World

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.

Truth-telling in Singapore

Tropical rain is bucketing down when P. J. Thum arrives for our meeting at a semi-outdoor 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 South-East 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, crispy-toasted 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 English-educated 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.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 10, 2018 as "Singapore sting". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor.