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  • Singapore Sling

    Posted On September 30, 2003

    By Karan Thapar

    Lee Kuan Yew is the Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Mohammed Ali Jinnah of Singapore. In fact, more. He not only created the state but lived to ensure it became what he envisaged of it. Our founding fathers died within a year of independence.

    I arrived in this incredible city-state on Lee’s 80th birthday. His People’s Action Party had planned a dinner for 2000. My heart sank when I heard about it. I imagined the city would grind to a halt and, worse, I would be stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of it.

    I was wrong. No one seemed to know anything of this bash. I only found out from the taxi radio driving in from Changi but Singaporeans had other priorities on their mind. Foremost was having a good time.

    Although The Straits Times made the dinner its lead item the next day I was tickled to see, buried on page 6, a small item informing the world that the present Prime Minister, Goh Chok Tong, Lee’s anointed successor – who hands over to Lee’s son next year – had gone on ‘private leave’ till the 4th. The single paragraph did not mention where he was going. I daresay no one cares. More significantly, an acting prime minister was announced. Again, this was done as if it was normal practice.

    Now why can’t we in India learn from this? When Mr. Vajpayee goes on holiday half the government goes with him. Like the Mughal durbar, the court of Race Course Road travels accompanied by assorted guards, secretaries, advisors and the odd minister or two. At the other end, half the Himachal administration, including the Chief Minister, dances on attendance. And there’s no question of appointing an acting PM.

    Next year Mr. Vajpayee will turn 80. I dread to think what the BJP has up its sleeve. But of one thing I’m certain : unlike Singaporeans, Delhites – if not the rest of India – will be made to suffer. Of course, none of us will be invited.

    There’s a lot to say in praise of Lee and a significant amount against him. However, that’s an old debate and I don’t wish to rekindle it. But there’s a defining fact that few notice, or are even aware of, which, I think, is one of his greatest albeit unsung achievements. Singapore is Asia’s least corrupt country and the world’s fifth. It’s way ahead of the UK and the US or even Switzerland and Sweden. Only Finland, Denmark, New Zealand and Iceland, in that order, fare better. India – in case you’re interested – comes 8th in Asia. In worldwide terms we stand at 77. Our score is 2.7 out of 10. Singapore’s is an astonishing 9.3!

    What’s equally impressive is that Singapore’s ranking has markedly improved since Transparency International started its assessment of 102 countries in 1996. In the first Corruption Perception Index it came in at 7th.

    And what does Lee have to say about this? Only the following : “We have to do better.”

    If you’ve visited London during the Christmas festive season you will have noticed the lights. They’re a talking point if only because each year everyone claims to be disappointed. Nonetheless, coachloads drive down Oxford and Regent streets simply to say they’ve seen them.

    Guess what? Little India in Singapore is not dissimilarly decked out at the moment. Although these are more influenced by Bollywood than Blighty they’re still spectacular. Garish, of course, but striking all the same.

    “Is that normal?” I asked the taxi driver as we drove past.

    “Oh yes” he said matter of factly. “Diwali”.

    And then, in case I was foxed by this seemingly foreign word, he added : “Do you know this colourful Indian festival? It’s one of Singapore’s favourites.”

    I came to Singapore to help judge the Asian Television Awards. Thus I spent my time viewing television programmes from all over this continent. The fare they get to see in the Philippines, Korea, Taiwan and, of course, Singapore itself is

    very different to the diet we are fed on. But that’s obvious. Less so is the way these countries are viewed. Vietnam, for instance, is no longer famous for the war it fought against the French and the Americans. That’s old hat. Today, it’s the land whence Singaporean and Taiwanese bachelors seek their wives.

    One of the films made by MediaCorp in Singapore states that 80 per cent of such Vietnamese girls come from rural backgrounds. They’re found by ‘match-makers’, a euphemism for professional search agencies. And they’re paid substantially.

    But why are Singaporeans searching so far afield? As one of the Island’s putative mothers-in-law puts it : “Vietnamese do things quickly and quietly. They can chop a chicken or duck very nicely.” Presumably the local girls only know how to eat one.

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