The End of an Era

Today Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew passed at the age of 91.

Lee stands among the finest statesmen in history. He turned a tiny resource-free island into a global financial hub. He dedicated his life to Singapore, to his vision of Singapore, participating in the affairs of state up until his final days. No doubt the press and pundits will do a far finer job of eulogizing him than I ever could.

When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I think of the father of modern Singapore. The lawyer who stood with the early nationalists and fought for the people. The politician who founded a party and a movement that won independence from the British and support from the people. The statesman who defied all expectations to transform Singapore into the pearl of Southeast Asia, emphasising transparent and efficient governance. I think of Malaysian Malaysia, Merdeka, economic transformation, and the shining city around me.

When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I also think of an Asian Machiavelli. The leader who latched on to the left-wingers’ popularity base, split with them over the issue of merger with Malaya, and purged the Barisan Sosialis in the wake of the Brunei Revolt. The pragmatist who sought friendly ties with East and West without falling firmly into either camp during and after the Cold War. The autocrat who brooked no dissent and used every means at his disposal to hammer his political opponents, real or imagined, into subservience. I think of Operations Coldstore and Spectrum, the Internal Security Act, lawsuits for defamation, and Group Representative Constituencies.

Lee has earned his place as hero and villain in the annals of history. I suppose it is the curse of every man who has reached such august heights. Yet for all his accomplishments he did not single-handedly build Singapore. The task of building a nation is too great for any one man. When I think of the founders of Singapore I think of Lim Yew Hock, David Marshall, Devan Nair, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Albert Wisemius, the ones who set in motion the policies that have served Singapore so well. Lee is a man, not a myth, and even as his era ends I hope the generations to come will remember him as he was: the father of Singapore, a man who wielded the levers of power to execute his will in service to his nation, but a man nonetheless.

I think Lee’s greatest legacy is that Singapore will outlive him. Where many lesser leaders have created cults of personality or dictatorships around themselves, Lee created institutions that will keep running long after this passing. Today is a day of mourning, but it is not a shock to the organs of state. Singapore will grieve, but I am confident Singapore will adapt and carry on. I cannot say for certain that the present generation of leaders are up to the task, but compared to Lee nearly every politician will fall short. In that regard, Lee’s crowning achievement is the creation of a place where a man like him is no longer needed, a state that no longer requires the services of a personality as forceful and divisive as he is, a nation that can thrive without him. We will be all the poorer for his death, but we will endure.

I don’t think the majority of my generation will fully comprehend the impact of his passing. We have not lived through the tumultuous years of Singapore’s birth, nor the uncertainty of the early post-independence era. We who have lived through unprecedented prosperity will remember only a glittering city-state that is the envy of the world, and with that baseline judge Lee by his deeds and words. This is our curse, but also our blessing, for we who are so distant from those troubled years have the benefit of hindsight and history, a clearer lens with which to examine the man and his legacy. And, armed with the lessons of the past, building upon the foundation Lee has laid, we can forge into uncharted tomorrows and usher in a new era.

We have every tool and every resource at our disposal to build a brighter tomorrow, needing only knowledge, planning and willpower. That, I think, is my generation’s greatest inheritance from the father of the nation. Now it is up to us not to squander it.

Chapter 1 of I, ESCHATON

The next entry in the American Heirs series, titled I, ESCHATON is almost good to go. All that’s left is the cover. Here’s a preview of what’s to come.

Chapter 1

Special Delivery

Jacques’ timing was perfect.

It was just after two in the afternoon. Office workers thronged the streets, hurrying back to their workplaces from the plethora of coffee shops that dotted Downtown Seattle, many of them with their faces buried in smartphones, tablets, or augmented reality glasses. Jacques studied the crowd, spotting a few making a beeline for 38 Vandemeer Plaza.

The skyscraper gleamed in the sunlight. It was sleek lines and clean glass, shiny metal and unyielding concrete. Modern technology never ceased to amaze him. His childhood memories were of mold-blackened roofs, crumbling walls, streets filled with trash and debris, and packs of ferals that around every corner, waiting for easy prey. It was almost a shame to burn it all down.

Jacques pulled his van into an open spot in front of the tower. Smoothening down his gray deliveryman’s uniform, he reached under the dashboard and flicked three concealed switches. He grabbed the box on the passenger seat and jumped out, locking the vehicle behind him.

Cradling the box to his chest with gloved hands, he pretended it was filled with heavy lead bricks and waddled to the tower, slipping in behind a small knot of white collars. One of them smiled at him, opening the door to let him through. He smiled back.

A series of gantries controlled access to the main lobby. Employees flashed smart cards to pass. Jacques headed for the security desk, where an elderly woman manned a computer.

Can I help you?” she asked.

Ah, oui,” he said, his head just barely clearing the top of the box. “I have delivery for Wilshaw Foundation? On floor nineteen?”

She gave him an once-over, and smiled. “Is it a scheduled delivery?”

Ah, yes, I have paperwork here.” He pulled out a flexitab from his pocket, unfurled it to its full length and powered it up. An impressive set of blanks and words filled the screen.

I see,” she said. “Do you need help?”

Non, I can carry this myself. But the gate…”

Of course.”

She got off her chair and emerged behind her desk. She was a very short woman, almost broader than she was tall. Jacques wondered how this…creature…managed to be a security guard. There were no fat people where he lived. There was never nearly enough to go around, and everybody knew fat people couldn’t fight.

Huffing from the exertion, she tottered over to the nearest gantry and flashed her security card over the scanner. The gantry beeped and opened. Muttering thanks under his breath, Jacques eased his way through, keeping up the charade. He studied the signs on the lobby, and called for the elevator that served odd-numbered floors. He’d been living and operating in the Green Zone for a few years now, and he’d always wondered why there were lifts that only served specific floors.

Once again, Jacques’ sense of timing served him well. When the elevator doors opened, a few office workers entered with him. One of them pushed the button for the nineteenth floor. All of them gave him a wide berth, and looked away from his face.

There were a number of tenants on the nineteenth floor. A law firm, an Internet marketing company, a gang of financial advisers. But the main one, the one that mattered most, was the Wilshaw Foundation. Jacques stepped out and turned right, following a woman. She opened the door with her smart card, and he dashed in just before the door closed.

Jacques glanced around the reception area. A white-uniformed security guard stood nearby, his face a portrait of professional boredom. Unlike the one downstairs, this one was armed with a pistol at his hip. The Wilshaw Foundation had upgraded its security over the last month, in response to the Sons of America striking targets across Cascadia. But there was only the one guard.

Hello?” the receptionist said. “Do you have a delivery?”

Ah, oui,” Jacques replied. He eased the box on her desk with a soft groan, and fished out his flexitab. “Please ack-no-ledge receipt here.”

She took the flexitab, opening it up. “What’s inside?”

Jacques glanced at the guard. The guard was still standing there, still bored, still unaware of what was coming.

He would be the first to die.


Jacques reached in and pulled out his weapon. The 100-round casket magazine in the pistol grip was heavy, but the weapon was so finely balanced the extra weight made it easier to aim. He swiveled over to face the security guard and thumbed the fire selector to full auto, his off-hand grabbing the forward pistol grip and mashing down the pressure pad for the top-mounted laser sight. The gun still down at his hip, Jacques brought the laser up to the guard’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The stubby suppressor screwed on the muzzle reduced the report to a loud THUDTHUDTHUDTHUD. The guard dropped on his face.

Huh?” the receptionist replied, looking up.

Jacques casually turned around and put a bullet in her face. Turning back, he extended the weapon’s wire stock, brought it to his shoulder, peered through the reflex sight, and put a single shot into the downed guard’s brain. A nearby office worker gasped, dropping a stack of files. Jacques drilled her too, twice in the chest, twice in the face. With no more targets in view, he picked up the flexitab and swiped his finger across the screen. The text window gave way to a phone app.

Entrance secure,” he said, and stepped away from the flexitab.

Backing up against the wall, still aiming downrange, Jacques hit the button that unlocked the doors to the office with his left hand. The magnetic locks released with an audible thunk.

The door opened. Seven men flowed in. All wore black masks, gloves, and goggles. The last man tossed Jacques a balaclava. Jacques pulled it on as suppressed automatic fire erupted around him. Two of the newcomers took up security positions behind the security desk, kicking the corpse away. One grabbed the flexitab while the other plugged a flash stick into the computer.

Uploading worms,” the one with the tablet called.

The five-man assault team surged into the Foundation’s main workspace, suppressed gunfire in their wake, and Jacques followed.

Corpses piled the floor. Blood spattered across the walls and soaked into the carpet. The six men worked the room, gunning down everybody they saw. A young woman popped her head out a door and ate a bullet. A large fat man, seated at a couch, tried to stand, but a shooter stitched him from gut to face. Jacques saw a wounded man push himself off the floor, and rewarded his effort with a head shot. A woman, hiding behind a desk, jumped up at an attacker as he passed. She screamed, arcing her body away from him, throwing awkward, powerless slaps at his face. He shot her off him with a burst to the groin, snarling, and erased her face with a second burst. Another woman curled up behind a couch, whimpering, pleading for the police dispatcher to pick up. Jacques dragged her out and shot her.

Clear!” the assault leader called.

Clear!” Jacques responded.

Past the work zone were a series of private offices. All of them had full-length windows and doors made of clear polymer. Most of them were curtained off. Jacques knew the basics of active shooter response training: run, hide and fight. The two men at reception had sealed off the only escape route. If there were survivors, they would be hiding inside the offices, with some preparing to fight if the intruders broke in.

Which they wouldn’t. The shooters ahead of Jacques lowered their goggles. These were fusion vision goggles, able to combine different vision modes in one. Including ultraband radar. Forming a tight triangle, they stalked the corridors and passages between the offices. Wherever they saw a survivor, they fired through the walls. Plastic splintered and shattered. People screamed and begged. Blood flowed in rivers. Jacques hung back, watching for survivors, checking the bodies the advance party had left behind.

Doors flung open. A man yelled. Eight people burst out of the last two offices, each holding an improvised weapon in their hands: fire extinguishers, a chair, flexitabs. Jacques didn’t have a clear shot, but that was all right. The shooters ahead of him held their ground, unleashing disciplined torrents of steel into the mob, cutting them down with aimed fire. None of the civvies got close.

Area clear,” the leader reported. “No more survivors.”

Proceed with phase two,” Jacques said.

Tearing through the offices, they found a door labeled ‘Information Technology’. Inside were a series of desktops, and a large tower that housed the Foundation’s server. One of the shooters pulled out a tablet and wired it to the tower, while the others took up security positions. Walking over to a window, Jacques peered out to the street below. All was quiet downstairs. Nobody was running, traffic was normal, no sign of police attention. Jacques sauntered into the server room and waited.

Phase two complete,” the man with the tablet announced.

Well done,” Jacques said. “Initiate phase three.”

The shooter disconnected the tablet and put it away. From another pocket, he removed a sticky bomb. He peeled off the back lining, exposing an adhesive resin. He stuck the disc-shaped object on the server, with the business end pointed at the doorway. He turned a dial, setting the proximity fuse to activate in a minute.

The men bugged out. Jacques, with empty pockets, led the way out. The rest trailed, taking turns to booby-trap bodies and corners with more sticky bombs. The team regrouped at the reception desk. There were four new bodies on the floor. Someone had dragged them in from the corridor outside. Jacques looked askance at the nearer of the two shooters on security.

Witnesses,” he said, shrugging.

Jacques nodded. “Good. My flexitab?”

The shooter returned it to Jacques.

The eight men left the Foundation, heading into a nearby stairwell. Eight duffle bags awaited. They grabbed one each and tossed in their masks, weapons, gloves, ammo, everything that made them stand out. Then they headed down the stairs, as fast as their legs would take them.

Twenty floors down, they were sweating and breathing hard as they emerged into the basement car park. A black van was waiting for them, the engine purring. The men climbed in, with Jacques taking the passenger seat.

All in,” the assault leader said. “Roll.”

Rolling,” the driver acknowledged, and drove. Jacques leaned against his seat, breathing deep, letting the air conditioner cool his face.

Up on street level, Jacques pulled his flexitab from his pocket. He closed the dummy screen and opened another app. The screen dissolved to black, displaying a single red button. Jacques checked the reception. Full strength. He took a deep breath. Let it out. Pushed the button.

A block away, the street erupted in flame and steel.

Singapore's hybrid warfare strategy is lacking

The media reported that the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) is adapting to new threats posed by hybrid warfare, defending against conventional and unconventional threats from state and non-state actors. Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Han described hybrid warfare as the “exact antagonist” of Singapore’s total defence strategy, seeking to undermine the target’s defences in civil, economic, social, psychological and military spheres.  To meet this threat, the Navy will replace its Patrol Vessels with Littoral Mission Vessels, while the Army will phase out its fleet of V-200 armoured cars with new Protected Response Vehicles. The SAF will also raise new units for cyber defence, and explore other technologies.

This round of upgrades would likely enable the SAF to keep pace with military developments. It is also unlikely to matter in the event of hybrid warfare.

Dr Ng’s description of hybrid warfare is not wrong. He was framing it in terms relevant to Singapore’s Total Defence strategy. However, hybrid warfare isn’t solely, or even predominantly, military. Hybrid warfare is fought predominantly in non-military spheres.

The terrorists of the world have pointed the way. Palestinian terrorist groups made their mark by choosing strategies to provoke Israel into repeated overreaction, making the latter appear to be the oppressor in the conflict. Insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan fight from villages and cities, forcing Western forces to choose between mass collateral damage or dramatically reduced fire support. Islamist propaganda consistently paints the West as the Dar al-Harb, the House of War, by playing up immoral Western activities and portraying them as aggressors. Terrorists and their sympathisers use social media to amplify these actions, portraying their cause as just.

And yet, what is clear is that state actors have consistently been playing to the tune of non-state actors. Islamist terrorist groups want Israel to engage in widespread destruction; the Israelis obliged through collective punishments, bombing terrorists in dense urban areas, and further isolating Palestine. The Americans continue their policy of launching Hellfires at terrorists from UAVs, blowing up more civilians than combatants in the process. They have done everything to make themselves look like the bad guys, and every little to correct that perception.

When state actors embrace the tools of subversion, their access to greater resources and population bases leave them more tools. The Russians in the Ukraine began their campaign by infiltrating large numbers of masked, deniable gunmen into the Crimea, paving the way for the main forces. In the early days of the conflict, the Ukrainian military failed to respond decisively to the militia in their midst, and the Western European powers had no strategic impetus to intervene. This made it extremely difficult to eject the Russians when they came in force.

But the principal tool here is not military power. The first wave of irregulars were largely unopposed. That was because the Russians had succeeded in swaying the Russian-ethnic majority of the Crimea to their side. Moscow painted the Ukrainian government as Western puppets, and appealed to their shared cultural history to win their support. The people of the Crimea elected their own pro-Russian government, repudiated the state of Ukraine and acceded to the Russians. Because of this popular support, the Russians secured their campaign objectives with minimal bloodshed and without triggering World War III.

The Chinese Assassin’s Mace concept took hybrid warfare several steps further, discussing the use of economic warfare, propaganda, and asymmetric warfare. For instance, suppose the Chinese decide to invade Taiwan. The United States threatens to intervene. In response, Chinese hackers black out the West Coast and inserts a virus that knocks out the New York Stock Exchange. If the US makes a move, the Chinese promise to cut power to the rest of the nation. A blackout is not, strictly speaking, an act of war, nor is crashing a stock exchange, but these moves would undercut any appetite for intervention without firing a shot. If the Chinese wish to fight at the moral level, they would precede the invasion by engineering a crisis in Taiwan, perhaps a false flag operation that paints the mainland Chinese community at risk of deportation or oppression by an aggressively nationalist government.

Singapore’s hybrid warfare strategy focuses on countering military threats, and in the future cyberwarfare threats. While periodic modernisation upgrades are almost always useful, Singapore’s obsession with technology mirrors that of the Americans — and despite American technological supremacy they have not won the peace in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military strategist William S. Lind repeatedly pointed out that fourth generation warfare, the open source warfare embraced by non-state actors, is fought principally on the moral level. The opening moves are designed to secure the moral high ground, and follow-up moves to keep the target from wresting that position away. In doing so, the target loses the support of the people and the world, and eventually loses the will to fight. This is seen in the battlefields of Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan. Hybrid warfare, as embodied by the Russians, began and continued the same way, with the Russians communicating the same consistent message undermining the legitimacy of the Ukrainian government and affirming their common ground with the Crimea. While there will nevertheless be military operations at the physical level, these operations are subordinate to, and superceded by, combat at the moral level. Case in point, the US military won nearly every battle in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, but by failing to win the hearts and minds of the people they failed to win the wars.

With hybrid warfare fought at the moral level, what is the SAF’s response?

Trick question. The SAF is optimised for military conflicts. Hybrid warfare is a moral confrontation. The SAF does not have much of a role to play in fields that do not concern external aggression, disaster/terrorist response, foreign aid, or incidents that require military deployment.

The real question is: what is the government’s response?

Hybrid warfare attacks the foundations of the state. The state’s first move must be to shore up its foundations and occupy the moral high ground before the threat approaches. The state must show that it represents the will of the people, that has the good of the people at heart, that its power is legitimate and non-state actors simply wish to destroy everything the state stands for.

Now consider this: Alex Au was fined $8000 for contempt of court. Lawyer M Ravi, famous for being of the few (or only) lawyers who will take on political and human rights cases, was suspended from the bar while he was representing politically-charged cases in court. The government continues to sue people for defamation, with Roy Ngerng the latest. The PAP Internet Brigade is still active. The White Paper on Population became policy even in the face of mass opposition. Thaipusam celebrations were slammed for being “too noisy”, and Parliament recently passed a bill prohibiting alcohol consumption in public without public consultation. As for the mainstream media, regardless of its failings it is safe to say that it will always publish the government’s point of view.

With its penchant for dropping the hammer on dissidents and bloggers, passing laws without warning or public consultation, and a sympathetic ‘nation-building’ press, can the government say it has the moral high ground?

Singapore's politics of personality

Another half-year and another round of resignations among Singapore’s opposition parties. This time, four ex-Central Executive Council members of the National Solidarity Party resigned in the hopes of joining the Singapore People’s Party. This mass resignations recall the mass defection of Benjamin Pwee and several SPP members to the Democratic People’s Party, Nicole Seah leaving the NSP to focus on her work in Bangkok, and Vincent Wijeysingha returning to the civil sphere after a stint in the Singapore Democratic Party.

Whenever I see events like these in the news, I can’t hep but wonder if the reasons for resignations lie less in the political field and more in personality conflicts. 

Quoting from the article, Ms Jeanette Chong-Aruldoss said, “I wanted to introduce some innovative ways of reaching out to people, but the comfort level was not there… The opposition parties are all closely connected and it is easy to talk to one another. There are no major ideological differences among the various parties…but Mrs Chiam is someone I respect a lot. And I would like to help her in whatever areas she needs help with.”

Chong-Aruldoss’ comments are telling. Singapore’s opposition political parties are defined less by politics than they are by their personalities.

Consider: when people hear Workers’ Party they think Low Thia Khiang, the Singapore People’s Party is intricately linked with Chiam See Tong, the Singapore Democratic Party is linked to Chee Soon Juan, and so on and so forth. What they do not think of is politics.

Where does the Workers’ Party stand on LGBTQ issues? They have famously remained silent. Does the Reform Party have a concrete plan for balancing migration with the economy? How does the SDP propose to reduce National Service to one year and still maintain a sufficiently large number of well-trained soldiers beyond simply ‘expanding the professional army’ AND be able to afford it?

For the past decade I’ve been following Singapore’s politics, it seems to me that most of the time the majority of Singapore’s opposition parties either produce policy positions in response to the government after the latter has announced its position, or not at all. These alternative policy positions only come to the forefront during Parliamentary debates, periods of controversy, or the elections. In quiet periods, they sink into obscurity.

This is a shame. Elsewhere, major political parties defined by policies, not personality, are remembered even in low-key political periods. The Scottish National Party stands for secession from the United Kingdom, the Republican Party in America claims to stand for smaller government and free trade, the Liberal Democratic Party pursues a platform of free trade and cooperation with the United States, the People’s Action Party consistently stands for a strong government and economic growth.

But in Singapore? Personalities aside, there seems to be no political difference between, say, the National Solidarity Party and the Singapore People’s Party.

Chong-Aruldoss’ statement that ‘there are no major ideological differences among the various parties’ is a telling one. Singapore’s opposition parties are defined not by politics, but by personalities. Given the sheer number of political parties in Singapore, multi-cornered contests will soon the norm. In such a situation, just why will the people vote for a given opposition party over another — especially when they already know what the PAP stands for? Sure, a sparkling character with force of personality may be able to sway some votes her way, but as Hazel Poa, Vincent Wijeysingha, Chiam See Tong, Kenneth Jeyaratnam, and other politicians have learned, it is nowhere near enough to challenge the Establishment.  

These resignations seem to be the natural outcome of political parties defined by personalities. At some point different people will come to loggerheads over their visions and aspirations for the party. Without a policy framework to define a party, disputes are resolved through popularity contests instead of whether someone better fits the party’s policies and overall vision for the country. Similarly, without a policy framework, parties will have lax entry and exit guidelines, setting the stage for more such resignations and defections in the future. The People’s Action Party is famous for interviewing potential candidates before acceding them to political roles; it is also equally noteworthy that very few of its members have resigned due to personal or internal conflicts, and a PAP member defecting to the opposition is unheard of. The PAP presents a united front because it has an identity and is defined by policies; the opposition remains fragmented and is prone to resignations and defections due to their lack of policies. Perhaps the sole exception to the rule is the Workers’ Party, but the WP is still not large enough to effectively challenge the PAP all by itself.

Singapore’s opposition parties need to go beyond personalities and start thinking about policies. That, after all, is the purpose of a political party: to guide and to pass national policies. If the opposition touches politics only when Parliament is in session or when a newsworthy event occurs, they are not much better than bloggers — and have to compete with those same bloggers to get their message out. I think the opposition parties, collectively and individually, need to figure out what they really stand for and work on policies that they can hammer home at every possible moment. Including the political off-periods between each session of Parliament. 

The closest the opposition parties have come to this is conducting regular walkabouts and meet-the-people sessions. While listening to residents and understanding their needs is important, and so is taking action to take care of them, elsewhere this is the work of social workers, volunteers and advocates. While Singaporeans do tend to focus more on personal and municipal issues instead of national ones at the ground level, for a political party that aspires to compete at the national level it has to be able to address national issues as effectively as local ones. The SPP, for instance, banked on Chiam See Tong’s persona to compete in the 2011 General Elections, but personality was not enough to allow the SPP to break out of its traditional stronghold of Potong Pasir; in fact, this strategy backfired, as his wife Lina Chiam could not win enough ground support to retain the SPP’s seat. Competing on the basis of personality tends to be effective only in areas in which the party had had a long-time presence and a history of success — otherwise, the party has to focus on issues that appeal to Singaporeans across the board.

Rumour has it that the next General Elections are fast approaching. If the opposition wants to establish a greater footprint in Parliament, they need to act now. They have to start by establishing a broad policy framework and promoting the members they want to send to the hustings. They need to study the art of marketing communications and apply them now, before the campaigning begins, to spread desired memes and prepare the ground. They need to find a way to stand out, not just from the PAP, but also from potential competitors in the event of a three-way election.

In short: they need to start being political parties, not personality parties.