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Lee Kuan Yew – people, policies and the politics of life

LKY young and old

By Howard Lee

"You assume that politics is about elections and election contests. I do not see politics that way. The best definition of politics is... "the art and science of governance of a country and how it runs its internal and external relations". That is a very abstract concept. Translated in real life, it means, "how is my life affected by the government?" Do I have a job? Do I have a home? Do I have medicine when I need it? Do I have enough recreational facilities? Is there a future for my children? Will they be educated, will there be a chance to advance yourself? If you do not have any of these things, you are going to find agitation. You have no recollection of this because you were not born, but in the 1950s and 1960s, Singapore was in a state of agitation everyday... Today, over 40 years we have transformed it, because assiduously we have attended to the politics of life." – Lee Kuan Yew, 2006, "Why my vote matters?", Channel NewsAsia

Singaporeans, foreigners, politicians, academics, analysts, critics, fans, the guy on the street, every generation – there is no doubt that one of the questions that now run freely in their minds would be, “How will this nation remember Lee Kuan Yew?”

There are those who view him as the father of the nation, deserving the highest honour of the land, possibly bordering on sainthood. There are also those who would cast him as an autocratic demon who turned Singapore into his own dynasty, at times subjugating his fellow citizens, even close allies, to imprisonment and public shame in order to achieve his political goals.

LKY tree planting MND
Lee Kuan Yew planting trees (image - MND website)

At the very base level, Lee was someone who has dedicated his life to the people of Singapore. His model of public service won international admiration, his policies emulated, as much as they have been scorned and protested against in his own country. Credit where credit is due, Lee was the key driver behind a lot of what we see in Singapore today.

From planting trees to having babies, from minding our p’s and q’s to political choices, Lee had been at the forefront of nearly every aspect of our lives. Dealing with what he called “the politics of life” was what made Lee and his government relevant, or at least what he believed made him relevant.

Lee’s ethos has wormed itself into every aspect of our public service. We have a government department for every single thing – from population management to climate change watch, agencies that deal with social welfare to entire legions of public servants just working on our pension funds, public housing to waste management. Each of these agencies, for all the occasional lapses, are diligently trying to manage every little aspect of our lives.

Lee Kuan Yew with William Cohen (image - Wikimedia Commons)
Lee Kuan Yew with William Cohen (image - Wikimedia Commons)

Therein also lies Lee’s oversight. Government has taken over such a great extent of our lives that it can no longer justify a scaling back of such “services”. We have a government that is interested in the media we consume, what we do in our bedrooms, the books we let our children read, and the extent to which we trust our elected representatives to run our town councils. Our public service seems incapable of pulling back from managing our lives, as if the need to justify some ever-increasing KPI dictates that more management is needed.

Lee’s social engineering is wearing itself out on us, and is also wearing the public service thin. Our society is at a stage where we are calling out for the government to scale back, but the government does not seem to know how. The politics of life has been too ingrained with politics, be it the perceived need to “maintain confidence in the public service” or the politicisation of the public service. Can our public service still tell the difference between what is good for the people, and what is good for the government?

In addition, the current and future leadership of the People’s Action Party, the party Lee founded, does not seem inclined to make any changes – indeed, we would be so grateful if they do not entrench his style of politics even further.

We see in the current Prime Minister the propensity to sue with impunity, something the elder Lee was equally not shy of doing. We see personal attacks during elections where opposition politicians are called “lairs”, and thereafter, remarks made to denigrate opposition politicians for being “political failures”. A knuckle-duster, worn over velvet gloves, is still a knuckle-duster.

Lee Kuan Yew and his wife with Ronald Reagan (image - Wikimedia Commons)
Lee Kuan Yew and his wife with Ronald Reagan (image - Wikimedia Commons)

Our politics today is based on a supremacist model ingrained by Lee’s PAP. We have grown to accept that the PAP is the benchmark of good governance, and the hubris has evidently also set in for the current crop of leaders. We, as well as the PAP, are unable to accept political imperfection, democratic plurality and a free exchange of ideas. This would be another of Lee’s legacies, and it should not be anything we can be proud of.

Lee himself was often abrasive to his opponents, merciless in taking down politicians or media alike who dare cast doubts on his integrity. Perhaps Lee has forgotten that the world of respect by position, rather than action, is long past. Has the current crop of leadership learnt what Lee seems to have ignored?

Apparently, the demi-god also makes errors. Lee, at the end of the day, is human. No doubt, he was larger than life, and there was a time when his every word was taken as gospel. Even in his semi-retirement, world leaders continue to seek his nuggets of wisdom.

However, we are the ones who will pay the price, unless we are able to break away from the hero-worshiping as much as the fear, and start to see ourselves outside of his shadow.

To that end, I believe people have wrongly characterised him as a fortuitous leader, a sage who guided us through our early history with Malaysia. For all the good or bad he has done, Lee should really be seen as a man, like any other, making the best of the hand dealt him.

Can we still find use in his style of leadership? His supporters and followers often forget that Singapore today is very different from 1965, and even more different from Lee's gold-gilded years as Prime Minister. Yet his dedication, conviction and persistence in making the lives of Singaporeans better are important qualities that we should emulate, and expect the same in our political leadership.

LKY 07Hated as a tyrant, adored as a saviour of the nation. In truth, these extreme positions are neither accurate nor adequate. Lee, for all the pop-cultural-like portrayals of him, is human. As a politician, few would see his parallel, particularly for his ruthlessness. As an administrator, we marvel at his efficiency and doggedness. But as a human, we have to criticise his lack of vision for a Singapore that must go beyond his time and beliefs.

It is in this light that I have chosen to see Lee Kuan Yew: A patriot who has dedicated much of his life to our lives – for which we should be grateful – but at times not in the best interest of us or the nation – for which we need to apply a generous dosage of humility to the public service and our leadership, if we want Singapore to live beyond him.