Lawrence Khong's performance is not Lawrence Khong

The recent brouhaha about IKEA’s continued promotion of Lawrence Khong’s magic show is focused entirely on Khong’s identity as a pastor. He has made no secret that his interpretation of the faith has no room for acceptance of LGBT people so long as they remain non-heterosexual. LGBT groups, individuals and allies have pressured IKEA to drop their promotion of the show; with IKEA’s refusal to bend, outrage is once again sweeping the Internet.

IKEA’s rationale for continuing to promote Khong’s work is that it offers “high family entertainment value”. Khong himself has acknowledged that he uses his magic shows to evangelise to the audience. The natural assumption is that the performance is somehow tainted by his beliefs.

But to mangle the Bible, shall the clay say to the potter, “Am I thou?”

A person does not have to agree with the ideology of an artist to enjoy a work of art. A person does not have to buy into the underlying ideas that inform a work of art to appreciate it on its own merits. The created is not the creator, and what a person does in one capacity need not spill over into another.

John C Wright is a Catholic and his religion informs his latest stories, but I don’t have to be a Catholic to be in awe of the breadth and depth of his imagination and his ability to ignite literary fireworks as casually and naturally as breathing. Orson Scott Card is a Mormon who has spoken out against gay marriage in the context of his faith, yet his work Ender’s Game is at heart a treatise on leadership and military innovation with nothing about his faith or politics. Larry Correia and Michael Z Williamson inject libertarian ideas into the Grimnoir and Freehold series respectively, but for them the story came before the message. I care not a whit about John Scalzi or his ideology, but I felt his Old Man’s War series and Fuzzy Nation were pretty good stories in their own right (being derivatives notwithstanding). I thought L Ron Hubbard founded a religion of nutjobs, but his novel Battlefield Earth set me on the path to writing science fiction. I don’t have to like Tom Clancy’s politics to study and adapt his craft.

It is one thing to slam a show because the show in itself promotes anti-LGTQ messages. It is quite another to slam it because the creator holds those same ideologies. The idea is not the man, the art is not the artist, the clay is not the potter. A person does not have to agree with someone to appreciate his work, and similarly does not have to like that person’s work to have a profound relationship with that person. A person who believes that he can only enjoy a work of art so long as he agrees with the artist’s ideology is not interested in art; he is only interested in keeping his mind closed.

I’m of the opinion that if you disagree with a person’s stated ideology the best approach is honest open debate. Attacking a person’s livelihood or art just because that person does not hold the same beliefs you do is not productive. The former approach opens up everybody’s ideas and assumptions for examination, and ideally all sides understand where they are coming from and open the door to reconciliation or changing beliefs. The latter is simple punishment, and it does not one thing about pre-existing beliefs. It merely says, “We do not like you because you do not think like us, and if you want to be accepted you must be like us”, It is bullying, plain and simple. It punishes someone simply for committing thoughtcrime, or holding doubleplusungood ideas. This approach only works on the weak and those who cannot defend themselves.

Against people so strong-willed that they rise and retain positions of prominence amidst controversy, it merely confirms their beliefs that everyone is out to get them. They and their supporters will circle the wagons and redouble their efforts, cling ever so strongly to their ideas and redouble their efforts to broadcast them. This strategy cannot work on those as strong-willed, connected, and rich as Lawrence Khong. They simply do not respond to such tactics.

IKEA values tolerance, and so does Singapore. Tolerance must include tolerating works of art whose creators may hold intolerant views, and indeed to treat such people fairly regardless of what beliefs they may hold. Tolerance, it must be remembered, is about being fair and objective, to hold a permissive attitude and to be free from bigotry. In this context, it means judging Khong’s performance on its own merits, and him as a performer in the context of the show. His identity as a pastor is relevant only so far as his ideas permeate his show and no further. For instance, his show may hold elements of Christianity, but it is unfair to say that the show promotes anti-LGBT messages if there is nothing in the show that does that.

By using pressure tactics against a work or art because the artist holds ideologies a group disagrees with, the organisers signal approval of those same methods. In so doing, the means become the end. It means that it becomes socially acceptable to coerce people into conformance by targeting their creations. Which means that Christian groups may urge organisations to boycott a play by a gay playwright simply because he is gay, the government may order additional red tape to strangle a website just because the owner happens to disagree with the ruling party, that corporations are free to turn down sponsorship and advertising deals from a local entrepreneur because she is also a political activist. And the ones who approve of pressuring IKEA to cease promoting Khong’s show have no moral right to decry any of the above scenarios.

By using pressure, the nags and the bullies say that they don’t mind it; they just want to be the ones wielding it. On that road lies the way to civil intolerance, and for the dominance of larger and more powerful groups. Judge Khong’s works by its merit, not by who he is: the clay is not the potter, the art is not the artist.

More Islamic than thou in Malaysia

Muslim protesters demonstrated outside a small church in Kuala Lumpur on 21st April, claiming that the cross on the church would challenge Islam and sway the faith of young people. The church responded by taking down the cross. Now the authorities are ordering a probe into the incident.

Yet the government itself laid down the foundations that made this incident possible.

Kuala Lumpur has made no secret of favouring Malay Muslims through its bumiputera policies, It is a form of affirmative action for the Malay Muslim majority, granting them advantages in education, the economy, entrenching Malay Muslim dominance,  During Valentine’s Day, the morality police conduct sweeps to detain unmarried Muslims in the same room, upholding the principle of khalwat — an Islamic law that forbids unmarried Muslims being alone and in close proximity with someone of the opposite sex. And there was the case of Alvin Tan, whom the police arrested after he had the audacity to post on social media a picture of him enjoying pork during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The Malaysian has consistently enforced Malay Muslim norms and culture through its policies. This signals tacit approval for citizen action that would further advance Malay Muslim supremacy. That the authorities ordered the probe suggests one of two things. Either the probe is merely a perfunctory action to soothe ruffled feathers and nothing will come of it, or else the government sees itself as the only entity allowed to pursue racialist agendas and will crack down on non-state actors who try to do the same.

Both outcomes will chip away at the notion of a democratic multicultural multiracial Malaysia. So long as the Malaysian government continues to lay down and enforce race- and religion-based policies it has no moral grounds with which to suppress non-state actions that advance the supremacy of their favoured race.

If the probe leads to no charges being filed or a slap on the wrist, it is another signal that the Malaysian government treats non-Malay Muslims as second-class citizens as best. In an era of increasing globalisation, it is another signal that everybody else is not welcome in Malaysia, even if they were born-and-bred Malaysians. If the Malaysian government tacitly favours non-state actions that support bumiputera, there will be citizen backlash. The most benign form will be increased emigration from Malaysia. But if these policies continue, expect protests, counterprotests, more vibrant online debates, and electoral losses or lack of voter turnout. It can only get worse if the state cracks down on non-bumiputera backlash with a heavy hand, by proving once and for all that there is no such thing as a Malaysian Malaysia, only bumiputera and everybody else.

Conversely, should the state clamp down on these Muslim protesters, more astute observers will point out that the state is not interested in the interests of Malay Muslims, only in populism and in entrenching their political positions. This will chip away at the moral underpinnings of the UMNO party, the predominant party of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, as its stated mission is to protect Malay culture.

The latter scenario is more insidious. The Islamic State, Daesh, brands itself as the only viable political entity that practices a literal interpretation of the Koran, and in so doing claims to have the purest strain of Islam. Other terrorist groups offer similar ideologies. Malay Muslims, raised to honour their faith and culture, will see a hypocritical government that claims to protect the Malay culture — and with it Islam — but will only do so to preserve its power. Disillusioned, they will turn to more radical causes that promise true Islam, including Daesh. And from there it’s a short step for Daesh recruiters to tell their new recruits to bring holy war back to their home countries.

This isn’t a Malaysian problem. It is the problem of every Muslim-majority state that pursues racialist and religious policies to entrench the power of the Establishment. So long as states like Malaysia are caught between secular power and religiosity, they are vulnerable to being undermined by extremists, radicals, fundamentalists and dissidents. In a world dominated by information communication technologies, the state can no longer discount the ability of ordinary people and non-state actors to rapidly communicate, organise and pursue their own agendas.

The solution is simple. Either move Malaysia towards an explicit Islamic state, or transform into a strictly secular one. Either option clears up the state’s brand identity, eliminating the perceived hypocrisy that provides hooks with which extremists can enter and weaknesses that dissidents can exploit.

These choices all carry costs. An explicitly Islamic state would drive out or oppress everyone who is not Muslim. An avowed secular state will alienate the traditional religious power base BN has relied on for so long. But by doing nothing and retaining its mixed identity, by using cultural and religious norms to shore up secular power, the government, and by extension the state, opens itself up to being undermined by everyone.

The Malaysian government has to make a choice. I am not optimistic enough to believe that it has as much time as most observers would like.

Chapter 2 of I, Eschaton

As I, Eschaton draws towards publication, here’s Chapter 2 in its glory. Here, Christopher Miller and Sarah Grey learn about the attack on the Wilshaw Foundation…and so does Eschaton.


Chapter 2

Pagan in Repose

Pain was an old friend. It had crept up on him the way the seasons did, obvious only in hindsight. After a lifetime in the military, training at the outer limits of human performance and serving in hotspots around a world two steps away from chaos, his body more closely resembled someone five, maybe ten years older than his real age of thirty-two. Not his muscles or his outward appearance, rather the worn cartilage in his knees and spine, the knobby bone spurs in his neck and ankles, lingering pains from scars and old injuries. And even that was largely due to superior conditioning, the finest sports medicine Cascadia had to offer, and medical nanomachine treatments.

Christopher Miller rolled, stiffly, agonizingly, out of bed. At least he didn’t groan this time. Sarah Grey snoozed on the other side of the bed, oblivious. The detritus of the previous night—discarded clothes, kicked-off shoes, toys—lay scattered across the floor. He smiled. They’d spent all of yesterday hiking and practicing combatives and shooting, but they still had energy for other…recreational…activities when they got home, late in the evening.

Miller swept a clear path with his feet, pulling on his T-shirt and shorts. He slipped on a pair of moccasins, filled up a soft plastic water bottle, clipped on his chest pack and went outside.

There was just enough light to see by. On his front porch, he stretched and twisted, rotating and swinging his joints, easing them into the full range of motion. He flowed into leg-lifts, butt-kicks, lunges, half-squats, push-ups, smoothly raising his heart rate, letting blood nourish his limbs.

Morning exercise began proper. No fancy gym here. Out in the wilderness he preferred bodyweight movements, working every muscle from head to toe. One-arm push-ups, pistol squats, bridges, handstand push-ups. On a nearby tree he had hung a pair of gymnastic rings. There he did one-arm pull-ups, hanging leg raises, levers, L-seats. He went full-bore for forty-five concentrated minutes, stopping only long enough to shift to the next set. At the end of the routine, his muscles burned pleasantly, and his joints quietened their protests.

He chugged down a shot of water, clipped the bottle to a D-ring on his pack, and ran. Not jogged. Ran. On active duty he ran in full kit; today, he made up for the weight with extra speed. He sped past his neighbors, jumping over or swerving around obstacles, practicing the art of natural movement as he went along. The Greenhaven EcoPark was the next generation of trailer parks, a self-contained ecosystem of greenery and small wild animals, with a small but growing population of humans housed in what the advertisers called LifePods. The pods were glorified trailers the size of shipping containers, but each was self-sufficient. They had solar globes on the roof for sunlight, water catchment and reclamation systems, waste composting tanks, and satellite-based Internet connections. They were also cheap—cheap enough that he could live out here for three years what it cost to live in the big city for one, and still have a nice hunk of change left over.

He took a long, winding route around the park, running until the sun was up and the sky turned blue. People bustled about, tending to their business. Microfarmers inspected their livestock and produce. Artisans trekked to their workshops. Some people fired up generators while others cleaned out their reclamation systems or just maintained their homes.

Approaching his home, he slowed to a brisk walk. His lungs were aflame. Pain spiked through his right side, coursing through flesh where shrapnel had torn through a week ago. He winced. The doctor had told him to take it easy. Maybe so, but he was coming up to the end of his medical leave and he needed to be at a hundred percent.

Sarah was waiting for him. Her cheeks were flushed, her skin shining with sweat. They both knew she couldn’t possibly keep up with him, but tried to coordinate their schedules anyway. While Miller was out running, Sarah had busied herself with a piloga routine, some strange hybrid of Pilates and yoga. She smiled at him, and together they went through a series of cool down stretches. More out of companionship than necessity, but Miller figured his joints would appreciate it.

They shared a shower in the bathroom. It was cramped, but both were used to small spaces. Miller stayed to brush his teeth, while Sarah made the bed and cleaned up.

They made breakfast together. Omelets made from free-range chicken eggs, mixed with capsicum, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms and full-fat strained yoghurt. Sarah had hers with salt, Miller had his with pepper. All the food was sourced from nearby farmers, either purchased directly or at the local farmers’ market. It reminded Miller of his childhood—but, unlike his early days in New Washington, Greenhaven’s agricultural areas were managed with more care, and so far hadn’t suffered any crop failures or die-offs.

“How’s breakfast?” she asked.

Miller took an experimental bite. “Perfect, as usual.”

She beamed, and dug in.

At which point, Miller’s ebrain chimed. He had an incoming conference call, from a blocked number.

“I’ve got a call,” he said.

She arced an eyebrow. “Me too.”

They looked at each other for a moment.

“Eschaton,” they said simultaneously.

Anonymous conference calls were the artificial intelligence’s preferred, and perhaps only, means of communicating with them out here. They’d met the AI separately under trying circumstances. When Miller came home to recover from his last mission, Eschaton had contacted them together. Miller and Sarah had a few strained conversations with it since then, with the AI trying to learn more about humans and the humans attempting to elicit more personal information from Eschaton.

“It wants something from us,” Miller said.

“Let’s find out.”

They accepted the call.

“Good morning,” a flat digital monotone said. “I trust you slept well?”

The AI was learning to be polite. Miller didn’t see a reason to discourage that. “Yes, thank you. And are you doing fine?”

“Yes. Have you read the news?”

“Not yet. What’s up?”

“Take a look.”

In the living room, the holovision projectors fired up, displaying the home page of Cascadia News Broadcast Network. The images expanded, letting Miller read the text over Sarah’s shoulder without having to squint.

“Holy shit!”

“What’s wrong?” Sarah asked.

“Take a look.”

She turned around.

“Holy SHIT!

The headlines were splashed across the screen: ‘Terrorists attack Wilshaw Foundation, killing 108’.

“How the hell…?” she said.

Miller alternated between his omelet and the news, chewing his food as carefully as he did the words. A group of terrorists attacked the Wilshaw Foundation, gunning down everybody inside the office and leaving behind booby traps. They delayed emergency services with a cyberattack on the dispatch system, and detonated a car bomb outside 38 Vandemeer Plaza. The Sons of America have claimed responsibility.

Sarah’s face went pale. The rest of her froze.

“Sarah, are you okay?”

“Oh. My. God.” She turned around, burying her face in her hands. “My God.”

Miller went to her. She pressed her face against his shoulder. “I…I could have been there. If you hadn’t…I’d…”

He hushed her, wrapping his arms around her. “Shh. It’s okay. You’re safe.”

The Sons of America had targeted Miller, among other special operators, during their resurgence. When the Army bureaucracy disqualified Sarah from protection, Miller had single-handedly moved her to Greenhaven. She was still on a leave of absence from the Foundation. If she hadn’t…

“That is incorrect,” Eschaton said.

“What do you mean?” Miller asked.

“The Wilshaw Foundation was developing policy recommendations for the Federal government. The Sons of America have destroyed all data relating to their activities in the Yellow Zone, and killed a significant number of the Foundation working group investigating the SOA’s activities in the Yellow Zone. I extrapolate that the surviving members of the SOA policy working group is at risk. Including Professor Sarah Grey.”

Sarah swallowed. “Did anyone else from the Foundation survive?”

“I am currently cross-referencing casualty reports with employee payrolls and documentation. It appears that everyone inside the Wilshaw Foundation was killed in the attack. Only the ones not physically present in the office survived.”

Sarah nodded, mainly to herself. Miller felt her jaw clench. “What are we going to do?” she asked.

“Shelter in place,” Miller said. “If the enemy’s going after the Foundation, we need to hole up and remain underground.”

“You can’t stay here forever,” she said.

Miller sighed. That was true. Any moment now, the Unit could recall him to duty if they decided their manpower needs superseded his medical profile. More than that, though, he wanted…needed to get back into the fight. Cascadia was on the verge of war. The Cascadian Defense Forces were mobilizing to embark on the largest counterinsurgency campaign in the short history of the Republic. He had to be out there, at the tip of the spear alongside the Unit. That was his calling in life, and he couldn’t do that sequestered in a tiny pod.

“Master Sergeant Miller, I require your assistance,” Eschaton said.

An all-powerful AI needs my help? Miller wondered. Out loud, he said, “What kind of assistance?”

“I will not tolerate the presence of the Sons of America in the Green Zone. They have attacked me once, and they will attack me again. I request your help in eliminating this cell.”

“You can’t do that by yourself?”

“There is only so much I can do without being discovered.”

Only a handful of people knew Eschaton existed. It was afraid that if it revealed itself, the public would clamor to delete Eschaton, legally or otherwise. As the SOA had demonstrated before, it was effectively defenseless against physical penetration of its network nodes. Miller didn’t know how much of that was justified, how much of it was paranoia—and how much was just an attempt to manipulate him into doing its bidding.

“There is also only so much one man can do.”

“The Combat Studies Unit has attached a team to assist the National Security Service in investigating the attack. Your team.”

Miller’s eyebrows shot up. “The hell?” He frowned. “That’s not a coincidence, is it?”


“You did it.”



“The national military and security bureaucracy is sufficiently large that paperwork may be generated and passed on without anybody knowing its true origin.”

Miller folded his arms. “Well, then. My men should be able to help out, no? What do you need me for?”

“To eliminate the cell.”

“Meaning, to kill them all.”

“If necessary.”

Miller snorted. “Get someone else to play your games. I’m not interested.”

The holoscreen cleared, displaying official looking paperwork.

“This is a recall order,” Eschaton said. “The Unit’s medical specialists have decided that your wounds do not preclude limited duty in the Green Zone. In the interests of team cohesion, they are recommending that you be returned to duty to assist the investigation.”

“Goddammit Eschaton!”

“This was not my creation,” the AI continued, speaking a little more slowly. “Colonel Ryan Kincaid ordered the medical review. Very soon, the Unit will be contacting you. I am merely providing advance notice.”

Sarah licked her lips. “The Unit can do this?”

“National security supersedes individual security,” Miller muttered.

“Our interests coincide,” Eschaton said.

Miller’s lips compressed into a narrow line. “You don’t say. Looks like I’ll be popping back into Cascadia, hooking up with the team, and developing the situation.”

The last phrase was deliberately vague. If the SOA left the boundaries of the Green Zone, where the laws and customs of civilization applied, they were fair game for the military. The Unit, in particular. Attaching a full team to the investigation meant that the moment the investigation developed actionable intelligence outside the Green Zone, the Unit could swing into action without delay.

And Sarah didn’t need to know that.

“Let me come with you,” Sarah said.

“No,” he said reflexively.

Sarah frowned, crossing her arms. “Why? It’s too dangerous?”

“It’s not that. You’re a civilian, with no special skills or training. How exactly are you going to contribute?”

She tapped her skull. “The Wilshaw Foundation uses a closed peer-to-peer messaging network for secure internal communications. A network I have access to. I can help contact the survivors and coordinate the response. And.” She grinned. “And. Until we know otherwise, at this moment I am Cascadia’s foremost expert on the Sons of America. You need someone who knows how they think, their mindsets, their preferred strategies. Eschaton, you can doctor paperwork to have me attached to the task force, correct?”


Miller took a deep breath. Let it out. And realized that, yes, he needed her too. She wasn’t being overt about it, but he knew that she resented the way Eschaton had forced people to do its people. Separated, Eschaton could control them. Together, they stood a chance against its machinations.

“Fine. But I have operational control. Out in the field, if I or anybody from the Unit give an order, you will obey immediately.”

She grinned impishly. “Yes milord.”

“You will be armed at all times where practical. You will wear body armor if directed to. If the situation gets too hot, you will be evacuated to a safe house.”

“Yes dearest.”

“We won’t be babysitting you. You’ll have to look out after yourself. If you can’t keep up, you will be left behind. Or kicked out.”

“Yeeeeeeeees deeeeeeear.”

“Good girl.” He sighed. “Don’t make me regret this.”

“I won’t.”

Whither Cohesion and Diversity?

As Singapore enters the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, one of the abiding questions is where we will go from here. Ho Kwon Ping, chairman of Banyan Tree Holdings, made a case for maintaining cohesion through diversity by dropping the CMIO model, which classifies Singaporeans as Chinese, Malay, Indian or Other. In a society with increasingly complex identities, the CMIO model would oversimplify Singapore’s diversity; Singaporeans should instead seek to embrace each other as individuals and move away from ‘stereotypical expectations’.

As much as I try to treat people as individuals, I don’t think you can divorce an individual from his experiences and his values, and a good part of that is shaped by his culture — be it a wholehearted embodiment of his heritage, a complete rejection of the same, or some nebulous area between the two. Different people come from different cultures, and different cultures have different values. Herein lies ‘diversity’, and in this diversity sprouts the greatest challenge to cohesion.

But what does ‘diversity’ actually mean?

‘Diversity’, per the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is:

1:  the condition of having or being composed of differing elements :  variety;especially :  the inclusion of different types of people (as people of different races or cultures) in a group or organization <programs intended to promote diversity in schools>
2:  an instance of being composed of differing elements or qualities :  an instance of being diverse <a diversity of opinion>

This implies difference. But difference of what? Neither Ho nor the official media offered clarity.

People of diverse races and ethnic origins call Singapore home. But these backgrounds are the by-products of history and genetics, outside of their personal agency. People cannot choose their ethnicity, most certainly not after they are born. Diversity of this sort is literally skin-deep. It is neither beneficial nor changeable; it just is. Why should this be elevated? In this sense, the CMIO model is by and large outdated; I don’t see a need for this outside of certain fields like medical genetics.

What is more interesting is diversity of culture and values. Once upon a time, the CMIO model could be seen as a reliable predictor of the cultural values embraced in Singapore. Especially ideas pertaining to how people should treat each other, and how memes may be passed down in the future. Back when Singapore was an immigrant society, people from different countries carried their cultures to Singapore, and those countries were so different that these migrants could be classified by race and skin colour. This made CMIO an acceptable, albeit blunt, tool to understanding both the demographic and memetic makeup of a country.

This old assumption is no longer true. There are now a large number of local-born Singaporeans. Globalisation has brought in the memes and ideas of other cultures and countries. Now you can’t say for certain that a Chinese person will definitely hold traditional Confucian values (including honouring ones’ parents, which in turn gauges support for policies to support the elderly), that a Malay will definitely be Muslim (which affects policies pertaining to Malays and Muslims), or that you can immediately tell the value system of the child of a Singaporean and an American.

But diversity of values will inevitably lead to conflicting and incompatible value sets. Which includes incompatible ideas about identities.

Ho is right in that people are likely going to take on more complex identities. But I think people are more likely to adopt a primary identity, with multiple secondary identities flowing from that primary sense of self. People may switch between secondary identities depending on the social setting, but it is the core identity they will offer unwavering allegiance to. This core identity offers an unshakeable sense of self in relation to everybody else in a given social group beyond one’s immediate friends and family, with a sense that everybody else in that group can be counted on to help and is worthy of help.

In an increasingly diverse society, this core identity could mean anything: religion, extended family, ethnic origin, nationality. It is not necessarily ‘Singapore’.

William S. Lind, John Robb and other Fourth Generation Warfare theorists argue that the heart of 4GW is a crisis in the legitimacy of the state: people no longer believe in the state, so they transfer their core identity to ever-narrower circles. In a highly diverse society, this is a recipe for conflict and national collapse, leading to increased crime, insurgencies and open warfare.

In Iraq, without the threat of Saddam Hussein to keep everyone in line, different identity groups — Sunni, Shia, Kurd — quickly turned on each other. In Afghanistan, post-Taleban, different warlords jockeyed to control their personal fiefdoms. France’s push for seculiarisation is generating backlash from its immigrant Muslim population, while in the US illegal immigrants from Mexico are taking the drug war and their criminal ties with them.

Fortunately, the situation in Singapore is not (yet) that bad, which means Singapore still has a chance to maintain national cohesiveness. Letting the pendulum swing too far into the realm of ‘diversity’ would simply lead to a large number of social groups, each defined by different notions of identities, jockeying for space and power and prominence in a tiny island. As is, should the government continue to supplement Singapore’s low birth rates through mass immigration, one could expect conflicts between locals and migrants in the very near future.

As much as Singapore would like to celebrate diversity, we need to also celebrate cohesion. Ho brought up the example of New York. New Yorkers celebrate their diversity because they are bound by a shared identity as inhabitants of one of the most powerful and influential cities in the world. Singapore as a nation does not have the sense of shared history the way New York has, nor are Singapore’s values the same as New York. What we can do is to take a leaf out of that city’s book and think about branding and values.

What, exactly, is Singapore? What are our national values? How do we think people should be treated? What priority do we place on arts, money, work? What do we find funny or worth talking about? How do we interact with each other? How do we ensure that people are invested in Singapore, and Singapore is invested in the people, to create and reinforce this core identity? What Singapore needs is common ground from which everybody who lives here can interact with each other, and policies to ensure the growth and propagation of these common values into succeeding generations. From this common ground, diversity can grow and flourish in a secure environment.

Celebrating diversity is fine and well, but it should not come at the expense of cohesion and national identity. In the best case scenario, without developing a sense of loyalty to Singapore, the best this generation and succeeding ones can hope for is a hotel, an office and a kitchen the size of an island.

After Lee Kuan Yew: Where is Singapore going from here?

Lee Kuan Yew’s death has inevitably polarised Singapore. One camp eulogises him as the founder of modern Singapore; this group dominates the airwaves and the papers, singing his praises as long and loud as they can. Another camp points to his history of authoritarianism and Machiavellian approach to handling dissent, and criticises Lee across the Internet. The choice of media points not just to a generation divide, but an ideological split between hierarchical/conformist and egalitarian/liberal.

The fact of the matter is that Lee is neither the father of the nation nor an implacable authoritarian. He is both. The democratically-elected head of government who wielded the powers of an absolute monarch to build a country. The Asian Machiavelli who hammered his opponents and systematically disadvantaged the political opposition to usher in a brighter world. The hatchet man with virtually no tolerance for dissent or corruption, opposition or inefficiency, who built one of the most stable and prosperous states in the world. The political system he built for Singapore is fairly unique by Western standards, at once delivering prosperity while clamping down on Western notions of human rights. But it is not uniquely Singaporean: it is uniquely Lee Kuan Yew.

First, some definitions. A leader is a person who takes charge of a group, gives it direction and ensures execution of tasks. A government is the organisation that sets policy direction and is the sovereign of a country. A state is the body that supports the government through executing policy and ensuring the smooth delivery of essential goods and services.

Lee’s crowning achievement is the subordination of the government and the state to his will. By concentrating power in the hands of a very small group of individuals, with himself as the primus, Lee had the power to rapidly transform the island to match his will. By eliminating, deterring and hindering opposition to his rule, Lee removed all the obstacles in his path. Even after formally stepping down from affairs of state, the government continued this approach, steadily concentrating power in its hands and working through the organs of state to tamp down on opposition and continue Lee’s vision of Singapore.

This method of governance was no doubt highly effective. It would have been very difficult for Lee to accomplish what he did had he felt himself restrained by the niceties, procedures, contentiousness and debates that define the Western model of government.

Lee’s government reminds me of a modernised Roman dictator.  A Roman dictator was an extraordinary magistrate, appointed to office, charged by the Senate to fulfil a mandate, and granted supreme authority for that purpose. As the supreme leader he was not legally liable for his actions, both during his six-month term of office and after. Lee was elected to power by the people, driven by a mandate to gain independence and turn Singapore into a viable country, then seized and exercised absolute authority over the organs of state to achieve his goals.

Roman dictators were, by definition, extraordinary people who embodied a combination of outstanding competence and exceptional civic virtue. Usually dictators were appointed to resolve a national emergency, such as foreign invasion or internal rebellion, and their terms usually lasted no longer than a year. Cincinnatus was the model dictator. He was called to the office to put down a rebellion; after a mere 15 days he defeated the rebels and resigned. He was again nominated as dictator to defeat a conspiracy against the Roman Republic; the day after the chief conspirator was killed, Cincinnatus resigned.

Our system still seeks people of outstanding competence and virtue, and at the highest levels entrusts them with absolute power. But unlike the Romans there are no term limits, and unlike modern Republics no built-in checks and balances.

Singapore’s system is also fragile: it assumes that only the most patriotic and qualified individuals will take office. While the People’s Action Party certainly does its best to recruit Singapore’s finest, the fact remains that Singapore’s government is set up to support supremely capable leaders like Lee Kuan Yew — and there will not be another Lee Kuan Yew.

When it comes to matters of government and policy, one cannot assume that the government will be perpetually benevolent. If anything, one to ask what will happen if one’s worst enemies are able to take power.  When it comes to matters of state, a country cannot simply optimise a system to concentrate power in the hands of the benevolent sovereign; it must also be able to deny power to the malicious ruler.

The PAP’s model of government benefits a certain kind of person. He is someone who values prosperity and stability, who embodies traditional values of respect for the authorities and trust in the sovereign, who seeks a comfortable job and a comfortable standard of living, who does not care about policies beyond what affects him, and is interested in affairs of state only insofar as it concerns him and his loved ones, and will always support the establishment insofar as the establishment continues to support his lifestyle.

I am not that kind of person. And today, more and more people are not that kind of person. These are the artists, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the poets, the directors, the creators, the kind of people who cannot live any other way but theirs. And currently, the system tolerates people like these at best; at worst, the state can always call upon the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the media, and high-powered law firms.

Singapore calls itself a Republic. That means power resides in the will of the people, and the people elect leaders to represent their will. Should the leaders fail, the people have every power to take it back. In Singapore, all power rests in the hands of a government that attains and retains legitimacy through the ballot box, and should a future government abuse its power there is nothing to stop it.

Lee Kuan Yew is dead. We cannot hold out for his spiritual successor and we cannot assume we will forever be blessed with leaders who are just as capable and patriotic. Systems outlive people, and Singapore needs to move away from a system predicated on being fortunate enough to always pick the right kind of people. We need to create a system that will also prevent the abuse of power and create a space where citizens who do not agree with the government of the day can continue to live as legitimate citizens without fear of a knock on their doors at midnight.

This should the final legacy of Lee Kuan Yew: the creation of a system and a country that no longer needs a man like him.