Why Mr Bilahari’s speech frightens me.

Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan gave a speech recently at a conference in Fitzwilliam College of Cambridge University. The theme of the conference was the legacy of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The speech makes for fantastic read. It is crackling with ideas smartly presented. It is poetic, with very brilliant use of metaphors. It is profound, with many incisive insights. Take some time to read it in its entirety.

The speech is one of many reminders. It reminds us of the challenges that our forefathers had to overcome to get us to where we are today. It reminds us of how fortunate we are to have had a team of pioneers who gave their all for Singapore. It reminds us of the need to continue to stay extraordinary.

Beyond being reminded of all those things, the speech frightens me. Why? Two reasons. First, are the top leaders in our government able to find that paradoxical balance between idealism and realism? Second, are we hobbled by the achievements of Lee Kuan Yew and his comrades?

First, the paradoxical balance between idealism and realism.

Mr Bilahari said this in his speech:

“The future can at best be only dimly glimpsed and in any case cares not a whit for your concerns. So you must pragmatically adapt yourself to it.

One must of course set goals. But having done so, more often than not the most one can do is keep a distant star in sight as one tacks hither and tither to avoid treacherous reefs or to scoop up opportunities that may drift within reach.

Successful navigation requires a clinical – indeed cold-blooded – appreciation of the world as it is and not as you may wish it to be…

Mr Lee and his comrades were not devoid of idealism. Singapore as it is today would not otherwise exist. They risked their lives to make it so.

But idealism must be rooted in a hard-headed understanding of the realities of human nature and power…

Mr Lee had intense intellectual curiosity. He sought information without regard for hierarchy. He was tolerant of alternate views or at any rate, he was tolerant of the young and brash desk officer as I then was who, too green to know that the tiger is dangerous, ventured on occasion to argue with him.”

This is consistent with many accounts of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. That he was not bound by any dogma. He was willing to question every assumption and test every single idea or philosophy against reality. At least as best as he possibly could with the information available to him. And when new information came up, he was prepared to change his position. Indeed, this was a point that Mr Bilahari also highlighted:

But Mr Lee and his comrades were never shy about changing their minds. Again this is harder than you may think. Too often vested interests, stubbornness or just plain pride stands in the way. Too many people believe their own propaganda. Mr Lee and his comrades avoided this most common of pitfalls because their laser-like focus was always the national interest of Singapore. And they never confused ideology with interest.

Do we see this willingness to question assumptions and to test ideas and philosophy against reality amongst the top leaders in government today? Or are they more than happy to go with whichever assumption and philosophy that would get them the promotion to the next pay grade? Do the best and brightest in government dare to challenge and argue with their bosses? Or would they rather keep quiet and not rock the boat?

I don’t know.

But the cynic and pessimist in me would say that the best and brightest in government service would rather not rock the boat. They would rather not question the assumptions they are fed with. They have fallen into the trap of believing in their own propaganda.

Why do I say that?

Just look at some of the hot-button issues that Singapore had to deal with and are still dealing with – housing, medical costs, transport, raising the poorest amongst us beyond subsistence, education. These problems festered for many years. Many people have been telling the government that many of their assumptions regarding these issues were wrong. Many people have been telling the government that they should build houses ahead of supply. That there should be a state-administered medical insurance covering EVERYONE. But did the government listen? Only after the PAP lost one GRC in 2011.

And even now, the government still refuses to question some of  assumptions about some critical issues. For example, transport. Even when you have the likes of Professor Kishore Mahbubani stating publicly that it was wrong to privatise the public transport system, our government still refuses to make the necessary radical changes.  Another example, raising the poorest amongst us beyond subsistence. Even when there is an ever-increasing body of evidence (herehere and here for example) to show the net benefit of simply giving money (whether conditional or unconditional) to citizens to eradicate poverty completely, Singapore government still refuses to even consider doing so.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his comrades dared to do many things that were  considered radical in their time. It was that courage that laid the foundation of what we have today. I… am doubtful.

Why?

Because of the second reason why Mr Bilahari’s speech frightens me. I think the achievements of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his comrades hobbling this generation of leaders.

I am grateful for what Mr Lee had done. I stood in the rain, amongst the crowd, to send him on his final journey. But I strongly believe that we should not mythologise him and his comrades. They made the decisions they felt were most appropriate for their day and age, given the information they had. And we are fortunate that their decisions have proven to be right. As a result, we are reaping the rewards of their achievements.

But the context today is different from the context then. If we think that we can continue to stay extraordinary by doing the same things that Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his comrades did, or even do things the same way as they had done, then we are certainly headed for our own demise. If we refuse to ruthlessly abandon outdated ways of thinking just because they have proven to be successful in the past, if we refuse to engage in radical change because what we have seemed to have worked in the past, then we have just doomed ourselves to mediocrity. And as Mr Bilahari pointed out, if we are not exceptional, we are irrelevant. If we are irrelevant, Singapore will cease to exist.

But too often, when some radical suggestions are raised, I hear civil servants say, “We already have something that have worked quite well. How do we know that this will work? It’s too risky. At most, we should only take small steps. We should not throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

And it is this sort of thinking, where we believe that we have something to lose, that hobbles us. It prevents us from having the guts and gumption to do whatever is necessary to stay extraordinary. And this is why my conclusion differs (how dare I?!) from Mr Bilahari’s. Mr Bilahari believes that “The key challenge is internal: that a new generation of Singaporeans will take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted as the natural order of things and be persuaded that we are no longer vulnerable.”

I believe that the key challenge is that we are hobbled by the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades to the extent that we are no longer able to find the right balance between idealism and realism. As a result, we lose the courage to make the radical changes that are needed ever so often (and probably increasingly so, given the increasing VUCA nature of the world) to stay extraordinary. I am worried that we are not equal to this challenge. And because of that, Singapore is doomed to fail.

I hope that I will be proven wrong.

[Featured image: Singapore’s skyline. Photo from Wikipedia.]

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