It is not an earth shattering observation to note that change is taking place in many parts of the world. From the rise of anti capitalist movements to the clamouring of more political rights to the exposé of various corrupt regimes or figures of authority, the world is certainly ripe and ready for transformation.
In Singapore, we are going through our own awakening. As Mr Lee Kuan Yew passes on, Singapore stands on the cusp of a new beginning. Not new because I wish him ill, but new because I have never known a Singapore without him.
Many had taken to social media to wish him a speedy recovery. For me, it seems strange to wish an old man who is very sick and has always made clear in the past about wanting a quick death a speedy recovery, when he is already on life support. Death happens to us all and in the case of Mr Lee, he has certainly led a very long and effective life. To him, I would say, Sir, Godspeed – may Singapore continue to thrive after you are gone.
I greet Mr Lee’s inevitable passing with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I do genuinely believe that many of the decisions he took were taken because he sincerely believed that it would benefit the country. On the other hand, I have often times opposed his high handedness and his seeming arrogance. Nor can I ignore the many stories that I have heard of how he has effectively destroyed the lives of many whose only crimes were to publicly voice their disagreement with him.
Many will no doubt criticise me for seemingly speaking ill of the man, but as far as I am concerned, a fair tribute is when you pay homage objectively. Credit him for spearheading the policies that turned Singapore from third world to first world. That took leadership, grit, guts, daring, cunning, showmanship, political acumen, smarts and sheer hard work. These are all exceptional qualities that Mr Lee possessed an abundance of and Singaporeans have both benefited or fell foul of these same qualities depending on which side of the political fence one fell on.
But at the same time, Mr Lee was not someone to trifle with. He is not known for mercy, compromise or the middle way – it is his way or the highway (and sometimes, even detention without trial). In our rush to commemorate him, we must not forget that like any other man, he had his faults – and sometimes one’s best qualities are also one’s worst shortcomings.
The point I wish to make is that in remembering the political legacy of someone, it is important not to romanticise and get bowled over by emotions. Mr Lee may have been the man for his time but that time is now over. The political climate has changed – the Internet and social media is a game changer. Mr Lee was able to exercise a far greater control over information in his time than his successors ever would. One wonders if his strongman politics have led to a system of administrators over genuine statesmen. Too strong a personality does not breed talent. Often times, it leads to a power vacuum. Will that happen here?
Rumours are swirling of an upcoming general election. I can only hope that when the time comes, Singaporeans vote with logic and not emotion for the candidates that can best bring us into the next 50 years.
I had the privilege of speaking to a coordinator for Malaysia and Singapore at Amnesty International and one of the questions I asked her was, what was her birthday wish for Singapore’s milestone birthday? Her reply: For Singapore to ratify international human rights treaties such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Second Optional Protocol (on the abolition of the death penalty) and to implement these in Singapore’s domestic laws.
Her wish was for Singapore to become a shining example to Asia and the world as a country in which fundamental human rights are cherished.
This is certainly very apt for the times we find ourselves in – both domestically and as part of the international community. As Singaporeans speak up for accountability and transparency, it is still not entirely within an environment where such speakers feel entirely free. Certain Singaporeans such as Roy Ngerng, Leslie Chew, M Ravi and Alex Au are but a few who have faced the heat for various comments they have made.
The recent corruption scandals that have plagued Malaysian PM Najip were only brought to the forefront through the relentless efforts of online blogs such as the Sarawak Report. Their revelations show markedly what the pitfalls of a lack of accountability and transparency can bring. This is an example that we can all learn from.
Robust opposition and a freer press are all necessary checks against an abuse of power. Holding civil and political rights sacrosanct is of utmost importance in the maintenance of accountability.
As we celebrate our 50th birthday and the life of Mr Lee, we must remember that for all of his contributions, Mr Lee was not a man who featured civil and political rights highly on his priority list. He was a man for his times but that time has now past.
As the world changes around us, we must evolve with it without fear.