Khairulanwar Zaini / Photos by Damien Chng
They clamour for his wisdom: O Father, whither Singapore in 50 years? The patriarch smiles and holds up a mirror: the minds and hearts in the auditorium his masterpiece, the technocratic utopia will persist, the nation of Lee will prevail – Lee created the nation in his own image, in the image of Lee he created the young; soulless and depoliticized he created them.
Conducted with the clinical efficiency that only Lee’s Singapore could muster, the forum was heralded as an “opportunity for intellectual discourse” – and how intellectual and precious were those nine questions that Lee was subjected to – all pre-selected, pre-vetted, (pre-sanitized?) There were no questions from the floor, only the penetrating questions of anointed cubs. But this is only to ensure quality, the organizers said. And if those nine questions were the best that the leading youthful minds of today could muster, it would be a sad indictment – and a dire warning – for our state of affairs.
But it was an orchestra no doubt, the lion playing to the gallery, revelling in his triumph over his subjects and history.
How do you want your legacy, O Father, how do you want to be remembered? asked a young cub, with unabashed awe. Lee demurred coyly, saying that he does not think about it. History will judge, Lee said, in 20 and 30 years, history and its army of researchers and students. History, and National Education, and school curriculums and a nation-building press compliantly singing hosannas, and the two-tome autobiography that appropriates a national story. Lee does not think about his legacy – he does not have to – because the Lee Kuan Yew’s Story is the Singapore Story. History is truly his.
He reminded his cubs that Mao was revered for liberating China, but in building China, he almost destroyed it. But how about Lee, will there be such a revisionist tendency? He did afterall craft modern Singapore – the steward of material progress, the guardian of economic security. In our fawning enthusiasm, the country suffers a collective amnesia: Lee was only one of the many founding fathers that Singapore had, Singapore was only possible with the illustrious company that Lee fortuitously found himself in: the citizenry, all seeking to carve their collective legacy. Singapore today rests on the tenacity and initiative of millions, not the providence of one.
But to his credit, Lee is truly special: he is that one founding father that overstayed his welcome.
From her ambassadorial seat in the United States, Chan Heng Chee must be smiling ruefully. In 1975, she warned of the “steady and systematic depolitization” of the population with such compelling prescience. Administrative concerns always rising to the fore, politics only manifesting as the awkward negotiations of power in the bureaucratic hallways of technocracy. And Lee’s enduring vision of this technocratic utopia is a step closer to being realized: absent in the intellectual discourse of yesterday was the normative heart of politics. It was as though Singapore merely existed as an economic entity, or to borrow the eloquence of University of Michigan economics professor Linda Lim: Singapore is only a place, not a nation.
The Kyoto Protocol, economic niches, the financial crisis and the global hierarchy, the minimum wage: technical concerns that skirt politics and lionize Lee’s technocratic bent. Even the questions of national identity and psyche were reduced to materialist terms: the measure of Singapore has been, and would always be, economic. What do you make of a man who imposes a cold materialist vision upon a nation? What do you make of succeeding generations perpetuating that vision? Politics become the dirty by-word for chaos; democracy, the anathema to our sterile efficiency; voices and thoughts, ceded and disempowered.
Which is why the loudest applause from the audience last night came when Lee asked a Chinese national on scholarship whether she would remain in Singapore after her studies. The applause was the expression of resentment, of jealously, of worry against the influx of foreign immigrants; discontent hitherto misplaced and lacking ground for articulation in light of the compelling establishment rhetoric, that it is an indispensable and necessary economic evil. Only in a political vacuum could such an economically reductionist argument be made, and it was that political vacuum that compelled 500 pairs of hands to clap enthusiastically – the applause was an inchoate political argument that a nation is more than the sum of its GDP, and that the integration of immigrants should have come prior, not as an afterthought. The political argument that can never be assembled within the confines of a technocracy: our depoliticized society becomes our own oppression.
Could we fault the forum for selecting questions heavily imbued with such technocratic inclinations? Hardly. The organizers revealed that the most frequent questions in their collation pertained to employment prospects; the questions that were aired, for better or worse, reflected the consensus. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of this: the depoliticization of the forum was not contrived, but was only the expression of mindset already long embedded.
The power of efficiency, so sterile, so clinical, so enticing, has arguably been the bedrock of our economic transformation. It will also be the impediment to our national identity – a nation does not grow with GDP, a nation does not live in skyscrapers: a nation is only born when it has a soul. As long as we remain predicated and fixated upon material and technocratic concerns, Peter Schoppert will affirm that “Singapore is about routes, not roots”. Our national soul however requires roots.
We are all Lee’s children, and as far as we remain so, we will be cursed to settle for the pale imitations of a nation, one never true, never substantive, never moving. We are all Lee’s children, and this knowledge must have been of great comfort to the Father as he laid last night to repose, for every cry “For Singapore!” is one “For Lee Kuan Yew!” – the nation of Lee will prevail, that mechanical, technocratic and bureaucratic edifice, it lives on in the meek and soulless monotony of the young.
Views and opinions from others who attended the forum:
“Frankly, I didn’t learn anything much, as the questions felt ‘standard’ – asking about how the financial crisis affected global balance of power, how negotiations in Copenhagen could proceed, and general threats of national identity arising from immigration and so on… He did mention several worries about demographics and the work ethic, but more importantly, the forum informed me about his frame of mind.”
“My disappointment stems primarily from how the Forum appeared to be stage-managed (and, based on my interaction during the post-event reception with those of my friends who also attended the event, I am not the only one with such a sentiment).”