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Do patriots only turn up in turbulent times? Ravi Philemon

Passion And Patriotism (PAP)

TOC wishes MM Lee Kuan Yew a happy 86th birthday and thanks him for his nation-building endeavour.

Ravi Philemon

"It is difficult for him not to interfere," said Mr Goh Chok Tong as he took over from Mr Lee Kuan Yew as the Prime Minister of Singapore in 1990.  Whether one likes him or not, no one can deny that this Cambridge-trained barrister who has promised to get up even from his sick bed or while being lowered into his grave, if he feels something is wrong with Singapore, has left an indelible mark in the modern history of Singapore.

A Stroll down Memory Lane

Mr Lee probably was politically awakened while he worked as a clerk and later as a cable editor at a Japanese propaganda agency during World War II.  In his late 20s, Mr Lee joined Laycock & Ong and he campaigned for his boss John Laycock, a Singapore Progressive Party leader, in 1951.  During this period, he became increasingly involved in a number of left-wing cases.

Whatever his detractors may say, there is no denying that if there is one quality this man had, it is the one called passion – Passion with a capital P.

Mr Lee never charged for the legal services he provided the unions.  Former Straits Times news editor Felix Abisheganaden, who was acquainted with Mr Lee in the 1950s and 1960s, noted that he hardly ever charged the unions for his work. “You can never say that he was ever in his life after any kind of financial gain - never, never, never.” His stint in London, his involvement in the Malayan Forum and the influence of the British Labour Party had taught him that he had to be pro-labour and build his network power base through the trade unions. Right from the start, noted former People’s Action Party (PAP) chairman Toh Chin Chye, “It was the unions that provided the mass base. Lee Kuan Yew was the legal advisor, so he had a mass base.”

It was but the passion of Mr Lee and the team he led (with the likes of Mr Toh Chin Chye, Mr S Rajaratnam, Mr Goh Keng Swee and Mr S Devan Nair), which enabled PAP to sweep the 1959 general elections. It was his passion which persuaded the Malayan premier and leader of the Alliance Party, to include Singapore in the merger. It was his passion which caused him to campaign for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’; and again, it was Mr Lee passion which was the major reason for the separation of Singapore from Malaysia.

"The ousting of Singapore, despite what history books might say, are anything but cordial," says Mr M.G.G. Pillai in his article "Did Lee Kuan Yew want Singapore ejected from Malaysia?" Mr Pillai writes that Mr Lee then being in his 40s was brash. This prompted Tunku Abdul Rahman to condition that if Singapore were to remain a part of Malaysia, Mr Lee had got to get out of the picture.  That was a condition which was too unacceptable to consider, even for an impassioned Mr Lee.

Maybe it was the ouster of Singapore from Malaysia which kindled Mr Lee to prove that Singapore could not only survive without Malaysia, but could also do better than Malaysia. Perhaps Mr Lee envisioned Singapore to be him and him to be Singapore; and driven by Napoleon Complex Mr Lee strived to keep Singapore ‘up there’, whatever the cause was.  It’s highly possible that he had something to prove to those who ‘pooh-poohed’ his ideal of a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’.

The Present

Fast forward to the year 2009 and we find a Mr Lee who is still impassioned about Singapore. Recently he found it necessary to “bring the House back to earth” for their highfalutin idea that the Singapore National Pledge was an ideal.  It was an aspiration he said – not an ideal.  Never mind that the pledge is neither an ideal nor an aspiration, but a promise; “Nobody can speak with the knowledge that I have”, he said.

But what Mr Lee failed to realise was that the Nominated Member of Parliament, who tabled a motion calling for the House to reaffirm its commitment to the principles enshrined in the Singapore National Pledge, was actually echoing the call Mr Lee Kuan Yew made decades ago; only this time for a ‘Singaporean Singapore’. Did the ouster from Malaysia turn this man into a convert of cold-eyed pragmatism, which prescribes that there are no ideals except the ideal of pragmatism?

From his days as a cable editor of the Japanese propaganda machine, through his years as an agitator for independence from Britain, to the merger and (soon after) ouster from Malaysia; from his time spent talking to the Americans during the Vietnam years to his role as a confidant of China's leadership, Mr Lee has seen it all. And more importantly, he has raised a generation of pragmatists.

But in a rapidly changing world, pragmatism does not fire the imagination of many, especially the young.  Singapore craves for a leader with the “bring back to earth” kind of charisma that Mr Lee possesses; but charisma which is tempered with humanity. Pragmatism sadly can never breed such a leader.

Mr Pillai argues in his article that “Singapore will eventually have to merge with Malaysia, but as an adjunct of Johore”, when Johor stops supplying water to Singapore.  Perhaps we need problems of such magnitude to throw up true patriots like our founding fathers – patriots like Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Happy birthday Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Read also: Lee Kuan Yew's Legacy on Leadership Succession