Where have the intellectuals gone?

October 9, 2008

“Now that I am no longer a diplomat, I can create my own index of geopolitical competence. I would give the former Soviet Union a two – for losing an empire without a shot being fired; the EU a four – for reasons given above; the US a seven – for remaining the world’s greatest power; and China a nine – for emerging as a great power with such skill and deftness. And I would give Singapore a 10 out of 10. This is the result of the extraordinary leadership we have enjoyed. At a time when we may be moving into treacherous geopolitical terrain, the real challenge for Singapore is to maintain its extraordinary leadership.”


[Kishore Mahbubani, from his article “An eternity of geopolitics”, published in The Straits Times (8 Oct 2008)]


What a shocker! Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, gives the PAP leadership a perfect score for extraordinary leadership! This is as amazing as discovering ice in the North Pole, or the vacuum between George Bush’s ears. How gusty of Mahbubani to stick his neck out, brave the inevitable backlash and go out on a political limb to give his PAP pay-masters a perfect 10. Oh the sheer bravery of the man! For his next trick, he’ll defy science and announce that water is wet.


Just as amazing is how the former Soviet Union can devolve its hegemony, dismantle its empire and bring an end to the Cold War, one of the greatest ideological stand-offs in the 20th century, thus avoiding a nuclear arms escalation, and still get a miserly two out of ten from the Dean.


This is the sad state of our public intellectual arena. Prominent government apologists offered public platforms to spout soggy analysis that ultimately aligns with PAP ideology and worldview. Take a look at all the directors of the local think tanks – what do they have in common? They are all diplomats or civil servants.


In her seminal paper “The Role of Intellectuals in Singapore Politics” (1975), political scientist Chan Heng Chee (now Singapore’s ambassador to the US) noted the difference between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘intelligensia’. According to her, an intellectual, as is commonly understood, was someone who was independently minded, a deep thinker, and associated with a certain moral courage that allowed him to speak out against orthodoxy should the need arise. The intelligentsia, on the other hand, is a group that is highly intelligent but located in positions of power and influence, dedicated to the orthodoxy and support of the system. According to Chan, we have more intelligentsia than intellectuals. But most tellingly, the Singapore intelligentsia is a small and homogeneous bunch. Chan writes:


“One feature of establishment and especially establishment in a small place is that the same groups relate to each other very intensely. The same books are read and language and perceptions are standardized. After awhile the consensus denies knew ways of seeing things and doing things, the denial of which renders the country poorer”


This was as true in 1975 as it is today.


How does this bode for Singapore’s intellectual maturity? Ask yourself one simple question. If you were to ask any PAP minister today what score he would give himself and his Cabinet colleagues for their ‘leadership’, would his answer be a brazen 10 out of 10? Or would it be a more modest 7 or 8 out of 10? Realistically, I cannot think of any minister who would dare give himself a perfect score. Such scores are only given out by those below him. There are many ugly words to describe these people but in truth, they serve an important function: they manufacture legitimacy for the dominant group.


Political legitimacy is like the tide, it’s never constant, always dynamic, ever dependent on the conditions of the day. Our local intelligentsia’s job is to keep the tide of political legitimacy as high as possible, through good times and bad. And the platforms on which they do this is the state-controlled public media. If politicians were to trumpet their own praise they run the risk of losing credibility in the eyes of citizens. But if the intelligentsia shoulders this burden, then it saves the politicians from this churlish but politically necessary task. The bad news is that this wayang takes up much of the public sphere, leaving little room for anything else.



In the end, it’s Singaporeans who are deprived of honest to goodness intellectuals. We are left with uncritical thinkers who pass off ideology as analysis and government mantra as common sense. This is dangerous because we fool ourselves into believing we are a thinking society.




8 Responses to “Where have the intellectuals gone?”

  1. sushibar Says:


  2. groundnotes Says:

    thanks sushibar! appreciate the support and comments.

  3. […] Discourse – Groundnotes: Where have the intellectuals gone? – Musings: New Thio-ries on Bloggers and Homosexualists – Singapore Dino: Fine Starbucks for […]

  4. Anonymous Coward Says:

    Intellectuals in Singapore are the ones like Kishore Mahbubani.

    I believe what your question refers to are not “Intellectuals” but rather “Dissidents” who must be destroyed for the purpose of Hegemony.

    Why aren’t the PAP 10 out of 10? If anyone says so they must be jealous of the PAP’s success.

    Have you not heard of this school of thought? It comes from the very famous Primary Schoolian branch of Political Science.

    That being said, Singapore(PAP) Boleh!

  5. gssq Says:

    He may no longer be a diplomat, but he’s still a civil servant

  6. Kelvin Tan Says:

    The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy.

    But when you’re inside, you look around, what do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters…

    …You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

  7. paul Says:

    Kishore Mahbubani is not even a civil servant. Just a servant!

  8. zztop Says:

    It’s very interesting how some intellectuals, such as Dr. Chan Heng Chee herself, were cleverly co-opted by the PAP with cushy, glamourous positions and now spout the party line. I wonder if it is possible to pin point the moment or occasion when she stopped being a intellectual and joined in intelligentsia. Sell out!

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