2004-09-01 23:28:18 UTC
2 September 2004
Singapore spoils one for the world
By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray
I LIKE the sound of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's new designation. From Senior
Minister, he has become Minister Mentor, which recalls the time when
Mr Sachin Chaudhuri, the distinguished Bengali barrister, property
owner and paterfamilias of a rich and extensive clan, accepted the
finance portfolio in then-prime minister Indira Gandhi's Cabinet. 'He
was king,' a junior kinsman lamented, 'but became a minister.'
At the risk of offending Singapore's new Prime Minister Lee Hsien
Loong, I must confess to being glad that the Minister Mentor title
indicates no diminution of his father's authority. Such an
unfashionable view would not have flowed from my computer a few months
In the great debate between order and freedom, I have always been
foremost among those who value a crust of bread and liberty to the
comforts of the nanny state.
But after four weeks of travelling on the European continent and
living in England since then, I can applaud the British Home
Secretary's draft law empowering the police to arrest people for a
range of offences, including littering. I hope Mr David Blunkett goes
further, takes a leaf out of Singapore's book and compels litterbugs
to clean up their mess under a social work order.
Pestered by beggars - a term that is quite unfairly reserved for the
East and seldom, if ever, applied to Western mendicants and vagrants -
while dining alfresco at Barcelona's pavement cafes, lugging heavy
suitcases along the Paris Metro's long, dirty and evil-smelling
passages with nary a sign of elevator or escalator, and surrounded by
dire warnings of thieves prowling about, ready to snatch my
belongings, in the public library in London's fashionable Kensington
district, I longed for Singapore's security, amenities and efficiency.
The contrast was most striking at the Charles de Gaulle airport in
Paris. My wife and I got there early hoping to squander several
pleasurable hours gazing at merchandise we cannot afford to buy,
surfing the Net for free, sipping richly brewed coffee, and stretching
out on comfortably upholstered easy chairs, all commonplace delights
of Singapore's Changi Airport.
The Paris check-in clerk expressed astonishment at our early arrival
but refrained from saying more though I saw him watching with a
puzzled look as, formalities over, we rushed through the security
gates to what we thought would be paradise. Instead, the area beyond
seemed like a shabby moonscape.
Perhaps rich travellers do sample the luxuries that Changi offers to
all comers, but the business and first-class lounges at Charles de
Gaulle were firmly shut in our faces. 'There are some chairs in the
satellite,' a kindly official volunteered after seeing us traipse up
and down in mounting despair, dragging aching limbs. Thither we bent
our weary steps.
It was a long slog to the satellite, a kind of circular bay at the end
of a corridor, but, yes, there were one or two rows of upright seats
at the end. Though nothing like Changi's reclining sofas smothered in
silence to encourage slumber, they did command a view of planes
landing and taking off.
But dreams of coffee had to be abandoned for it would have meant
another trek back to the central area. Even tiny Brunei airport, we
remembered bitterly, had allowed us to shower and change before
sitting down with a cup of coffee to check our e-mail.
Westerners are unaware of the extent of their deprivation. On learning
that I had flown in from Singapore, a taxi driver in rural England
once asked what it was like there.
Anxious to steer clear of political controversy, I replied 'Very
clean.' Swivelling round, the man demanded challengingly, 'Cleaner
Now I love London, its grace, dignity, noble buildings and hallowed
traditions, but there is no denying that parts of this great city
could learn a thing or two from Singapore in tidiness.
At the same time, Singapore can also, of course, learn from London,
not least in the qualities of head and heart without which brick and
mortar amount to nothing.
Mr Goh Chok Tong, who has just stepped down as Singapore's prime
minister, was not unaware of that. His 14 years in office were marked
by a range of concessions to fashionable adventure like permission to
dance on bar tops or to stand on a soap box and shout to the deafening
silence of an empty park in a designated Speakers' Corner.
If change was not more drastic, it was only because Singaporeans,
including the most intellectual critics of the system, are far too
comfortable with the status quo to hanker for a real transformation.
But this might come about willy nilly if the man at the top desires
it, and that is what I fear most about the new leadership.
What if Mr Lee Junior feels impelled to live up to the global Joneses
and follow fashions set by new brooms in Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur?
True, that is not the style associated with him but, in a gush of
enthusiasm, the Prime Minister did urge Singaporeans to 'feel free to
express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas, or be different'.
That uncharacteristic exhortation could be at the expense of the
qualities that underlie the magic talisman 'Singapore works' which,
his father will tell him, is the city-state's raison d'etre.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew is fond of recounting that Goa and Hong Kong have
merged with the hinterland and Gibraltar is under pressure to do so.
Singapore alone stands out and alone. Singapore spoils one for the
world but, as he warns, it must deliver to survive.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of South-east
Asian Studies. The views expressed here are his own. This article
first appeared in Business Standard, a New Delhi newspaper.