I’m nine or ten. I live in Singapore, a place internationally recognized as the country where they managed to build utopia. I get on the bus to go to school. It comes on time every day. I have a government-issued NRIC (National Registration Identity Card) with my information on it, my name and fingerprints. To keep us in line at school, teachers threaten us with the all-too-believable myth that anyone in any minor governmental position can scan our NRIC and access our full history of school and behavioral records. Until now, my parents have driven me to school because they think it is safer. This is false. We live in Singapore. Everything is just as safe as everything else.
My pass makes a beep as I tap it and get on the bus. It is air-conditioned. The roads are clean and paved and beautiful. The shrubbery is green and neat. Each curb is painted with black stripes so you can see it more clearly. We chug along efficiently. I alight at the stop right by my school. I file in with the rest of the girls. We will attend class until one in the afternoon then separate for independently chosen extracurricular activities. I will participate in synchronized swimming. Each of us wears a clean white-and-navy uniform with a sailor collar, light and airy.
People often criticize the fact that Singapore’s utopia is built upon a foundation of acute lawfulness. It’s illegal to chew gum. (All Americans know this. I don’t know why, but they do.) The penalty for drug dealing, depending on quantity and substance, can be as severe as death by hanging, and if more than five people gather publicly for a particular purpose, for example, to oppose, campaign, or commemorate a group or event, you’re required to apply for a police permit.
In the 90s a young American man was sentenced by the Singaporean court to six strokes of the cane for several crimes, the most serious of which was vandalism. The case reached international notoriety and punishment was ultimately reduced to four strokes after U.S. officials requested leniency. Caning is still a common punishment for a series of other offenses, including sex crimes. Why? Because it works. Singapore is one of the most functional and politically and economically stable countries in the world, but I’m on the bus, on a regular day, going to school, and because I don’t know anything different, it doesn’t seem special. It just seems like regular life to me.
I went West. I’m in Oakland. I’m curious about the man who built Singapore’s utopia because legends are often inflated and rarely true. I’m reading a compilation of interviews with Lee Kuan Yew, titled Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. Hard Truths documents a rare, no-holds-barred opportunity for journalists to ask the man known as the Father of Singapore tough questions on a range of topics relevant to Singaporeans, particularly younger citizens, in our contemporary moment. Lee tells the journalists he realized early on that he had to be painfully realistic in his governance of Singapore, that he had to face the hard truths. People “assume Singapore is a normal country,” he explains, when in fact it exists “in an extremely turbulent region.”
The story he tells about the country’s development is similar to the one I learned in school. In the 60s, faced with sudden independence, few resources, and fewer allies, Lee saw that political stability and domestic infrastructure for his country would only come with rapid economic development. And this economic development could not come from within the country itself. Singapore was simply too small, too weak. It had to depend on the outside world. It had to rely on a culture of free markets and hypercapitalism to generate investment and demand for its goods and services. It had to depend on foreign investment from multinational corporations to create jobs for its people. As a port, it had to play to its geographic strengths and facilitate international trade.
And as the economy matured, it eventually moved away from labor-intensive industries, instead designing incentives to attract high-tech industrial capital. Like Confucius taught us, Singapore had to sacrifice for the greater good. Only then could it improve standards of living and generate jobs and income. Only then could it make a better life for us all. This is what I remember. That is what I was taught.
I try not to ask about my father’s political leanings. I know he was more radical in his youth, an economist and professor. I know he’s now more fiscally conservative. I think you could call him a libertarian. When he calls me his “idealistic, bleeding-heart daughter,” I mostly ignore him, but I have enough leftist friends who worry about what they call “rightward drift” now that they have kids to know that this concern is real. What I never really understood was how my dad went from having these liberal tendencies to becoming a firm believer in the power of capitalism. We don’t talk about it because I tell myself he doesn’t like to, but the truth is, I’m afraid to know.
There’s this artist, Viktor Koretsky. A socialist realist I admire. Even though what remains of his work is mostly propaganda—posters, murals, flyers—it always seems to refuse didacticism. In particular, it refuses representations of an idyllic post-communist world. Gone are the images of endless grain, fat and cherubic children. Koretsky’s work is more like an abstract visual yearning for shared intimacy. He’s fond of imagery that could provoke viewers to, as Robert Bird and his co-editors write, “join a diverse unseen humanity in its struggles to overcome its own dehumanization.” In other words, he’s interested in simple and striking images of struggle. A black person breaking his chains. A man wrestling a snake, his forearms glistening. A woman in a headscarf clenching her fist.
The faces of Koretsky’s subjects are uncannily similar. They all look related to each other, like members of the same family. Each person’s brow is furrowed; there is not a trace of fear. In his famous portrait of a Soviet Madonna and child, titled Red Army Soldier, Save Us!, neither woman nor baby is tearful or afraid. Neither seems to be seeking rescue or refuge. In fact, what’s poignant about this portrait is its characters’ embedded sense of belief and trust. Both of them gaze forward, clear-eyed and open. As though they fully believe in the material reality of a future yet to come. As though they can already see and touch it. As though they so deeply know that they are on the brink of this beautiful illusion that they would leap into it without even looking. Koretsky’s work has been described as metonymic,“ a kind of Communist advertising for a future that never quite arrived.” It’s apt.
I manage to leave the house. I’m on the train, going somewhere. I’m reading Sexual Aberrations, this time a case study about a man named Alfred G. He’s a 30-year-old clerk who has a bad case of apron fetishism. He is “so shy and reticent and full of guilt feelings.” He was able to accomplish intercourse with his wife only when she would put on a damp and preferably dirty apron. “His mother has often said to him: ‘You’re a light-headed kid. You ought to be hanged.’ Because of this, the idea of becoming an executioner himself had always provoked his fancy.” It becomes clear to Stekel that Alfred wishes to be liberated from both his mother and his overbearing wife. He wishes to be released from their “apronstrings,” which he resents. “He has begun indulging in criminal fantasies to such an extent that he has begun to see them in reality. One of his dreams makes it more or less plain that he is hounded by the impulse to attack a sales girl in a store, choke her, and then gag her with an apron. He struggles manfully against the impulse, but he is compelled to attempt to play at least the first part of the phantasy.” To find a shop girl in a store, alone, and enter it. To speak to her, even if he can’t carry out the autoerotic murder. But without the murder, the fantasy will always remain incomplete. It has to, because fetish is a metonym, and a metonym is always partial. It will never be entirely real, even if it’s connected to a material object, even if the fantasy is rooted within reality. A fetish needs at least one shred of materiality to lurch itself into its imaginary heaven. Somewhere, Gerda runs her hand slowly along the silky leather of a shoe.
I can’t imagine that Lee Kuan Yew would have had any patience for metonymy, so partial and illusory. For him, pragmatism seems to have always been the endgame. In other words, the Hard Truth. You have to accept whatever you’ve been given. You have to focus on what is immediately broken rather than give in to some impossible fantasy of the future. You have to do what’s necessary, not what you desire. True vision, not ideological fancy.
From what I can see, for Lee Kuan Yew, the situation in front of you might be harsh and disappointing, but swallowing it, clear-eyed and whole, is the only path to an actual cure. No idealism. No illusion. That’s the real dream.
It’s no surprise that Lee Kuan Yew’s dream became reality. He didn’t just invoke it, he built it. Utopia. Painstakingly, step by step. In less than 50 years, Singapore has become a capitalist success story. It has forged alliances with both Asian and Western superpowers ,forming one of the most developed free-market economies in the world. It’s grown from third-world port to cutting-edge manufacturing hub, international business and financial center. This has significantly increased the standard of living, GDP, and domestic wealth of the country. Even if there is a large income disparity between the richest and the poorest, taxes mean that Singapore’s free-market wealth is ostensibly reinvested in its citizens—housing and healthcare are effectively socialized.
Here’s how it works: If I lived in Singapore now, I could apply for public housing. This program makes me eligible for a government-built Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat. The Central Provident Fund (CPF) is a mandatory national savings plan, into which any working citizen under 55 has to contribute 20 percent of their monthly salary as “savings,” an amount that is then matched by their employers at a rate as high as 17 percent for citizens under the age of 55. These CPF contributions and matching amounts decrease as you age, providing protections for the financial welfare of the elderly. I can use the funds that I’ve contributed to the CPF over the years to pay the deposit, or even, if I’m eligible, the mortgages, for my HDB flat, after which I can live in it or sell it down the road for cash instead. Basically, I can use my CPF contribution to buy my apartment. For anyone who cares about material equality, it’s amazing to think about. In Singapore, everybody can more or less own their own home without affecting even a cent of their disposable income.
I never understood how my father went from having liberal tendencies to becoming a believer in the power of capitalism. I hate to admit it, but reading Hard Truths, this “how” is slowly becoming clear to me.
I’m gazing at my favorite Viktor Koretsky painting, waiting. It’s about an hour from when I will leave the house but a half hour from when I should. That awkward almost-space. This image, unlike the captioned, bold posters considered Koretsky’s best works, is untitled. Its intent seems somewhat murky: It’s a black-and-white close-up of a face, its two eyes staring directly ahead. The pupils feel vacuous. Tears leak from each cornering listening streams. The entire painting feels flat, even if its style is realistic. There is a single detail that brings the picture dimensionality: a glimmer in each pupil, two small white triangles that animate the stare. The haunting glow of the eyeballs takes up the majority of the frame. But unlike Koretsky’s other paintings, there’s none of his signature vastness, no open trust in the gaze. Look closer and you’ll discover that these animating triangles each contain within themselves two pairs of slanting, demonic eyes. What these giant pupils appear to be reflecting are two tiny Ku Klux Klan members, in the long perspective of their vision.
*What has liberal democracy even done for Americans? Lee Kuan Yew suggests. What could it do for us? Nothing, he says.
I’m amazed at Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. As many foreign critics have done in the past, I’m tempted to criticize Lee’s position as authoritarian. There can only be limited political autonomy in a dominant-party system with fairly stringent free-speech laws. But surprisingly often, I find it difficult to disagree with him. When he’s asked why Singapore doesn’t adopt a system of Western liberal democracy, he scoffs and asks why he should accept some one-size-fits-all Western system of government. Citing Samuel Huntington, here minds the interviewer that multiculturalism may destroy the American nation because its liberal democracy was built solely upon a foundation of white “European Christian Protestant English culture”—when in reality, the nation was and is composed of a diverse range of races and ethnicities. He cites the historic and continuing inequality of Latinos and African Americans in the U.S. as evidence that liberal democracy is already ill fitting for the very country it was supposedly tailored to. Far from a solution, it is the source of continuing internal conflict.
James Baldwin writes, “The story of the Negro in America / is the story of America. / It is not a pretty story.”
What has liberal democracy even done for Americans? Lee Kuan Yew suggests. What could it do for us? Nothing, he says. We Singaporean people are far from American. We have different values. Why would an American system, one that has already been proven to divide its country, work for us, a country of many races? When questioned about the ethics of his People’s Action Party (PAP) being the majority political party in most elections past, with little viable opposition, he doesn’t balk. He describes how when he was first elected, he promised the people of Singapore every chance at a good life. A good education, better living conditions, more jobs, low-cost housing, clean streets,and healthcare. “We delivered,” he says simply. Why would the people of Singapore want to vote for anybody else?
In another section of Hard Truths, Lee Kuan Yew professes an interest in genetics. Singapore is purportedly a meritocracy and prides itself on giving every one of its citizens the best opportunities. But over the years, he’s noticed, despite providing these opportunities for all, performance has varied substantially between different races, as well as within different categories of the same race. Having tried, but failed, to reduce these inequalities through policy, Lee comes to the difficult conclusion that some people will naturally make more out of what they are given than others—because of the genetic heritage of their social group or socioeconomic class.
For example, he explains, in historical Chinese tradition, the emperor would conduct an exam to determine the brightest and best men in the country. Those who did well on the exam would not only fill high-ranking government posts but would also marry the emperor’s daughters, thus filling the royal bloodline with superior genes. According to Lee, this means that the Chinese have a genetic makeup crafted from an ideal set of persons, diverse and strong. Contrary to this, the ancient Indian caste system has isolated certain sets of genes by class. Some lower-caste Indians have genetics that have not been diversified with “good genes” and therefore may be at less of an advantage to excel.
Reading this makes me uncomfortable. I shift in my seat. Despite Singapore’s public holidays that are celebrated in the name of racial harmony, despite society’s respectful symmetry, I still occasionally perceive prejudice in the way mothers clasp their children closer when walking past darker-skinned construction workers, in the way young students tease their Malay classmates for being “lazy.”
In a 1965 interview with Allan Ashbolt, Lee describes the Malay people indigenous to Singapore as “more fortunately endowed by nature, with warm sunshine and bananas and coconuts, and therefore not with a same need to strive so hard,” then confidently asserts that he doesn’t consider one race to be better than another. Rather, he seems to point this out in demonstration of his belief that a clear acknowledgment of the differences between cultures—their development, histories, even their original climates—is an important part of establishing mutual learning and respect among the people of Singapore. Only with this understanding, he suggests, can we build an equitable country, unified against those looking to exploit its racial differences.
Lee tells the interviewer in Hard Truths, “the problem for the government is: How do you keep a society united when the lower layer can never catch up?” He speaks about a failed government initiative to offer lower-class women a free flat if they volunteer to be sterilized after the birth of their first two children.
I put the book down. The truth. It’s hard to know.
Used by permission from Socialist Realism (Coffee House Press, 2019). Copyright © 2019 by Trisha Low.