Rare peek into intra-Cabinet politics

By Elgin Toh

A fuller picture of Singapore’s political history is emerging, thanks to revelations made by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in a new book, Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.

Disagreements within the Cabinet and reasons for certain ministers being dropped, resigning or threatening to resign – subjects like these, Mr Lee discussed with surprising frankness.

What they offer readers is a rare peek into an area usually shrouded in secrecy: intra-Cabinet politics.

For instance, when three ministers – Dr Tony Tan, Mr S. Dhanabalan and Dr Yeo Ning Hong – left the Cabinet between 1991 and 1994, shortly after Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as prime minister, Singaporeans were told only that they had asked to return to the private sector.

Dr Yeo, who had held the defence portfolio, told this newspaper in December 1993, before he left, that his departure was a vote of confidence in Mr Goh and his team of third-generation ministers and their ability to deliver. When asked by the reporter about rumours of personality clashes, he dismissed them as ‘foolish talk’.

It turns out that the three ministers, including Dr Yeo, had resigned in quick succession because they ‘didn’t take to (Mr Goh’s) style’, according to Mr Lee.

Another nugget in the book: Mr Lee said Dr Toh Chin Chye was given less important portfolios, then eased out of Cabinet, because some of his colleagues had lost confidence in him after he ‘panicked and called a curfew straightaway’ during a 1964 riot, while Mr Lee was out of the country. In particular, then Law Minister, the late Mr Eddie Barker, was reported by Mr Lee to have said: ‘If he’s in charge I’m leaving the Government.’

For Singaporeans normally starved of sensational political news, this is probably the closest they will get to reading about political intrigue. But satisfaction of curiosity aside, there are other reasons why these revelations are important.

First, we are assured that the People’s Action Party (PAP) Cabinet functions more like a normal Westminster system than the Chinese Communist Party’s Politburo. The prime minister is first among equals, and independent-minded ministers are not so beholden to him that they cannot voice dissent – or threaten to resign.

When power is diffused in the hands of several instead of being held by one, extreme modes of thinking tend to be tempered. This is especially important in the Singapore context, since there is a lack of a robust opposition here to perform the usual check-and-balance role.

Second, Singaporeans are reminded of the need to brace themselves for similar ruptures within the PAP, going forward.

Mr Lee himself said in the book that ‘no system lasts forever’ and that a break-up of the PAP leadership, ‘either for reasons of principle or personality’, could happen.

When it does, this young nation may, with little warning, find itself having to grapple with its first post-independence transfer of power.

Singaporeans owe it to themselves to prepare for the day when strong democratic institutions and a discerning, rational electorate are what they will have to rely upon for continued success.

Source: Sunday Times, 20 Feb 2011

No country for old men

By Rachel Lin

I began my brief stint as a cub reporter covering the death of an old man, one more illustrious than most: Dr Goh Keng Swee.

Now, I am ending my term with the life of another old man, again one of greater distinction than many: Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

It has been only a year, but I have come to one conclusion: That this is no country for old men.

It all came to a head one week, when I was sitting opposite a veteran journalist, a man of more than 60. I heard him speak about his experiences following Mr Lee around during his overseas visits, debating the national issues of the day.

‘If he said to me, ‘Look, I need you to do your part to sacrifice for the country’, I would. That was his power,’ the journalist said. His hand shook as he reached for the cup of tea in front of him. His heart, he said, was failing.

A few days later I was interviewing another man, 90 years old, an old friend of Mr Lee’s. He was hard of hearing and walked with the aid of a walking frame: a tattered coat upon a stick, as Yeats put it.

But I could hear the richness in his voice as he talked about the Japanese Occupation, the British surrender, the sheer act of will that saw a colony propel to independence.

He recounted how he had been part of a group of students who had volunteered to tend to civilians injured by Japanese bombs. All of a sudden I could imagine him, a young man, picking his way through smoke and rubble, among the wounded and maimed. A dangerous job, but one undertaken willingly.

On a third occasion, I spoke to one of Mr Lee’s Old Guard colleagues. Still spry despite being almost 90, he talked about how he had found himself in the firing line, branded a traitor to his race, challenged by the visceral communalist forces that split Malaysia and Singapore apart.

It was a gripping account of divided loyalties and rank treachery. Suddenly, this man was no longer tired. His voice rang out as he described those past times, moved by passionate memory.

‘They said I was not a Muslim. Do you know what that means for a Malay like me, to be called not a Muslim?’ he thundered, colour rising to his face.

All these men had stories to tell, I realised. But they will take their stories to the grave with them, because this is no country for old men – or old women too, for that matter.

We pay too little attention to their lives. We let them flicker out, one by one, with hardly a thought of what we lose when they are gone.

For all his achievements, for all his contributions to Singapore, I could not escape the feeling that something had been irretrievably lost when Dr Goh died.

The students who attended his state funeral barely knew who he was. The public had to be roused from its forgetfulness. We had been caught, as it were, in a fit of national absence of mind.

Dr Goh’s life and work had hardly been touched on in school. It had hardly been mentioned until his passing.

Even then, it occupied the public’s consciousness all too briefly.

Because of that, a bit of our collective memory died along with him.

Is that, I thought, how this country treats its old men? Are all these life stories slowly disappearing, unnoticed by the lives around them?

It’s not just a collection of gripping yarns that we lose. Instead, it’s also the passing of an era, the slow erosion of the kinds of shared memory that make a nation: recollections of past struggle, a window into common history.

Do we know what Singapore’s tumultuous childhood was like? Do we know what was at stake? Can we feel as Singaporeans felt then, when subject peoples caught hold of history and began to steer?

Can we, in short, reminisce our way to nationhood?

Mr Lee says we are not a nation. Perhaps that is true, if only because we have been unwilling – or unable – to do our own remembering.

Nations are made when a group of people feel that they have something in common. A vital part of this is an emotional link to a common past, and an emotional investment in a shared destiny.

But we no longer put human faces to past events. We stop short of giving our heritage an emotive force. We study dates and events, dull as dishwater, dry as dust, with no thought for the power of individual human lives, resurrected.

We let the march of time claim the last living representatives of our history. We close our books and forget.

This is no country for old men.

That’s why, I think, Mr Lee is so keen to set out his ideas. It’s not just a collection of ‘truths’ of varying hardness and validity. It’s also an attempt to convey a historical reality that he felt and experienced intimately.

He is, I suspect, trying to make us remember as much as he is trying to make us ‘wake up’. He is telling a story, his version of the story of how Singapore came to be, in the lived reality of it all.

But his should not be the last word. It is vital for those after him to rise above the risk of our collective amnesia, our neglect of the old men among us, to add their word to his.

Source: Sunday Times, 20 Feb 2011