The Economist is a venerable news magazine that is 175 years old this year.
It has lofty ideals for its Banyan column.
The column, which began in 2009, aims to dedicate itself to the "idea of Asia", saying that "it's time for a column about half the world's people".
Therefore, it appears out of character for Banyan to dedicate so much column space to one public servant from the tiny city-state of Singapore.
Baiting the High Commissioner in a roundabout ad hominem attack
On Nov. 23, it published an article, "Singapore’s ruling party reveals the next prime minister".
Its analysis drew parallels between the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and China's Communist Party on the issue of choosing the next Prime Minister.
But it spent its opening paragraph making things personal with the Singapore High Commissioner to the UK, Foo Chi Hsia, prior to actually making its main analysis.
This was done by stating how "readers" of The Economist were complaining about Foo "(wasting) inordinate time penning letters of complaint to The Economist, usually over any hint that Singapore is in effect a one-party state".
This article drew a rebuttal from Foo on Dec. 18, where she expressed her surprise at the issue Banyan took with her letters and slammed the column for its "patronising backhanded innuendos about Singapore’s ongoing political succession".
Dedicating 169 words of its 744-word column to the High Commissioner
Here's how the article kicked off its salvo at Foo:
"Readers often grumble that Singapore’s high commissioner to London (a public servant of great intelligence and charm) wastes inordinate time penning letters of complaint to The Economist, usually over any hint that Singapore is in effect a one-party state."
It then gave an instance of one of its readers supposedly calling out a rebuttal by Foo, which stated that Singaporeans vote for the PAP “because it continues to deliver them good government, stability and progress”.
The rebuttal had been made in response to an earlier argument by the Banyan column, which stated that the PAP had "(inculcated) the absurd notion that its survival and that of Singapore itself are synonymous”.
The article then elaborated that one of the Economist's readers had called the rebuttal a “delicious irony”, as such a claim is for the PAP to make rather than “the ambassador who represents the very state she insists is not synonymous with its ruling party”.
After its 158-word opening love note, the column concluded, saying that it's "best to leave any speculation about that to the high commissioner" -- referring to the issue of leadership succession in Singapore.
Actual analysis only starts in fifth paragraph
After its opening paragraph, the next two paragraphs are spent framing the 38 Oxley Road Saga within the context of Lee Kuan Yew's belief in eugenics.
It is only in the fifth paragraph of the article that the main topic is finally touched upon -- using a parallel with China's CCP to analyse Heng Swee Keat's selection as Singapore's next Prime Minister.
Here's a quick summary of how the analysis went:
- The CCP "loves to send signals through appointments to obscure positions within its hierarchy... just like the PAP."
- Both parties talk "in terms of 'generations' of leaders".
- Leaders from the older generations of both parties also "never fade away"
- Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing making "much of his humble origins and subsequent success, including scholarships and a brilliant army career" makes him the parallel of jailed governor, Bo Xilai, who allegedly challenged Chinese Premier Xi Jinping for succession in 2012.
What's the beef between the High Commissioner and The Economist?
Here's some context to understand why The Economist's opening paragraph sounded rather emotional:
From March 2017 up to November 2018, Foo sent in a total of eight letters to The Economist over their published commentaries on Singapore.
Each letter served as a rebuttal by explaining Singapore's perspective.
Such commentaries are frequently perceived as telling how Singapore should act but without the trappings and realities of governance.
Sometimes, the rebuttals are easy to formulate as The Economist glosses over the nuances and as it sets itself up for theoretical and idealistic arguments that do not gel with the Singaporean public:
Sometimes, The Economist makes valid counter-arguments and pulls one back:
In this latest instance, however, it appears that The Economist intentionally set out to bait Foo into replying by implying that her previous letters had largely been a waste of time.
It also questioned the validity of the arguments in Foo's letters by insinuating, from an anonymous reader, that she was effectively acting as a cheerleader of the ruling party.
Foo's response on Dec. 18 showed that she had taken the bait.
Foo dismisses analysis as "patronising backhanded innuendos", trumpets success of Singapore system instead
In responding to The Economist's attempt at making things personal, Foo gave a thorough breakdown of the attempt, noting that The Economist had cited anonymous readers and overlooked certain aspects of her arguments.
"... in our consistently contestable elections, the People’s Action Party could well lose power, and would deserve to do so if it ever became incompetent and corrupt."
On the article's main point of the parallels with leadership succession in China's Communist Party, however, Foo dismissed the bulk of the analysis off-hand as "patronising backhanded innuendos".
Foo reiterated: "Provided the party wins the people’s support in the next general election, due by April 2021, Mr Heng will take over from Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister."
She then segued into criticising The Economist's definition of democracy, highlighting that its Banyan column had "equated democracy with freewheeling, rambunctious politics, divisive national debates, inter- and intra-party politicking, and quick changes of prime ministers and cabinet ministers".
Foo also criticised the column's dismissal of "Singapore’s political culture which strives for continuity and consensus in seeking the mandate of the people".
Foo then concluded with a reaffirmation of Singapore's political system, stressing that thus far it "has produced accountable and stable governments, and progress and security for Singaporeans".
Here is Foo's response in full:
Given The Economist’s belief in free speech and robust debate, I found it surprising that Banyan (December 1st) took issue with my letters to The Economist. Apart from quoting anonymous readers, Banyan selectively failed to mention that I had also argued that in our consistently contestable elections, the People’s Action Party could well lose power, and would deserve to do so if it ever became incompetent and corrupt. I write not to defend any political party, but to set the record straight and provide your readers with the facts to judge for themselves.
This time, Banyan made patronising backhanded innuendos about Singapore’s ongoing political succession. The ruling party has indeed settled on Heng Swee Keat as its next leader. But the prime minister in Singapore must command the confidence of the majority of members of parliament, no different from British prime ministers. Provided the party wins the people’s support in the next general election, due by April 2021, Mr Heng will take over from Lee Hsien Loong as prime minister.
Banyan equated democracy with freewheeling, rambunctious politics, divisive national debates, inter- and intra-party politicking, and quick changes of prime ministers and cabinet ministers. He dismissed Singapore’s political culture which strives for continuity and consensus in seeking the mandate of the people.
So far our system has produced accountable and stable governments, and progress and security for Singaporeans. And that surely is the ultimate test of any political system.
Foo Chi Hsia
High Commissioner for Singapore
Indeed, the ultimate test is that no one in Singapore is analysing whether Singapore would one day be Britain-on-Singapore-River, just like how The Economist analysed if Britain would become Singapore on Thames after Brexit.
Additional research by Andrew Wong
Left image from The Online Citizen, right image from The Economist Facebook