Sunday, 1 November 2009
Success for all to see
The book Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party is the first comprehensive work on the role of People's Action Party (PAP) - the longest surviving and undoubtedly the most dominant political party of Singapore in nation building. Established on 21 November 1954, the PAP is the party of the main builder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew who gave leadership to Singapore not as its first elected Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, but also its moral force up to this day. PAP has dominated Singapore politics for more than half-a-century ever since. It remains the ruling party today with a tally of 12 general election victories. There is no doubt the success of Singapore owes much to the success of the PAP as a driving force.
Reviewed by Bipin Adhikari
Singapore is a success story for all to see. Founded in 1819 as a British trading colony, Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation in 1963. The Federation did not work for it. This led to its separation from Malaysia two years later. Its tough journey as an independent country starts from here.
As an independent country, Singapore had some major challenges to overcome: national security, the poor local economy, lack of democratic institutions, and many social, racial issues. The vulnerability of Singapore was deeply felt, with threats from multiple sources, including the communists, Indonesia (with its confrontational stance), and extremists who wanted to force Singapore back into Malaysia. The challenges of the transition were enormous for the political lot of the country.
The new country was able to deal with many of these challenges very successfully. By the next three decades, the independent Singapore had become one of the few wealthiest countries in the world in terms of GDP (PPP) per capita. It is a vibrant society, making outstanding achievements in all socio-cultural sectors, science and technology, and modern infrastructure. A highly developed and successful free market economy, Singapore enjoys a remarkably open and corruption-free environment, stable prices, and a per capita GDP equal to that of the Big 4 West European countries.
The idea that a small island city-state of two million people with no hinterland could survive in what was then a difficult and troubled region seemed manifestly absurd. But the country not just survived, but also developed and flourished as one of the most juggernaut economies of the world.
The book "Men in White: The Untold Story of Singapore's Ruling Political Party" is the first comprehensive work on the role of People's Action Party (PAP) - the longest surviving and undoubtedly the most dominant political party of Singapore in nation building. Established on 21 November 1954, the PAP is the party of the main builder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew who gave leadership to Singapore not as its first elected Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, but also its moral force up to this day.
PAP has dominated Singapore politics for more than half-a-century ever since. It remains the ruling party today with a tally of 12 general election victories. There is no doubt the success of Singapore owes much to the success of the PAP as a driving force.
Three senior researchers Sonny Yap, Richard Lim & Leong Weng Kam have narrated the PAP story in three parts. The first part, authored by Sonny Yap and Leong Weng Kam, covers the turbulent early years of the PAP and the divisive politics it was trapped in. In the second part Richard Lim tracks its transformation into a formidable political force of Singapore. In the third part, the team examines the PAP's survival strategy; and what could destroy it. The Editor in Chief, Cheong Yip Send, notes in his preface:
"For many generations of Singaporeans, especially those born after independence in 1965, the early years of the PAP are a very distant memory. If this book helps stimulate in them, as well as generations to come, an abiding interest in our past, the years of work that have gone into this book would not be in vain. We cannot be a strong nation if we cannot remember our past."
Written in the journalistic style, the book is very comprehensive in its treatment of the major aspects of Singapore's transition. It is based on the documents and records of the party, oral history of its members and opposition players, and interviews of the many of the surviving players, including of several before they passed away. It is not just the pro-establishment actors, but also those who differed in both the process and outcome of this transition, who have been given enough space by the book.
It tries to project comprehensive pictures of the events since the 1950s, and the views of all - those for or against the PAP. The party is very apprehensive of communist political ideologies, despite a brief joint alliance with the communists against colonialism in Singapore during its early years. The idea of survival as an independent nation has been a central theme of Singaporean politics ever since. The book also shows how the PAP coped with this issue in its difficult years.
Lee Kuan Yew, who has contributed foreword to this book has noted: "At the time it was happening, I could only guess what my adversaries were thinking and planning to do to demolish us. Many of the accounts in the book I read for the first time. They may not have revealed everything and could have burnished their narrative for posterity. Nevertheless, their recollections added spice to the narrative. I had pointed out some factual errors but told the writers to decide who is more reliable. The final version is their book and they had to exercise their editorial right."
Singapore is a parliamentary democracy. But its human rights records have not been encouraging. Even in the 21st century, with all modernization, an easing of restrictions on freedom of assembly has been overshadowed by heavy penalties and restrictive measures imposed on opposition activists, journalists and human rights defenders.
While political opponents are allowed, the various arrangements which are in place have the effect of suppressing dissenting voices. There are presently about 23 registered political parties in Singapore. The book hardly shows any references on how honestly the PAP and its leaders tried to ensure their participation in nation building. This book is going to have many comments from the writers' compatriots in this area.
Nevertheless, this is a very perceptive work. I strongly recommend this book to the leaders who have a noble cause and determination. It will teach them how to be futuristic.