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A Singapore friend signs off

One of the FCPA Blog’s earliest supporters was Adrian Tan, a Singapore lawyer and writer who encouraged spreading the word about the evils of corruption and the benefits of a clean government. He died of cancer Saturday at just 57, only part way into his term as president of the Law Society of Singapore.

We became friends in the early 1990s. For the next 15 years or so, Adrian and I took lunchtime walks, often weekly, around Singapore’s downtown waterfront. Always the conversation turned to Singapore and the reasons for its success.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, was still alive then (he died in 2016). Adrian told me Mr. Lee’s most revolutionary idea was of a corruption-free country in Asia. “It was a unique selling point like no other,” Adrian said.

That idea thrilled us both and helped cement our friendship. Adrian loved talking about Singapore’s achievement as an anti-corruption showplace, and I loved hearing about it.

He never apologized for Singapore. Western-style pluralism wasn’t the goal, he told me. Instead, people had to learn cooperation. After all, when Singapore was booted from the Malaysian federation and forced into independence in 1965, it was, in Adrian’s words, “a disparate group of immigrants on a resource-poor island.”

So Singaporeans like Adrian made a decision. “Sometimes, having a one-party system, whether in a nation, a state, or a city, works better than a system that is based on two parties fighting each other,” he said. “Here, people learned to agree to agree.”

That sounds alien and insular to Western ears, but Adrian wasn’t provincial. His mind was open and agile. That allowed him to be Singaporean to the core and yet greatly admire the West, with a special fondness for Americans’ friendliness and informality.

What do I remember most? A cheerful man filled with good humor. The last time we wrote to each other, some months after his devastating diagnosis, he could still say the good days outnumbered the bad, and he was eating more vegetables.

He signed off the way we had often signed off, in better times, when we would set the day for our next lunchtime walk: “I look forward to meeting you in Raffles Place soon.”

Farewell, friend.

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