While developing nations seek to emulate Singapore’s success in areas such as public housing, infrastructure and healthcare, Janadas Devan, Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, said that statecraft is above simple technique or “assemblage”.
Instead, resources, talent and values need to be in place foremost.
The ruling People’s Action Party took years to establish its governance and legitimacy, he said, arguing that “soul-craft cannot be indistinguishable from state-craft”. He believed it was a singular quality of Lee and his generation that was pivotal to building and sustaining a state.
“Without the spirit and emotion displayed in Lee Kuan Yew’s public life, the absence of which would have accounted for nothing,” he said, “Instead of a nanny or an East Asian caricature, a more apt image (for Lee) would be that of a constant gardener… The garden is indistinguishable from the gardener.”
This was shown when the PAP won the polls in 1959, winning 43 of the 51 seats. He said of the critical victory, “It was not about the ideas, but that the government was on their side.”
These formative years formed “fortuitous triangle” as the nation-state was finding its legs after being displaced from Malaysia and becoming independent. He called this a “necessary courage.”
“Nobody believed Singapore was viable as a state, not the British, not the Malayans, not the PAP leadership… Before you can have ideas for the state, there needs be a prior decision: this is who we are, this is what we believe, and here is where we’ll make a stand.”
Another important decision taken by Mr Lee that was to shape the Singapore state was the promotion of English as the lingua franca, as well as the decision for the population to be bilingual. Mr Seng Han Thong, a journalist for over 21 years with the Chinese Press of Singapore Press holdings, noted this was a sensitive and emotional topic that Mr Lee chose to tackle in the early years. “Language was on the PAP agenda from the very first day. Its founding manifesto in 1954 emphasised the inclusion of all four languages, English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil,” he said.
Mr Lee believed that the education system should produce students conversant in at least two of the main languages, though even he could not master both equally. Mr Seng recounted Mr Lee’s personal story of learning Mandarin, which, he quoted, instilled a “sense of belonging to a culture, gives selfconfidence and self-respect.”
However, bilingualism had a rocky start in schools. Less than a fifth of Primary One students were making it to Secondary Four with passes in both English and Mandarin. By the late 1970s, then Prime Minister Lee felt that the one-size-fit-all approach did not work. He suggested Mandarin replace the dialect languages, and in 1979, the Speak Mandarin Campaign (SMC) was launched. Many saw this as a suppression of dialects, and caused unhappiness in many quarters.
He said Lee believed that undertaking another language promoted understanding of a different culture and hence saw learning as “a window for the mind”.
Mr Seng recalled how “Speak Mandarin” lunches were organised for ministers at the Istana.
“The conversation would be entirely in Mandarin, to force ministers to discuss current affairs and politics in Mandarin, overcome psychological barrier and to form a habit. It was a “bumpy” journey, (but) Mr Lee was a true architect of Singapore’s bilingual policy,” he said.
Melanie Chua is Editor at Global-is-Asian.