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When is the last leaf falling? Imagining a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew

Tiffany Chuang -

Yesterday I read the Straits Times reprint of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s interview with the New York Times.  I got a lump in my throat.

What got me was not just the poignant nostalgia of the interview, but just how old Mr Lee is, judging by the recently taken photos of him appended to the article.  I don’t mind confessing how sad I will be when he leaves us.  Now, at this point, if you are a critic or otherwise not a fan of our Minister Mentor, you are probably rolling your eyes and reaching for the nearest link away from this page.  But stay with me.  Supporters and detractors alike have an interest in seriously contemplating a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee Kuan Yew is important to Singapore in ways we may not immediately realise.  I’m not just talking about his tangible policy contributions, which have enough tomes dedicated to their study.  I’m talking about Lee Kuan Yew as an icon. Singapore’s national consciousness and international reputation are so indelibly shaped by him that it is impossible to comment seriously on anything in the country without considering the man and his work.  Over the years he has acquired a cult of personality that even horrified criticisms have, perversely, served to affirm.  What more his supporters, to whom the man is the party is the state is the nation?

Herein lies the interesting puzzle of a post-Lee Singapore.  Try an experiment.  Close your eyes and visualise “the PAP”. Chances are, you saw Mr Lee.  Now do it again but make an effort to excise him from your mental image.  How do you see the party now?  And how does that affect your view of the country? Don’t get me wrong.  I am not predicting a leadership crisis for the PAP or anything extreme like that.  The machinery is probably resilient enough.  I am simply making an intuitive observation that the party will not be the same after Lee Kuan Yew. Even more seriously, because so much of the government’s legitimacy rests on a solid PAP brand which is in turn inextricably linked with the man and his story, Mr Lee’s demise might just shatter this illusion of a seamless integration between party, state and nation, with far-reaching consequences.

When Mr Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1991, he took pride in the fact that he had established a stable, functioning government that would outlast any individual.  Of course, he insisted on leaving it to a team of elite, meritorious leaders (by his own definition) so that he did not have to worry about the wellbeing of the plan he masterminded so painstakingly.  But I cannot imagine anyone else in the PAP today possessing the same amount of charisma as Mr Lee.  They do not have his nation-building credentials or his terrifying reputation.  When Mr Lee “had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial” and the like, any criticism or even revulsion garnered only affirmed his status as defender, if occasionally brutal, of a particular order that he had personally toiled for.  But how will Singaporeans feel about fourth, fifth or sixth generation leaders who merely benefit from a generally litigious, repressive political culture, crouching in the wake of a trail Mr Lee blazed?

The PAP prides itself on a brand of pragmatism that, subject to the imperative of economic prosperity, supposedly allows it to adapt fluidly to environmental vicissitudes.  However, the PAP government is already showing signs of strain from inevitable ideological and institutional ossification.  In its response to Alan Shadrake’s damning expose on the hypocrisy of the mandatory death penalty, the government released trite statements that any modicum of reason or incriminating information could easily demolish.  In fact, because Shadrake did just that, the government’s only defence was not to issue any compelling new arguments but rather to feebly attempt to silence him using all the legal brute force it could muster against a 75-year old British man, much to the delight of Malaysian book stores.  But how long can the PAP government withstand the onslaught of damning questions and answers that the information age will inexorably bring, itself belabouring vintage party ideologies?

This rigidity reflects the corner the PAP government has, over the years, backed itself into.  This ossification is the unavoidable result of being the longest legitimate political monopoly in the modern democratic world.  After five decades of single-party dominance, the PAP agenda and ideology have penetrated every facet of life in this country, such that its very legitimacy is locked into a network of mutually reinforcing institutions.   Contrary to what the PAP would like to believe, this leaves it very little room for manoeuvre.

It cannot change its stance on matters of principle, such as the mandatory death penalty, without calling into question the same party principles that have legitimised its rule thus far.  As long as mandatory death penalty abolitionists continue to shine the spotlight on the government, the latter is in a no-win situation.  If the government agrees outright to abolish the mandatory death penalty, or even the death penalty, it will effectively be admitting that it was wrong from the start.  This would be a serious blow to its legitimacy, which, more so than many other governments, was premised on the illusion of infallibility.  Even if it were to quietly impose a moratorium on hangings, this fact would not escape observers, and it would prove the point that the PAP government is not impervious to societal pressure.  Its best recourse for now is vociferous reiteration and repression, like the proverbial oak that is tensest just before it yields to the storm.  For even if the PAP government manages to withstand the storm of this particular issue, how many more can it silence?

As such a charismatic icon of the PAP, the government and the nation, Mr Lee’s departure will indeed mark the end of an epoch in Singapore’s development.  In trying to imagine a Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew, we have to come to terms with how he is woven into our national consciousness and structures of power right now.  Although Mr Lee frequently reminds the public that he is no longer in power, nobody knows for sure exactly how he relates to his party and vice versa, neither do we know what will happen politically after his departure.  But right now that is not the priority of this article.

Mr Lee, if you are reading this, I am of the generation that you frequently chide for complacency, materialism, disrespect and a host of other things that young people generally get scolded for.  Yet I have nothing but the greatest respect for you, and concern over the future of Singapore.   Regardless of who I vote for in the coming and subsequent general elections, in the unlikely event that I get to, I will always hold you, as an individual, in special esteem.  I look forward to change, and participating in the next lap of Singapore’s future, but I do not look forward to saying goodbye.