Yawning Bread. May 2007

From City Hall to the Gaza Strip and back




This essay begins and ends with a small news item that caught my eye from the Straits Times of 18 May 2007. Headlined "Contract controversy", it was reported that Koh Seow Chuan appears to be resisting calls for him to step aside to avoid conflict of interest when it comes to selecting architects for the National Art Gallery.

Koh chairs the executive committee of the Art Gallery Project Unit, and is one of 7 panellists who will decide on the winning award.

Five architectural firms have been shortlisted for the restoration and conversion of 2 iconic buildings -- the City Hall and the adjacent old Supreme Court -- into the proposed art gallery. DP Architects and Chan Sau Yan Associates are the two local firms in this shortlist; the other three are from France, Taiwan and Australia.

Koh himself founded DP Architects in 1967 though he retired in 2004 and, according to the Straits Times, "no longer has any share in the company". However, he continues to serve as a consultant and maintains an office there.

The Straits Times quoted some other local architects who held the view that he should disqualify himself from the panel, at the very least to avoid the appearance of bias. The newspaper tried to get a clear response from him, but instead got a statement stressing that he had retired, which seems to be reiterating his fitness for the position.

It sounds like a tiny little matter and certainly no one, myself included, is alleging any wrongdoing, but it rings alarm bells. Stepping aside is clearly the right thing to do. The post must be more glamour than money to Koh, for surely he must have made his millions by now. Yet, his instinctive reaction is to resist. 

Conflict of interest is the start of a slippery road to corruption in public life. Even tolerating the appearance of it gradually immunises a society to situations where corruption can fester. Koh's failure to recuse himself without prompting shows once again how such dangers are never far under the surface.

* * * * *

I watched Ken Loach's film, The wind that shakes the barley, recently. Set in Ireland in the 1920s when the Irish people rose up against British rule, the first part of the film was about how a ragtag bunch of idealists organised themselves into guerilla units, as told through the eyes of two brothers. The second part of the film was about how, after London offered internal self-governance in the form of the Irish Free State, the Irish resistance split, eventually setting upon each other. One side accepted the British offer, seeing half a loaf as better than none and hoping that it can be a stepping-stone to more. The other side thought it was a sell-out. They insisted on continuing the fight, even if it meant killing their former brothers-in-arms whom they regarded as traitors to the cause.

This week, Gaza proved a living -- and dying -- example of the same thing. Hamas and Fatah were fighting in the streets and alleys of that overcrowded area where 1.5 million people are squeezed into 360 sq. km, with no natural resources (water too is running out) nor meaningful work for many. But one thing Gaza has aplenty: armed militia.

Hamas refuses to recognise the existence of Israel, seeing it as an illegal state. Their idealistic goal is to push the Jews back into the Mediterranean Sea. Thus, when Hamas won the legislative election of 2006 and obtained the right to form a government, Israel suspended all negotiations. The latter said no meaningful negotiations could be conducted with a party whose aim was its own destruction.

Fatah, the party of the late charismatic leader, Yassir Arafat, is the more pragmatic side of the Palestinian revolt. Forming the government of the Palestinian Authority until 2006, it has been involved in negotiations with Israel on and off since the 1990s but for various reasons -- too many to go into here -- little headway has been made.

But now that Fatah no longer controls the government, though its Mahmoud Abbas remains as President, Fatah is in no position to negotiate with Israel either.

Meanwhile the internecine bloodletting continues. After more than half a century of conflict in the region, with the world almost inured to the suffering there, it takes a lot to make the headlines. That the current madness in the Gaza manages to do so speaks volumes about the strip's chaos and human misery.

What makes it an even greater tragedy is that the outline of a final settlement has been clear for years. The new Palestinian state would occupy most of the present West Bank and Gaza. There would be international guarantees of security for Israel and some financial settlement of the refugee question. Israel would have to give up some if not most of the settlements its former Likud government had planted in the West Bank, in return for which the Palestinian side would not demand an immediate resolution of the status of Jerusalem.

Yet the prospect of such a settlement is one factor that fuels the Hamas-Fatah feud. To the rejectionist camp in Hamas, seizing the compromise would mean giving up forever its dream of a whole Palestinian state stretching from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River. The closer the prospect of a compromise, the more determined some hotheads will be to blowing it all up.

But what about the human cost? The first Arab-Israeli War took place before I was born. At the rate it's going, I might never live to see the day that peace comes to the region. What if I had been born in the Gaza strip? Short of emigrating, my entire life would be spent in a hellhole. What would my emotions be like? It's really hard to imagine.

I suppose, if I were an angry young man, I might even consider being a suicide bomber. What's the point of living, after all? But if I were pragmatic, I'd say, take the half-loaf and make the best of it.

I am sure, like most people on this earth, the great majority of Palestinians can see the benefit of pragmatism. But if so, how did Hamas win the 2006 election? Actually, the question should be: how did Fatah lose it?

Because it was widely seen as corrupt and administratively incompetent. Hamas, on the other hand, had acquired a reputation for delivering basic services to its constituents. The one thing about idealism is that the people who work for it are driven by goals that aren't easily distracted by personal gain. The trouble with pragmatism is that on a microscopic, personal scale, being corrupt can be the most utilitarian option. Why bother to do work competently when greater riches can be obtained by focussing on other things?

* * * * *

The great governance story of the second-half of the last century has been precisely that: many freedom movements that won their nations independence were led by idealistic leaders with irreproachable morals, but were succeeded by the more pragmatic people who were needed to actually run a country. And before long, the pragmatism that dominated was the personal kind.

In a sense, Mao Zidong was right. If you didn't have perpetual revolution, things rot.

This is why, as Singapore moves into what it calls its third generation leadership, it really bothers me that we have no more guiding principles except pragmatism. Look at all the new leaders inducted by the ruling party. How many of them are known for vision or a coherent set of principles? The lack of electoral contest, the attenuation of the election period to just nine days, the media's reluctance to give space to controversies in favour of "nation-building", all work against the clarifying role of public debate.

Mine may be a cry in the wilderness, but I say, don't believe for a moment that we are not vulnerable to corruption taking over. We are, and the closed political system we have created has increased the vulnerability, not reduced it.

That's why the issue of the National Art Gallery is worth watching.

Yawning Bread