The Main Cause of Singapore’s Brain Drain


A paper on the main cause of Singapore’s brain drain.

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Excerpts from “The Causes of Emigration from Singapore: How Much Is Still Political?”

by Joel S. Fetzera & Brandon Alexander Millan (2015)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor and Francis

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1. Brain Drain: The emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from a particular country.

Extracts from Article:

1) Efforts to maintain a robust Singaporean economy have had to confront the serious challenge of brain drain from the city-state.

2) To address the negative effects of this problem, Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has adopted a policy of increasing reliance on a foreign labor force. The PAP appears to ignore the continued loss of human and intellectual capital.

3) Data from [surveys] indicate that anti-PAP and pro-democratic ideas strongly influence the decision of native Singaporeans to leave the island state. These findings suggest that democratization and an expansion of business and technical education would be more effective in preserving economic growth than a policy of importing labor.

4) Observers question whether PAP authoritarianism itself is driving young, highly educated Singaporeans to leave their country of birth.

5) Yap Mui Teng argues that a sense of “helplessness and fear in the face of an overpowering political structure that the average person cannot hope to participate in [or] even understand” drives emigration. Such “voting with one’s feet” clearly harms Singapore’s economy.

6) In 2002, Singapore reportedly experienced the most elevated out-migration rate in the world.

7) Every year, upwards of one thousand educated Singaporeans renounce their native citizenship in favor of that of their new homelands. . .even emeritus senior minister Goh Chok Tong admitted that “at his high school reunion, it seemed all his best friends had emigrated to the United States or Australia.”

8) While the PAP went on to receive 60.1 percent of the popular vote in 2011, this majority was anything but a victory for the ruling party given its history of manipulating electoral rules to its own advantage.

9) More importantly, the opposition won its first Group Representation Constituency (GRC; a multi-seat bloc district). According to the Asia blogger for The Economist, PAP ministers suffered this electoral blow due to voters’ perceptions that the incumbent government had “lost touch” with the concerns of Singaporeans and allowed a “rapid influx of immigrants.”

10) 64.6% of Singaporean emigrant interviewees in Australia in 1989 reported that the political system was the worst aspect of living in Singapore:

“With regard to the government, the respondents were critical of the ‘limited freedom,’ ‘high-handed control of daily life,’ ‘government intolerance of opposition,’ and ‘short-sighted and forever-changing government policies’.”

11) In [the data we analyzed], a respondent who strongly opposed the ruling party and fervently endorsed democracy would be 91.7% more likely to emigrate than would an interviewee who loyally backed Lee Kuan Yew’s party and completely rejected democracy.

12) Of the forty-five Singaporean respondents in [the two immigration data sets], thirty-five said they had had little or no “ability to influence government decisions” in their country of birth. [Another] questionnaire from the forty-five respondents contained seventeen politically related “things they disliked most” about their former homeland (e.g., “the laws of the country”).

13) The political environment in Singapore seems to be the most important factor in determining emigration from Singapore.

14) In order to maximize the number of young, highly skilled Singaporean natives who remain in the country after university, Singapore’s political and educational leaders need to make significant changes.

15) The most important change the PAP should make is to open up the political system. As Sullivan and Gunasekaran suggested as early as 1994, increased public debate before decisions are made would help people feel less dissatisfied with the political conditions in Singapore and therefore less likely to leave.

16) One of the policies Yap suggested was “a more open government” to “erase the credibility gap between the government and the people.”

17) The establishment of true democracy would likely foster support for the government and the political system, as free and competitive elections often create strong national identity.

Source: “The Causes of Emigration from Singapore: How Much Is Still Political?” by Joel S. Fetzera & Brandon Alexander Millan (2015)

PDF Link: Taylor and Francis

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Joel S. Fetzer is a Professor of Political Science at Pepperdine University. Immigration Politics is one of his academic interest areas.

Brandon Alexander Millan is an independent scholar from the Political Science Department of Santa Monica College.

Singapore: Fascist or Democratic?


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Fascism (definition): “A totalitarian philosophy of government that [assigns] to the state control over every aspect of national life.” (TWT)

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SOURCE: Lawrence Britt / Free Inquiry

[Infographic / Summary followed by Full Text]



Dr. Lawrence Britt has examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each:

1. Powerful and Continuing Nationalism: Fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia*. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

* View “Singapore: The Politics of Inventing National Identity,” by Stephan Ortmann
(PDF download).

2. Disdain for the Recognition of Human Rights: Because of fear of enemies and the need for security, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The people tend to look the other way or even approve of torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, etc.

3. Identification of Enemies/Scapegoats as a Unifying Cause: The people are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: racial , ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists, etc.

4. Supremacy of the Military: Even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorized.

5. Rampant Sexism: The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution.

6. Controlled Mass Media: Sometimes the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship, especially in war time, is very common.

7. Obsession with National Security: Fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are Intertwined: Governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion in the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is Protected: The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labor Power is Suppressed: Because the organizing power of labor is the only real threat to a fascist government, labor unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

11. Disdain for Intellectuals and the Arts: Fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment: Under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant Cronyism and Corruption: Fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent Elections: Sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear campaigns against or (character) assassination of opposition candidates, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

SOURCE: Lawrence Britt / Free Inquiry

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a) Censorship in Singapore (Wikipedia)

b) Excerpts from “Anti-colonialism. . .Operation Coldstore” (Thum Ping Tjin)

c) Is this not a mockery of democracy? (Singapore Recalcitrant)

d) Hushed Fascism, Singapore-Style (Chris Ho / Facebook)

e) Political Abuse of Psychiatry (re: Amos Yee)

f) Singapore Blogger Faces ‘Financial Ruin’ (re: Roy Ngerng / Forbes)

g) Teo Soh Lung (on “fighting back with words”) and SDP / CSJ (on “accountability“)

h) Jolly Hangman (re: human rights abuses / Alan Shadrake)

i) Exciting Conversation on Facebook

Excerpts from “Dare to Change”


Excerpts from “Dare to Change”

by Chee Soon Juan (1994)

Link: Amazon | NLB | SDP

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Excerpts from Book:

1. There is no guarantee that the same Government that has led Singapore into prosperity cannot become corrupt and ineffective in future. . .if Singaporeans continue to behave in an uninterested manner, the tendency for the Government to abuse its power will become greater. (Pg-15)

2. An overpowering state-elite with a subjugated mass has proven time and again to be the worst formula for a country’s long-term prosperity. (Pg-25)

3. Singaporeans are constantly told how to behave in a certain manner. . .any one who dares to challenge the authority is quickly labelled as “bad” and discredited. (Pg-32)

4. Perhaps the closest definition [of “Asian democracy”] is the one provided by the PAP itself: a political system consisting of one dominant party and several small fringe parties with no turnover in the government. (Pg-39)

5. What do we make of the notion that there should be no change in the Government of Singapore? The frighteningly curious thing is that shouldn’t the citizens be the ones to determine this instead of the PAP? If this premise of no turnover in government is accepted it would logically follow that the PAP is legitimate in using every means, constitutional or otherwise, to stop its political opponents. (Pg-40)

6. It would make much sense for [opposition] camps to pool their resources together with the ultimate and overriding objective to entrench the Opposition in Singaporean politics. (Pg-49)

7. The Prime Minister of Singapore gives himself a salary of $96,000 a month. . .meanwhile, the PM studies carefully whether a man who is unable to look after himself deserves $150 a month. (Pg-74)

8. Of late, the Government has been strongly advocating Confucianist values. Embedded in the teachings of Confucius is respect and care for our elderly. However, judging from present policies and actions, it is clear that the Government has no intention on practising the sage’s preachings. (Pg-78)

9. [Singapore Inc.]: The PAP runs the country like a corporation with the Party leaders as employers and the citizens as its employees. (Pg-90)

10. In 1992, a study by business professor Alwyn Young from the MIT compared Hong Kong’s economy with that of Singapore’s. He showed that while Hong Kong got richer by becoming more efficient in its use of its labour, capital, and technology, Singapore became richer by taking more and more money from its citizens through taxes and forced savings. (Pg-97)

11. At a time when the nation requires individuals of innovation and creativity to help it stay ahead in an increasingly competitive world, the PAP’s heavy handed approach and tight control in governing the country produces a generation of people who are averse to risk-taking. (Pg-105)

12. David Marshall, Singapore’s former ambassador to France, described Singaporean journalists as “running dogs” and “poor prostitutes” of the Government. (Pg-109)

13. It is dangerous for any government to control the circulation of information within a country. . .totalitarian and dictatorial regimes have long used this tool to subjugate their people. (Pg-116)

14. In a society which claims to have a sense of civility and decency, physical abuse and torture cannot be used by its leaders to justify its ends. . .Every citizen of this country is born with a set of rights which cannot be removed at the whim of the Government. (Pg-138)

15. “I think what prevents Singapore from being a home to people is the lack of freedom of speech. Think about it this way. What is the difference between living in a hotel and living in a home?”
— Dr David Chan / NUS (Pg-139)

Source: “Dare to Change,” by Chee Soon Juan (1994)

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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 | Review

Book Review: Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore


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:


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)

Excerpts from “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore”


Excerpts from “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore”

by T. J. S. George (1973)

Link: Amazon | NLB

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1. Pugnacity: Inclined to quarrel or fight readily; quarrelsome; belligerent; combative (Dictionary).

Excerpts from Book:

1) The Lees are Hakkas. And that is worth remembering. . .[Hakkas] are strong individualists, known for their pugnacity. (Pg-16)

2) [During World War II], LKY learned Japanese and obtained work as a translator in the official Japanese news agency, Domei. . .during his years in power he has shown a pronounced contempt for Singapore’s journalistic fraternity and has ensured that newspapers in the island were run much as Domei was run by the Japanese army. (Pg-22)

3) LKY’s concept of ‘Singaporeanism’ [is] a way of [making] a society in his own image — the projection on to the national scene of an individual’s complex psychological problems. (Pg-30)

4) [Lee’s group formed] its own party. They chose the name People’s Action Party (PAP). It appealed to them ‘mainly because this political party was meant for the people’. (Pg-36)

5) Elections to the central executive [section of the PAP] were restricted to cadre members — and cadre members were chosen strictly after screening by Lee Kuan Yew. As Lee himself once justified it, “The Pope chooses the cardinals and the cardinals elect the Pope.” (Pg-45)

6) Lee remarked later that “to lose would mean that a bunch of rogues would form the government and ruin the country and also fix the PAP.” It was a characteristic comment which summed up Lee’s own personality — his self-assurance, contempt for others, tendency to equate himself with the country and [indicated] Lee’s readiness to “fix” others once he got hold of the reins of power. (Pg-46)

7) Cassandra of the Daily Mirror [likened] LKY to Goebbels. The Daily Express angrily editorialized: “To such men Britain entrusts independence. Greedily they seize their new freedom for themselves and deny it to the people for whom it was intended.” (Pg-51)

8) Ong [Eng Guan] protested that the meeting was being converted into a trial. [He said]: “This is not the first instance of cloak and dagger plots in the party and it will not be the last.” (Pg-55)

9) In the days when LKY was in opposition, in 1956, he gave a vivid description. “I’m told [repression] is like making love — it’s always easier the second time. The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course, with constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack and in the scope of the attack.” He became, and has remained, a striking example of what he was then condemning. (Pg-65)

10) [In Operation Coldstore], the important figures were put away [and] the Barisan Sosialis became a headless body. (Pg-68)

11) In Lee’s reckoning no one else in Singapore was, or could be, right. What he achieved in the process was a one-man party and a one-party state. (Pg-71)

12) Tunku [Abdul Rahman]’s responses sprang from the heart and from his identification with the people; Lee’s from the mind and his studied aloofness from the crowd. The Tunku was utterly human, Lee a machine. (Pg-77)

13) Lee’s policies have often ended up as counter-productive because they were unrelated to the human factors surrounding them. (Pg-84)

14) Malaysian Finance Minister Tan Siew Sen described the PAP as a party which shouted “Fire, fire” while committing arson. (Pg-86)

15) The West (its notions of post-war Asia swinging between anti-communism and the thirst for profitable investment) seemed grateful to Lee for what he projected as the Asianization of democracy — which in fact meant reducing people to digits; or to the letters GNP. (Pg-110)

16) Systematic destruction of political opposition and suppression of the trade union movement were the outstanding features of this policy [of rigorous internal repression]. The government also completely ‘officialized’ the education system, beat the mass media into subjection and instituted other programmes aimed at casting a generation of Singaporeans in a carefully prepared mould. (Pg-112)

17) Given this approach to detention and the rule of law, Lee never bothered to change — except to make it more repressive — the Internal Security Act which he inherited from the colonial administration he had fought. (Pg-116)

18) The treatment of political prisoners involves spiritual and political torture. The process of solitary confinement and interrogation, etc. continue until the prisoners are broken down or try to commit suicide. Those who cannot be broken are left to rot in prison. (Pg-119)

19) Amnesty International naturally showed concern about the fate of political prisoners in Singapore — only to get condemned as a meddler and barred from the republic in early 1971 (Pg-121)

20) People whose governments straightforwardly admitted to being communist or military at least knew where they stood. In Singapore, where professions were democratic while practices were dictatorial, the tragedy was compounded. . .[Lee and his cabinet] projected the dangerous thesis that an efficient Asian government could not also be democratic or humane. (Pg-128)

21) In November 1971, the Sunday Times said: “But for two great British universities to honour [LKY] as a Doctor of Laws devalues the degree and dishonours the first principle of university life — that ideas shall be freely exchanged.” (Pg-130)

22) The Statesman of India said: “In nine years of near-autocratic rule Lee has created a society of soulless conformists. . .a submissive press and the lack of an opposition have enabled Mr Lee to strut about his inconsequential stage and see himself as a Southeast Asian leader.” (Pg-130)

23) The opposition Barisan Sosialis was not banned — though every leader showing any potential was either jailed or exiled. (Pg-130)

24) Lee’s favorite word when referring to Singaporeans is, characteristically, ‘digits’. (Pg-132)

25) Professor D.J. Enright wrote in The Times in 1969 [of Singaporean students]: “This is the drawback to the exhortatory method of nation building: the simple-minded, the second-rate and the merely self-committed come to the top while the intelligent and idealistic feel there is no place for them in a world which is new but not very brave.” (Pg-132)

26) No boy or girl can enter a university in Singapore without written political clearance from the government, appropriately called a Suitability Certificate. A student-applicant’s educational qualifications and academic record have no bearing on his ‘suitability’, which is determined on the basis of his and his family’s political background. (Pg-133)

27) Soon the government took the official position that expatriates should keep out of local issues — and local issues could include everything from Singapore art to traffic congestion. (Pg-137)

28) The contradiction between the noble sentiments Lee aired in Kuala Lumpur where he was in the opposition, and the suppression he practised in Singapore where he was in power, did not seem to occur to him. (Pg-146)

29) Lee conjured up a patriotic halo round the denial of civil rights to an entire people. It was not merely a case of freedom being denied; it was also a case of minds being cast in a government-ordained mould. It was totalitarianism without the saving grace of honesty. (Pg-155)

30) [To most Western correspondents and visitors], Singapore’s apparent glitter has been impressive enough. (Pg-136)

31) Lee has never been impressed by charges of cruelty towards political prisoners in Singapore: according to his book, he was doing them a favour by letting them live. (Pg-191)

32) Singapore in the 1970s mirrors not the collective aspirations of a people or a generation but the ideals, convictions and prejudices of LKY. (Pg-200)

33) Post-1959 elections have been largely empty exercises, as shown by the deceptive ‘choices’ given and the methods employed for the referendum in 1962, the mass arrests of opposition leaders prior to the general election in 1963 and the hundred per cent PAP control of parliament since. (Pg-203)

34) One of the dangers that Singaporeans face is the temptation to live soullessly in order to make money. The prospects of becoming a society which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing is among the points of criticism Lee’s adversaries raise. (Pg-202)

35) The prosperity Lee has brought about has been accompanied by deterioration in the quality of life. (Pg-214)

36) Democracy simply means a government respecting the governed and being accountable to them. It is a political means to fulfill the human potential. (Pg-212)

37) LKY seems to assume that a sense of national identity can be created from television sets, apartments and jobs, disregarding 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. (Pg-215)

Source: “Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore,” by T. J. S. George (1973)

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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)
Book Review (blog)

Excerpts from “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree”


Excerpts from “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree: Democracy and Democratisation in Singapore”

by Michael Barr (2012)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor & Francis

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Extracts from Article:

1) Singapore’s democratic processes are a bonsai version of the real thing, meaning that what passes for democracy is constrained, pruned, stunted, and mainly for show.

2) The government’s aversion to political contestation is complemented by its propensity to identify national crises and apocalyptic choices. . .Lee Hsien Loong describes this mindset as ‘paranoid government’, and it is a technique directed in part towards manipulating public fears.

3) Lee and the ruling elite do not believe in democracy, in the sense of contestation for power through the ballot box, negotiated by rules and social power structures that apply even-handedly to all parties.

4) . . .exaggerated by the system of punishment politics introduced by Goh Chok Tong that brazenly twisted the principles of technocracy and professionalism whereby services and upgrades were withheld from constituencies and even from individual housing blocks that voted for the opposition.

5) This reference to the banyan tree entered political parlance in 1991, when Minister for Information and the Arts, George Yeo, delivered what seemed at the time to be a landmark speech, promising to ‘trim the banyan tree’. It alludes to the fact that nothing grows under a banyan tree because, between the thickness of its foliage and the dominance of its root system, it sucks the life out of anything that tries to share its space.

6) Even at the time he was explicit on the limits of the ‘trimming’: ‘We cannot do without the banyan tree [. . .] We need some pluralism but not too much because it will also destroy us. In other words we prune judiciously’.

7) Since April 2009 freedom of assembly has become more restricted than it was in 1991, with the courts now having the power to declare a single person in any public place to be an ‘illegal assembly’.

8) It is with this history in mind that I turn my attention [to] the possibilities of democratization in this stultifying atmosphere, and characterize the operation of democracy in Singapore as being akin to a bonsai growing under the banyan tree.

9) In 2011 the bonsai plant started growing beyond its wire binding, thanks in large part to the perseverance of both opposition and civil society groups that have learnt their craft under the shade of the banyan tree, operating in an environment where the media, all the instruments of the state, and most elements of society are subservient to the ruling elite.

10) Government ministers have lost – possibly forever – the presumption of professional authority that they enjoyed before. This changes the dynamic of political contestation in Singapore.

11) The government is being challenged by a new constituency and found to be out of touch. This is a constituency of tertiary educated, middle-class Singaporeans, who are too young to have personal memories of the hardships of the 1960s and 1970s but are acutely aware of numerous grievances.

12) [The government] has built an education and social system based on ruthless competition, but argues that competition is bad in politics. It sets the pay scales for ministers by the standards of the CEOs of multinational companies, but argues that neither ministers nor the Cabinet as a whole should be held to account when they make mistakes.

13) Some of [the 2011 opposition] candidates are clearly more competent as politicians than most members of Cabinet, but this is setting the bar rather low, since none of these government ministers has had to face serious adversarial interrogation or criticism for decades, if ever.

14) Put bluntly, the crop of ministers and new candidates that contested the 2011 general election would not have passed muster in Lee Kuan Yew’s heyday.

15) It is easy to be pessimistic about the prospects of dramatic change, and yet who would have thought the opposition would even get this far? It has learnt how to survive under the banyan tree, and even forced the government to engage in some reluctant pruning.

Source: “The Bonsai under the Banyan Tree: Democracy and Democratisation in Singapore,” by Michael Barr (2012)

PDF Link to Journal Article: Taylor & Francis

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DR. MICHAEL BARR is Associate Professor in International Relations in the School of International Studies at Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia. He is the author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man and other books on Singapore politics and history, and is Editor-in-Chief of Asian Studies Review.

Michael Barr Online: Profile | Publications | Interview with James Minchin | Interview

PAP: Fascist Dictatorship (1963)


Excerpt from longer speech below:

“The PAP is endangering democracy. . .parliamentary democracy under the PAP has already become Fascist dictatorship.”
— Dr. Lee Siew Choh (1963)

A couple of quick definitions:

Democracy: The word democracy literally means “rule by the people.”
(Source: Britannica Kids)

Fascism: A political philosophy, movement, or regime that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
(Source: Merriam-Webster)

And a comment on the treatment of intellectuals in fascist regimes:

That’s why the intellectuals are the first to go in fascist, right wing regimes — to do away with critical thinking and informed dissent.
(– Dwight Ballard, March 28, 10:01PM)


Barisan Sosialis chairman, Dr Lee Siew Choh speaking at Barisan’s first lunchtime rally at Fullerton Square. — PHOTO: New Nation / Straits Times


Dr Lee Siew Choh (Barisan Sosialis assembly member, who spoke amid the “interruptions, sniggers and laughter of the PAP ministers”):

What happened on [2nd February; when Operation Coldstore was carried out] – the black day of Singapore — is now history.

In the early hours of the morning of 2nd February, sudden repressive action was taken against leaders of political Parties, trade unions, rural organisations, hawkers’ associations, universities, old boys’ associations, intellectuals and other progressive individuals. All those arrested were, and still are, anti-colonial and anti-Malaysia stalwarts and bitter and strong opponents of the PAP.

The mass arrests were all carried out with an intimidatory array of armed might. Accompanying plainclothes officers were fully armed police with combat troops in battledress standing by and on the ready. It reminds us of the days of the Gestapo of dictator Hitler and of the Japanese Kempetai. The Japanese Kempetai did exactly what the P.A.P. Government has done today.

The Barisan Sosialis bore the brunt of the onslaught and has suffered the most casualties. From our Central Executive Committee alone, nine members have been arrested and detained. They are our Vice Chairman, S. Woodhull, the Secretary-General Lim Ching Siong the Assistant General, Mr Poh Soo Kai, Committee members, Chok Koh Thong, Fong Swee Suan, Dr Lim Hock Siew, Lim Shee Ping, Dominic Puthucheary and Tan Yam Seng. From our Central Cultural sub-committee, Central Organisation sub-committee, Publication sub-committee and Branch Committees, altogether more than 40 from the Barisan Sosialis have been detained.

I will table a list of names of Barisan members recently detained. The total number under detention, together with those from other organisations, we now learn, is 133. Nine have been released, leaving 124 still under detention. 124 innocent persons, deprived of their individual freedom and kept behind walls in solitary confinement, and given treatment worse than that of convicted criminals.

Why? All because they oppose imperialism and neo-colonialism. All because they oppose the British-sponsored Malaysia, and because they, oppose the P.A.P. The powers that be, in order to give an excuse for locking them up, made them out to be dangerous men. The Prime Minister says, “These are the people who will mount the barricades.” Yet, not so very long ago, he used to ridicule them as beer-hall revolutionaries. Now, because 4 suits the purpose of the P.A.P., they have suddenly become dangerous men. And, of course, it suits the Prime Minister. But let us ask: Did they steal or rob? No. Did they kill or murder? No. Did they take part in riots? No. Did they take up arms against the Government? Again, no! Yet, all these 124 persons have been arbitrarily arrested and detained without charge or trial, and treated worse than convicted criminals! Why? Why, Mr Prime Minister? Why, Mr Deputy Prime Minister?

Today, as a result of the arrests, threats and intimidations a change has come over Singapore. The people prefer not to talk so very loudly of politics these days. Many clam up on politics the moment they see strangers around. There is an atmosphere of suspicion, uncertainty and fear. There are so many spies and informers around that no one can be certain that what he says will not be carried back to the ears of the fearful P.A.P. Without doubt, Singapore has become a Police State. Those in authority can resort to arbitrary arrests at any time. The only law in the State seems to be the law of the Police, the Special Branch and the P.A.P.

What has taken place and is taking place today merely confirms what we have all along been saying, namely, that the P.A.P. is endangering democracy and that parliamentary democracy under the P.A.P. has already become Fascist dictatorship.

If such a Police State is going to be the blessing of Malaysia, then we must be prepared for worse things to come. We need only see from how the arrests were carried out the things to expect with the formation of Malaysia. Innocent people engaged in legitimate pursuits have been arrested and some very quickly whisked off to the Federation without the families even notified where they were sent. It is like being shanghaied, or kidnapped, and that, by the powers that be in the country. It is so unbelievable. The brutality and callousness of the people have to be seen to be believed.

Source: Singapore Legislative Assembly Debates, vol. 20, 5 April 1963, col. 68.

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A few more comments on Operation Coldstore:

(1) “It was a dark day in the history of Singapore in 1963. So many talented young people who had contributed greatly and would have continued their great works in society were hauled suddenly into prison because of the change of heart and loyalty of one man.”
( —ThatWeMayDreamAgain, 2013)

(2) “Who would have thought that brilliant lawyers like John Eber, Lim Kean Chye, T.T. Rajah and G. Raman, and doctors like Lim Hock Siew, Poh Soo Kai and Ang Swee Chai would be arrested under the law?. . .Singapore lost many talents and brilliant leaders.

Today, former political prisoners have begun to fight back, to regain their self-esteem, dignity and integrity. Young Singaporeans are no longer afraid of befriending them. Indeed, there is a curiosity and an eagerness to know them in order to know the past. This has defeated one important purpose for the use of the ISA — that of ostracising political prisoners from society.

It is time the PAP government observed article 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.’ It is time that Singaporeans were free.”
( — Teo Soh Lung, Chapter 13 of 1963 Operation Coldstore: Commemorating 50 Years)

Thanks to ThatWeMayDreamAgain for posting the speech by Dr. Lee Siew Choh on FB, which also features in Teo Soh Lung’s essay in 1963 Operation Coldstore.

Thanks to Wen Wah for collecting some of the links below.

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More Information:

1) Function 8 (Website and Facebook — NPO to facilitate the sharing of social, political and economic experiences to contribute to society through reflection and civic discussion)

2) Dr. Lee Siew Choh (Wikipedia)

3) Tribute to Dr. Lee Siew Choh by Francis Seow (Singapore Window)

4) Escape From The Lion’s Paw: Reflections Of Singapore’s Political Exiles (on the “ISA being a law that makes a mockery of democracy”) | Select Books | Book Launch

5) FEAR is DEAD, by Teo Soh Lung (Facebook)

6) LKY and The Law Society, by Tan Fong Har (TOC)

7) Interview with historian, Thum Ping Tjin, on LKY’s Singapore (TOC)

8) New PAP book neglects founding members detained for 19 years (Martyn See / Singapore Rebel)

9) Operation Coldstore (Wikipedia)

10) S’pore’s 50th anniversary – time to have open dialogue on Operation Coldstore (TOC)