Having paid our due to President Coolidge, we now turn to an informal Navy Seal motto to help us fathom Singapore the improbable. Articulated by, among others, Admiral Dennis Blair and adumbrated by David Brooks, it goes like this: “We’re Americans: Anything worth doing is worth overdoing—and at great expense.” Amusing, sure; but what does it mean?
For present purposes, it means that if you combine a technocratic juggernaut manned by well-trained, coherently led personnel with expansive mission mandates defined by higher political authorities, you will, at least from time to time, defeat any balancing gyroscope designed to keep it from running off the rails. There will be excesses. Mistakes of commission will outnumber mistakes of omission. Adjustments will ensue, but so long as the juggernaut remains in motion with political endorsement, a rinse-and-repeat pattern will emerge.
Navy Seal operations fit the category, which is why civilian overseers festoon its subculture with lawyers—as they should, whatever the resultant warrior frustrations. Singapore’s administrative technocracy fits the category too, for similar generic reasons and other reasons special to its circumstances. In short, like the U.S. Special Ops community, most of the time it’s admirably efficient, but when it isn’t, it isn’t in a characteristically “overdone” way.1 Specific examples will follow next time, but before examples can sum to make overall sense they need be set in an intelligible framework. That’s today’s labor.
Generic reasons for any technocracy’s overdoing things include those associated with the intrinsic nature of elitism. The corporate-minded folks who run the Red Dot (a.k.a. Singapore) consist of the high ranks of the People’s Action Party and the senior managers who direct its ministries, agencies, and two sovereign wealth funds. To give an extreme but not entirely uncharacteristic example of the tightness of this networked and not infrequently family intermarried elite, the CEO of Temasek is the wife of the current Prime Minister (who is the son of Singapore’s first and most illustrious Prime Minister). Ho Ching and Lee Hsien Loong—although several rungs down the ladder from the late iconic duo of Lee Kwan Yew and Kwa Geok Choo—are Singapore’s current power-political couple; when they walk together arm-in-arm, small explosions issue from the heels of their shoes.
Similar connections run vertically through generational time. A recent long-serving Deputy Prime Minister, Teo Chee Hean, is the great-nephew of Teo Eng Hock, one of Singapore’s most prominent late 19th-early 20th century Teochew business and political figures. Family and dialect-group/clan connections among ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, called guanxi, represent deep reservoirs of bonding social trust. It is a trust based on common values and protects against selfish rogue actors ending up in high positions where they could do much harm. It is not to be confused with crude nepotism; nor does it negate Singapore’s fealty to meritocracy that opens high positions in private and public sectors to Indians, Malays, and others who make the grade. But at the very top of the interlinked business/political elite, these connections do skew it. Hence, no sentient adult here thinks Singapore will have an Indian or Malay Prime Minister any time before the orchid display in the Botanical Gardens freezes over.
There is a Malay President who happens also to be a woman, Halimah Yakub.2 It would be churlish to stigmatize her as a token; she is able and accomplished. But she attained her mostly ceremonial office accompanied by a kind of rigging: the PAP elite’s warping and winding the constitutional law stipulating who can become President and how. It’s no stretch, therefore, to characterize her elevation into office from a PAP loyalist into an obligatory party-unaffiliated President as managed symbolism.
The symbolism itself was arguably a sensible aim. But did the method exemplify overdoing it—too much stage management veiled by too thin a wizard’s curtain? Depends who you ask, but just about everyone agrees that Yakub would have won handily even without any special efforts courtesy of the PAP brain trust.
All insular and confident political elite clusters tend to generate a sense of privilege—earned privilege, perhaps, but privilege all the same. When coupled with the longevity of high status and a perception of success at doing the “job,” a certain rigidity of personality, defensiveness about criticism, and, at times in some people, arrogance about their own presumed infallibility can result. It can also lead to a belief that the über-elite are entitled to warp and wind the law to their own purposes. The tendency isn’t new: See II Samuel, chapter 12, for an example concerning King David and a family friend named Nathan.
The keenest American interpreters of this compound condition in the United States have been members of the Adams family (no, not that Addams family…). First from President John Adams:
Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.
Next from his great-grandson Henry:
No man, however strong, can serve ten years as a school-master, priest, or senator and remain fit for anything else. All the dogmatic stations in life have the effect of fixing a certain stiffness of attitude forever, as though they mesmerized the subject. . . . The effect of power and publicity on all men is the aggravation of self, a sort of tumor that ends by killing the victim’s sympathies, a diseased appetite, like a passion for drink or perverted tastes.
No cloistered elite is safe from such infirmities of mien and mind. The circulation of elites generally and the rotation of political leadership in particular are preventatives against ingrown insularity, arrogance, and, as Henry Adams put it, “the killing of sympathies” in any mature political order.
Is Singapore’s present political elite afflicted by such debilities? Can there be such a thing as too much bonding social trust, such that an elite can become excessively confident in its own judgment? Let me remind you that Singapore contains multitudes, and that nothing here is simple. The answer, alas, depends on who is asked the question.
Which begs a better question: What are the historical and cultural facets of overdoing it, in part at least, “with Chinese characteristics”? Since I am not and never will be expert on anything Chinese, I rely for parts of an answer on Singapore’s 89-year-old sage Wang Gungwu—whom I have read, known, and worked with now and again for 25 years. For present purposes, three insights demand a hearing.
First, the paternalistic nature of leadership in Singapore owes much to a path dependency planted amid its 1965 origin, and it has little to do with anything culturally Chinese. When Singapore was thrust into independence against its will, the leadership faced a parlous situation in which maintaining social order and political control was paramount. Traumatic 1964 race riots were vivid in their working memory. The trauma of the 1942-45 Japanese occupation was still felt, partly in the form of the psychological shock of the sudden, ignominious dethronement of British superiority that rattled the self-confidence of the Chinese elite whose members had modeled themselves as Westernizing Anglophones.
In the mid-1960s, too, the country still deserved “the world’s largest slum” epithet, and the recent withdrawal of the British from the naval base at Sembawang had left an unsolved employment crisis in its wake. And Maoist China loomed nearby, at work avidly infiltrating labor unions across the region as well as in Singapore itself, an effort that contributed to cataclysmic civil violence in Indonesia the same year Singapore was thrown into independence. That same year, too, in February, U.S. Marines hit the beach at Da Nang to prevent South Vietnam from being communized by force of arms.
If all that were not enough, the Sukarno government in Indonesia had opposed the creation of a “greater” Malaysia—one that included parts of Borneo as well as Singapore. During the Konfrontasi of 1963-66, bombs went off here as an offshoot of that complex disagreement from hell. Under such conditions, the notion of introducing multiparty democracy seemed a formula for ethnic-based civil war, external intervention, and near-instant oblivion.
But second, yes, Singapore’s paternalistic political culture does owe also to the Taoist/Confucian prism that splits civil light into the colors of Chinese culture. It is a deep shaping factor that is much more powerful than a mere two generations of Anglophonic affections and affectations.
At least as much as China itself these days, whose intellectual traditions have been whipsawed by forced-march Marxism-Leninism and its partial relaxation, Singapore’s elite prizes orderliness above all else. There is right and wrong, diligence and laziness, loyalty and disobedience. Despite the existence in the Analects of a right to oppose unrighteous, ruinous rule, history has bequeathed the de facto obligation that authority and expertise are due respect and honor. There is, in short, a natural hierarchy inherent in all things that guides virtuous behavior, and in that hierarchy all things fit together. Reality exudes symmetry. Ambiguity and loose ends make some people in all cultures nervous, but in Confucian-accented Singapore, those personality types dominate.
A vivid if weird attestation is Haw Par Villa, an eight-acre art-diorama park developed largely around the theme of hellfire and damnation, Asia style. Dating from 1937, courtesy of the brothers who invented Tiger Balm, the place is surreal in a specific way: It is a deliberately over-the-top extrapolation of the sacred statuary and related art styles one finds in Taoist/Buddhist temples and shrines. One Haw Par exhibit takes you through a tunnel displaying the ten courts of hell. In each court, a Mandarin matches sins to specific punishments, which are illustrated in roughly one-fifth scale miniature before you. It is the orderliness of the surreality that is striking.
The hellish lore is a mash-up of Taoist, Hindu, and Buddhist legends, in keeping with the syncretism of typical Asian approaches to religion. Buddhism comes out of Hinduism and most Taoist temples here have Buddhist rooms or sections. Adepts mix and match deities and supplications as suits the moment. Confucianism functions as a trans-ritual ethical umbrella, for East Asian traditions do not join faith and philosophy, ritual and law, in the same ways that the Abrahamic faiths do.
Another illustration of the general point can be gleaned from something as anodyne as a high-end restaurant experience. At most very high-end Western restaurants, menus offer at least some choices. At nearly all very high-end East Asian restaurants, chefs dictate what is best among the foods available, and know how to cook and present them. Both a Westerner in a high-end Western restaurant who refuses to choose and an Easterner in a high-end Eastern restaurant who deigns to choose are inexplicable in their respective cultural contexts.
This difference echoes across political cultures: Multiparty politics and wide-open elections are menu-like; one-party paternalistic systems are not. Asian democracies are unlikely ever to fully mimic Western types, whatever other reasons may also explain differences.
The difference appears, too, in the nature of counsel in high bureaucracy. In the United States staffers are expected to present options to the President. This is the Goldilocks method: Create three options, one too meek and one too bold, so that the President will choose B, the option in the sweet middle. East Asian staffers do not typically relate to their principals in this manner. If a responsible executive asks an expert his or her view of what to do, that expert gives one view. To offer alternatives would signal indecisiveness and a lack of self-confidence and self-respect, and no East Asian leader—emperor of old or head-of-state at present—wants a wavering adviser, the kind of person, Dean Acheson once commented, who writes memoranda not to inform the reader but to protect the writer.
It all follows from the essence: In Chinese tradition the mandate of “all under heaven” bestows legitimacy upon the Emperor and his right to rule by law—but not to be subject himself to law. Singapore is not strictly East Asian but a hybrid unto itself. It is certainly not China, and there is no Emperor. The very idea is risible—except that shadows of history can play tricks. A tacit if fading posthumous cult of personality around Lee Kuan Yew is detectable, not unusual given his accomplishments and not different, really, from the reputations of George Washington, David Ben-Gurion, Jomo Kenyatta, and many others in their own contexts. Some detect, too, a thin film of apostolic succession across to his closest younger associates and then down to his elder son.
To illustrate one of these shadows, when Lee Kuan Yew said of Sun Yat-sen, “One man changed China”—a quote carved into a memorial sculpture in a park just across from the Sun Yat-sen Museum here—it captured LKY endorsing the “great man” theory of history. This was not mainly because LKY fancied himself belonging to that pantheon, and it couldn’t have referred to Dr. Sun’s extended record, for he lost control of what he let loose in near-record time.
Rather, the great man approach to historical interpretation is the baked-in default mode of the Far East. LKY succeeded in part because he understood and went with the “soft” authoritarian cultural flow, not because, as some have argued, he was a crazed megalomaniac. He was not; he was merely blunt on occasion, as when he remarked in April 1987 that, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. . . . We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
Gungwu explains that Chinese do not hold much with airy abstractions, preferring pragmatics when it comes to politics. They speak of the “thought” of the flesh-and-blood great man—from Mencius, Lao Tzu, and Confucius all the way to Mao, Deng, and now Xi—rather than of disembodied abstract theories. LKY was Singapore’s great man, shaping the first half-century of its independence like no other, and his legacy is his “thought”—even if most here avoid calling it that, at least when speaking English. But some get real close: A popular 1998 book about LKY is entitled Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas.
Third, that the high political elite here embody this paternalism is quintessentially mandarin in origin, but its broader institutional shape owes something as well to the aforementioned Chinese elite’s Anglophonic choices and experience. A lot of what the British brought to Singapore worked pretty well, and Singapore’s first generation of independence leaders were wise enough not to want to screw with it for the mere sake of change. A new photography exhibit at the Sun Yat-sen Museum, highlighting early commercial photo studios here, illustrates the backdrop. The featured photos show well-to-do Chinese dressed in then-stylish Western garb, down to the pocket watch chains emerging from vest coat pockets.
Thus, between the crisis of birth etched into the psyche of the managing elite, a perduring Confucian heritage, and a deliberately adopted (and adapted) Anglophonic legacy, you have the basic formula for the singularly Singaporean technocratic character. With it, you also have the formula for how the “family firm” state occasionally overdoes things.
As it happens, every political culture overdoes some things, just not the same things. Recall Aristotle’s remark that “Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms” because, as Socrates explains in Book VIII of Plato’s Republic, all types of political orders stipulate a highest value, then fail to moderate and balance the pursuit of that value. Too much of a good thing eventually leads to dysfunction and either collapse or absorption by a different order. Fantasies that an ideal order, once constructed, could be frozen in time were all in vain; the Greeks knew that stasis in political life is neither possible nor desirable. Socrates: “A city which is thus constituted can hardly be shaken; but, seeing that everything which has a beginning has also an end, even a constitution such as yours will not last forever, but will in time be dissolved.”
As fish are the last to discover water, it is often easier for Americans to see excesses in others than in themselves. Good arguments exist that the contemporary United States is following a “Greek” trajectory, accelerating around the curve of an historical hyperbola for having failed to moderate and balance individualism, technological optimism, free speech, and due process. But the question before us is what happens to a managed para-democratic Confucian city-state when it fails to moderate and balance its highest values? What does that look like? Examples are next, so don’t touch that dial.
1To Singaporeans: Let me note that, while glad to refute negative stereotypes about Singapore in the earlier parts of this series, this one and the next lean more toward the critical side. So a caveat: Enter at peril to your own patriotic amour-propre.
2A Malay in Singapore is anyone who claims to be a Malay and is accepted as such by the Malay community. This entails being a Muslim. Halimah Yakub is reportedly an Indian Muslim by origin, not actually an ethnic Malay. But she wears the tudong (Malay word for scarf/hijab), speaks Malay, and is universally associated with the Malay community in Singapore. In this, she apparently has an attribute in common with Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad.