When I first read this article by Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, I thought it was a rather badly written article. I still do.

What is (un)surprising is that the Straits Times finds such bad writing worthy of publication.

Incidentally, The Economist recently panned Mahbubani’s latest book, the grand-sounding “The Great Convergence: Asia, the West, and the Logic of One World”. Unfortunately, The Economist had this to say about the book [emphasis mine]:

But he provides few reasons to believe that the world will now follow his prescriptions—such as an overhaul of the United Nations—desirable though many of them may be. It hardly helps that Mr Mahbubani can be sloppy with facts. In arguing that it was Asian “engagement” as opposed to Western sanctions that produced reform in Myanmar, for example, he keeps Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest a year longer than the Burmese authorities did. He is also guilty of argument by non sequitur. He suggests that allegations of American torture invalidate American reservations about academic freedom in Singapore. And he can be cavalier with evidence. The claim that China’s government began to worry about its environment only after warnings from the United Nations Development Programme is attributed to a sole, anonymous “Chinese policymaker”.

Much of the book reads as a continuation of disparate arguments Mr Mahbubani has made over many years in his fulminations against the shortcomings of Western political leadership. The theme of “convergence” and his optimistic take on it are not enough to turn a disjointed flotilla of a book into an ocean-liner. [Economist]

I was going to write a rebuttal to his Straits Times article but then I thought, why bother with a pretentious article which doesn’t really say anything worthwhile.

Instead, I point you to two articles by New Nation – that website which promises “50% real news”.

‘I’d have failed Kishore Mahbubani’s essay’

Kishore Mahbubani is the most intelligent man in the Milky Way

Kishore wants you to respond to his article and – get this – the Straits Times will “pick 10 readers to get tickets to a dialogue between Kishore Mahbubani and National University of Singapore law faculty dean Simon Chesterman on Mr Mahbubani’s latest book.”


Well, good luck to you.

The article in question:


By Kishore Mahbubani, For The Straits Times

13 April 2013

As Singapore undergoes its mighty, irresistible metamorphosis over this coming decade, it is vital for it to ensure that it does not lose some painfully acquired blessings in the process.

In my previous column For The Straits Times, I had asked readers to share their views on my thoughts about Singapore’s metamorphosis. I had said the soul of Singapore is being redefined, and that Singaporean society can either emerge as a happy butterfly, flitting around in a garden city, or as a lonely frog, croaking away unhappily in a little well.

I am grateful for the over 50 readers who responded and for their comments. They have helped shape my thinking for this column, and provided food for thought for future ones.

One of the biggest blessings Singapore has is that it is one of the safest cities in the world.

The level of safety we enjoy is a true miracle. Switzerland enjoys the same level of public safety. But it is surrounded by Europe. When you cross the border out of Switzerland, you continue to experience the same level of safety. But when you cross out of the border of Singapore, you may not. In short, we have to work extremely hard to preserve this cocoon of extraordinary public safety.

Some of it is clearly due to the very successful Singapore Police Force (SPF) we have. But the SPF is only one unit within an ecosystem of excellent public institutions delivering this high level of safety. The social trust that Singaporeans and Singapore residents have in this ecosystem is one key reason why our city is safe.

Worrying cynicism

THIS is why I am extremely worried about the cynicism that the Singaporean blogosphere is developing towards these public institutions. Over time this cynicism could act like an acid that erodes the valuable social trust accumulated. Yes, let me concede that some of the online criticisms are justified. For example, the escape of Mas Salamat Kastari was a major failure.

Against this backdrop, I watched carefully the reaction of the blogosphere to the Shane Todd affair. Dr Todd, 31, an American researcher, was found hanged in his apartment here last June after he quit the Institute of Microelectronics (IME) which is part of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research.

We will have to await the outcome of the coroner’s inquiry to find out what really happened.

This is why I was appalled that US Senator Max Baucus jumped the gun and tried to pressure Singapore by forcing Singapore to give the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) oversight of the case before the Coroner’s Court had completed its inquiry.

This goes against all international laws and norms. The United States would never allow a foreign police force to oversee an FBI investigation. Nor would it allow any foreign intervention into its judicial inquiry process.

What makes this even more absurd is that any objective investigation will show that the SPF is at least as competent, if not more competent, than the FBI.

Why do I say this? Having lived in the US for over 10 years, I have observed that while Singapore has moved from Third World to First World in its public institutions, many of America’s public institutions are going in the opposite direction.

The best minds in America do not go into lifetime public service careers. The best minds in Singapore do. This is why the trust and confidence in Singapore’s public institutions remain high overall.

Kudos to blogosphere

I WAS therefore heartened to see that the Singapore blogosphere did not unthinkingly support the American position. Some of the more popular blogs were pretty hostile to the idea of the FBI interfering in a domestic investigation. This has given me some hope that we can try and find some middle ground between the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

In this middle ground, we should reach clear agreement that some of Singapore’s painfully developed public institutions should be protected and strengthened, like the SPF.

If we don’t develop this middle ground and if a significant percentage of Singaporeans begin to demonstrate a lack of trust in our public institutions, trouble may begin brewing around the corner. This lack of trust can suddenly manifest itself in different ways.

Let me suggest one hypothetical scenario.

We have had quite a few MRT breakdowns in recent years. Thousands of people were inconvenienced. Fortunately, each incident passed peacefully. The peaceful outcomes reflected the high level of trust that Singaporeans have in their public institutions. They saw each incident as an aberration – not indicating the emergence of a new pattern of decline. But this perception could well change if MRT disruptions persist.

Clearly, the public standing of train operator SMRT has been declining. When I served as Singapore’s Ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1989, my American counterpart was the legendary Ambassador Vernon Walters. His hobby was to visit and investigate every MRT system in the world. He proudly told me that having done so, he could confidently say the Singapore MRT system was the best in the world.

I asked why. He said it was the only MRT system in the world that had been built ahead of schedule, below cost and functioned smoothly.

Clearly this is no longer the case. The big question is: what went wrong? Was it a mistake to emphasise the short-term private sector profits rather than the long-term public good that the SMRT is supposed to provide?

All this brings me to the hypothetical scenario. If we have another major MRT breakdown, combined with declining trust in public institutions, we may have the perfect combination for a riot or two. We have been free from riots for almost 40 years. The reasons were simple: rising living standards and rising trust in public institutions. But if this trust becomes a declining commodity and if a major public service performs badly, it would be unwise to expect the same level of social harmony.

In short, it would be a mistake to take our high level of public safety for granted. It is the result of a very complex ecosystem of public institutions that still enjoys a high level of trust among Singaporeans.

However, if the blogosphere and the mainstream media cannot agree on a core consensus of preserving and supporting key public institutions, we could end up with a messier Singapore, becoming an unhappy frog rather than a happy butterfly.


3 thoughts on “Kishore

    1. The article is very one sided, steering it towards the benefit of the government.

      1. With regards to shane todd, based on what i read, there’s major discrepancy in the police statement that was shown to the deceased family. As for the SPF being pressured into allowing the FBI to step in, it seems like they were just offering their assistance. Also, not forgetting the fact that such a problem only occurred because of the massive discrepancy on what the SPF submitted to the deceased’s family and what the family saw.

      2. The MRT never had any serious problems till the recent breakdowns. An incident could be isolated as “technical malfunction”. But multiple breakdowns isn’t a sign of a isolated incident. In the eyes of the law, a repeat offender is never gonna get the benefit of the doubt. By praising the Singapore MRT was built ahead of its time, this may be so many years ago whereby the Government did not intend to have a population of 6.9 million. Situation is that population is still increasing, but the mrt has reached its capacity. If the government is indeed planning ahead of its time, it wouldn’t take a genius to find out that the solution of this current problem is to have 2 tracks instead of 1

      3. Last but not least, the author made a very big mistake in saying that we would make a big mistake in taking our high level of public safety for granted.
      What he did not realize is that our high level of public safety came at a very huge sacrifice. Lack of a freedom of speech or opinion, ruling the country with an iron fist, having laws which takes away people life or put them in jail till the end of time.

      In short, the author’s opinion on the problems are without proper analysis and hence termed badly written.

      My comments are just solely opinionated against the author and without any disrespect to the Government. I still give the government massive credit for many things which they have done to transform Singapore to where we are.
      I still have utmost respect to many of our current ‘officials’ in particular our finance minister.

  1. For what it’s worth, I sent a belated response to his earlier op-ed “Frog or Butterfly?”…here goes…

    Subject: Frog or Butterfly: Unhappy Strains that Strain Singapore

    Dear Kishore,

    I have not read any of your books, nor your articles, except one, that I chanced upon recently. So I write with an open mind, vis a vis your inclinations, political or otherwise.

    What I do recall about you is this:

    The image of you, sitting alone in the U of Singapore Union House canteen, looking forlorn. You had a shaven head, yes bald. Protesting against some issues, I was told. something to do with the “Singapore Democrat”, a “non-Establishment” undergrad newspaper.

    But I was also told that you were on a government scholarship, so going on to thrive in the Establishment, was a “natural progression”.

    Moral: Nothing in life is ever as simple as “if you choose to be happy, you will be happy” kind of equation. This has reference to your ST Opinion article that I chanced upon.

    The purpose of my writing is not to opine on your opinion. You said you don’t know what Singaporeans are unhappy about, and you need help. But tell you nicely (“don’t rant”). So, here I am…

    But first, a little bit about myself:

    Born and bred in Singapore, had my entire education here, graduated an accountant from U of Singapore, among the first batch of enlistees for national service (four years of part-time special constabulary, followed by three years of full-time army service, followed by thirteen years of reserve duty in an active Artillery Battalion).

    Spent the better part of my career as a CPA with Singapore’s iconic companies starting with Singapore Airlines Group, Shell Eastern Group and F&N Group. Then moved on to help SMEs to turn around, or grow, for a decade.

    All this time, for over thirty years, volunteering in the social service sector in the rehabilitation of ex-drug addicts and ex-offenders, and with the intellectually disabled in Singapore and other charities, in governance.

    As such, I deem myself fit to be taken seriously, when it comes to matters of the heart of ordinary Singaporeans, as one who has seen this and done that.

    So I will, as a start, forward the first of my exchanges with the press, government agencies, MPs and others, that expressed my unhappiness on certain issues that I believe also exemplify that of large and varied segments of Singaporeans, at the time. The first happens to be one with a researcher in your outfit, the LKYSPP. Here goes:


    —–Original Message—–
    From: Johnmwlee
    Sent: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 11:06 PM
    Cc: Leong Chan Hoong

    Subject: “Singaporeans can afford a dose of magnanimity”

    Dear Mr Leong,

    I refer to your column in today’s (29 May 2013) ST. I write not to agree nor disagree with you. As with all political intercourse, no one is ever any wiser nor fulfilled, nor satisfied at the end of it, let alone feel orgasmic…I only lament that your column, all six inches of it, is rather flaccid, lacking substance and altogether lame…you know, impotent…Why?

    First…Your subject-heading, whether by design or not, is misleading. Seems to me your column, truth be told, is NOT about the humanity (“magnanimity”), or lack of it, of Singaporeans in general, but a political indictment of Singapore’s social welfare system and policies, her policy makers, and those constipated bureaucrats who, in your view, carelessly and mindlessly (“without discretion”) plonk them on hapless citizens on the ground:

    I quote “…given the layers of authentication in our water-tight system when it comes to access to subsidies…”
    I quote “…the system ought to allow for…discretion…”
    I quote “…social policies in Singapore are dispensed under a highly structured and CONVOLUTED set of guidelines…”
    I quote “…our policies are calibrated to the nth degree…”
    I quote “…we have reached a PERVERTED stage in applying the jurisprudence of entitlement…”

    Second…”CONVOLUTED”…”PERVERTED”…these are rather harsh words to use on any system, let alone people. Especially when “Subsidies for child care”…was your only case-in-point…You supported your entire column with this singular feeble illustration…quite pathetic, coming from someone from an esteemed institution none other than the LKY School of Public Policy.

    Nonetheless as your column is now in full public view; permit me to inject a dose of “verbal Viagra” to this political intercourse, to arouse some degree of potency to your contentions:


    In a nutshell, this case-in-point concerned the policy of means-testing the provision of government social service subsidies to families of intellectually-disabled persons in Singapore. It was implemented by the then MCYS in 2006.
    Your School, no doubt, can vouch that there was vociferous public intercourse on the hot and highly unpopular push by the government of the day to entrench and widen the Means Testing Policy governing provision of subsidies in medical and social services sectors, in and prior to 2006. So loud was public dissent in the hospital sector, (not unlike that when the government tried to raise the CPF withdrawal age from 55 to 60) such that little was heard or seen as to its implementation subsequently in the hospital sector.

    But sadly, in the social service sector, in particular, the intellectually-disabled persons sector, where I was a volunteer at the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (MINDS), these people do not have a voice. They are unable to speak up for themselves, let alone raise a ruckus. They are, some say “most vulnerable”, others even more unkind…”easy targets”… Whatever it was, this was what transpired…

    1. In 2006, as Interim MINDS CEO then, I was told to implement Means Testing on the families receiving government subsidies for services that MINDS provides to its clients in its Training and Development Centers, and other services that “qualified” for Means Testing. The official mantra of the day was “no welfare state” and “families must take care of themselves”.

    2. Dutifully, I complied. The outcome was I had to tell 67% of the families that part or all of their subsidies will be taken away from them, because their mean household income had exceeded the threshold of $1,000. The subsidies to be taken away amounted to $26,000 for the remainder of that year. It was gut-splitting, heart-wrenching. “How can you be so heartless?” I was asked again and again, “means testing the poorest of the poor?”.

    3. I appealed to MCYS. I was told: “Can, you make the case for every one of them lor!” So the balls were back in my court. So what else is new? when it comes to constipated bureaucrats?

    4. Back against the wall, I reckoned I needed to appeal for donations instead, to offset the forfeited subsidies. But what was I to tell my donors? That the government forfeited their subsidies? Seems honesty may not be the best policy. So I approached SIA, one of MINDS’ staunch supporters with a case for “general welfare needs”. A half truth. That night, I went for confession, though I was not a Catholic.

    You think this is bad? Hang on! You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

    5. The following week, I received an appeal letter from an MP of Tanglin-Holland GRC requesting financial assistance for the family of one of our clients. On inspection, the family was among those who lost their subsidy, but was not yet informed that help was on the way and had gone to see their MP for help. And guess who that MP was?

    None other than the Minister of MCYS that ordered the means testing! Bingo!!! He, a million-dollar Minister, created the problem, and asked me, an unpaid volunteer, to solve that problem!!!


    I later wrote to another PAP MP who has vested interests in the disability sector; in the hope to solicit empathy and help to suspend means-testing until more studies are done. Her response: “Don’t be an armchair critic, come and join us”.

    I was subsequently told: it was meant to be means testing…but the constipated bureaucrats took it to be MEAN Testing…so, be as MEAN as you can be….huh? So, magnanimous? Wait long long…so say Ah Beng…

    The good news is that MCYS is now MFS, and they have a new Minister…
    The bad news is you have the same old bunch of constipated bureaucrats…constipated…as in “full of sh**”


    From one true blue Singaporean – bumiputra – son of the soil – to another (?)…
    Majulah Singapura!

    On 30 May, 2013, at 8:32 AM, Leong Chan Hoong wrote:

    Dear John,

    Thank you for the feedback. Like you, I write not to agree or disagree with you but I do wish to point out that there is a distinction between Singaporeans and Singaporean Policymakers.

    For an Op Ed, I have just 800 words to express all of my thoughts AND capture the audience’s attention, this leaves me with very little allowance for elaboration.

    I am sorry to learn of the difficulties encountered in the social service sector. They look like the “non-mainstream” minority in my essay.

    Best regards,
    Dr LEONG Chan-Hoong
    Senior Research Fellow

    Thank you mr Leong, for your gentle and prompt response. You will have noticed that I wrote tongue-in-cheek. It’s a philosophy that we volunteers in social service use to sustain ourselves in helping the down and out in our society…your “non-mainstream” minority…a swath of our society that “Singaporean policy makers” would rather forget or wish that they would just “go away”…

    We try our best to make a difference. Having done all, we take a dig at ourselves, laugh at our problems, then everything fall back into perspective…

    So, no offense meant. So don’t take anything said to heart.

    Actually my story did not end there:

    We had asked to see the Minister to take the sting out of the MEAN testing . He delegated it to his PS. At the meeting with PS, he pontificated that each and every day we (MCYS) has to “search for money to help the bottom 20%”.

    “Er Mr PS, did I hear you correctly? That my clients, my people, are not even in your bottom 20%? That they are sub-culture? ” Bingo!!! …”Out of the hardness of the heart the mouth speaks”…so says the Good Book…

    Needless to say we went home with empty hands and heavy hearts… But life goes on…

    Thank you for your time, and wish you and the good people at LKYSPP the best in all you write, say, and better still DO…go and help the own and out in our society…especially those who have the wherewithal to influence policy making…that’s true magnanimity…

    Then again, wait long long…

    Good bye and good luck.

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