Book Review

(Landmark Books, 2000)


WHEN 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.

In private however, George was probably one of the most read political columnists of the Straits Times in the past decade.

Many 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.

Singapore: The Air-conditioned Nation, Chp 14

Those 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?

George's 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.

Putting 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.

There 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.

In 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.

Like 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.

One 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.

Perhaps 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.

George 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.

In 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.

The 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).

The 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.

There 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.

George's 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.

Granted, 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.

And 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.

Nevertheless, 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.

Bureaucrats 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.