Lee Kuan Yew is Mortal and Machiavellian
Lee Kuan Yew’s contribution as a leader of a good team in cleverly steering Singapore to development and prosperity in the difficult early years is without dispute. It was life and death then in post-independence Singapore when Malaysia and Indonesia loomed as big neighbours, the British withdrew their military and the economy that supported it and there was urgent need to create employment, housing, education etc. Singapore’s survival was at stake.
However, he did not do it alone and had help from the other Old Guards, and engineered history made him out to be a larger than life heroic philosopher king. This is not to dampen or cheapen his achievements and vision for Singapore but the tide of tributes to him since his death is uncomfortably almost deification. The more Singaporeans place him on the pedestal, the more it seems as if Singapore can be knocked down when he is gone and not around to give Singapore guidance. That is not the case as the former PM already charted out succession plans, whether it won public support wholeheartedly or not. The decline in the PAP’s popularity since the 1990s is telling.
Lee Kuan Yew is mortal, not a god. He and his team made mistakes. He and his team also made political enemies, especially since the first PM of Singapore was Machiavellian in politics, albeit as a trained and sharp lawyer, everything was done by law when he cornered his opponents in a cul de sac with knuckle dusters. Already some of those who wrongly or rightly disliked his political high-handedness have voiced out their views. As mourning wanes, and the papers, TV and radio deify Lee Kuan Yew to a point of nauseating overkill, we can expect more fair and unfair criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew to fester.
Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew is being mourned within his country and beyond its shores. In three decades as prime minister he oversaw the separation from Malaysia in 1965 and the transformation of Singapore into a business and financial powerhouse. When his son Lee Hsien Loong took on the top job and appointed him “minister mentor”, it acknowledged rather than bestowed his enduring influence.
Mr Lee’s wide-ranging connections and blunt advice – he astutely balanced the major powers – won him respect in both Beijing and Washington. In the region, Singapore sparked talk of “Asian values”, with other leaders envying not just its wealth, stability, efficiency and cleanliness, but also its tight controls and its culture of obedience. Its success was welcomed as proof that a vibrant economy and sustained development could – or would only – thrive under authoritarian government. Mr Lee once warned that democracy’s exuberance “leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development”.
Voting in Singapore is compulsory. The People’s Action Party always wins. Only a handful of opposition MPs have hurdled the obstacles to win election. There is strict regulation of the media, public speech and assembly. Defamation cases have brought domestic opponents to bankruptcy and proved costly for overseas media; the government says high penalties are needed to ensure politicians’ reputations are protected against mud-slinging. Corporal and capital punishment remain, as do detentions without trial under the Internal Security Act. In the past, Mr Lee used the law enthusiastically against those he judged “extremists”.
Many in Singapore, remembering their impoverished youth, accept all this as the cost of order and their nation’s hard-won prosperity. Others suggest the iron grip has never been necessary. And a younger generation take yesterday’s achievements as read and want more. That is not churlishness or ingratitude, but a mark of the country’s real progress.
The last parliamentary elections in 2011 marked the PAP’s worst performance since independence, though it still gained 60% of the vote and all but six of the 87 seats. Lee Hsien Loong acknowledged that was a watershed, promising to listen to voters. The government has since recalibrated its tone and expanded welfare. Yet the gulf between rich and poor remains vast and has become a key source of discontent, along with the cost of living and immigration. Controls on internet news sites have tightened.
This year’s 50th anniversary of independence should bring renewed focus on the challenges ahead, as well as acknowledging those met and mastered. Change is overdue. A growing number of Singaporeans chafe at Lee-style paternalism and seek to assert their rights. Perhaps the country could one day be the model for a new set of Asian values: social and political liberalisation, rather than cash and control, with freedom and equality celebrated alongside stability.