17 Aug 2004

Letting a hundred flowers blossom

The rise of Lee Junior heralds a new era of openness and freedom. This all sounded familiar when I listened to the PAP Party Political broadcast on the 12th of August 2004. His exact phrase was, "Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different,"

Of all the quotations in the "Little Red Book", by Chairman Mao, none is more inspiring or chilling than this. It comes from a brief period of reform in the fifties known as the "Hundred Flowers Campaign" during which Mao encouraged complete freedom of thought, including criticism of the Party. The result was much more vigorous debate than Mao had expected and the period ended with an abrupt crackdown against those who had raised their voices in opposition. It could stand as a critique of the failures of the Cultural Revolution itself, which tried to settle ideological questions by force under the guise of debate.

Letting a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend is the policy for promoting the progress of the arts and the sciences and a flourishing socialist culture in our land. Different forms and styles in art should develop freely and contend freely. We think that it is harmful to the growth of art and science if administrative measures are used to impose one particular style of art or school of thought and to ban another. Questions of right and wrong in the arts and sciences should be settled through free discussion in artistic and scientific circles and through practical work in these fields. They should not be settled in summary fashion.Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People (February 27, 1957)

An editorial piece by The Age picked on a similar undertone of a little bit of history repeating itself...

Another Lee leads Singapore
August 17, 2004

A second generation of leadership confirms the dynastic rule of the island state.

The swearing in of 52-year-old Lee Hsien Loong as Singapore's third prime minister in 45 years of self-government formally cements the place of the Lee dynasty in the tiny nation state's history. It also underscores the political pre-eminence of his father, Lee Kuan Yew. Not that there has ever been much doubt about that. By the time Mr Lee snr retired as prime minister in 1990, the younger Mr Lee was already a junior minister. He was then appointed deputy prime minister and eventually finance minister and head of the central bank. Other Lee family members are prominent in Singapore life, too. Lee Hsien Loong's wife, Ho Ching, heads Temasek Holdings, the Government's investment arm. His brother Hsien Yang is head of SingTel, the regional telecommunications giant. And Lee Kuan Yew remains a pivotal figure in the Government, lately as senior minister and now, aged 80, with the new title of "minister mentor". It would not be wildly speculative to suggest that few decisions of substance are made in Singapore without his knowledge, if not input. There are cultural norms that inform this process of empowering families in Asia, but they are squarely at odds with modern democratic practice.

Singapore, an island on the end of the Malay peninsula with a land area almost exactly the size of Western Port and a population of 4.2 million, has grown to be the sort of Asian society to which its neighbours have long aspired. It emerged from sleepy British colonialism to become a prosperous, well-educated and politically stable economic powerhouse. It exploited its geographical position as an Asian hub to become an important trading centre. With English as its official language and a commercial legal tradition rooted in its colonial past, it became an attractive regional centre for business. The sticking point for many Singaporeans and outsiders is the authoritarian, undemocratic rule imposed by the Lee-led People's Action Party for the past half-century. Originally a bulwark against communism, many of the more repressive measures have continued to be used to keep the PAP in power, even though their original justification disappeared long ago. The party holds all but two seats in the 84-member Parliament. Political opponents have been subject to harsh anti-subversion laws and the use of crushing defamation actions as a means of bankrupting them. The media have been effectively cowed by a system of annual licences and pressure not to air certain subjects.

Lee Hsien Loong, Cambridge and Harvard-educated and a former brigadier in the Singapore armed forces, is promising a more sympathetic, caring and open society. "Our people should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different," he said after being sworn in last week. Given the nation's disdain for dissent, it will be a brave Singaporean indeed who interprets this invitation literally.

Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

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