The sickening sound of sucking up

Close-up of a billboard in Bukit Batok

Close-up of a billboard in Bukit Batok

Sometimes timber houses can look very solid from the outside, but a sharp eye may spot signs of rot in the wood. The excessive adulation of Lee Kuan Yew, on the first anniversary of his death, may be a sign of decay in the state apparatus.

Throughout last week, when social media collectively vomited in disgust at what looked like state-organised worship, I tried to check myself. Maybe it’s only the people active on social media who are feeling disgusted, I suggested to myself. Maybe there are indeed huge numbers of Singaporeans who think it entirely appropriate to prostrate themselves, light joss-sticks, perhaps even ululate in the streets (if they knew how), to mark the anniversary.

Then, in this morning’s Today newspaper, we have former prime minister Goh Chok Tong trying to distance himself from all this inflated zeal. “I, too, won’t want to remember him in a very big way,” he was quoted as saying.

It appears that he was responding to the criticism levelled by Lee Kuan Yew’s daughter Lee Wei Ling. The story in Today gives some details:

In a Facebook post on Friday (March 25) evening, which has since been shared by around 7,000 users of the social network, Dr Lee [Wei Ling] wrote that her father would have objected to the “hero worship” just a year after his death.

“In looking at acts of commemoration in general, I would ask how the time, effort, and resources used to prepare those would benefit Singapore and Singaporeans,” she wrote.

“I also question the need for a commemoration so close after Papa’s (death), when last year’s event still hangs heavy on the hearts and minds of some people.”

Unlike other leaders, Mr Lee was not one who endorsed cronyism and was “dead set against a personality cult”, Dr Lee said.

Individuals and community groups had planned more than 100 events, from tree-planting activities to multiple remembrance sites and family carnivals, to mark Mr Lee’s first death anniversary on March 23, some of which began at the start of the month.

Recalling Mr Lee’s reaction to the rousing welcome during her first visit with him to China in 1976 — when young children lined the streets and chanted loudly upon their arrival — Dr Lee wrote: “It was very contrived and my father was not impressed. We are Singaporeans, not prone to excessive, unnatural displays of emotion.”

— Today, 28 March 2016, Commemoration or glorification? Question raised over Mr Lee’s death anniversary

The backtracking by Goh indicates that the political elite is now realising how badly the whole exercise is being received. Tactical retreat suggests that they can’t marshall the confidence that there is any “silent majority” that actually wants such glorification, otherwise they would have stood their ground.

* * * * *

Three of the many billboards put up in Bukit Batok

Three of the many billboards put up in Bukit Batok

How did it come to this? — I think this is an interesting question. Knowing the way government works in Singapore, and considering the huge sums of taxpayer money spent (e.g. printing commemorative schoolbooks), this was no bottom-up idea. It came from the top. Even then, it bears a little more examination.

With “more than 100 events”, it was an idea that necessarily percolated to many different departments for implementation. But all of us who have worked within large organisations will also know that quite often the original idea comes out very differently in the end. The king might have ordered 10,000 geese, but eventually 23 ducks (disguised as geese) might be delivered. Or he might have wished for 16 candles; instead, 160 were lit and burned the house down.

The typical story would be one where the top brass passes an order to do something, but the underlings do not share the same enthusiasm. There is inertia, silent resistance and subtle alteration, and what eventuates is a pale shadow of the initial idea. Most of us have seen this phenomenon around us where we work.

Now, here’s the funny thing. If the “more than 100 events” were a pale shadow of the initial idea, then the idea must have been much, much bigger — something North Korean-style. This would be hard to believe. Yes, our government can be rather full of themselves, yes, they are often insecure enough to look to circuses to distract the crowds, but they are not delusional.

More likely, it was a case of asking for 16 candles and getting a conflagration. But the organisational dynamics of getting to a conflagration is quite different from shrinking the king’s wish for 10,000 geese to 23 ducks. The dynamics would be akin to snowballing. Instead of encountering organisational resistance and inertia, the idea gained momentum as it got implemented.

What is the organisational psychology that delivers such a result?

In Singapore we have a lovely term for it: carrying balls. ‘Balls’, not as in snowballs, but testicles. Elsewhere the preferred term is ‘lick ass’.

For example, I find it hard to believe that the cabinet would have given detailed orders to the Straits Times to carry exactly this and that story and so many pages. Somewhere along the line, people at that newspaper decided to devote — wait for it — eleven pages to mark the anniversary. See the front page of the newspaper’s 23 March 2016 edition below:


I wonder too if they had originally planned to devote the front page to it as well. Alas, two tragedies struck and the one-year-old corpse had to make way?

Speaking of the two tragedies, I want to draw your attention to a classic example of our mainstream media’s readiness to help our government look good. The Brussels blasts were reported with a straightforward headline: “Brussels airport, subway hit by blasts; dozens dead”. But the deaths of two technicians on our metro line were headlined very differently. “SMRT orders safety review after train runs into two” puts the emphasis on the corrective action, to subliminally say It’s being looked into and will be fixed! Moreover, the headline doesn’t say “two dead” but “train runs into two”.

The headlines alone provide an example of testicle carriage.

Two inside pages from among the eleven pages -- note how schools and children were roped in.

Two inside pages from among the eleven pages — note how schools and children were roped in.

The same psychology was at work in planning the anniversary events, from schools to town councils. Juniors were trying to impress their bosses with ardour. But any organisation where carrying balls is priority is one that is rotting from within. People no longer speak honestly, no longer think independently, and eventually are no longer able to pass on bad news.

That cannot be the kind of robust state apparatus we need in the long run.

15 Responses to “The sickening sound of sucking up”

  1. 1 yuenchungkwong 29 March 2016 at 05:22

    sycophants always overdo it; the strange thing is the daughtet does not realize that

  2. 4 D 29 March 2016 at 05:37

    Let me just give one question. What would you say are the greatest acheivements of LHL’s time in power?
    Pause for thought.
    I don’t think this worship comes from LHL himself, more likely his government / party as a whole. And I would suggest that an organisation with few glories of their own must manufacture some to bask in. Hence I suppose the LHL administration chooses to lionise LKY so that they can bask in some of his reflected glory.

    One other thing. There is a Facebook page “Fabrications about the PAP” which used to be very petty and partisan, attacking opposition parties etc. It gets shared into my timeline quite often. Since LKY died it has changed quite noticably, at least in terms of what I see which presumably goes though FB’s filtering, but anyway, all I ever see from them in recent weeks and moths is LKY memorabilia. I don’t think this is a coincidence, but rather another facet of the institutional lionisation of LKY.

    • 5 Jeff Dickey 30 March 2016 at 12:46

      Spot on. Love him or loathe him, none can dispute that LKY actually LED Singapore. Being a dictator and being a statesman are not, alas, mutually exclusive; those who confuse one with the other, however, are on extremely dangerous ground.

      The LHL Government, rightly, is profoundly, arguably pathologically insecure about their record and hence their legitimacy. It would appear that they believe that only by defining themselves as the “keepers of the legacy of The God-King LKY”, and the selective use of the civil-society equivalent of tactical nukes (as in the Amos Yee affair) can they continue to hold Permanent Absolute Power.

      It’s incumbent on all of us who CARE about Singapore to prove them wrong.

  3. 6 Anon 4rRw 29 March 2016 at 09:13

    Nobody intelligent reads SPH’s publishings anymore. Save the money and spend it on something else instead.

  4. 7 Dening Lo 29 March 2016 at 11:13

    Yes. Yes yes yes.

  5. 9 Thessauron 29 March 2016 at 17:12

    More than once, I was chastised for not joining in. A neighbour for example accused me of being ungrateful and ignorant of the past.
    My friend, who refused to attend the wake last year, ended up piled with the work of those who went. He was later on branded as not being Singaporean.
    I can only imagine how many others became victims of this hero fanaticism this way. And so yes, it is a rot. One thats going to bring down the shack if it continues.

  6. 11 Doctor Who 29 March 2016 at 22:26

    Sucking up stems from the Singapore kiasu system

  7. 12 ape@kinjioleaf 29 March 2016 at 23:51

    Ball carrying organisations can certainly pass on bad news… bad news of others

  8. 13 George 30 March 2016 at 13:23

    I don’t want to sound like a party pooper, but since the event is a year old already, it would be quite safe (remember what happened to Amos Yee) to give an honest opinion about the ‘mass’ funeral turnout a year ago – IMO it was also a mass manufactured event. The present highly contrived mass anniversary is probably also organized by the same group from the looks of things and I see Kee Chiu Chan’s hand in it, yet again. We all know he played a singular role as chief SAF logistic provider in Mdm Kwa’s funeral, complete with SAF gun carriage, and before or is it because of it, he was ‘talent’ spotted and got elevated to august ministerial rank by an obviously impressed and grateful doddering father and filial son team. Kee Chiu’s lacklustre performance as minister explains it all.
    Many, queued up at the funeral wake because of mass psychology aka the herd instinct. (After all, there are Singaporeans who would queue for the opportunity to buy a stuff kitten.) And the masses, including young children, who lined up along the road even in the rain, on funeral day complete with flags and other gears had to be anything but truly spontaneous. I would not rule out mere curiosity as a significant factor.

  9. 14 Hawking Eye 30 March 2016 at 20:55

    Alex, you are a valuable blue-blood Singaporean with big ideas and practical solutions for some of the problems you identify and deal with. I would think you should shift to neutral ground and continue with your good work of prescribing prescriptions for some of the ills that confront our nation. Tone down your bashing of the government and the establishment which looks like a given in most of your articles. In your previous article titled “State ancestor worship to be enforced” you referred to the proposal to erect a Founders’ Memorial and wrote sarcastically in your foot note that “the day we get to celebrate liberty and true democracy, we will have something to topple, kick and demolish” – a needless add-on that can whip up emotions amongst thousands of neutral minded people and die hard PAP members and supporters.

    It is not easy to run Singapore. Apart from its good geogrophical location and well trained and hard working people, it has practically nothing else going for it. Whether one likes it or not, the nation lives on its wits with a long-term thinking political leadership constantly planning and striving to seek economic growth and prosperity for the people for now and the forseeable future. With many countries getting insular, Globalisation may incrementally lose its shine and importance affecting Singpore more than any other country as our economy is fully dependant on it.

    If ever Donal Trump becomes the next President of the US, it may mean serious trouble for Singapore. He has said that he wants US companies operating in other countries to relocate to America to provide jobs for local people and boost the economy. He added he would personally speak (and play the hardball pehaps) to the CEOs to ensure compliance. The US getting it right will have ripple effect on EU to go that way. How will all these affect Singapore – a frightening thought indeed. Will Singapore have to become a vassal state of China or alternatively “crawl back to Malaysia” (as the late Tenku Abdul Rahman who was the PM at the time of Singapore’s separation on 9 Aug 1965 put it)

    For the many positive ideas and inputs in most of your articles carried in your blog, you may be a harsh critic at best but certainly not anybody’s enemy. See the big picture. You are a deep thinker brimming with new ideas and possible solutions. Be a David Marshall or Chan Heng Chee. You have a lot more to contribute for Singapore.

    • 15 You slut! 1 April 2016 at 22:59

      “It is not easy to run Singapore.”

      It’s also not easy to run South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong,…nobody has to tone down anything there. Is Singapore an especially cretinous country?

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