Holding onto my hat

Holding onto my hat

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bilahari Kausikan – Loose and at Large

The day was 31 October 2015 and I was in the famous university town of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. 

I was there to attend a conference with the enticing title "The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Future of Singapore".  The Conference featured an impressive line-up of speakers comprising distinguished Singaporean and non-Singaporeans with in-depth knowledge of Singaporean history and politics.   

Oxford historian Dr Thum Ping Tjin and Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Mr Bilahari Kausikan were among the Singaporean speakers I was eager to hear.

Dr Thum Ping Tjin

Dr Thum’s topic was "Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy".  In his presentation, Dr Thum reviewed the historical context of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's rise to prominence and the political ascendance of the People's Action Party (PAP) in the pioneer years of Singapore. 

In the course of his comprehensive historical analysis, Dr Thum made the point that the era which saw the independence of Singapore was marked by robust political competition. Democracy, debate and dissent characterised the early phase of Singapore's political history.  However, the subsequent period was marked by intolerance for dissent, which has become the one enduring legacy of Mr Lee. 

It was interesting to hear Dr Thum because his perspective of Mr Lee's role in Singapore's history dissented from the narrative circulated by official sources in Singapore. 

Mr Bilahari Kausikan

Mr Bilahari's topic was "Lee Kuan Yew's cast of mind and its lasting influence".  As I leaned forward to listen, I had not bargained to be in for some unpleasant surprises.

To my amazement, Mr Bilahari departed from his prepared transcript at least twice to take two digs at Dr Thum - to make it clear to the audience that he was not in agreement with Dr Thum’s point of view. 

On Dr Thum’s view that the PAP government was intolerant of dissent, Mr Bilahari argued that since Dr Thum was able to express his dissenting views about Mr Lee’s political role, then Dr Thum can’t be right to complain that the PAP government was intolerant of dissent. 

I was taken aback. I failed to see the logic of Mr Bilahari's reasoning.  Dr Thum had expressed his dissenting views to an international audience at an overseas conference, not in Singapore.  Has Dr Thum been free to express his dissenting views in Singapore without adverse repercussions?

Mr Bilahari's second swipe at Dr Thum was more caustic. He called Dr Thum "a young academic trying to make a name for himself" - implying that Dr Thum was propagating an alternative version of Singapore’s history so as to draw attention to himself.

Some in the audience booed Dr Bilahari on hearing his ungracious words against Dr Thum.  

I was shocked - and ashamed - that a high ranking diplomat would deem fit to speak against a fellow Singaporean speaker at an overseas conference in front of an international audience.

By trying to attack Dr Thum's credibility, Mr Bilahari only succeeded in proving Dr Thum right about the PAP Government's intolerance for dissenting views.

But there was one more unhappy surprise in store for me.

"Some" opposition politicians

As Mr Bilahari drew his speech to a close, he said the key challenge ahead for Singapore was whether young Singaporeans would take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted and be persuaded that Singapore was no longer vulnerable.

Having articulated what challenge laid ahead, I expected Mr Bilahari to conclude his speech by mentioning how the Singapore Government would handle the mindset of the next generation of Singaporeans. 

Instead, Mr Bilahari opted to bring out the proverbial bogeyman, namely, PAP dissenters.

The exact words of Mr Bilahari's concluding remarks were as follows:

"The key challenge is internal: that a new generation of Singaporeans will take the achievements of Mr Lee and his comrades for granted and be persuaded that Singapore was no longer vulnerable.  Some opposition politicians and their fellow travellers among the intelligensia have tried to do just that. They either do not understand their own country and region or place their ambition above the national interest. Fortunately, as the results of our recent General Election have demonstrated, the majority of my compatriots do not believe them."[1]

Thus, Mr Bilahari thinks that "some" opposition politicians (and their sympatheziers) are busy working against the interests of Singapore and Singaporeans; but fortunately, most Singaporeans are wise to the ruse, as results of the recent General Election show.

Mr Bilahari's remarks are disturbing.  Inherent in his choice of words is the insidious attitude that “some” opposition politicians are a pain in the neck, self-seeking and distracting our good government from protecting our nation and serving Singaporeans. 

Mr Bilahari is entitled to his own personal views.

But Mr Bilahari was not speaking at the Cambridge conference in his personal capacity.  He was invited to speak at the conference on the basis of his credentials as Ambassador-at-Large and Policy Advisor in the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr Bilahari was speaking at the overseas venue in an official capacity, as a diplomat and civil servant.

The Singapore civil service and the salaries of civil servants are funded by taxpayers’ money. Singaporeans are entitled to be served by a non-partisan civil service in which civil servants do not comment on politics or on politicians or take sides with any political party. 

I do not think that a country with a functioning democracy would have a civil servant, much less a senior diplomat, speak against opposition politicians at a public forum.

Mr Bilahari is a civil servant and has no business to comment against opposition politicians in public platforms.  By so doing, Mr Bilahari has provided observers with clear evidence that our civil service is partisan and partial to the ruling party. 

Moreover, Mr Bilahari is a diplomat. I am at a loss as to how Mr Bilahari can be said to be serving his country and his countrymen by highlighting the electoral victory of the ruling party.

Singaporeans will be best served if our civil servants spend their time thinking of ways to improve their efficiency instead of using opposition politicians as lame excuses for their inadequacies. 

Mr Bilahari and his fellow diplomats should focus on dealing with our foreign foes and on how to fix them[2], instead of thinking about how to defeat opposition politicians.

PAP dissenters are not “the enemy”.  On the contrary, political dissenters and opposition politicians serve the nation by holding the PAP Government accountable to Singaporeans.  Their continued presence in the political arena is indispensable to the operation of democracy in Singapore. 

That day in Cambridge, I was saddened to see Mr Bilahari throwing punches against his own countrymen in front of an international audience in his capacity as Singapore's official representative. I do not understand how our Ministry of Foreign Affairs could allow its diplomats to express sardonic remarks against our own Singaporeans at an overseas venue.

A “sardonic diplomat" is a contradiction, an oxymoron.  Till now, I am still pondering the enigma of the oxymoron which is Mr Bilahari.

UPDATE on 20 Dec 2015:
In response to this Blog, Mr Bilahari Kausikan commented on my Facebook page on 17 Dec 2015. As a rejoinder to Mr Bilahari's comments, I posted a Note on my Facebook page on 19 Dec 2015 captioned "My Rejoinder to Mr Bilahari's Comments on my Blog".

[1] Extracted from the transcript of Mr Bilahari’s speech posted at http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/bilahari-kausikan-on-the/2235302.html

[2] "Instead of spending my time thinking of what is the right policy for Singapore, I have to spend all my time thinking what is the right way to fix them, what's the right way to buy my own supporters over," Mr Lee Hsien Loong, General Elections 2006 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a1WhJKsYb50


  1. A whole generation has grown up believing that the PAP is entitled to rule Singapore forever. A senior civil servant scoring debating points in a foreign country and putting down those with alternative views - how much lower can it go ? It just shows the calibre of the present civil service and also the political leadership which we have now. No wonder the MIW has problems finding candidates to field. This is what 50 years of nation building has done. So, another 15 years before we can celebrate our "real" existence as a nation. By then, scum like the fellow from MFA would just be a distant memory.

  2. Some time back, this same man was commenting on the political situation in Malaysia and was having an exchange with Tony Pua of the DAP. That was another instance where this pseudo intellectual from the MFA has gone beyond the scope of his role as a civil servant.

  3. I am not surprised-coming from a S'pore senior civil servant.Their job is not to serve S'pore interest or SINGAPOREANS as their titles suppose to denote. After decades of misuse and almost total dominance of power, the seniors-esp. are basically another political arm of the pap but paid by U n me-like PA, another example. S'pore civil service should be called pappy serfs-short form:PAPS which will better reflect it's real role. But what to do? Almost 70% asked for such n love such low class conduct. U said "saddened"-so gentle word. I cannot but have to use these words:So shameful! What a Disgrace to end up being "BOOED"--still got face to take photo-should hide under table or quickly clawed away as any good serf would adept at doing when having shamed the "little emperor" he represented (Please, he do not represent me,a real Singaporean although I contribute to his HIGH pay) DISGUSTING-luckily I had voted correctly otherwise I too will hide under table or wrap-up my face when I go out.

  4. If Singapore's opposition politicians still continue to express surprise at the fact that civil servants are sycophants of the PAP; then I must say they are pretty naive! The idea of faithful non- partisan civil servants carrying out their sworn duty as "servants" to the people of Singapore have been thrown out of the window back in the 1980's when Lee Kuan Yew "took care" of the civil service after he "took care" of the trade unions, then the mass media. Of course, he went on to "take care" of the j....... I am not going to spell that out, because "I not stupid" as Jack Neo said in his movie, hahaha!!!

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  6. It is sad that top civil servants lean on the ruling party to such an extent. It expresses a parasitical tendency of sucking returns from the powerful ruling party that is able to dispense such. And if the powerful ruling elites nourish such behaviour, then the incestuous relationship that will form will lead to very poor offsprings in younger and future generations of civil servants. Endemic corruption will easily follow.

  7. Ms Jeannette Chong Aruldoss.

    Considering the facebook information and discussion on your relevant post provided by Mr Bilahari KPSK, you are entitled to your opinions likewise Mr Bilahari.
    It would be well to edit your post to reflect that those were his own opinions rather than any official capacity.
    Further considering that Dr Thum is known revisionist historian with his own views and slanting of views, well to each their own , compared to present circa view of history.

    1. Dear "theonion", In my opinion, I do not think that a person of Mr Bilahari's credentials can speak on a public podium "in his personal capacity". He may think so, but how the audience perceive is another matter. Hence, a person with such status as Mr Bilahari holds does not have the freedom to speak his mind in same way as an ordinary man in the street. I have elaborated on this view of mine in a follow up FB Note published on 19 Dec 2015 at this link: https://www.facebook.com/notes/jeannette-chong-aruldoss/my-rejoinder-to-mr-bilaharis-comments-on-my-blog/10153447230684563

  8. That's the point here. If he were a former civil servant, there will be no issues. He cannot draw a salary funded by the taxpayer and express views which favour a political party. We need to get this straight - he is working for the government not the PAP. Unless he was on a private visit to UK paying for his trip from his own pocket.

    1. He was. Read the rejoinder. https://www.facebook.com/notes/jeannette-chong-aruldoss/my-rejoinder-to-mr-bilaharis-comments-on-my-blog/10153447230684563

  9. Dear Ms Chong- Alruldoos,

    I mean no disrespect, but may I ask why you did not feel the same shock and shame when a fellow Singaporean (Dr Thum) spoke "against a fellow Singaporean speaker (LKY) at an overseas conference in front of an international audience"?

    I find your double standards disconcerting.


    1. The Conference was entitled "The Legacy of Lee Kuan Yew and the Future of Singapore". The agenda was to explore and discuss Singapore's history and politics. At such a Conference, participants expect critical analysis.

      Dr Thum is an academic and historian. His topic for the Conference was entitled "Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy". It is his job to apprise Mr Lee's historical role objectively - warts and all.

      More importantly, Dr Thum was not the subject matter of the Conference, but a speaker. Neither was the Conference intended to be a debate between speakers. Of course speakers are free to disagree with each other, but personal attacks are out of line in any occasion.

      Thank you for your comments. Jeannette

  10. another foreign ministry official living it up at the expense of taxpayers:

    from article:
    When Nikolaj Petersen and his wife, Irene Sim, moved to Beijing for Ms. Sim’s job with the Singaporean government...The home includes a sauna, a downstairs playroom, two kitchens and a master bathroom with built-in closets. The children have their own private building, with a bathroom that has a wooden tub built inside the shower. Mr. Petersen declined to disclose the monthly rent, but similar hutong homes go for between 50,000 and 60,000 yuan a month, or about $7,500 to $9,000.

    just look at the government online directory and you can find this woman's name listed under beijing embassy.