Malaysia’s independent radio station, BFM 89.9 interviewed Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford and co-ordinator of Project Southeast Asia, on Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore.
Lee Chwi Lynn: We’ve established, possibly, the motivating factors for why Singapore was the way it was, why we had to part ways. You mentioned the economy earlier and he (Lee Kuan Yew) is described as having instituted an economic diversification plan which limited Singapore’s vulnerability to international economic conditions and improved its prospects for continued growth, which is very important when you’re looking at a country of that size and with its lack of natural resources. So what policies did he implement and used to ensure this?
Thum Ping Tjin: Well you know Lynn, again, I think we need to unpack the question a bit because Lee was not the economic mastermind, Goh Keng Swee was the economic mastermind. Of the big five in the PAP Cabinet – Lee Kuan Yew, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, S Rajaratnam and Ong Pang Boon – only one is left, Ong Pang Boon.
But each of them contributed very very different things to the PAP and they worked incredibly well together as a team. Lee was the unquestioned leader, he was the master politician, he was the one who could get things done but he wasn’t the economic mastermind. That was Goh Keng Swee. And I feel it is very unfair to credit economic success to Lee Kuan Yew even though it’s become so popular to talk about Singapore’s economic success being the result of Lee Kuan Yew.
Lee Chwi Lynn: I think almost every obituary today has kind of included that in the discussion – he was responsible in some way or, you know, in a big way for the economic success.
Thum Ping Tjin: If you think of stability as a key ingredient for economic success, yes.
If you think of bureaucratic competence, efficiency – those are the things that Lee Kuan Yew brought although he wasn’t the only one. Toh Chin Chye was the steel spine of the PAP, he was a very effective party leader. Ong Pang Boon was the party’s organising secretary and also the link to the Chinese educated. Rajaratnam was the philosopher of the group but Goh Keng Swee was the economist and again, you know we talk first about Singapore’s economic success. It is important to remember that Singapore was a very very rich country before Lee Kuan Yew.
By 1930, Singapore was the richest country in Asia in terms of per capita income. And after the war, by 1950, Singapore had recovered already. So the only place in Asia which could claim to be richer was metropolitan Tokyo which of course is a city not a whole country.
So Singapore was fabulously rich, but Singapore’s big problem was that it was an exploitative colonial economy and it had no workers rights. It ruthlessly exploited the population, the working class. So Singapore was incredibly unequal.
The mean income in Singapore in 1950 was around 1,200 Malayan dollars, but the median and modal of income was the same as the poverty line, which was about 100 Malayan dollars. So if you imagine, the rich in Singapore was so rich that they pulled up the average, the mean to 12 times the modal and the median income which was the poverty line.
That was Singapore’s problem and Lee Kuan Yew’s great success was recognising that, working with the trade unions, helping to make Singapore a much more egalitarian and much more socialist, much more democratic place. It was a place where for the first time, regardless of your birth, you actually had opportunities; you actually, even if you didn’t speak English, for example, – that discrimination against non-English speaking – work was rampant in Singapore; the introduction of the women’s charter.
So the PAP’s great achievement under Lee Kuan Yew was not to make Singapore rich, it was to make Singapore fair and I think that is missing in a lot of obituaries.
Lee Kuan Yew – the early Lee Kuan Yew, the 1960s and 70s Lee Kuan Yew – and the 1960s and 70s PAP was a socialist party that aimed to make Singapore a fair place that treated all its citizens fairly, and that is their real legacy.
Lee Chwi Lynn: On that note, an article in Time Magazine back in 1999 claimed that what really sets this complex man apart from Asia’s other nation-builders is what he didn’t do. He did not become corrupt and he did not stay in power too long. Would you agree with this?
Thum Ping Tjin: Well, not really…. You’ll find that as an academic my answers tend to be “not really” rather than “yes” and “no” (laughter).
He did not become corrupt. Yes, absolutely. But ask yourself – Singapore is a country with no natural resources. Instead, its wealth lies upon foreign investment, foreign capital flowing in. If you become corrupt in Singapore, you can’t plunder your country’s natural resources. You have to create an environment where foreign capital keeps flowing in. Then you take your cut of that foreign capital. That’s how you would become corrupt in Singapore. Now if you look at what the PAP’s leaders have done in the last two decades, where salaries – the Prime Minister’s salary is now upwards of $2 million. And ask yourself, is that corruption, or is that simply having predictability and transparency in your corruption. That is a question that Singaporeans need to ask ourselves when we are faced with the vote at the ballot box.
As to the other half of your question, [whether] he did not stay in power too long. Well, he’s still an MP as of yesterday, right? And he only left the cabinet in 2011, and as a direct result – not because he chose to leave, but as a direct result of the PAP’s lowest vote share since independence. He could have retired – if he had left the cabinet in 1991, I think his obituaries would be far more generous and far kinder, and I think people would remember him with greater fondness. But he chose to stay on as Minister Mentor and continued to intervene heavily in Singapore politics for a long time. And of course, his son is Prime Minister, so he still has influence there. So I think he stayed on in power too long, if you ask me.
Lee Chwi Lynn: And throughout the course of his very very long career, how were the policies of the People’s Action Party justified? Because, of course, these are policies which, while they guaranteed Singapore some measure of success, also came under fire.
Thum Ping Tjin: Yes. I think that, again, my big fear now that Lee Kuan Yew has passed on, is that we take his justifications for those policies as some sort of gospel. Lee Kuan Yew loved to use the word “pragmatic”, and that’s what he was as a politician as well. Whatever worked at the time, he would use. And that included his justifications for his policies, which changed dramatically over the course of his political career.
Between 1955 – 1959, he was a massive champion for democracy, transparency, freedom – and all these things went out the window once he got into power, because he didn’t want his own policies to be questioned. Then from 1959 until 1963, and even 1965, he championed a Malayan identity, he championed the idea of a greater Malaysia; after ’65 he championed an independent Singapore, and of course, not having electoral certainty, he still was a very socialist and talked about equality and fairness and meritocracy.
But from 1980 or so, once the last vestiges of Singapore’s opposition were shut down, then he switched started becoming far more openly authoritarian, and justified his policies in terms of pragmatism, efficiency, and of course later on he articulated this “Asian values” – as if one can generalize about a region of 3-4 billion people and say that there’s such a thing as “Asian values” – but these are all things to use to justify his policies at the time.