What would Lee Kuan Yew be like if he were born in 1990?

I often feel like we don’t explore Lee Kuan Yew’s personality enough. His swag. He used to smoke, drink and hang out with lawyers, criminals, academics and communists. His white-washed political persona is far less interesting. He was once a visionary, entrepreneur and hustler extrodinaire.

I read a fantastic article once by someone who said that if you take a war strategist like say Napoleon or Clausewitz or Sun Tzu and you put them in a modern day war room, it might maybe take at most a few days for them to get up to date with modern warfare- they’ll need to learn about high-tech systems, but it’s still intuitively understandable.

On the other hand, try getting any early trader to understand and manage something like, say, Facebook. Money and business has gotten ridiculously complex. (I’d like to make sense of this better. I like to consider myself a somewhat knowledgeable person, but I am woefully aware of my shortcomings in these fields.)

Anyway, here’s the point- Singapore has never been one to innovate, business-wise. (Correct me if I’m wrong! I would love to hear from you.) Our business model, as far askI’ve understood, is one of early adoption. That was the driver of our success. You remember the examples from social studies class, right?

We let other people handle the risk and the pain of trial and error. Consider the USA, for instance, which is arguably the birthplace of innovation and crazy experiments. (I imagine many will protest this. Your protests are valid. Consider this an oversimplification.) The conditions arekideal for generating these crazy business ideas. There’s a culture of failure acceptance, and a sacred right to pursue happiness in whatever means you see fit. Their society is large enough to support a few crazies who want to change the world.

Then the moment they find something that works, we take over. We create conditions that are ideal for the nurturing of these young saplings. Favourable tax conditions. Government policies with prudent long-term planning. Solid infrastructure, educated and compliant workforce. We’ll take your crazy idea and we’ll implement it in a cost-effective way.

Our best companies were, and continue to be (in my opinion, please correct me if I am wrong) “first followers”. We don’t take the risk of innovating ourselves- we let other people do it first, and once something works, we are the first (and best) at following. The problem with that today is that we’re no longer the best at it. Enter China and frie.ds. They have adopted “our” (quotation marks because these things don’t belong to anybody) system, and they’re leveraging resources that we simply don’t have.

If we continue to compete as “first followers”, we’re screwed. We can’t produce as much, and at such low cost.

So the only way forward, as I see it, in this simplistic sense, is to begin innovating. But Singaporeans have never been innovative… have we?

We have. And in a remarkable field, too- nation-building.

Think about it. The birth of Singapore- unexpected independence- was handled by some of the greatest entrepreneurs our soil has ever seen. They were pragmatic, forward-thinking, and a little bit ruthless. (You have to be.) They were visionaries who dared to imagine something that had never existed before, and they created something that was the envy of statesmen around the world. Sure, we had unusual conditions and certain advantages. That’s what entrepreneurship is all about. Figuring out your advantages and leveraging them to create something meaningful and useful.

HDB. Singapore Airport. Garden City. MRT. Reservoirs. Throw a stone and you’ll hit a foreigner- sorry, I mean an instance of remarkable vision. Dreams made reality.

It remains one of the greatest ironies, perhaps a repeated motif in human history- men and women of great vision and innovation practically engineering a society wherein they would have never survived.

If Lee Kuan Yew, Goh Keng Swee and others were born and raised in modern day Singapore 2000,  instead of the chaos of colonial pre-65 Singapore, perhaps they might never have had the chance to meet the people and experience the ideas that made them think for themselves. Think bigger, think risky, think different. And the institution they put together would eventually stifle the very chaos that must have played a role in  creating them.

I am now curious to know what Lee Kuan Yew would be like if he were born in 1990. What would he be interested in, what would he be passionate about, what would he be using his skills to fight for? I’m guessing he would be an opposition politician- because, if you remember correctly, that is what he was. The PAP was once an opposition party. Or would he be a nobody at all, without encountering the catalysts that drove him to do what he did? Would he just be an above-average guy in an above-average job? I’d like to ask him that.

I believe that Singapore is a deeply pragmatic nation. It’s become a part of our DNA now, and we can’t reject it. We are a fundamentally pragmatic people. Even when we dream, we dream not because we want to be wishy-washy, idealistic tree-hugging hippies. We dream because it is somehow the pragmatic thing to do. (Disagree? Our nation was built on dreams. How like that?)

Here’s another fun bit of irony- Lee Kuan Yew and friends were largely western educated- Lee himself was kicking ass at Cambridge, getting double starred first class honours. (Did you know there was such a thing?) It was the white man institution that taught Lee to seek freedom from the oppression of the white men (who did do a good many things for our society). In the end, the greatest service that the British did for us was to teach us that we could transcend them.

So consider this- it was the men in white that taught us how to be pragmatic. But the pragmatic thing to do now is to transcend the men in white themselves- the over-dependence on our institutions, on top-down directives, on the monopoly of ideas. As Chan Chun Sing said, diversity is the only survival strategy. So I believe that the previous lesson will apply- the greatest service that the PAP could do to Singapore is to make itself redundant. To create conditions where Singapore’s survival is not dependent on PAP super-dominance.

Keep daring to dream. Our nation was built with dreams. Don’t let anybody tell you otherwise- even if they claim to be playing for the same team.

Why Singaporeans Don’t Feel That They Belong [2011]

IN THE midst of all the talk about creativity and vibrancy and buzz, his question came like a cry in the wilderness.

Final-year aerospace engineering student Lim Zi Rui, 23, stood up during the Nanyang Technological University Ministerial Forum last night and asked: Did Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong know many young people no longer felt a sense of ownership in Singapore?

His question was one of several posed during the dialogue with Mr Goh, which ranged far and wide over ageing issues, art, even student accommodation.

‘When I was younger, I was very proud of being a Singaporean,’ Mr Lim said. ‘But that was about five, 10 years ago. Five years later, with all the changes in policies and the influx of foreign talent, I really don’t know what I’m defending any more.’

He said he was reflecting a sentiment held by many of his men in the SAF, who had to compete with foreigners for jobs. ‘I feel that there is a dilution of the Singapore spirit in youth… We don’t really feel comfortable in our country any more.’

Mr Goh’s reply was one of deep concern. ‘This is one early sign of danger… If this is happening, it is very serious.’

He asked Mr Lim why he felt disconnected.

Mr Lim assured SM Goh that he was still keen to fight for Singapore: ‘I’m still serving as an officer and I definitely would love to defend Singapore.’

However, he compared his attitude to that of the foreign friends he had. ‘I tell them, this is my country. I can’t just leave here whenever I want to. You can come and play and work here, but I have to stay here.’

SM Goh responded with a defence of the Government’s open-door policy. ‘You want to have a home. Who’s going to build your HDB flat?’

‘My brother got engaged, but lost his engagement because he could not afford an HDB flat,’ Mr Lim countered.

‘Without foreign workers in Singapore, would your hall of residence be built?’ SM Goh asked. ‘If we totally reject foreigners, we’re going to shrink in size… I don’t think Singaporeans want that. What they want is to moderate the inflow of foreigners.’

He also said Singapore had to find ways to integrate foreigners. ‘There are many of them who would like to be Singaporeans, and those of them who can be integrated, make them Singaporeans, make them part of us, make them help to defend the country,’ he said.

Mr Lim said that his concerns were somewhat different. ‘My question was, how are we going to help the younger generation feel a sense of belonging to Singapore? I don’t think it’s about integrating foreigners.’

‘This is your country,’ SM Goh replied. ‘What do you want me to do to make you feel you belong?’

‘For my part, don’t worry about me,’ Mr Lim said. ‘I will definitely do something, if I can, for Singapore. But I can tell you honestly that the sentiment on the ground is a bit different.’

‘If that is prevalent among young people over here, we’ve got a real problem,’ SM Goh said. ‘If the majority feel they don’t belong here, then we have a fundamental problem. Then I would ask myself: What am I doing here? Why should I be working for people who don’t feel they belong over here?’

I feel very strongly about the  coffeeshop down the road from my place.

I’ve spent many days there over the years, and over time I’d grown very fond of the place. I’d go there to read, to eat dinner, to be alone, to meet friends and to have really good coffee. The staff grew to recognize me, of course, and we’d exchange smiles and pleasantries. I felt a strong sense of affinity for the people and the place.

Recently the coffeeshop staff changed, and I felt a very real sense of loss- the relationships I had built with the coffeeshop staff and the regulars, all gone. It actually hurt, emotionally. If there was anything I could’ve done to intervene, I would have gladly done it- because I feel a vested sense of self-interest in its preservation. In a way it was a part of me as much as I was a part of it.

In a way we feel the same about our friends, families and our communities.

I would give up many years of my life to protect and nurture Victoria School, for example, because it was a wonderful environment for me. It shaped me deeply as a young man and I still carry the lessons I learnt there- about brotherhood, camaraderie, dignity, honour and other things- close to my heart. I always felt lots of love for the place and to this day I feel tremendously guilty for all that I gleaned from it without giving back much in return, apart from screaming my lungs out in support of our school sports teams.

In contrast, I would gladly allow my beloved Junior College to be razed to the ground. I never felt like anybody really cared about me over there, apart from a few wonderful teachers. I felt like I was there to get my A level certificates, nothing more. It was means to an end, nothing more. As an institution, as a cultural beacon, it was dead.

I feel powerful emotions when I think about the local music scene.

The local music scene is small and fledgling and some would even describe it as non-existent, but it played a substantial role in my teenage years. It gave me something to fight for, something to aspire towards, something to contribute to, to help to build and nurture, to be a part of. I contributed- I played and organized gigs, invited people to shows, argued fervently on the internet (Keyboard Warriors, unite!). I belong to the local music scene and it belongs to me. I think the same thing should apply to our local sports teams, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about them because I know so little.

Where do we belong? Where does anybody belong? Is it possible for anybody to truly belong anywhere? I thought about this long and hard and came to he following conclusion:

You belong anywhere that you add value to.

That is where the dangerous disconnect is. It’s not about conformity- New Yorkers are proudly non-conformist and the denizens of Beijing are proud to be a part of the Motherland. But in both cases, in both opposite ends of the world, individuals feel like they are part of a greater whole, that they somehow contribute to the identity of their community, and the result is beautiful.

I imagine that MM Lee Kuan Yew and SM Goh Chok Tong feel very strongly about Singapore- because they contributed to it, and they added value to it.

But when SM Goh says, “This is your country”, I have to wonder, how many Singaporeans still truly feel this way? How many Singaporeans feel like we matter? Like our vote counts, like our voices are heard, like what we say or do has any influence?

I remember my experiences in VS where we’d gladly stay back hours after school to pack away tables and chairs, and how we cleaned up after ourselves at the National Stadium after the National Track & Field Meet, and how we all felt a glowing sense of pride every time anybody from our school accomplished anything great. Every individual felt like he was a part of a greater whole that meant something, that stood for something. People came to VS even though they had PSLE scores that would allow them to go to more prestigious institutions. Examinations were important but nowhere near as important as the development of the students’ character, and when the time came for the school to ask the boys to buckle up and do us proud by studying hard, they delivered, year after year.

When I was told, “This is your school,” at Victoria School, it meant something. When I was told the same thing at my JC, it felt fake- like a grotesque charade.

Worker’s Party member and Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim said something that resonated deeply with me:

“Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew previously justified why it was not feasible to have foreign talent in the political leadership. He said that the political leadership should “have passion, the commitment and share the same dreams as the people”. (ST 4 Nov 2006). I agree. The question is: how will 2/3M48 affect empathy, the ability of Ministers to share the same dreams as the people?

Ministers are currently drawing $1.2m a year which divided by 12 is about $100,000 per month. How does it compare with the average person?

According to the Report on the Labour Force in Singapore 2006, the median gross monthly income of workers in full-time employment is $2,170. In other words, a worker takes a month to earn what a Minister earns in half a day! For university graduates, the median gross monthly income is $4,450. This would take the Minister one day to earn.

As you move the salaries up to 88% of the benchmark, we will find that the average worker’s monthly pay will be earned by a Minister in 2-3 hours. Does the Cabinet not feel a tinge of discomfort drawing taxpayers’ money at such rate? At such rates, can Ministers and Singaporeans share the same dreams?

Another reality is that our leaders may face problems in marshalling the people to make sacrifices for the country.

About 4 years ago, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan told the House that his son had asked whether one should be prepared to die for Singapore. This sparked off a heated public debate. The cynics invariably linked this question to Ministerial salaries. To quote a member of the public, and I paraphrase: “Who are we trying to kid? Before we start talking about dying for Singapore, let us look at our leaders. We are told that we cannot get good leaders unless we pay top dollar, so why expect more from the rest of us”?

Citizens should be able to look to leaders for moral leadership and inspiration. If what they perceive are mercenaries at the helm, then asking them to make sacrifices will be met with cynicism and indifference. This will not bode well for Singapore’s future. What will happen when crunch time comes? Is this a time bomb planted for the future of Singapore?

If we are seriously unable to interest good people into public office, we must ask why other countries can do it and we cannot. Is it just money, or the fact that we have not invested in creating a culture of high public-spiritedness?

In some countries, there are young people aspire to hold public office. SM Goh had previously said that we could not expect to behave like people in other countries because we are a young nation and people still see things in material terms. How sad. After 41 years of nationhood, national service and national day parades, what do we teach our children? Do we judge a person’s worth by his salary? If so, we have wasted millions of tax dollars on these nation-building efforts, which have truly been in vain!

Public service must remain a noble undertaking for which people are prepared to make sacrifices in exchange for the benevolent power to improve the lives of others. If we corrupt this by money, we can be efficient but never a country of high ideals. As such, I cannot agree with the Members who see political office as yet another career choice. It must be more than a job, and the holder must be able to think of others besides himself.

And it does not matter what transparency the government has claimed in this attempt to justify the pay hike.”


Singaporeans perhaps don’t feel like they’re contributing very much at all, apart from economically, under “mercenaries at the helm”. It’s all very “transactional”. Most Singaporean NSFs and NSmen, I imagine, feel more affinity towards one another than towards the SAF at large- I have no real evidence to prove this, but it does usually feel that way. Those relationships are still real and they still do count towards building a sense of belonging.

What was Singapore like before we had a mercenary culture? Before we had a mercenary culture, my grandparents tell me, we had kampung spirit. I hope we are able to bring some of that back, because it would make living in Singapore a lot more bearable.

Personally, I would like to explore the concept that a sense of belonging is derived from a sense of contribution. (As JFK  famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”) When I say country, I don’t mean to say government. I mean to say, what can we do for each other, independent of the government, to make Singapore a better place to live in, for one another? I still intuitively feel that we have to encourage and support the arts, sports- there is something about that that reminds me of Broken Windows Theory.

Essentially it seems that the best thing that we can do to re-create a sense of belonging for Singaporeans is to create conditions where we feel that we are somehow involved, that we’re contributing to something greater than ourselves. I instinctively want to talk about encouraging the arts.

“weak local arts scene. You had anti-bush artists during bush’s reign, who weren’t afraid of speaking out. Here artists of any kind have a kind of castrated aura about them. And with a weak local arts scene you can’t build a locally flavored pop culture that is the catalyst (not the main ingredient, though) to the construction of a strong sense of identity.”

“An arts scene (and a sports scene, too!) gives people something to be a part of, something to contribute to, to witness and to be engaged by- it’s kind of like a larger family, a larger coffeeshop, a larger entity/organism.”

What can we do? That’s the most important question, now.  Complaining doesn’t help. What are your suggestions? Let’s get cracking!