There’s a fascinating essay and political analysis by George Yeo (former Foreign Minister of Singapore, etc.) about Singapore’s state of affairs on it’s 50th anniversary in The World Post (a Huffington Post and Berggruen Institute partnership project). From Yeo’s Aug. 3, 2015 essay,
Why Singapore at 50 Is Like a Banyan Tree, a Bonsai and Nanotechnology
Under the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore — which this week is celebrating its 50th anniversary as a nation — was unabashedly a hierarchical society. When asked if Singapore was a nanny state, he replied that, if it were one, he was proud to have fostered it. But he also knew that Singapore society was entering a new phase.
In November 1990, Lee Kuan Yew stepped aside to let Goh Chok Tong take over as prime minister. The state retreated a little; controls were carefully loosened; greater diversity was tolerated if not selectively encouraged. As minister for information and the arts, I was happy to push some boundaries — censorship, use of dialects and Singlish, greater emphasis of pre-PAP history and promotion of our diverse ancestral heritage. These were all sensitive issues and I had to manage senior cabinet colleagues artfully. A speech I made about the need to prune the banyan tree in order that civic participation could flourish resonated with many Singaporeans. Pruning the banyan tree means cutting down hierarchy. …
Diversity causes tension. In hierarchical societies, diversity is frowned upon because it makes top-down organization more difficult. Standardization improves efficiency but it also leads to oppression.
Many years ago, the late Cardinal Jan Schotte told me this story about Pope John Paul II, whom he served as the secretary of the Synod of Bishops in the Vatican. Drafting a speech for the Holy Father, Cardinal Schotte inserted a sentence for the pope to say that “despite our differences, we are one.” John Paul II gently chided him and replaced “despite” with “because of.” “Because of our differences, we are one.”
The particularity of the individual is sacrosanct. Each of us is unique; each is ultimately responsible for his own life. The correction by the pope was not of style but of deep principle. Diversity is not to be merely tolerated; it is to be celebrated. For those who believe in God, every human being carries a divine imprint which unites us. For Confucianists and atheists, every human being has a moral core which also makes us one. …
I was most interested in the nanotechnology metaphor and how Yeo relates it to Singapore,
During his first term as chief minister of the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, N. Chandrababu Naidu compared the workings of Singapore to nanotechnology. Yes, we are small but we pack a lot into a tiny space and are able to network Singapore to the entire world.
Singapore is not intelligible in itself. Its economy, culture and politics can only be understood in the context of the region it serves. Singapore is only one node in a dense network of many nodes. Whether the Singapore node grows or shrinks depends on the health of the network and our ability to link up with other nodes and add value. Our diversity is therefore a great strength.
He abandoned the nanotechnology metaphor fairly quickly to talk about diversity, independence, and military preparedness,
Diversity is, however, also our vulnerability. Every channel which connects us to the outside world also brings infection. Maintaining Singapore’s integrity and security is therefore a continuing challenge. Two conditions have to be met for a city-state to be independent.
First, its foreign policy has to be nimble to adjust to a shifting external balance of power. Second, the citizenry must be united in its common defense against external subversion and aggression. The external and internal equations have to be solved simultaneously. Only when Singaporeans feel secure about their own place at home can they turn outwards and do big things together. I spent 16 years as a soldier, first in the Army, then the Air Force and, finally, in the Joint Staff. The Singapore Armed Forces is a well-equipped and well-trained militia. Its fighting ability is completely dependent on the unity of diverse Singaporeans and their commitment to a common, righteous cause. By being prepared for war, we are more likely to have peace. It is better not to be put to the test.
If we can maintain peace in Asia for another 10 to 20 years, the region will be transformed beyond recognition and become a powerhouse of the global economy. While trials of strength are inevitable, Sino-U.S. relations are unlikely to deteriorate too badly. Even when China’s economy overtakes that of the U.S. in size, the U.S. will remain the dominant military and political power in the world for decades to come. American popular culture has already taken over the world.
Unlike the U.S., China is not a missionary power. So long as it is able to maintain its own political and cultural universe within, China has no ambition to compete with the U.S. for global supremacy without. If China is also a missionary power, like the former Soviet Union, another hot or cold war is inevitable. Happily, China is not and a titanic clash between the U.S. and China is not inevitable.
Between China and India, they are more likely to cooperate than to fight. Except for a minor border war in 1962, which has been largely forgotten in China, the long history of contact between them has been peaceful. Each recognizes the other as an ancient people.
Yeo provides a very interesting perspective, that of an insider intimately involved in Singapore’s evolution as a city-state. I don’t entirely agree with his analysis about China. While they may not have the ‘missioinary’ society he sees in the US, China has been expansionist in the past and are currently busy absorbing Tibet.
You can find out more about George Yeo Yong-Boon here. As I think the Huffington Post is sufficiently well known that a description is unnecessary, I don’t think the same can said of the Berggruen Institute, so here goes. From the Berggruen Institute home page,
The Berggruen Institute is dedicated to the design and implementation of new ideas of good governance — drawing from practices in both East and West — that can be brought to bear on the common challenges of globalization in the 21st century.
We are an independent, non-partisan “think and action tank” that engages cutting edge entrepreneurs, global thinkers and political leaders from around the world as key participants in our projects.
The great transition of our time is from American-led globalization 1.0 to the interdependence of plural identities that characterizes globalization 2.0 as the dominance of the West recedes with the rise of the rest. A political and cultural awakening, amplified by social media, is part and parcel of this shift, and good governance must respond by devolving power and involving citizens more meaningfully in governing their communities. At the same time, we believe that accountable institutions must be created that can competently manage the global links of interdependence.
In another life, I was quite interested in diversity and viewpoints that contrast with my own from a cultural perspective. This foray, given the essay title, was a surprise and a delightful one at that.