Cherian George and kindred spirits are mentioned at gatherings
of civil service high-flyers, the terms 'Westernised', 'liberal'
and 'bleeding heart' tend to crop up more often than not.
private however, George was probably one of the most read
political columnists of the Straits Times in the past decade.
Singaporeans believe that to exercise any initiative
as a citizen is like trying to defy gravity. To
them, public participation is subject to political
realities that are as binding as the laws of physics.
The Air-conditioned Nation, Chp 14
who viewed his agenda with scepticism nevertheless admired
his articulate and astute commentary, his vexing ability
to communicate intelligently rather than lecture. How could
someone on the outside gain such insight into the inner
workings of the system? Was it time to revisit the OSA?
new book is likely to evoke similar responses. Essentially
a collection of his columns from the past decade reworked
into essays, it treads formidable (and potentially risky)
waters, touching on major political and policy events in
the Nineties -- from the transition of premiership, electoral
tactics, to culture, foreign talent and civil society.
his journalistic experience to good use, George has produced
a collection that is at once highly readable, yet instructive
in its depth of insight. Written as a thematic series of
discursive reflections rather than exhaustive scholarly
analyses -- his Stanford professors wouldn't approve of
the book, he says -- the volume is brimming with behind-the-scenes
footage, intriguing titbits, and coy swipes at questionable
regulatory or popular behaviour.
are even occasions for oddball humour in deadpan-serious
Singaporean politics. For instance: ''No opposition member
makes political journalists work harder than does Chee Soon
Juan,'' George claims in one essay, describing how he had
trailed the infamous opposition member from his bedside
during a much-publicised hunger strike, through defamation
suits, to police face-offs and jail.
a typical intellectual twist, George ends the essay not
in easy ridicule, but by asking the difficult question:
whether Chee had been judged too harshly for his political
failure in an arena where his opponents -- even rookie political
candidates -- had been unassailably armed and sheltered
by the ruling party's might.
the establishment he sets out to examine, George's analysis
remains on an even keel overall; he eschews personality
for issues, and evaluates results rather than assertions.
At the same time, he remains resolutely non-partisan, giving
credit where it's due.
telling essay admires the wisdom and effectiveness of co-opting
intellectuals into the establishment through the NMP and
other institutions. (One wonders whether Cherian himself
is next). Several other essays, on civil society (tempered
by his experience as a founding member of the Roundtable),
speak more of optimism for the power of committed individuals
than of bureaucracy-induced attrition and ennui.
his most ambitious project -- one usually reserved for the
powers-that-be -- is recasting Singapore in graphic national
metaphors: the eponymous ''air-conditioned nation'' is one,
taking the cue from SM Lee's favourite millennial invention.
also offers us the ''clean room'' approach to politics,
where only sterilised members are allow to enter; and civic
participation as a kind of national suggestion scheme or
quality control circle.
doing so, the book subtly draws attention to less examined
aspects of national life, and offers intuitive and instructive
(as well as alternative) insights into the psyche underlying
many policies and political behaviours.
clever thing about the air-con metaphor of nationhood is
that it suggests so much comfort, certainly, but also chilling
abuse (as alleged in the case of Chia Thye Poh).
atmosphere of ease it creates can so easily be switched
off, whether through accidental blackouts, deliberate sabotage,
or a decision to turn the heat up.
are also no illusions about who's holding the remote control.
It's telling that a volume covering the decade of second
generation leadership, should quote SM Lee more than any
other political figure.
book draws its authority extensively from many sources,
from direct political observation to selective scholarly
references, the internet, even local poetry. Where all else
fails, personal experience fills the gap. Hence pensive
reflections on the loss of childhood memories to the tide
of urban renewal, even a treatise on cultural education
which draws from his own school background.
more might have been said about critical components of the
national psyche -- such as how Singaporeans had come to
accept the ruling party's unsentimentally pragmatic tendency
to judge people, institutions and policies on their bottom-line
contributions to material well-being.
further probing into the cogs and wheels of the bureaucratic
machinery itself would have been useful, since he accuses
''less erudite officials'' and ''petty bureaucrats'' of
distorting, miscommunicating or short-circuiting more enlightened
policies before they reach the ground.
this volume represents the first critical overview of Singapore's
political history in the Nineties. Unlike the academic dissertations
which no doubt will follow in coming years, George's book
is likely to come across as more accessible to the common
reader. and more compassionate.
may scoff, and scholars sneer. But the ordinary Singaporean
will read, learn, and be that much better equipped for the
long road to active citizenship in the 21st century.