An Arab scholar, Dr. Malik Dahlan, spontaneously held up the front page of the Straits Times newspaper yesterday (Friday, 20th May) during a conference on the Middle East and applauded the recent developments in Singaporean politics.
Dr. Dahlan was an invited speaker to the inaugural conference organised by the Middle East Institute. The conference was held at the Shangri-la hotel from 19th-20th May and was titled: Whither the Gulf? Accomplishments, Challenges and Dangers. The title of Dr. Dahlan’s presentation was “Rethinking Regional Organization in the GCC and the Greater Middle East”.
In a seemingly spontaneous preface to the substance of his presentation, Dr. Dahlan expressed his admiration for the “evolution or revolution” of Singaporean politics as he held up that day’s Straits Times newspaper, waving it at the audience.
He also noted that his great grandfather had left Mecca for Singapore and referred to Dr. Syed Farid Alatas, the moderator of the panel as well as professor at NUS, as his cousin. Dr. Dahlan also acknowledged and thanked Ambassador Tommy Koh, who was present in the audience.
During the question-and-answer session, I had discreetly approached the student photographer of the event, Lionel Lin, to obtain the photo of Dr. Dahlan holding up the Straits Times newspaper. In his email to me, Lionel wrote, “I hope the photograph suffices what you’re looking for as I have to admit that I would had preferred a frontal angle instead – which was relatively hard given the unanticipated nature of his unprecedented gesture.”
It was indeed an unanticipated gesture.
Whilst some Singaporeans have subscribed to Catherine Lim’s interpretation of the resignation by MM Lee as “his political demise“, foreign observers like Dr. Dahlan have been able to appreciate the deeper political import and avant-garde nature of the resignations.
The debate continues between those of us who choose to understand Lee Kuan Yew’s politics in terms of his self-interest and himself on the one hand, and those of us who understand his politics as a more nuanced mix of concerns: as a result of tensions between his concern for the good of Singapore, and his belief that his view of the good of Singapore is the right view. That he resigned appears to be both a concession that his view of the good for Singapore may not be the right view, as well as a triumph of his overriding concern for the good of Singapore, a ‘good’ he has now allowed to be defined by the new generation of leaders.
Dr. Malik Dahlan is the Principal of Institution Quraysh for Law and Policy, and Director of the Global Leaders in Law Forum ( Qatar Law Forum). He is a member of the Harvard Law School Executive Committee, and is the President of the Harvard Law School Association of Arabia.
He also serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Middle East, and is a member of the British Institute of International and Comparative Law.
At the end of his presentation, Dr. Dahlan also commented that perhaps it is time to consider that the Arab world is not in the Middle East but rather in West Asia, suggesting that it was time for the Arab world to look East towards Asia and renew ancient connections between the two regions that had been interrupted by Western imperialist and colonialist activities.
Look out for KRC’s article-review on the Middle East Institute’s inaugural 2-day conference in the next few days.