Truth-telling in Sin­ga­pore.

Asia-Pa­cific lead­ers gather­ing in Sin­ga­pore for next week’s ASEAN Sum­mit won’t find many ‘crazy rich Asians’ of the hit film va­ri­ety, but rather a lot of un­happy ones who are feel­ing the pinch. By Hamish McDon­ald.

The Saturday Paper - - Contents | The Week - Hamish McDon­ald

Trop­i­cal rain is buck­et­ing down when P.J. Thum ar­rives for our meet­ing at a semiout­door Star­bucks amid high-rise pub­lic hous­ing flats on Sin­ga­pore’s un­fash­ion­able north side. Seek­ing quiet­ness, we move in­side a nearby shop­ping mall to a cafe of­fer­ing bev­er­ages of a lo­cal flavour: black tea with the op­tion of evap­o­rated or con­densed milk – the tan­nin-laden, chalky legacy of long-gone Bri­tish mil­i­tary men.

Thum – full name Thum Ping Tjin – is 38 years old, ath­letic and preppy in tor­toise­shell spec­ta­cles and a pink shirt. From Sin­ga­pore’s eth­nic Chi­nese ma­jor­ity, he has an Ox­ford doc­tor­ate in his­tory, is a for­mer Olympic swim­mer and has an un­blem­ished mil­i­tary ser­vice record. All of which makes him the ideal can­di­date to go far in Sin­ga­pore’s kind of mer­i­toc­racy − per­haps join­ing the “men in white” of the Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party, in power since 1959.

Ex­cept Thum made the wrong ca­reer choice for that. As his his­tory spe­cial­i­sa­tion de­vel­oped, he’d been think­ing of a bi­og­ra­phy of Ves­pasian, the Ro­man le­gion­naire who, after in­vad­ing Bri­tain and quelling the Jewish re­volt, was in­stalled as em­peror by ac­cla­ma­tion of his troops and ended a pe­riod of in­sta­bil­ity.

“Then I thought, ‘There are other peo­ple who can do that, many peo­ple do­ing way bet­ter work on Ro­man his­tory than I could,’” he tells me. “‘But who’s go­ing to do Sin­ga­pore his­tory?’”

Soon after his re­turn to a post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at the Na­tional Univer­sity of Sin­ga­pore (NUS), a his­toric wind­fall came his way: the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment de­clas­si­fied its ar­chive for the tu­mul­tuous year of 1963 in Sin­ga­pore and Malaya when the two self-gov­ern­ing for­mer colonies were mov­ing to join up in the new, pro-Western na­tion of Malaysia, stand­ing against the com­mu­nist tide sweep­ing South-East Asia.

It con­tained doc­u­ments about Op­er­a­tion Cold­store, the sweep by Sin­ga­pore’s Spe­cial Branch in Fe­bru­ary 1963 to de­tain more than 100 politi­cians, trade union­ists and ac­tivists with­out trial, os­ten­si­bly to pre­vent the un­der­ground Malayan Com­mu­nist Party in­sti­gat­ing un­rest to hin­der the for­ma­tion of Malaysia.

From these doc­u­ments, Thum found the proof of what many had long sus­pected: that then chief min­is­ter Lee Kuan Yew mounted Cold­store chiefly to nob­ble the left­ist op­po­si­tion party, Barisan Sosialis, loom­ing as a se­ri­ous chal­lenge to his Peo­ple’s Ac­tion Party (PAP) in forth­com­ing elec­tions. The ar­chive shows Lee vir­tu­ally ad­mit­ting as much to Bri­tish of­fi­cials. It set a pat­tern of ruth­less use of com­mu­nist scares and pre­ven­tive de­ten­tion pow­ers that Lee em­ployed for decades.

As he wrote and talked about these find­ings, Thum soon got the an­swer to his ques­tion about who would write Sin­ga­porean his­tory.

“Only some­one brave or stupid enough,” he says. “Here it is al­most ca­reer sui­cide to do Sin­ga­pore his­tory, be­cause even­tu­ally you run into the prob­lem of ei­ther you have to cen­sor your­self in Sin­ga­pore or you leave Sin­ga­pore and you en­ter an in­dus­try which is not in­ter­ested nowa­days in this sort of niche his­tory.”

Within a year, a se­nior NUS ad­min­is­tra­tor pulled him aside. “I am not sup­posed to tell you this, but a direc­tive has come down from the top,” the of­fi­cial said. “You’re black­listed: no re­newal, no ex­ten­sion, no new con­tract. You’d bet­ter make plans.”

Thum went back to Ox­ford, then re­turned to Sin­ga­pore with fund­ing from the Open So­ci­ety Foun­da­tions of Ge­orge Soros and other do­na­tions big and small to start New Naratif, a web plat­form for re­search, jour­nal­ism and art in South­East Asia.

In Sin­ga­pore he is not alone in myth-bust­ing. In 2014, he con­trib­uted to the book Hard Choices: Chal­leng­ing the Sin­ga­pore Con­sen­sus, which queried many PAP nar­ra­tives. It re­garded mer­i­toc­racy as a cover for elitism and group­think; low taxes and mi­grant labour ben­e­fit­ing the wealthy and pun­ish­ing or­di­nary lo­cals; the pur­chase of gov­ern­ment flats a trap rather than eco­nomic se­cu­rity.

The writ­ers saw them­selves as help­ing point Sin­ga­pore to a more sus­tain­able pros­per­ity, ex­plains co-au­thor Don­ald Low, an econ­o­mist and for­mer fi­nance min­istry of­fi­cial, in what seemed at the time a new era of flex­i­bil­ity and con­tested pol­icy on the part of the PAP. In 2011, in the eco­nomic dol­drums after the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis, vot­ers gave the party and Prime Min­is­ter Lee Hsien Loong – the el­dest son of Lee Kuan Yew – a se­vere shock. The PAP vote dropped by 6.5 points to 60 per cent, the low­est since 1963. The Work­ers Party gained six of the 87 seats, the best op­po­si­tion re­sult since Sin­ga­pore broke from Malaysia in 1965. In a sep­a­rate pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, a widely liked mav­er­ick came close to beat­ing the PAP’s pre­ferred can­di­date.

Lee re­sponded with so­cial pol­icy re­forms, hints of open­ness and some hum­ble ges­tures, no­tably cutting his own salary by 36 per cent to $S2.2 mil­lion and that of his min­is­ters to $S1.1 mil­lion. The PAP has long ar­gued that these salaries, still the high­est in the world for elected of­fi­cials, are nec­es­sary to at­tract top tal­ent and lessen cor­rupt temp­ta­tions.

How­ever, in 2015, Lee Kuan Yew died, aged 91. After an ef­fu­sion of na­tional mourn­ing his son called a snap elec­tion, in which the PAP vote re­bounded to nearly 70 per cent. “The re­sult of 2015 re­moved what­ever im­pe­tus or pres­sure there was, both within and with­out,” Low tells me, over beers and an­other lo­cal adap­ta­tion of Bri­tish cui­sine, crispy­toasted Spam. “The re­form ap­petite has com­pletely gone out the win­dow in Sin­ga­pore in the last three years.”

Dig deeper, he says, and Sin­ga­pore­ans are far from the “crazy rich Asians” of this year’s hit film set in the glit­ter­ing south side of the is­land, with its her­itage ho­tels, fu­sion cui­sine and rooftop in­fin­ity pools.

For a few, the is­land is like this. A bun­ga­low sold last month for

$S95 mil­lion, re­flect­ing the top-end wealth cre­ated by in­come tax rates that plateau at 22 per cent at $S320,000 a year and the ab­sence of cap­i­tal gains or in­her­i­tance taxes. IT start-ups are thriv­ing. Bri­tish in­ven­tor James Dyson has just cho­sen Sin­ga­pore to man­u­fac­ture his new elec­tric car.

For the rest, things are pretty stag­nant. Cit­i­zens are now only about 60 per cent of the 5.6 mil­lion pop­u­la­tion, their wages and job open­ings de­pressed by work­ers im­ported from the wider re­gion. The 85 per cent liv­ing in Hous­ing and De­vel­op­ment Board flats that they have been per­suaded to buy have seen val­ues flat­ten. They are likely to de­cline steadily once their “own­er­ship” gets to the half­way point of what are ac­tu­ally 99-year leases.

Low and Thum see few re­sponses com­ing out of the PAP now.

The fall of the sim­i­lar-vin­tage United Malays Na­tional Or­gan­i­sa­tion in Malaysia’s elec­tion this year has been a new shock. Un­der the re­turned Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, Kuala Lumpur is break­ing its mould, end­ing cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment while Sin­ga­pore steps up its hang­ing, wind­ing back eth­nic Malay priv­i­lege, and ex­pos­ing how Gold­man Sachs bankers, some based in Sin­ga­pore, helped loot the 1MDB fund of bil­lions.

It’s at­tract­ing some envy. “Be­cause re­ally we are the same coun­try,” Thum said. “We just got split up by politi­cians who couldn’t get along. There are so many sim­i­lar­i­ties that Sin­ga­pore­ans look north and see a so­ci­ety that looks so sim­i­lar to ours but is head­ing in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, with hope and vi­sion, things that we lack.”

Sin­ga­pore’s prob­lem is en­nui, not mas­sive scan­dal. PAP lead­ers look back, ar­gu­ing about who best em­bod­ies Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. In the 2015 elec­tion one even boasted about the lack of prom­ises, since prom­ises can be bro­ken.

Lee Hsien Loong is only 66 and highly com­pe­tent, but looks older than his years, after over­com­ing two types of can­cer, then faint­ing while speak­ing at a na­tional day rally two years ago. He has said he will re­tire at 70, so the next elec­tion, widely ex­pected to be next year, will be his last be­fore hand­ing over.

But to whom? The con­sen­sus is that a third-gen­er­a­tion Lee fam­ily mem­ber, such as the prime min­is­ter’s pushy sec­ond son Li Hongyi, an IT spe­cial­ist, could be a risk, es­pe­cially after a pub­lic fam­ily squab­ble about the dis­posal of Lee Kuan Yew’s old house that di­min­ished the dy­nas­tic aura.

The al­ter­na­tive comes down to three can­di­dates among younger min­is­ters, with se­nior mil­i­tary rank and close­ness to Lee Hsien Loong their main sell­ing points in­side the party. “They’re all bland, in­ter­change­able, bor­ing, unin­spir­ing male Chi­nese,” Thum says. “The prob­lem is com­pounded by the fact there is a clear, pop­u­lar leader that Sin­ga­pore­ans want.”

This is cur­rent deputy prime min­is­ter, Thar­man Shan­mu­garat­nam, 61. A for­mer head of the Mon­e­tary Au­thor­ity of Sin­ga­pore, and later fi­nance min­is­ter, he is cred­ited with the post-2011 re­forms that helped the PAP re­bound in 2015.

But he was then shifted into a vague co­or­di­nat­ing role in cabi­net.

There is more his­tory here. In 1987, Lee Kuan Yew used in­ter­nal se­cu­rity pow­ers again, in Op­er­a­tion Spec­trum, to de­tain 22 young Catholic so­cial ac­tivists, some of whom, after soft tor­ture, con­fessed on TV to hav­ing been un­wit­ting tools of the com­mu­nists. Study­ing at the Lon­don School of Eco­nom­ics, Shan­mu­garat­nam had mixed with one of the de­tainees, and an ex­iled Sin­ga­porean left­ist lawyer, Tan Wah Piow. “I can only spec­u­late that the PAP feels that Thar­man is a use­ful tool but he can’t be trusted to lead be­cause he will take Sin­ga­pore in a very dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, es­pe­cially one away from the Lee fam­ily,” Thum said.

And of course, he is of Tamil de­scent. As Flin­ders Univer­sity po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Michael Barr wrote in his re­cent book

The Rul­ing Elite of Sin­ga­pore: “To­day the ideal Sin­ga­porean is no longer an Englishe­d­u­cated Sin­ga­porean, but an English- and Man­darin-speak­ing Chi­nese.” Lee Kuan Yew got the PAP hooked on the no­tion that only strong in­di­vid­u­als, like the ideal Con­fu­cian junzi (right­eous gen­tle­man), could pre­serve the na­tion, not strong and in­de­pen­dent in­sti­tu­tions.

Mean­while, the PAP lead­er­ship plays it by its time-tested book of le­gal ac­tion against op­po­si­tion fig­ures: for defama­tion, con­tempt and some­times minute fi­nan­cial ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties, such as us­ing of­fice sta­tionery for pri­vate pur­poses.

Three MPs of the Work­ers Party are in court fac­ing charges of fi­nan­cial lax­ity in the lo­cal coun­cil they also run, with the gov­ern­ment-owned me­dia break­ing away from what Low calls its usual “Pan­glos­sian cheer­lead­ing” to give the trial reams of cover­age.

Even a stal­wart of Lee Kuan

Yew’s era, diplo­mat and “Asian val­ues” pro­po­nent Kishore Mah­bubani, fell foul of the sys­tem. His of­fence was an op-ed, after Chi­nese of­fi­cials blocked the Hong Kong tran­sit of Sin­ga­pore ar­moured ve­hi­cles be­ing shipped back from ex­er­cises in Tai­wan, say­ing that small coun­tries had to put up with such things. He was re­moved as dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Pub­lic Pol­icy at NUS.

In March, Thum him­self ap­peared be­fore the Sin­ga­pore par­lia­ment’s

Se­lect Com­mit­tee on De­lib­er­ate On­line False­hoods, to ar­gue among other things that a gov­ern­ment de­fend­ing Op­er­a­tion Cold­store had its own prob­lems with truth. He found his aca­demic cre­den­tials ques­tioned for six hours in what was clearly a pre­pared am­bush by the law and home af­fairs min­is­ter, K. Shan­mugam, the gov­ern­ment’s main po­lit­i­cal at­tack dog.

Still, his­tory does have its re­wards. After one talk, a man in the au­di­ence ap­proached Thum. He had been a Cold­store de­tainee: the stigma of be­ing a com­mu­nist dupe had re­mained after his re­lease. Now Thum had shown there was no such ev­i­dence. “The man said that be­cause of my work, he can look his wife and chil­dren in the eye,” Thum said. “He said: ‘P.J., you’ve given me my pride and my dig­nity back.’ I will never for­get the priv­i­lege to be able to make some­one’s life

• bet­ter like that.”


HAMISH McDON­ALD is The Satur­day Pa­per’s world ed­i­tor.

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