Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is never far from the headlines. Ever since he took the reins of power, some fifty-odd years ago, his name has been inextricably linked to Singapore. Despite having stepping down as Prime Minister for over two decades, he has remained a fixture on the political scene, first as Senior Minister then as Minister Mentor – only formally leaving the Cabinet after the PAP’s worst ever defeat at GE 2011. Even then, Mr Lee has remained active in the affairs of state – airing his political views at talks, interviews and seminars; and most recently the publication of his latest book, “One Man’s View of the World’.
On Monday, 16 September, the man many have come to view as the father of independent Singapore turned 90. In dramatic fashion that seemed almost orchestrated for maximum impact, he was wheeled into Parliament just as the parliamentary session was about to be adjourned. Mr Lee was given a rousing 30 second standing ovation, and leader of the house and Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen gave a tribute speech in which he hailed Lee’s 58 years as a remarkable record, marking a “lifetime of service and struggle”.
Having grown up under the leadership of Mr Lee, I read Mr Ng’s words with mixed feelings. Mr Lee had an outstanding career in politics. In his time, he was a powerful orator and a master statesman. Certainly, he is a controversial figure both within Singapore and internationally. While praise has been heaped on his political acumen and foresight, there have been forceful criticisms in equal measure of his high handedness, dictatorial style, harsh clampdowns on press autonomy, strict control of free speech and draconian actions towards opposition politicians who have allegedly defamed him.
I do not doubt that Mr Lee struggled for Singapore. But let’s not forget that he was also very well remunerated for it. So, for whatever he gave to the country, the country also gave back to him. In our eagerness to pay homage to one of the longest serving and best paid Prime Minsters in the world, let us not forget that to truly pay tribute to someone, we have to give a fair assessment of who he really was and what he really did – warts and all.
Over the course of his lengthy time in office, Mr Lee’s government did indeed oversee the transformation of Singapore from third world to first. I think any argument against that would be puerile. It is a statement of fact. Some might quibble that it was not really him but the men he had around him. Others might counter that Singaporeans are not better off in this first world status. Yet others may comment that another leader could have done a better job.
These are all fair comments but the truth remains that he was the leader of the government that engineered this development and none of the men around him ever openly challenged that authority. “Could have”, “would have” and “should have” are pointless questions in the business of statehood. Whether we like it or not, it was his government that presided over Singapore’s meteoric rise.
Generally speaking, Singapore is a well-regarded country worldwide. Our passport permits us to visit virtually any country in the world without a visa. Most Singaporeans have a roof over their heads and three meals a day. While I would not go so far as to believe that he transformed Singapore on his own, I have to be circumspect to Mr Lee as the leader of the government in his day. I’ll give credit where it is due.
But, lest we forget, the Singapore of today is not the result of one individual’s efforts. All Singaporeans including Mr Lee have collectively contributed to Singapore’s development.
The passage of time has also romanticised Mr Lee’s merciless crackdown of any opposition. We have called him a visionary and a man who knew what to do for the greater good. But let’s not forget the brutality of Operations Cold Store and Spectrum or the ruthless actions taken against JBJ and Tang Liang Hong for challenging the system. While he may have been at the helm of the government that led the progress of Singapore, his views of democracy have certainly not been progressive.
He recently warned that “if Singapore moved towards a two-party system, then the people are destined for mediocrity”. This is illogical at best. Many countries in the world including the USA and the UK have two dominant parties in politics. I would hardly deem these countries mediocre. Some may consider that the West is in decline but that is surely simplistic. The USA still retains the largest economy in the world and London remains the biggest global financial centre. Decline or not, these achievements are far from average.
Mr Lee has also said that a two-party system would hinder the process of getting the best people in politics, as getting elected would be a dicey affair – yet another line of logic that does not seem watertight. Surely competition brings out the best in people? For a man who wants Singapore to be more competitive, I find it difficult to understand how the same reasoning is not applied to our political landscape?
Yes, Mr Lee has presided in a government that oversaw great economic growth in Singapore. But let’s also not let 90th birthdays gloss over the mistakes that he made. Behind the sheen of an old warrior who can no longer stand on his own, he was also relentless in the pursuit of supposed enemies.
While Mr Lee loved his perceived creation, can we deny that his political opponents loved their country too? In his single-minded goal to reign supreme, has Mr Lee unwittingly robbed the nation of the services of potentially dedicated public servants? No one should have a monopoly over patriotism.
Mr Lee may have fought for the glory of Singapore but it would be foolhardy to believe that he did not in the same vein covet power. I do not begrudge him that. Individual pre-eminence and state supremacy are after all, not mutually exclusive.
Mr Lee is a man who has both done good and made errors. To give him the acknowledgement that he deserves, we must be honest in our assessment of his legacy and not get caught up with the emotions du jour.
Happy Birthday, Mr Lee. You are a part of Singapore’s history and will always remain so, but like any other man, you had your share of boons and banes that this nation should never forget.