By Carlton Tan
Amid calls for Singaporeans to temper their criticism of the late Lee Kuan Yew in this period of mourning, Workers’ Party Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang’s tribute in Parliament has struck a raw nerve because of TODAY’s misrepresentation.
According to TODAY’s Facebook post, Mr Low claimed that “many Singaporeans were sacrificed” under PAP’s one-party rule, and that “Mr Lee did what was right, but silencing opposition has risked disconnecting Singaporeans from their own society.”
This immediately led netizens to criticize Mr Low for attempting to bring politics into the debate and for his insensitivity to the nation in this time of mourning. Commenting on Facebook, Soon Kee Leong wrote: “You’ve shown your character to insult the nation in this time of mourning on the passing on of the founder for this nation.” Robin Koh added: “This is not the time for political comments.”
Others expressed their disappointment with him. “LTK & WP just lost my respect big time. Sigh,” said Paul Liu. Peggy Ang added: “Bad timing to say such things….. BAD MOVE!”
Many also seemed to find Mr Low’s speech distasteful for its crassness. “[This] shows what kind of a person he is trying to score points at the wrong place and time. If he has nothing good to say than he should keep quiet. I have nothing against opposition party but find his attitude appalling,” said Arunsalam Eayamalay.
However, TODAY’s account of Mr Low’s speech in Parliament does not tally with the video record.
There is no evidence that Mr Low said the words: “Mr Lee did what was right, but silencing opposition has risked disconnecting Singaporeans from their own society.”
The Straits Times also did not report Mr Low having said those words.
TODAY’s truncated quotation of Mr Lee, that “Many Singaporeans were sacrificed,” is also misleading. It suggested that Mr Low was criticising Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, but this was not what he said.
After acknowledging the challenges Mr Lee faced in his early years, and his achievements, Mr Low said:
“This is the main reason why Singapore can leap from the Third World to the First World within one generation. The success arose not just from Mr Lee’s extraordinary fighting spirit and his tenacity, but also from his sincerity.
“However, I don’t think that the PAP one-party rule is the key to Singapore’s fast economic development, strong social cohesion and the unitedness. This is because many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation building and policy making; and our society has paid the price for it.”
He was not claiming that Mr Lee had sacrificed Singaporeans or that Mr Lee was an autocrat, something he explicitly denies later in his speech. Rather, he was reflecting on the way forward for politics, and suggesting that the PAP’s one-party rule had its costs.
Among other things, Mr Low acknowledged Mr Lee’s achievements in bringing economic prosperity to Singapore and for building a multiracial society.
In the middle of his speech, he credits Mr Lee’s “extraordinary fighting spirit and his tenacity, [and] his sincerity” for Singapore’s progress from Third World to First.
Towards the end of his speech, Mr Low remarks:
“Singapore today is united regardless of race, language and religion. This is an achievement that is not possible without Mr Lee.
“My deepest respect goes to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.”
Mr Low has also been praised by netizens on the other end of the political spectrum for his comments in Parliament.
Agreeing with what he perceived to be Mr Low’s assessment of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, Shinn Ng wrote: “Mr Low is damn right. Mr Lee risk causing resentment among those who were sidelined or sacrificed by his rule. “
Singaporeans who rely on the mainstream media for news may be disappointed to find that despite calls to avoid politicizing Mr Lee’s passing, TODAY may have inadvertently done precisely that by misrepresenting the leader of the Opposition’s tribute.
TODAY’s Facebook post:
Video of Mr Low’s speech in Parliament (from the 40th minute):
The founding Prime Minister was an extraordinary political leader born out of that turbulent and uncertain era.
Singapore at that time was a small island and an unnoticeable city. Economically, it relied on entrepot trade. Militarily, it relied on protection from the British troops. When Singapore was forced to leave Malayasia, I don’t think many would have believed that Singapore could survive on its own, not to mention, to have imagined our achievements today.
We all know that during that period, the country was to be rebuilt from scratch and there was [a] high unemployment rate. Our neighbours were not particularly friendly either. To survive, we must have a global vision, foreign investment, and become part of the international market. However, this could put Singapore in danger of becoming a big country’s vassal and a pawn in the international political arena that can be sacrificed at any time.
These internal and external challenges were a grave test for Mr Lee. With outstand wisdom and courage, he traversed among the big countries and promoted Singapore’s values to them and the potential benefits that Singapore could provide. He had won the respect of the leaders of these major powers. Without his efforts, our economy could not have been successful and Singapore could not have achieved its status and its living space today.
For a small country to survive, besides a strong military defence, the political space is the key to maintain its national interest and its survival. In Singapore, fighting for independence and the continuous political struggle awakened Singaporeans political awareness. In the process of political movements and the fighting together, consensus was forged between the people and Mr Lee, as well as a common direction and mutual trust.
This is the main reason why Singapore can leap from the Third World to the First World within one generation. The success arose not just from Mr Lee’s extraordinary fighting spirit and his tenacity, but also from his sincerity.
However, I don’t think that the PAP one-party rule is the key to Singapore’s fast economic development, strong social cohesion and the unitedness. This is because many Singaporeans were sacrificed during the process of nation building and policy making; and our society has paid the price for it.
This is why Mr Lee is also a controversial figure in some people’s eyes. He crafted policies based on the situation then, and made rational judgment out of the interests of the country.
However, the choice and the implementation of policies is not just a rational decision, it should also take into consideration human nature and their sensitivity. Only by doing so can we avoid hurting people’s feelings and creating resentment. If accumulated over a long time, that resentment could become a potential political crisis and affect people’s unity and their identification with the country.
From my dealings with Mr Lee in Parliament, I don’t think he was an autocrat who didn’t listen. If you have strong reasons and tight arguments, and can win him over through policy debate, I think he will consider your views. I also know he was someone who hated empty talking because he thought time was precious and there were too many things to do.
Singapore is a multiracial society and every race has its own language and culture. In the early years of nation building, everyone hoped to maintain their advantages in this new country. How to manage the various conflicts of interests, unite people and build a national identity? [That] was a tremendous challenge.
Countries with similar situations as we were in the early days are still facing the same social conflicts brought about by multiracialism and multiculturalism. Some even face the danger of disintegration.
Singapore today is united regardless of race, language and religion. This is an achievement that is not possible without Mr Lee.
My deepest respect goes to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.