Tommy Koh says that Singapore inherited from the British an intolerance for nepotism and giving gifts to public officials. Really?
Well done Tommy Koh (who was a friend of my parents in the 1960s) for pointing out that Singapore has a long history as a strategic hub long before the PAP took power and even before Sir Stamford Raffles.
As I have written here, as far back as the sixteenth century the Portuguese realised the strategic significance of controlling the Straits of Malacca. There is the oft quoted phrase of a Portuguese apothecary Tomes Pires who was there when the Portuguese seized Malacca in 1512, “Whoever is Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice”. To quote my article “Perspiration without inspiration. Singapore’s role in the Asian economic boom”:
The less dramatic and simple fact is that our geography has always been our blessing, going a long way to make up for our shortage of land and natural resources. Already under the British, Singapore was one of the busiest ports in the world. Singapore is and always has been blessed with one of the best natural harbours in the world. We have an unparalleled strategic location at the mouth of the Straits of Malacca through which around 40% of the world’s container traffic and a large part of the world’s oil passes. Lee Kuan Yew didn’t arrange, lead or masterfully control this. Talking about history lets go back to the 16th century when the vitally strategic location of the Malacca Straits was recognized by the Portuguese who took Malacca in an effort to dominate the world spice trade, then in the hands of the Venetians. Swap spice trade for oil and you can see that from medieval times through to contemporary days of international sea borne trade our geography has been so promising that it is difficult to see how we could not have progressed.
It is great to see Tommy Koh’s acknowledgement of Singapore’s true history which Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP have tried to rewrite so as to claim that Singapore was just some malaria infested port rather than the truth which is that Singapore already had the highest per capita income in Asia by 1929 according to the Maddison Project data.
However today I am more concerned with what Tommy Koh goes on to say later on in his article when he talks about the contribution the British made to Singapore’s development. Pretty uncontroversially he cites the gift of English. But then he goes on:
Another thing which Singapore has learnt from the West is the concept of modernity and the value of science and technology. The concept of modernity has enabled us to abandon such feudal concepts and practices as nepotism, the inferior status of women, the offer of gifts to persons in authority, and so on.
How is Tommy Koh able to write that Singapore has abandoned the concept of nepotism when we have the glaring example of dynastic rule and the appointment by the PM of his wife to be head of Temasek together with many of her relatives to other companies within the Temasek empire? In case he has not realised we still have no idea what Ho Ching is paid? Also has he forgotten the Nassim Jade scandal in the 1990s if he thinks Singapore has abandoned the offer of gifts to persons in authority? There is also the widespread tendency to use state resources as the familee’s, demonstrated by LHL’s use of his Press Secretary to defend his defamation suit against unemployed bloggers as well as the use of private jets to take him to official meetings together with his wife who has no official status. Does he also get to use government owned jets when he goes on holiday to the US?
Tommy Koh also goes on to say that:
One of the most important things we have learnt from the West is the concept of the rule of law. The idea that all persons are equal before the law and that no one is above the law is a revolutionary concept. The ideal of an independent judiciary and that all persons, rich and poor, will have equal access to justice are powerful ideas.
Where was Tommy Koh when Justice Cole ruled in the case of Amos Yee that:
this is the modus operandi for the Singapore regime-critics of the government are silenced by civil suit for defamation or criminal prosecutions.
So though Yee’s prosecutions may have been legal under Singapore law, they clearly served a “nefarious purpose”, namely to silence political dissent.
The fact that prosecutions are used to silence government critics was upheld by the appeal judges, continuing the precedent set by the UK Privy Council in 1988 when they ruled that JBJ had suffered a grievous injustice in having been convicted of a non-existent offence.
Singapore has no rule of law in the sense of an independent judiciary and equality before the law. Prosecutions are selective. The judiciary sees its role as an adjunct of the executive as when they took away Singaporeans’ right to sue the Government for breaching the Constitution when I sought a ruling that the IMF loan commitment had to be approved by Parliament. Singapore has what other totalitarian states like China have which is rule BY law.
Tommy Koh tries to cultivate a reputation for independent thinking as when he stated a few years ago that up to a third of Singaporean schoolchildren went to school hungry or with not enough money to buy lunch (which was remarkably similar to what my father told me many years ago). But he then quickly retracted his statement under pressure presumably to protect his rice bowl.
Tommy Koh is too clever not to realise the irony of what he writes or puts his name to after it has been written for him. But like most Singaporeans in government service, academia or the GLCs the material benefits of allowing oneself to be co-opted outweigh any qualms he might feel about intellectual dishonesty.