Myth about a great Singapore leader

lee kuan yew cries

By Joshua Chiang

Many people wrongly assume I dislike or am angry at Lee Kuan Yew. I am not.

There is no denying that he is a remarkable politician, and among the leaders of post-colonial nations, probably one of the best. There is a lot about him that one can admire, his relentless drive, his gumption, his cunning.

But what frequently drives me up the wall is people who much rather adore the myth surrounding the man, and kept repeating the myth rather than understand/face the man behind the myth.

We want to believe in the myth of a man who cried on TV the day Singapore separated from Malaysia because how could one tiny nation have survived then?

But recent records have indicated that he was actually quite happy that the Separation took place; Tunku Abdul Rahman said: “I don’t know why Mr Lee acted like that…he was quite pleased about [the split].” ; Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Toh Chin Chye, who is also the founding chairman of People’s Action Party also said that he did not understand why Mr Lee cried just moments before the filming because he was very satisfied with the outcome.

Does this bring him a few notches down in my esteem? Hardly. Rather it is a sterling example of how much he had mastered the craft of being a politician to rally people behind him.

We want to believe the myth of the man whose singular vision for Singapore propelled it forward. But the fact of the matter is that he did his best work in the early days when he was surrounded by other giants – Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Rajaratnam, etc… people who were willing to stand up to him and tell him bluntly when he was being foolish. People who looked at him and saw a man. Not a myth.

We want to believe the myth of a man and his team who were unwittingly thrown into a desperate situation where the chances of survival were terribly slim when the British left, when Tunku Abdul Rahman kicked them out of the Federation. A hopeless situation. And we chose to ignore the political maneuvering, the backdoor dealing, an outcome that was scarcely unexpected but engineered.

Yes, that took ingenuity, no doubt about it. But this is not some grand Lord of The Rings story. This is Godfather and Goodfellas, and maybe a bit of Ocean’s Eleven put together. (And yes, I do love a good mafia story). And maybe quite a bit of War and Peace too, at least the portions in which Tolstoy introduced a way of history not as a story driven by individuals, but by the masses by social forces very often beyond any individuals’ control.

You wanna credit the man? Learn your history. No, learn History. Period.

You do him no favour by perpetuating the myth, by putting a halo around his head and then stuff him in a teddy-bear suit.

But perhaps this is inevitable.

It is a human need to turn people who have impacted other lives so much into lions with teddy-bear personalities over time. Mao, Deng, etc, they all become symbols on Teeshirts and theme restaurants.

We all want idols. People are complex, full of contradictions, their legacy often chequered.

But idols. Now that’s a different thing. They are less a reflection of the person, but of our very own desires.