Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Rise and Rise of the Lee Dynasty

Asian values behind Singapore son's rise
By Gary LaMoshi

HONG KONG - Despite well-publicized signs that Singapore is loosening up by allowing dancing on bars, funding performances that include the f-word, and even legalizing chewing gum (for medicinal purposes, available from pharmacists) under pressure from United States trade negotiators, writer Alfian Sa'at contends little has changed.

"Remaking Singapore" - the government's campaign to encourage creativity among the island's 3.8 million citizens - "is nothing more than Re-branding Singapore," he claims. According to Sa'at, the list of restrictions on freedom of expression recently grew. "Dynasty and nepotism - definitely taboo," warns the enfant terrible of Singapore's literary scene on the eve of the good son rising to the office of prime minister.

Singapore celebrates National Day on August 9. In future years, perhaps in connection with its campaign to increase the birth rate, August 12 may come to be known as Family Day. On that date this week, Lee Hsien Loong, the oldest son of Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew, takes over from Goh Chok Tong to become the island nation's third prime minister.

The younger Lee was elected to Parliament following a military career that saw him reach Brigadier-General by the age of 32. After his father stepped aside in 1990, Lee warmed up for the prime minister's job by serving as finance minister and central bank governor. He's expected to cede at least one of those posts in the new Cabinet.

Current Prime Minister Goh has been tapped to succeed Lee Kuan Yew as senior minister, which Lee calls the "number two" post. The elder Lee promises that, whatever title he's given, he will continue to exercise significant influence and speak out on key issues, privileges still denied average citizens in this state created in Lee's own image.

The party line is that Lee Kuan Yew discouraged his son from joining the political fray. That's another dubious tale from the Singapore myth machine. That mechanism's greatest achievement is perpetrating the lie that Singapore ranks among the freest economies on earth (See Singapore's capitalist myth November 7, 2002).

It probably feels like a free enough economy for the Lee family. In addition to his key economic posts, the incoming prime minister's wife, Ho Ching, chairs Temasek, the state investment corporation that scratches acquisitive itches at home and abroad using the Finance Ministry's checkbook, while his younger brother, Lee Hsien Yang, heads SingTel, the state-owned telecom company that is spreading its wires around the globe. That's not just a nanny state, it's a socialist family business.

Lee Kuan Yew deserves praise for raising Singapore from a down at the heels harbor town cut loose by Malaysia into a modern economic showplace. Based on that success, Lee and his People's Action Party could have dominated the political scene fair and square.

Instead, Singapore's leadership developed the bad habit of using the apparatus of government to stifle opposition. But trusting in the judgment of others isn't in Lee's nature. Neither is humility for this man whose success in tiny Singapore has led him to offer prescriptions of the world at large, the equivalent of getting 100% on a spelling test and thinking that is sufficient to practice medicine.

Before the economic crisis, Lee lectured the world about what he called Asian values. At the center of these Asia values was the appealing notion that Asians - except some very special ones named Lee, for example - sacrificed individual aspirations for the greater good of society. After drinking some of this Kool-Aid before I moved to Hong Kong a decade ago, my discovery of real Asian values was a great disappointment.

Rather than a heightened sense of responsibility to society at large, I've noticed precisely the opposite. East Asians generally show little consideration for people around them, whether it's rampant spitting in Hong Kong, complete disregard for other vehicles by motorists, bicyclists and even pedestrians in Bali, or simply the unwillingness to help a bewildered visitor without a product or service to sell him. Asians raise indifference - as opposed to outright rudeness, as practiced in my native New York - to an art form.

This bewildered visitor couldn't understand the contradiction between Lee's Asian values and Asian behavior until an Indonesian friend came to the rescue. Of course we sacrifice for the greater good, she explained, but that greater good extends no farther than our own clan. The closer the connection, the more we'll sacrifice, so we'll do the most for our families, then perhaps our friends. But without some personal connection, we couldn't care less.

That understanding of Asian values makes Asian behavior much clearer. For example, it puts the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s and the ineffectiveness of subsequent reforms into a sensible perspective. Crony capitalism wasn't the result of some structural or legal deficiency that can be fixed through restructuring or stricter regulation, it was, and is, a natural consequence of the government and its business supporters becoming a clan unto themselves. Until governments stop playing a leading role in national economies, the problems underlying the crisis will persist.

Asian values explain the widespread acceptance of Indonesia's disgraced former president Suharto turning his children into business tycoons, and why families loll down a crowded sidewalk as if they own it. Most of all, Asian values explain why, even with a population that he declared was prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, Lee Kuan Yew fashioned Singapore into a restrictive society that proscribes choices narrowly.

When he takes office on Thursday, Lee Hsien Loong will become the fourth ruler in East Asia currently occupying their father's old post. He'll join Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and North Korea's Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, whose dead father remains head of state. The younger Lee is the first to reach the top while his predecessor-father remains on the scene.

So instead of worrying about taboos and restrictions on freedom, let's celebrate Lee Hsien Loong's ascension as a grand triumph of Lee Kuan Yew's celebrated Asian values. They've always been a family affair.