I would likely not be doing a post marking Lee Kuan Yew’s death this past Monday were it not for my visit—my first—to Singapore last June. I spent three full days there, which is the right amount of time for a tourist (and that’s what I was). I was interested in seeing the place but had certain preconceptions: that it would be sterile, soullessly modern, overly expensive, not much of interest to see or do… And then there were the news stories from past decades of the petty repression, of being fined for spitting, chewing gum (which I don’t), etc. I was quite impressed with the city, though, which has much to recommend it and is absolutely worth a visit if one happens to be in that corner of the world (I was coming from Malaysia). The modernity is married well with the older ethnic quarters (Chinatown, Little India, Arab Street…). Singapore is a well-ordered city-state, easy to get around (on foot and by the excellent public transportation system), and not overly pricey (hotels, restaurants) if one knows where to go. And I was particularly impressed with the cultural patrimony—which is not insignificant—and the museums, which reveal the will to build a national identity in a city-state that was not a nation when it became independent en catastrophe in 1965. I learned more about the modern history of Singapore—of the construction of the state and nation—at the National Museum than in any book (not that I had read a tremendous amount on the subject beforehand). And the nearby Peranakan Museum—entirely devoted to the hybrid Chinese Confucian/Malay Muslim subculture, now vanished, that was born in Malaya and Singapore in the late 19th century via mixed marriages (Chinese men, Malay women)—was fascinating. I had no idea. And the Chinatown Heritage Centre was well worth the visit, where one sees—as at the National Museum—how poor Singapore was and how miserably most people there—mainly Chinese migrants—lived into the 1960s.
Modern Singapore is a miracle (and aided by the modern miracle of air conditioning, as economist Branko Milanović reminds us via Paul Krugman, without which no successful economy in the tropics or a desert—including the US sunbelt—would be what it is). From a piss poor country six decades ago Singapore now has a higher per capita GNI at PPP than the US or any member state of the EU (I was informed while there that the salaries of public primary school teachers begin in the mid five figures in US$, and university professors are all paid into the six figures US$; and for nationals, housing is not expensive). And Singapore is not a Gulf emirate or sheikhdom living off rentier income. The Singaporeans have done it by hard work and, while they’ve been at it, in forging a collective national identity based on what in France is called communautarisme (Chinese 74%, Malays 13%, Indian Tamils 9%). And it works. And all thanks to one man: Lee Kuan Yew.
Far from me to praise an authoritarian (soft) and who theorized nonsense on something called “Asian values.” On this subject I go with the critiques of Amartya Sen and Li Xiaorong—Asians both—end of discussion. But one must give credit where credit is due. Lee was an authoritarian who succeeded (how nice it would be if the Arab world could boast such a figure). On this, I link to James Fallows’s remembrance, “Lee Kuan Yew, the leader who lasted.” Also the one by conservative writer Theodore Dalrymple on “The man who made Singapore,” in which he expresses his admiring ambivalence of the sociopolitical order created by Lee. Echoing the last line in Dalrymple’s piece, a Turkish resident with whom I conversed par hasard told me that Singapore is an excellent place to live and where one can do well for oneself, provided that one scrupulously obeys the law and respects all the rules (of which there is a plethora). If one does that no questions asked, then one will have no problems. But if one transgresses, big problems will ensue.
While Lee’s ideas on “Asian values” were problematic, to put it mildly, he had interesting things to say on other topics, notably that of Islam, a religion well represented in Singapore via the Malay community and a minority of the Indians (Tamils, Punjabis). As I read in TOI last October 17th, Lee clearly designated Saudi Arabia as the culprit for the rise in jihadi terrorism in Southeast Asia after 9/11.
According to Lee, Muslims in Southeast Asia were traditionally moderate and tolerant. But in the 40-odd years since the oil crisis and petrodollars became a windfall in the Muslim world, Saudi extremists have been proselytizing, and building mosques and madrassas that preach Wahhabism. Lee argued this Wahhabi brand is a “venomous religion” that has radicalized Southeast Asian Muslims, and marketed to Muslims throughout the world that the gold standard for being a good Muslim is Saudi Arabia.
Southeast Asia has thus fallen victim to the Wahhabi-driven al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiah (JI) that was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing and a string of terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2003 to 2005. Now, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Philippines are witnessing a revival of Islamic extremism via the spread of ISIS.
Lee Kuan Yew got this one totally right. Saudi Arabia has been one of the most pernicious forces for evil in the world over the past several decades. But as Saudi Arabia has all that oil, occupies a strategic position in a part of the world vital to the world economy, and is a relatively stable (for now) state in a region going to hell in a handbasket, there is unfortunately almost nothing that can be done to counter the malevolent strain of Islam that it has been aggressively exporting.
As for the Islamic presence in Singapore—where religious tolerance is an ironclad rule, as is moderation in religious practice—here are some photos I took
Muhammet, tailor, South Bridge Road. He wants you to know where he stands on the question of secularism back in the home country.
The Malay quarter.
Bussorah Street, behind the Sultan Mosque.
It’s ‘malam nisfu sya’aban’—the Night of Mid-Sha’ban—so hundreds of worshipers have come to the Sultan Mosque.
I’ve lived in Muslim majority countries for some eight years of my life and have never seen such a sight, of so many women in colorful hijabs (not a single niqab) praying outside a mosque. Traditional Islam in Southeast Asia is the not the same as in the Middle East-North Africa.
In Little India.
To read, click on image and enlarge.
This is the Kampung Kling Mosque in Malacca (Melaka), Malaysia, 235 km northwest of Singapore.
Talk about a syncretic architectural style…
An amazing mosque. I’ve never seen one like it.
The mere sight of this mosque would give ISIS a collective heart attack. They’d definitely blow it up if they could.
While I’m at it, this is the Masjid Jamek in Kuala Lumpur (City Centre). Its design and construction were supervised by the British.
The National Mosque, on the edge of the KL City Centre. Built in 1965.
You can get a few thousand worshipers into this mosque.
Architecturally speaking, it’s rather less interesting than the ones above.
UPDATE: Longtime Harvard professor Graham Allison has a piece in The Atlantic (March 30th) worth pondering on “The Lee Kuan Yew Conundrum.” The lede: “Singapore’s late leader governed undemocratically but effectively. Which raises a question: What is the ultimate purpose of government?”