Thoughts on browsing through FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST

"I wrote this book for a younger generation of Singaporeans who took stability, growth and prosperity for granted. I wanted them to know how difficult it was for a small country…to survive in the midst of larger, newly independent nations all pursing nationalistic policies.”

I perked up immediately when I read these words in the Preface to SM’s Memoirs. This was no ordinary autobiography, no dry academic history, but a book out of countless non-fiction works lining bookshelves which was actually addressed to me and my generation. This is not a review but a record of my 1st reactions upon flipping through key chapters in the book.

It is an odd thing to acquire a sense of personal responsibility from someone else’s memoirs.
I have always felt that my generation’s general apathy towards nation-building and shying away from the basic political responsibility of citizenry, was primarily due to a perceived lack of ownership. It was not that we had no sense of history, but that we had no sense that we could participate in its shaping. It was not that we were ignorant of or ungrateful for what had been done to bring Singapore to its present state, but a feeling that everything that needed to be done had already been done, determined by the visionaries of a past generation. All we had to do was to study hard, work hard, and implement, implement, implement: follow the tracks carefully laid out by those that had come before and we’d arrive.

FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST puts paid to the notion that our generation can afford to take a hands-off approach to national affairs. The memoirs proceeds to lay out relentless the challenges besetting Singapore in its infancy as a nation, outlining the broad policy directions and thinking governing some of the key institutions in our country. At every turn, the text impresses the reader with pressing national concerns – History has revealed the solutions in hindsight, but one gets the sense that answers were far less evident when key decisions had to be made. Policy decisions are always the best available compromises, not perfectly crafted masterpieces of planning. But the myth that one can simply sit back and let things take their course is one which the memoirs are out to shatter. Many challenges highlighted in the book – the preservation of multiculturalism, population woes, succession and the renewal of national talent – will remain with us for generations to come. We are not a finished country, but have merely gotten a fortuitous headstart, snatched doggedly and bitterly from history. There is still much to be done.

Significantly SM Lee dwells on the matter of talent renewal at several points, and even devotes an entire chapter to the matter (Passing the Baton). With characteristic ruthlessness and humility born of single-minded pragmatism, SM recounts the slacking in energies of the Old Guard, including himself, which led him to put in place a systemic renewal process, even at the expense of tried and tested comrades (eg Toh Chin Chye). The same principle appears to be operating in related issues ranging from talent attraction to the Great Marriage Debate: renewal is survival – do whatever is necessary to ensure the renewal of the system. We’d be well advised to take heed of the critical necessities at stake, whatever our stand on the means and policies by which these issues are addressed.

Additional thoughts:
I have two concerns after reading the memoirs. The first is SM Lee’s long-standing and well-known belief in the dominance of hereditary talent (to the point of advising his children that ‘they must be happy to have their children as bright only as their spouses), which informs his thinking and therefore that of national policy in issues of manpower, education, and population planning. The Bell Curve has been discredited. There are still too many grads coming from non-grad backgrounds for the issue to be settled in the context of young Singapore. We ignore the less-educated in this area, at our own expense. At any rate, the jury is still out on the effectiveness of current population policies – perhaps the only sphere of social behaviour which might escape SM’s relentless intellect.

One also wonders what he might say to the idea that the success he has helped to create has also been the cause of apathy in the young; that enhancing the assets of one generation have locked out opportunities for the next (eg housing!), and that political and bureaucratic competence has lead, ironically to an over-reliance on government for answers, creating a different kind of dependent state. What advice he might give to the younger generation concerned about these issues and genuinely interested in contributing to the nation without necessarily entering Public Service?

© alvin pang
clm : rvw : esy : rfl