Lee Kuan Yew has passed on, bereft of life and resting in peace. While many Singaporeans may disagree over their perception of Lee Kuan Yew, whether as a villain, anti-villain or some sort of hero, he impacted Singapore. Mostly for the better, and in some cases for the worse.
We see it in the government of the day, of the ruling PAP and the technocratic bureaucracy. We witness it in the socio-political narrative and public perceptions that Singapore Press Holdings and Mediacorp subscribe to and struggle to sustain.
According to Politico, “Lee Kuan Yew has served as mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and as counsellor to every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama. He led a small, poor, corrupt port city-state to first-world status in a single generation and knows a lot about governance.”
So what is Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy? What is the ‘truth’ and what are the facts? After all, “Understanding is a three edged sword: your side, their side, and the truth” in the words of John Straczynski, a North American author.
Positive outcomes of Lee’s leadership
The ethos of his leadership, as well as his approach to public policy, laid the ground for Singapore’s success. His leadership of a group of extremely capable men that included Goh Keng Swee, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye helped shape the foundations of modern Singapore.
Modern Singapore is in many ways a monument to their heroic efforts in ensuring the survival of their nation-state, especially in the face of the declining British Empire and the spectre of communism and Indonesian Konfrontasi during the 1960’s.
Member of a generation of statesmen like Suharto and Mahathir, they were a fixed point upon which the political destiny of their nations hinged. Lee built the foundation of Singapore’s economic prosperity, constructing the social compact that ensured the PAP government enjoyed political stability and power. The proviso? In exchange for economic growth and socio-economic stability, the PAP remained in power.
It was the vision, strength of will and intelligence of Lee Kuan Yew that forged the early PAP into what it was, as well as hammering the governmental machinery into the efficient technocracy it is today.
Under his leadership, the PAP forged a political brand and social compact that ensured its political dominance, a civil service renowned for its efficiency, professionalism and strong technocratic bent, as well as economic policy-making that’s shown to be strategically-minded and keenly aware of trends and patterns in the global economic regime.
He delivered a better life to his people and ensured their security, through decisions made with a pragmatic calculus and designed to better the socio-economic well-being of the population at large. The status of “Garden City” and the public safety Singapore enjoys, combined with the harsh judicial punishments that serve to maintain that safety, are to his credit.
Criticisms of Lee Kuan Yew have motivated a vociferous defence of the man in social media postings from Millennials and older generations alike. No one will deny the accomplishments of Lee Kuan Yew and his team of leaders. Perhaps the unification of political power and a strongman was what Singapore needed in order to grow.
But with the positive comes the negative. A mythology has been built up around Lee Kuan Yew. No doubt he is amongst the best post-colonial leaders in history. He has many admirable qualities: relentlessness, cunning, intelligence and foresight are amongst these.
However, he has been known to abuse libel law in prosecuting his political opponents, misusing the law via libel lawsuits to prosecute them and ensure political dominance, as in the case of JB Jeyaratnam and Andrew Seow. Allegations about misuse of the Internal Security Act in Operation Cold Store and Operation Spectrum remain unaddressed till today.
The PAP, whose ethos (i.e. guiding beliefs & schema) derived from his style of leadership, has generally failed to evolve and adapt to the socio-political climate, such as gazetting alternative media that challenge the narrative of government-controlled media narrative.
The use of public funds for pro-PAP purposes, in the form of the People’s Association, blurs the boundaries between the government and the party. This results in public confusion over the contours of the political party and the government, as well as raising questions about the use of public funds for politically-driven purposes. The choice to politicise town councils harms constituents and is counter-productive, where another approach would be better.
This lack of media freedom corrodes the ability of the establishment to correct with the plurality of views and conversations present and evolving in the diverse and changing Singaporean milieu of the early 21st Century.
Open and ongoing public dialogue is crucial to the construction of Singaporean identity, especially in an age of digital economies, free flow of human capital and competition for talent. Control of the public discourse doesn’t benefit the nation.
Not only does it delegitimise and disenfranchise the stakeholders, but having a single perspective leads to predictability and inagility – a single style of response for every situation. There’s always more than one way to view and resolve a situation, true for both groups and individuals. Overspecialisation leads to vulnerability and group think.
As an institution, the PAP displays an inability to engage in constructive dialogue and is a political monopolist whose mandate is increasingly questioned. Every election since the 1984 General Election has seen a general downwards trend in their popular vote share, despite the constant gerrymandering and the engineering of public perceptions via MediaCorp and Singapore Press Holdings – denying various perspectives and groups a legitimate platform for voicing concerns.
Lee Kuan Yew, by his actions, compromised the robustness of Singapore’s civic society and political ecosystem, for the sake of building a political monopoly and political monoculture. A political monopoly serves no one except the monopolist. And as any farmer will tell you, a monoculture can result in diseases wiping out an entire crop.
The Singapore which PAP had to work with in 1965 was not a fishing village, but a major international ports due to its strategic position at the southern-most point of Asia and straddling the Malacca Straits and South China Sea. Maritime trade between the Asia-Pacific, Middle East, Africa and Europe were already transiting through here in the early 20th Century.
Finally, in 1965 Singapore had an established civil service, public utilities infrastructure, a major international port and public transport network, gaining independence at a time when European countries were investing abroad after the post-war boom. The PAP merely had to work with this existing infrastructure to help Singapore progress.
While Singapore’s economic miracle is often credited to Lee Kuan Yew, it was the Dutch economist Albert Winsemius that formulated the strategy, while Goh Keng Swee was the architect of independent Singapore’s defence, education and economic policies. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam was the architect of Singapore’s foreign policy, responsible for forging Singapore’s international links.
If anything, Lee Kuan Yew ensured they had the resources and logistics to implement and execute their policies – a vital but supporting role. But he neither the architect nor spearhead for these efforts, as popular myth holds.
Regardless of what his critics have to say, he was a man of ambition, vision and principles. Though there are valid criticisms, history will remember the facts and the outcomes that Lee Kuan Yew has achieved. The narrative will almost certainly change.
Will Singapore and its institutions endure without him? Almost certainly. The markets will continue to function, capital flows will transit through the marketplaces of the city-state and the MRT’s will continue to almost certainly reliably break down for the foreseeable future. Businesses will rise and fall. Political parties will evolve and change.
His death offers an opportunity for change to the PAP, the local political ecosystem and Singapore, in the wake of the challenges that Singapore faces. We live in the age of digital economies, a multi-polar world and the resurgence of China, India and Russia as the Great Powers of the world. Fundamental principles and lessons can be drawn from the past.
But Lee Kuan Yew, like many great men, must be consigned firmly to the past. Lessons can be drawn from his wisdom as we face the future. But we must learn from his mistakes and oversights, as much as his successes. In the words of Schopenhauer: “Let us see rather that like Janus — or better, like Yama, the Brahmin god of death— religion has two faces, one very friendly, one very gloomy.”
Joshua Chiang, a contributing writer of The Online Citizen, opined, “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.”
Lee Kuan Yew was just as human as any other statesman. Smarter than most, more cunning than most, compassionate to his friends and family while ruthless to his adversaries. He had the same frailties and mortality as all who experience the human condition. Rest well, Mr Lee. Singapore’s in our hands now. It will be fine.