Lee Kuan Yew’s (non-) legacy

by Alfian Sa'at

(This was originally a comment on an FB thread, but it got longer and longer so I decided to post it up here as a note!)

From a Sin Chew Jit Poh report:

"I would say today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam," he said in "Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going," a new book containing his typically frank views on the city-state and its future.

"I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came and if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration -- friends, intermarriages and so on..." he stated.

"I think the Muslims socially do not cause any trouble, but they are distinct and separate," Lee added, calling on the community to "be less strict on Islamic observances."

My response:

There is a simple reason for LKY's comments about race in Singapore. Just across the causeway lies a country which is the source of LKY's nightmares and neuroses. Over there, the Malays are politically dominant, and some of the more grotesque ethno-nationalists among them are very fond of calling the Chinese 'pendatang', or 'arrivals', repeatedly emphasising their immigrant status, accusing them of being fairweather sojourners, questioning their loyalties, restricting their access to various programmes under the New Economic Policy, etc.

I don't of course agree with the way the Chinese are being treated in Malaysia, and in spite of being Malay *Singaporean* I feel tremendous guilt that so many of my Chinese Malaysian friends are made to feel like second-class citizens.

I think LKY is aware that the situation in Malaysia is beyond his control. And I believe he is outraged, actually, that the Chinese there have to study Bahasa Malaysia as the national language, which according to his notions of racial purity, is a kind of assimilationist agenda aimed at diluting their 'Chineseness'. During the Merger years, he had styled himself, and the PAP, somewhat messianically, as a defender of Chinese interests in Malaysia. Unfortunately the Chinese rakyat chose to recognise the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association) instead of the PAP as their leaders, and the PAP suffered a humiliating defeat in the 1964 Malaysian general election. And with Singapore's expulsion, LKY's ambition of being the leader (which would mean defender, saviour, etc--a feudal concept of patronage and clientism) of the Malaysian Chinese was also extinguished. And I think he's personally taken this as one of his life's greatest 'defeats'.

(then) PM Lee and Tenku Abdul Rahman during happier times. Did the Separation solidify Lee's views on race?

So what does the old man do? In a stunning display of vindictiveness, he vents out his frustrations on the Malay minority in Singapore (Lily Zubaidah succinctly calls this 'balas dendam' politics; a politics of settling old scores). The Malay Malaysians questioning the loyalty of the Chinese? He'll play tit-for-tat: similarly question Malay loyalty to Singapore, and then turn this into manpower policy in the armed forces. The Malay Malaysians calling the Chinese 'aliens'? Well, he can't label Malays in Singapore 'immigrants', so he'll try pulling off the next worst thing: accuse them of being 'outsiders' in Singapore society, of not integrating enough as to be accepted as equal members of a (Chinese) Singaporean society. (The implicit message is this: you are not Malaysian Malays, you are Singaporean Malays, so you cannot become as 'Islamic' as them, and in fact should conform to whatever watered-down version of Islam this non-Malay state prescribes for you.)

All this explains his incredulity that poll results show that 90% of Singaporeans have no problem with having a non-Chinese PM. According to him, it's all 'utter rubbish' and people are saying what is 'politically correct'. In LKY's universe, his ancient blood feud against Malaysia must be perpetuated by succeeding generations. If, in Malaysia, the ethno-nationalists will laugh down the very notion of having a Chinese PM, then Singaporeans are expected to do the same with a non-Chinese PM. And as much as UMNO's raison d'etre depends largely on its stance of supposedly 'protecting' Malay rights and interests, the very idea of 'Singapore' is based on creating an enclave for SE-Asian Chinese, with the PAP as defender of Chinese rights (this might sound counter-intuitive for those who might point out the closure of Nantah and other supposed anti-Chinese gestures by the state; however we are talking about a specific species of Chinese here, namely, that of the ruling elite: the English-educated Chinese).

Hence the constant bogeying about 'a little red dot in a sea of green', surrounded by hostile Malay populations, as well as the doomsday warnings about a possible re-merger with Malaysia. Chinese Singaporeans are cultivated to be very conscious of their Chinese-ness, which is apparently under threat by a hegemonic Malay regional identity. The only way this Chinese-ness can be preserved and protected is by casting your lot with the likes of LKY and the PAP.

What then, to make of the 90% who would vote for a non-Chinese PM? If we dispense with LKY's cynicism and take these results at face value, then it simply means that the citizens of Singapore are actually able to rise above the very kind of racialised society that LKY would want them to form. It means that we are not here to assuage his ego and to prolong his vendettas. His noxious ideas will hopefully die along with him. He might have succeeded in imposing some personal idiosyncratic beliefs (in eugenics, in environmental determinism, in the essentialising of race) as disastrous public policies, but no amount of social engineering can turn Singaporeans into the digits, automatons, gene pools or farm animals that LKY is so fond of comparing Singaporeans to. We are living, thinking, human beings, and what better way to assert our common humanity than to completely reject the twilight rantings of someone who over time has become less of a human being and more of a Jurassic monster. Sweet irony: in his anxiety to publish a book addressed to the youth of Singapore and to hopefully perpetuate his 'hard truths', LKY has only managed to reveal how obsolete and irrelevant he has become.

This essay first appeared on Alfian Sa'at's Facebook note. As it was written off the cuff, he would like to apologize if the essay was not up to TOC's usual high standards.

More of Lee's views on race, culture and genes here.