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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Incrementalist or Infinitian: An expose of LEE Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew is living proof that you can get along nicely without having had a single big idea in your entire life. True, most of us also fall into that category but then, it is not our job to lead the country and therefore, to think for the country. More to the point, we are not paid to recognise and solve the country's problems, especially through the difficult process of thinking. And perhaps most salient of all, we are not paid the more than $1 million a year that he gives himself for this ability, or lack of it.

Now, there is a book, or rather, a collection of some of his most important speeches, edited by 3 Straits Times journalists, mis-titled, "Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and his Ideas". But anyone who manages to struggle through it would be hard pressed to identify any idea. If simply coming out with a policy is an idea, then every leader throughout pre-recorded and recorded history would have had loads of them and it would be so commonplace that we would have to re-write the definition of idea in our dictionaries. However, if idea is defined as something like, "To see what everyone has seen but to think what no one has thought", then Lee Kuan Yew never had an idea in his entire life.

Of course, to give credit where credit is due, he has had little thoughts. Such as his campaign to "Eat More Wheat" to wean us from rice to wheat to save foreign exchange. It didn't work. The habit was, shall we say, ingrained. Then, he also had a campaign not too many years ago, to spruce up the scruffy-looking young men who sported long hair by rounding them up and taking them straight to a short haircut. Then also, who can forget his campaign to "Stop At Two" which saw women sterilising themselves in thousands in order to qualify for public housing, in which 90% of us live, because private housing is prohibitively expensive.

The truth is, Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore have made great strides simply through borrowed ideas, borrowed capital, borrowed technology and now borrowed talent. This simply means that if something has been done successfully elsewhere, it will soon be adopted in Singapore by our leaders and bureaucrats, and implemented to solve a similar problem or to improve a process. Conversely, if the problem is uniquely Singaporean, Lee Kuan Yew and his government would not even be able to recognise it, let alone solve it. Therefore, a uniquely Singaporean problem would not be identified and therefore, no uniquely Singaporean solution is possible.

This is not too bad for Singapore or Lee Kuan Yew because very few problems and solutions are unique to Singaporeans. The problems of jobs, housing, health care, security, sustenance, etc, are all common to cities and states everywhere, and have been identified and faced by rulers everywhere, from dictators to democrats from time immemorial. There is little new, and when they are new or unique to Singapore, they are not a problem simply because they are not even identified as a problem. Put simply, if you cannot even see the problem, how can you come up with the solution?

Take Electronic Road Pricing or ERP. It is also mis-named because the roads are not priced. Most of them are free until you travel past an ugly gantry, then you are hit with a fee, deducted electronically. Thus, it is not so much a road pricing as an electronic toll booth system, which has long existed in other countries. This mis-named ERP is a direct incremental step from the previous system of policewomen manning the booths leading into the business district. Replace the policewomen with an electronic deduction system and hey presto! you have the ERP. That is typical incremental thinking.

Incremental thinking is fine. You can start from 1 and in steady increments of say, 1 or 2, reach 100. Or even 1,000. How fast you reach a big number depends on how big is your incremental step. Except that, if you think in increments, you can reach a big number but not the concept of infinity. For that, you need a big leap of the imagination, not just incremental steps and Lee Kuan Yew is definitely an incrementalist, not an infinitian.

Is that so bad? Perhaps not. He has done enough to be crowned 'father of modern Singapore' although that has more to do with the fact that Singapore is just 50 miles by 40 miles, an island surrounded and protected and isolated by water. In a very strategic location. With a legacy of good government from the British, which set up almost all the housing, legal, administrative, trade and even the anti-corruption institutions here. The rest was incremental thinking, with quite a few mistakes and steps back.

But the future, and increasingly the present, will not be as easy. Remember that Lee Kuan Yew's thinking was fossilised in the 60s and 70s. That is to say, pre-pc and pre-Internet. Which is practically to say, pre-Cambrian. The Internet is changing communities world-wide, everywhere it reaches. It is changing society, the way we work and play, even some of our basic nature. Historians of the future may well divide history, not as present, into BC and AD but as pre-Internet and post-Internet, so dramatic are the changes it is bringing. And Lee Kuan Yew is pre-Internet.

That would not be so bad if the younger leaders are capable of real thinking and analysis. But look at soon-to-be PM, Lee Hsien Loong. First son of Lee Kuan Yew and practically cloned to think like his dad because of the latter's 'father knows best' thinking. Look at the others, who faithfully parrot Lee Kuan Yew's sayings, word for word, e.g.. "the fault lines of race, language and religion". There isn't a single one among them who inspires confidence in his ability to think out of Lee Kuan Yew's strictures. Essentially, Lee will continue to rule long after his body has decomposed. He has indoctrinated a generation of new leaders so successfully that his thinking will live on after him.

Except that his thinking was fossilised in the 60s and 70s. And we are now into a new millennium, with new and ever faster changes.

Thus, the best thing for present-day Singapore is for Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong to disappear from the scene so as to prevent more damage from Lee's fossilised thinking, set in stone. This may enable a new generation to break free of their blinkers and to see things as they are, from relations with Malaysia and Indonesia, and the rest of the world, to how Singaporeans can live better lives, to thinking about and allowing a legitimate, and rightful, place for the opposition in Singapore.

To wait until Lee is dead and then start questioning and unravelling his twisted threads of thought, may cost us another generation.