not for the ‘non-fiction’ label at the back of the book in the print version.

Back in 2013, former ISD director Mr. Yoong Siew Wah mentioned “the callousness of the Singapore government” on his blog.

This callous and insensitive aspect that is completely lacking in any compassion for humanity, is certainly apparent in Once A Jolly Hangman. The title alone points to the bizarre nature of the system, where the macabre act of hanging a human being is undertaken with joy as if it were a festive occasion and cause for celebration.

Perhaps the most morbid fact mentioned is the “Death Row Diet.”

As it says in the book, “Beyond the walls of Changi Prison hanged prisoners’ organs are worth tens of thousands of dollars each.”

As if this fact of profiting from dead prisoners’ bodies were not deplorable enough, the prisoners on death row who sign the consent form to donate their organs for transplant or research are put on a special regime known as the Death Row Diet. This diet consists of high-quality, nutritious food to “ensure the organs are in perfect condition for transplant after they are hanged.”

Is this not a form of ultimate exploitation of human life, where one profits handsomely from the dead and forgotten?

The other thoroughly disgusting component of the book has to do with the racial bias of the elites. The author, Alan Shadrake, structures the book around several real-life accounts to show how people with money and the right connections have the means to prevent themselves from being executed by the state. If you’re poor, uneducated, or of an undesirable race (or, to phrase it a little better, your skin colour is not the right one), yours is the “pitiful, hopeless situation” where even the innocent may end up being executed.

Alan Shadrake went to jail because of this book — for contempt by scandalising the court. A scandal can be defined as an action or event regarded as morally or legally wrong and causing general public outrage. How is the author scandalising the court when his book is based on scandalous facts?

What Alan Shadrake did with this book was to give the deceased a human face, since their lives weren’t worth anything to the Singapore authorities (apart from what could be gained from their organs, post-mortem). This further highlights the hypocrisy of Changi Prison’s motto.

I didn’t even know Changi Hilton — I mean, Changi Prison — had a motto until reading this book. That motto is:

“Captains of Lives: Rehab, Renew, Restart.”

From their own website:

“RENEW is a commitment an inmate makes to change his/her life for the better. Through the CARE Network, our offenders are given opportunities to restart their lives.”

Renew? Restart? Tell that to the families of Flor Contemplacion, Angel Mou Pui-Peng, Amara Tochi, Shanmugam Murugesu (a Tamil Singaporean former jet ski champion and army regular), Nguyen Van Tuong, Vignes Mourthi, and countless others who were executed in Singapore for being at the wrong place at the wrong time, without the riches or powerful connections to help them out of their dire situation. Or to the family members of Huizuan with regard to her tragic death in Changi Women’s Prison in 2011, which could have been avoided if more care had been shown by the prison staff in her medical condition before her death.

What is even worse is that Changi Prison sends out a letter to the families of the individual on death row informing them of when the execution will take place — a letter which has that same motto emblazoned on the bottom of the page.

This was truly one of the most despicable and morbid books I’ve ever read. It reveals a darker side which the authorities would likely prefer to keep hidden beneath the country’s veneer of justice, cleanliness and efficiency.

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More Information:

Once A Jolly Hangman (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
Wikipedia | Guardian UK | Interview (Author: Alan Shadrake)
Murdoch Books / Pier 9 (Publisher)
Singapore sentences UK author to jail (Amnesty International)

Book Review: The Ruling Elite of Singapore

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* Featured on The Real SG, SG Daily, The Online Citizen and TR Emeritus.

The Ruling Elite of Singapore is a brilliant publication, in which Michael Barr, a senior lecturer in International Relations at Flinders University, Australia, explores “the complex and covert networks of power” in the city-state of Singapore.

The text is divided into eight concise chapters, written in a clear, objective style that is not bloated with academic jargon. The content is juicy without being slanderous, and factual without being pedantic.

The book takes an incisive look at the “twin myths that Singapore is a meritocratic and multiracial society,” by revealing how the power of personal networks and the centrality of Chinese ethnicity form the true core of the networks of power and influence in Singapore.

The introduction gives a quick outline of the book, which is very useful for quick reference. I especially liked the summary for Chapter 3 (“a brief account of the historical evolution of the elite, the basis of its monopoly of power and the nature of its self-perception as a proud, self-satisfied elite”).

Chapter 5 features a quote by retired Permanent Secretary, Ngiam Tong Dow, who said in a 2003 interview:

“However good [Raffles Institution and Raffles Girls’ School] are and however brilliant their teachers are, the problem is that you are educating your elite in only two institutions, with only two sets of mentors.”

This comment highlights a lack of diversity in the process of elite selection and elite formation. It reminded me of the case with Wee Shu Min in 2006 (who exuberantly advised all commoners to “get out of [her] elite uncaring face”). While this disgraceful incident was not mentioned in Barr’s book, it displayed the self-entitlement and snobbish behavior that often accompanies a closed, elitist mindset.

Barr takes note of “the Lee family’s supremacy” in Singapore with a reminder (through a quote by Hamilton-Hart) of how the Lees are “effectively off-limits as subjects of criticism.” Barr also mentions how Ho Ching and Lee Hsien Yang have never been brought to account for any part in running down the value of their respective government-linked companies. Instead, both were praised and rewarded, despite their companies having engaged in “high-risk ventures that failed spectacularly.”

In the final chapter, Barr is diplomatic in pointing out how even the scenario of an opposition victory would not “necessarily challenge the system bequeathed by Lee Kuan Yew.” The author offers some critical thoughts without being overly optimistic or judgmental, in an effort to determine how much change or continuity there will be in the near future of Singapore’s political situation.

The job of an objective academic or historian is neither to sing praises nor hurl insults. It is to gather information and study the facts, in order to provide analysis and insightful commentary in order to educate the reader. I believe Barr has done very well in this regard, with his book’s intense focus on Singapore’s “ruling elite.”

It reminds us that politicians are supposed to govern society, not simply reward themselves at the expense of their serfs, I mean, citizens, because they feel entitled to do so.

I would like to extend my sincere thanks to the author, Michael Barr, for expanding his original paper into a full-length book, to the prestigious I.B.Tauris for publishing the title (and providing fine editing), and to Palgrave Macmillan for distributing the title in North America, where I am currently residing.

— By Jess: a former Singaporean who has a keen interest in the country, its people, and the direction of its leadership.

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More Information:

The Ruling Elite (Amazon.com)
Book Depository (Free Shipping)
Michael Barr – Flinders University (Author)
I.B.Tauris | Palgrave Macmillan (Publishers)