Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:54 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 22:54 | SYDNEY

Singapore on the couch


Graeme Dobell

19 August 2009 09:41

This column comes to you from Asia’s mighty micro state, where the Prime Minister marked the 50th anniversary of self-government by pointing to racial and religious divides as Singapore’s 'most visceral and dangerous fault line.' For Singapore’s leaders, race and religion seem to be a permanent neuralgia, throbbing just below the surface.

Having been a regular visitor to Singapore for three decades, I’ve developed a strange affection for the National Day speech — the annual moment the leader puts the whole nation on the couch. The psychoanalysis metaphor is apt because the same fears recur. Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day speech was in the great tradition of his father, Lee Kuan Yew, who always seemed to be re-arranging his fears so he could worry about them afresh.

Some of the interest is the ritual of the speech, delivered by the Prime Minister in English, Malay and Mandarin. It is part annual report, part political statement and part sermon. The combination of capitalist boosterism and the echo of a long Castro speech is the mix to be expected from a one-party state that also holds elections.

From our years living in Singapore at the end of the 80s and early 90s, my children can still sing a catchy TV ditty: 'One people, one nation, one Singapore — that‘s the way it‘s got to be for ever more!' The refrain is updated and made more pointed in the full page ads run by Singapore’s National Security Coordination Secretariat: 'Be vigilant. Be resilient, Be united against terrorism. Be as one.'

Constantly talking about the need for internal harmony is a way of referring to the unstated external fear  — whether Singapore can actually survive as a state. The old image was of the Chinese island in the  Malay sea, but that is both un-harmonious and un-ASEAN. Much better to emphasise national resilience. The occasional fighter jet overhead is as much a part of Singapore as the humidity. All that military spending buys some reassurance for Singapore’s leaders as well as the deterrence it offers the neighbours.

Five years into his prime ministership, Lee Hsien Loong’s National Day performance was more polished than confident. To follow the psychoanalytic refrain, how do you deal with a father who is also father of the nation? How do you relax into the top job when your dad is still sitting in Cabinet keeping an eye on you?

As leader for 31 years, Lee Kuan Yew’s National Day performances were those of a master politician with the personality of a pedantic headmaster. His successor, Goh Chok Tong, tried hard at the politics during his 14 years as PM, but could never disown his technocrat personality.

Lee Hsien Loong comes over as the former general who is more comfortable with the geek issues than the politics. As a former military man, he still loves Powerpoint. His National Day show was truly multi-media. All those pictures of how Singapore has transformed itself over 50 years gave evidence of another truth.You have to come back constantly to Singapore to check on which of the landmarks in your memory have been torn down and rebuilt.

Photo by Flickr user Spike55151, used under a Creative Commons license.