Month: March 2014

The Emerging Elite, by Devan Nair

Transcribed by Jess C Scott from Not By Wages Alone (Selected Speeches and Writings of Devan Nair, 1959-1981).

A shorter version is available on Jess’s blog.

* * *

“The Emerging Elite” (20 March 1973)
by Devan Nair (Speech to the Kiwanis Club, Singapore)


Devan Nair:
Istana File Photo

A rapidly industrialising society throws up an elite. And in modern Singapore the elite are the professionals of various types, the technocrats, the engineers and the business executives.

This is necessary and inevitable, for without this professional, technocratic and executive elite, and the managerial, professional and technological expertise they possess, the modernisation process would not have been possible. The not-so-elite majority of working Singaporeans have therefore put up with the higher remuneration and the extra perks and privileges enjoyed by this elite group.

But the shortcomings, weaknesses and foibles of the elite have their reactions on the ground. It is good for Singapore, and in the larger interests of the elite themselves, that there should be periodic and public assessments of ground level reactions to them.

I have the privilege of being one of the leaders of organised labour in Singapore, and may claim, without being immodest, an ability to assess, at least as well as anybody else in Singapore, the present reactions, and the likely future reactions of our working population, to the manner in which our elite conduct and comport themselves.

What distresses me is the feeling that, at ground level, the new elite in Singapore appear to be generally regarded, not as the inspiring social leaders they ought to be, but as somewhat odious but necessary evils.

There is a very vital reason why our new elite should take a hard look at themselves, the image they project to the ground, and their social values, or more correctly, what strikes the ground as their lack of social values. For, in the very nature of things, the future political leadership of Singapore is more than likely to come from this group. But in order to rule and to lead effectively, there is a fundamental pre-requisite. And this is the acceptance by the ground of the social bona fides of the aspirants to political and social leadership in the Republic.

The present generation of political leaders have established their bona fides with the ground beyond any possibility of doubt. They earned it the hard way, over two decades of effort and struggle, and close identification with the real interests of the people.

It is important to appreciate, however, that Lee Kuan Yew and Co. belong to a freak generation. In fact, as individuals, they were quite unrepresentative of the great majority of their social class, the members of which were brought up and educated in the colonial era, and whose major preoccupation was to fend for themselves and feather their own nests. Nation-building and a large vision of the future was not in their line of living and being, for they were essentially a colonially fostered class of people. But because the present generation of leaders exceeded their class characteristics and loyalties, and developed a creative vision of a better society, they were able to establish themselves as the modern leaders of Singapore. In more senses than one, this freak generation are the creators of the vibrant and bustling Republic we know today. However, freak generations are never repeated by history. Indeed, it sometimes happens that their work is undone by those who inherit their mantle of leadership.

It is one of the ironies of development that some of the results of the work of the leaders of development are not what they themselves desired or intended. The emphasis that they quite rightly placed on social and financial rewards for skills and expertise, the accent on quality and excellence, have been the driving force of our economic growth. But one unpleasant side-effect has been the creation of a professional and technocratic elite with an enormous appreciation of their own financial value and a singular lack of any larger social consciousness or commitment. The success syndrome has engendered in many of them, not loftier and more worthy social drives, but baser and narrowly personal and selfish appetites.

It does not seem to be sufficiently well understood that the aspirants to political and social leadership in the next generation will not have the advantage of having led the people from subservience to an independent national identity, and from the old to the new. What then, it may be asked, are their chances of earning the same kind of acceptance from the ground which the present generation of leaders enjoy? Very little indeed, to judge by the values and the motives they exhibit as a social group. Individual exceptions to the rule appear to be distressingly few and far between.

Excessively self-centred, their primary concern seems to be the constant enhancement of their own market value, and the extra perks they can get for themselves. The ground in Singapore has been educated or persuaded to accept the view that in the interests of growth, the full market value of the new elite should be conceded, as it is being conceded all round.

My colleagues and I in the NTUC have done our part to persuade the workers to accept the growing income differentials between them and the burgeoning new elite of Singapore — the professionals, technocrats and management executives. We think our workers are sophisticated enough not to grudge the new elite their extra perks and special privileges but what they do resent is the lack of any tangible signs of general social concern or commitment on the part of the new elite. This raises the possibility that in the long run, any effort at political and social leadership by members of the elite, distinguished as they are, as a social class, more by self-centred concerns than by social awareness, must be seriously undermined. Flamboyant life styles, and vulgar displays of affluence and spending power, do not endear the elite to the ground. They only estrange. And the most impervious barrier that can, in future, divide the rulers from the ruled, the elite from the ground, is the Dollar Curtain.

Thus far, Singapore has managed to escape any acute confrontation between the elite and the not-so-elite in our society, for the following reasons:

Our classless education system, the absence of hereditary privilege, and the free social mobility up the whole hierarchy of educational, professional and industrial skills.

Many a washerwoman’s son is today a professional or an executive. Long may this social mobility remain a strong feature of our society.

But the virtues of social mobility being granted, the fact remains that an elite in any society must be a minority. And the sole social and political justification for an elite, in the long run, is the degree to which they can lead and inspire a whole society to higher levels of achievement. If they fail to do this, and are content merely to serve themselves and feather their own nests, there can be only one end-result — social and political instability in the Singapore of the future.

Succession to the present political leadership there must inevitably be, for the good reason that our present leaders are not immortal. But the question that exercises many minds is whether this succession will be able to command the same respect and acceptance from the ground which the present generation of leaders clearly do.

Lee Kuan Yew and Co. do not have to prove themselves to the ground. A lifetime of effort and solid achievement, in intimate association with the ground, will take care of that.

But we can imagine the aspirants to political leadership in the 80s and the 90s, even if they belong to the present ruling party, having to face some very searching questions at the hustings:

“Yes, we know what the previous generation of leaders did. But what have you done to deserve the same kudos? We know what you have done for yourselves. But what have you done, and what do you propose to do, for us and for Singapore?”

It would be much easier for members of the emerging elite in Singapore to answer such questions if they took their own market value a little less seriously, and concentrated much more on widening and deepening their social values and commitments. This is the only way to bridge the dollar gap between them and the ground they hope one day to lead.

What is called for is less of the cocktail circuit and more of the community circuit. The greater the identification and active involvement with our community development programmes, our community centres, our labour and co-operative institutions, and with the improvement and upgrading of the skills of our workers, the easier will it be for the new elite to establish itself with the ground as an accepted and respected group. And all this must be done sincerely. For nothing smells more rankly to ground level noses than insincerity and hypocrisy at the top.

After all, it requires only a little reflection on the part of our emerging elite to help them restrain their own selfish concerns. The simple truth is that they are where they are today, with their enhanced market value and special perks, because of the discipline and wage restraint exercised by the working population, without which all the development we see around us would not have taken place. And where would your market value be if the market itself were not kept healthy by the restraint and discipline observed by, and often enforced upon, the non-elitist majority of our working population?

The elitist aspirants to the future leadership of Singapore must be educated to realise that to be accepted as leaders of society, they must be clearly seen to be giving of themselves, their time and their energies, in a whole-hearted way, to the community. Those who choose only to receive, but not to give, will deserve, not the crown of leadership, but the failure of the Singapore effort to create a more just and a more equal society. It will be a failure which will be placed squarely at their doors.

C.V. Devan Nair, in Not By Wages Alone (Speech: 20 March 1973)


NYT: Courts in Singapore come under scrutiny


* By Donald Greenlees / Originally published in The New York Times (May 6, 2006).

From the manicured tropical gardens to the litter-free streets and glistening shopping malls, there appears to be something fundamentally clean and decent about Singapore. And if the island republic’s physical appearance is burnished to a high shine, so is its reputation as a place to do business.

It regularly comes near the top of international surveys as an efficient and corruption-free place to invest. Hence, many multinational companies choose Singapore as a sanitary refuge to establish headquarters operations amid the pollution and administrative chaos of many of its Asian neighbors.

One of the cornerstones of Singapore’s appeal to multinational investors has been the soundness of its justice system, at least in commercial cases.

But that reputation for reliability in arbitrating commercial disputes is under increasing scrutiny. It is an issue that analysts say could have far-reaching implications for all foreign investors who have sought out Singapore as a haven and for the important role the city-state has played as a reliable legal jurisdiction in Asia.

A court of appeal in Canada is being asked for the first time to determine whether legal decisions made in Singapore are sufficiently fair and impartial to meet the standards of justice of other developed countries.

In documents tendered to the appeals court in the province of Ontario, Singapore’s judicial reputation has been subject to scathing attack. Lawyers have alleged in court documents that the Singapore legal system is an “utterly politicized component of executive rule” in which there is no guarantee of fairness even in commercial cases. The Singaporean Ministry of Law rejects these claims.

The case, now before the Ontario Court of Appeal, has also become a forum for some critics of Singapore’s political and justice system and served to resurrect grievances about old legal cases brought against opponents of the People’s Action Party, which has been in power since 1959.

“Whichever way this case goes, it is, and it is going to continue to be, quite damaging for Singapore because it’s highlighted a lot of apparent or perceived problems with the Singapore judiciary,” said Michael Backman, a consultant based in London and author of several books on doing business in Asia.

The case centers on a dispute between EnerNorth Industries, an Ontario-based oil and natural gas company, and a Singaporean company, Oakwell Engineering. In 1997, the two companies entered a joint venture to build and operate two barge-mounted electricity generating plants in India.

When the project ran into trouble a year later, EnerNorth bought out Oakwell’s stake in the venture in a deal thatincluded promises to pay $2.79 million and royalties once financing was obtained and the project was operational. A settlement agreement provided for any further disputes to be settled in the Singapore courts. EnerNorth, based in Toronto, subsequently failed to raise the financing for the project and, in 2000, sold out to an Indian company. In 2002, Oakwell sued EnerNorth in Singapore for failure to pay the $2.79 million and royalties. The Singaporean High Court, and later the Singaporean Court of Appeal, which is the final appellate court in Singapore, awarded Oakwell the disputed amounts, full costs and interest amounting to about $5.4 million.

As EnerNorth had no assets in Singapore, Oakwell applied to the Ontario Superior Court to have the award enforced in Canada. Last Aug. 2, the superior court ruled in Oakwell’s favor.

But EnerNorth’s lawyers have appealed. At the heart of their case is a fierce attack on the integrity of the Singapore justice system. In a submission to the appeals court, David Wingfield, EnerNorth’s lawyer, argued that foreign legal systems had to meet Canadian constitutional standards for their rulings to be upheld in Canada.

“What EnerNorth is faced with, however, is having its assets seized under Canadian law to pay a judgment that was granted by a corrupt legal system before biased judges in a jurisdiction that operates outside the rule of law,” he said in a submission to the court. He added: “The uncontradicted evidence in this case, from leading international experts, reveals that Singapore is ruled by a small oligarchy who control all facets of the Singapore state, including the judiciary, which is utterly politicized.”

In large part, Wingfield based his allegations on the record of prosecutions of political critics of the People’s Action Party, including Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, a lawyer of Sri Lankan descent, who for a time was Singapore’s sole opposition member of Parliament. Jeyaretnam was convicted of fraud in a series of trials in Singapore in the 1980s in connection with donations made to his Workers’ Party. He later managed to appeal to the judicial committee of the Privy Council in London over a decision to have him struck off the Singapore Law Society’s rolls.The Privy Council, which was then the final court of appeal for such professional disciplinary actions, decided to review the initial conviction against Jeyaretnam. In a celebrated judgment in October 1988, it expressed “deep disquiet that by a series of misjudgments,” Jeyaretnam and a co-defendant had suffered “a grievous injustice.”

Wingfield in his submission to the court in Ontario also cited the opinion of the International Commission of Jurists on a more recent case involving Jeyaretnam that “the High Court of Singapore has done little to overcome the Singapore courts’ reputation as improperly compliant to the interests of the country’s ruling People’s Action Party.”

The conduct of legal actions against political figures in Singapore has long been the subject of controversy, but the country’s courts have had a strong reputation for fair and impartial conduct in commercial proceedings.

When Gerald Day, the Ontario Superior Court judge, agreed last year to uphold the award made in Singapore against EnerNorth, he wrote, “Historically, there is no evidence of bias or unfairness by the Singapore court in private commercial proceedings.” He also found that there was no evidence of bias “in this specific case” and “no reason to doubt the impartiality of the judges who heard the case in Singapore.”

Pointing to Day’s statements, the Singaporean Ministry of Law said the Ontario Superior Court had “refused to lend any credence to EnerNorth’s spurious allegation of a biased Singapore judiciary. “In a written response, it said EnerNorth had been represented in Singapore by lawyers of its choice and had not alleged that the Singapore courts or any of its judges were biased against it at the time of the initial court hearings.

The ministry also said the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy, which is based in Hong Kong, had “consistently rated the Singapore judicial system as one of the best in the region, and emphasized that Singapore has one of the most fair and transparent legal systems in the world.” The ministry added, “Singapore prides itself on having an independent and impartial judiciary.”

Still, EnerNorth’s lawyers produced a number of affidavits from its own experts, including Francis Seow, a former Singapore solicitor general and judge turned prominent critic of the government; and Ross Worthington, a professor of governance and World Bank consultant. Both asserted that the People’s Action Party, or PAP, and the executive controlled all aspects of public life, including the judiciary.

Wingfield, the EnerNorth lawyer, also quoted a report in court from the New York City Bar Association that warned American companies to be wary of agreeing to let commercial disputes be settled in Singapore courts as EnerNorth did. The bar association said the Singapore government “had been willing to decimate the rule of law for the benefit of political interests.” But it also warned U.S. companies that in doing business in Singapore, they were “likely to encounter a wide variety of enterprises in which the government has an economic interest.”

“The same forces which have led that judiciary to be sensitive to the PAP government’s political interests would lead it to take account of its economic interests,” the report said.

The basis of EnerNorth’s appeal is that Day, the superior court judge, required EnerNorth lawyers to prove specific bias against the company by the Singaporean courts, which the judge found they had failed to do. Wingfield argued that it was simply sufficient to establish that Singapore’s legal system did not meet Canadian standards.

The Ontario Appeals Court finished hearing the case in April and under an informal six-month rule is likely to announce its decision by the end of the summer, according to lawyers. But both sides have indicated that they will seek to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court, meaning that the case could drag on and could become a test of recognition of foreign legal jurisdictions.

Lawyers for Oakwell Engineering maintain in their submissions to the courts in Canada that the issue has already been resolved under Canadian law and should not be reopened. They said EnerNorth had chosen to attack the quality of justice only because it had lost the case in Singapore – a jurisdiction it had freely chosen for settlement of any disputes with Oakwell. They said the company had not raised objections during the trial in Singapore and had failed to prove or even establish a “reasonable apprehension” of bias against it.

In its case before the Ontario Court of Appeal, Oakwell’s lawyers said EnerNorth had in fact been represented by a lawyer who witnesses said had strong links to the People’s Action Party, while Oakwell had been represented by Philip Jeyaretnam, the son of the opposition figure.

They said the case had been “heard before the courts of a country built on foreign investment, with an impeccable reputation for fairness to foreign businesses like EnerNorth.”

But Backman, the consultant and author, said the risk for Singapore, regardless of the verdict in Canada, was that foreign companies might become increasingly wary about business transactions in the city-state. If EnerNorth wins, he said by telephone, courts in other countries might also come under pressure not to enforce Singapore legal judgments.”This will only impact on the desire of investors to invest and remain in Singapore,” he said.

NYT: Singapore Justice (1997)


* Originally published in The New York Times (June 5, 1997)

If the consequences were not so serious, the political machinations of Singapore’s leaders would be laughable. In the latest twisted use of the country’s libel laws, they have obtained a $5.7 million damage ruling against an opposition politician who had the temerity to deny accusations that he was bent on producing racial discord.

Singapore’s leaders are masters at using libel suits in a compliant court system to silence or intimidate their domestic opponents and to discourage critical commentary about Singapore in foreign publications that are distributed or have business interests in Singapore. It saves the trouble of throwing opponents in jail, and has provided the leaders with a tidy source of outside income. Several foreign news organizations have been intimidated by this tactic, including The International Herald Tribune, which is jointly owned by the New York Times and Washington Post companies.

The libel damages imposed last week take the practice to a new plane by penalizing someone for defending himself against attack by the ruling People’s Action Party. The victim, Tang Liang Hong, is one of Singapore’s few outspoken opposition politicians. He nearly won a parliamentary seat in elections earlier this year.

When party leaders called him a ”Chinese chauvinist” intent on stirring unrest among Singapore’s large ethnic Chinese population, he rejected the accusation and called the leaders liars. Last week a court awarded $1.6 million in damages to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore and its longtime autocratic ruler. Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was awarded $1 million. Mr. Tang fled to Hong Kong after the election.

The court’s grandiloquent justification captured the absurdity of Singapore politics. ”This court,” the judge intoned, ”must show its indignation at the injury inflicted on the plaintiffs.” In Singapore, no one can afford to oppose the rulers.