Book Review: The Ruling Elite of Singapore

Standard

* 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.

* * *

More Information:

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

Nassim Jade Scandal

Standard

* Featured on The Real SG.

1. “INCORRUPTIBILITY”

Asiaweek covered the Nassim Jade Scandal in May 1996, reminding readers in the introduction that the Singapore government “takes pride in its image of incorruptibility.”

2. NASSIM JADE (HPL)

nassim_jade

Image of Nassim Jade | HPL

Nassim Jade is an exclusive, four-storey condominium located in one of the most prestigious districts in Singapore. It is owned by Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), which owns other upscale condominiums in Singapore such as Four Seasons Park and Scotts 28.

In 1996, the “pre-launch” secret purchases of Nassim Jade units by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, his son, and their family members became publicly known. The Stock Exchange of Singapore said HPL “was not forthcoming in responding to the Exchange’s requests for information.”

The situation became so bad that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong directed these purchases to be investigated by Finance Minister, Richard Hu, and Deputy Director of the Monetary Authority of Singapore, Koh Beng Seng.

3. ONG BENG SENG

In The Business Times, Ong Beng Seng — property tycoon, founder and managing director of Hotel Properties Ltd (HPL) — described the fuss over the purchases of four condominiums by Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as being “damn unfair.”

4. JOHN HARDING

John Harding is the former Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Inland Revenue at Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.

He lays down the facts in the following blog comment:

When the “Nassim Jade Scandal” broke, involving Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and his family, I was working at Singapore’s Inland Revenue, and [knew] the names of the guilty before the “Nassim Jade Scandal” hit Singapore.

Sometime between April and early May of 1995, Hotel Properties Limited (HPL), of which Lee Suan Yew was a director, offered units at Nassim Jade to “close business associates” for sale before its official launch for sale to the public.

The investigation revealed that not only had Lee Kuan Yew, his brother and his son purchased these apartments [at Nassim Jade and Scotts 28], they were offered substantial discounts to boot.

The apartments were due to be put on sale on the open market on April 27 1995. Three days before the official launch, HPL conducted a “soft launch” where a select group of potential customers were invited to have first go at the apartments. This was not exactly an unheard of practice amongst property developers. The problem was that because HPL was a publicly listed company, it had shareholders to account to. Rules under the SES Manual Listing stated that approval had to be sought for transactions involving “connected persons” of the company involved and those persons’ associates. HPL did not seek the permission of its shareholders and Lee Suan Yew, Lee’s brother, was a director of the company.

At the soft launch, Lee Kuan Yew’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, chose an apartment to buy. She was quoted a price of $3,578,260 (or $1,583 per square foot) for the apartment. This was a seven percent discount on the list price.

Later, Kwa Geok Choo contacted her son, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and told him of the Nassim Jade apartments upon which he called his Aunty Pamelia Lee, wife of Uncle Suan Yew, and said that he and his wife, Ho Ching, wanted to get in on the deal as well. Aunty Pamelia then later came back to her nephew and offered him an apartment for $3,645,100 a discount of 12 per cent or $437,412 on the asking price. The Deputy Prime Minister accepted his Auntie’s offer.

This was not all. On the Scotts 28 condominiums, similar offers and purchases were made. Greedy Lee Kuan Yew and son bought two more units and paid $2,791,500 and $2,776,400 respectively for them, each bagging a five percent discount.

All in all, Lee Kuan Yew received from HPL a total of $416,252 whilst Lee Junior got $643,185 in discounts. All the purchases amounted to more than $10 million and were carried out without mortgages and loans.

It was also found out that Lee Kuan Yew’s entire family was in on the purchases. Daughter Lee Wei Ling, a medical doctor in a government hospital; sister Lee Kim Mon; and his two other brothers Freddy and Dennis; Kwa Kim Li, a niece of Lee; and Gloria Lee, Lee’s sister in law, all bought the condos at hefty discounts. Daughter Wei Ling bought two apartments at Nassim Jade and was reported to have sold one off for a tidy profit. Again, all these transactions were carried out without the approval of the shareholders of HPL.

It must be remembered that all this while, decisions of sales and the discounts were carried out secretly at the directors’ level by Lee Suan Yew. None of the shareholders nor the SES had the slightest idea of what was going on and neither did the Singapore public.

It was a national disgrace for Singapore.

5. FRANCIS SEOW’S “BEYOND SUSPICION?

The eloquent speaker Francis T. Seow is a former solicitor general of Singapore.

The first chapter of his riveting book, Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary, is entirely devoted to the Nassim Jade Scandal.

About the scandal, Mr. Seow wrote:

“Singapore’s anxious young upwardly mobile professionals [viewed] with dismay such preferential purchases of properties as virtually closed to them. . .unless they were also numbered among the rich and powerful. Such swelling angry public perception was bad news for a government at the best of times, but with a general election looming over the horizon, it was a prescription for disaster. Unless it was defused quickly, it could turn into a political time bomb.”

6. TANG LIANG HONG

Tang Liang Hong was a lawyer and opposition Workers’ Party candidate.

When Mr. Tang was interviewed by the Hong Kong-based magazine, Yazhou Zhoukan, about the Nassim Jade scandal, he questioned:

“Why wasn’t this matter handed over to a professional body like Commercial Affairs Department or Corrupt Practice Investigation Bureau? They 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. Koh Beng Seng and Finance Minister Richard Hu are after all not experts in this field.” (Tang Liang Hong, 1996/97)

LKY and his son took offence at those remarks, and commenced a libel action. The presiding judge was Justice Lai Kew Chai, a former partner of the prime minister’s law firm of Lee and Lee.

Tang Liang Hong was bankrupted and had his property seized following the 1997 general election. He entered into self-imposed exile in Australia.

7. NETIZENS’ COMMENTS

(a) “It saddens and angers me that this ‘Lee’ family think they rule the whole of Singapore and [that] they are above the law.”
(SG Forums)

(b) “Korean President Lee Myung Bak bought an expensive plot of land for his own retirement home using the name of his own son. In suspicious and filthy arrangement the transaction was carried out but exposed. Similar to LHL’s HPL Nassim Jade Corruption Scandal.”
(DiscussWorldIssues)

(c) “What is disgusting about the entire Lee family is this. They not only are thieves, they take offense when you call them so.”
(LKY’s Monopoly on Corruption, Gopalan Nair)

8. YOONG SIEW WAH – FORMER ISD DIRECTOR

As former ISD director, Mr. Yoong Siew Wah, aptly summarizes:

“That the Singapore ministers are filthy rich, especially MM Lee’s family, is obscenely plain for the people to see. In spite of his opulence, MM Lee is drawing a whopping salary and jetting around at taxpayers’ expense to spout poetries to a gullible world audience. As he says when the coffin is closed, you will have the verdict. We all look forward to the day, especially those who survive him.”
(Singapore Recalcitrant, 25 April 2009)