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: There was also a certain emphasis on the idea of results, right? That people vote for me because I get them results and they know that. And I suppose with the results that come from promises, did that in turn come to inform his power, because you have people saying, well, he does this, but he gets results.
Thum Ping Tjin: But he also had a double standard, because he never took responsibility for his massive, massive failures. The first obvious massive failure is the separation of Singapore from Malaysia. But let’s focus on economics. That’s what made his reputation and made Singapore such a success.
In the late 1970s, his policies undermined all of the great policies which underpinned Singapore. So they tried to transform Singapore’s economy using what they called the second industrial revolution, which tried to push Singapore up the value ladder, increase Singapore’s salaries, move Singapore to a much high-tech economy. In other words, the PAP tried to unilaterally renegotiate Singapore’s position in the world economy. And they found that not only could they not do that, but capital immediately fled.
Between, I think it was ’83 and ’84, Singapore’s GDP shrank by 10%. There was a massive recession. And at the same time, they meddled with the CPF, with the HDB, the fundamentally transformed Singapore’s meritocratic education system into the very elitist one today.
So these are the four big things you’d think about when you think about Singapore – the economy, the housing, the CPF, the education. And they meddled with all of them in the late 1970s, and you see huge disasters happening in the early 1980s, which leads to, in 1982, the election of JBJ, and in 1984, the election of Chiam See Tong, Singapore’s first two opposition MPs. The people spoke because Lee Kuan Yew was not delivering. There were no results. He had screwed up big time.
Now Lee Kuan Yew demanded accountability from everyone except himself.
Which is why, from 1980 to 1984, he pushed out all of his Old Guard colleagues – Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Rajaratnam, Ong Pang Boon, they all left, either 1980 or ’84, and brought in a new generation of leaders with new ideas. But who did not leave? Who remained Prime Minister?
And in the meantime, to ensure that Singaporeans could no longer hold him accountable, he introduced a whole raft of extremely authoritarian measures in the mid to late 1980s, including directly tying provision of public services to your vote, through the town councils; creating mega-constituencies called the Group Representation Constituencies, to dilute opposition votes; the elected Presidency; and introduced all these new laws to control religious organisations to prevent them organizing against him; to stop the Law Society from commenting on laws; and of course he brought back the use of the ISA in ’87-’88 with Operation Spectrum, where he arrested a lot of activists. So we talk about results – but he himself failed to deliver, but failed to be accountable for it, and then changed the laws to prevent the government being accountable in the future.
Lee Chwi Lynn: And of course having the power to do that means that you also have decades of defamation lawsuits, criminal prosecution, detention without trial. The Singapore government has extinguished many dissenting voices and some names that pop to mind are JB Jeyaretnam, Dr Chee Soon Juan, Chia Thye Poh. Could you elaborate on some of these figures and how they were silenced and perhaps why?
Thum Ping Tjin: Well, they were all victims of various political circumstances of the time, and each of them has very different circumstances, I think, but the unifying factor is that they opposed Lee Kuan Yew and they sought greater accountability and they sought to introduce a more democratic process to Singapore. I think that’s why unifies all of them.
Whether or not they are right or wrong is a different thing, but it’s for us the voters to decide, not the government. Chia Thye Poh was locked up under the ISA for over – 1968 to 1999 – 31 years. JBJ was not locked up but he was sued multiple times and bankrupted and barred from running from office, and so was Chee Soon Juan. So it is basically the use of the law, and I think that’s one thing the Singapore government has been very good at, to ensure that everything they do is within confines of the law as it is written. Whether the law is – whether you follow the spirit of the law, whether the law is a just law, is an entirely different thing.
Lee Chwi Lynn: It’s been written that democracy is often misrepresented, misunderstood, or otherwise treated as a dirty word. When it comes to politics in Singapore, is that just paranoia speaking or would that be an accurate depiction of events?
Thum Ping Tjin: As a historian, I think democracy has played a huge role in Singapore’s success. Because let’s not forget Singapore voted for an opposition party in 1959 called the People’s Action Party, which the-then government of the day said was rife with communism, which espoused some very left-wing socialist policies, but people looked at the politicians on offer, they looked at the leaders, and they said we want Lee Kuan Yew. He is the smartest, he is the best leader out there, he has the capabilities, he has the intellect. Singaporeans made a very wise choice. And in between 1955 and 1963, Singaporeans went to the polls an average of once a year – for by-elections, elections, and a National Referendum. And clearly we must have made the right choices, because Singapore seems to have done pretty well out of that period. And in addition, many of the policies that the PAP implemented in the 1960s and early 70s, were fiercely debated at the polls, between. 1955, 1959, 1963 – those elections were about the future of Singapore and alternative policies for Singapore, and the parties put out those policy platforms in front of the voters, and we chose the right ones. So Singapore was a great success.
On the other hand, if you look at what happened after the PAP solidified its hold on power, suddenly there aren’t any new ideas bubbling up from the people, and you don’t have to justify your ideas in the cut and thrust of debate at the polls, electoral hustings, or in parliament. And that leads then to the situations that I was describing earlier, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, where the government really screwed up big time.
So democracy, I think, has been vilified in Singapore by a government which does not want to be accountable but wants to stay in power. But democracy is fundamentally a big reason for Singapore’s success.
Lee Chwi Lynn: Leftist or alternative history has been defined as history differentiated from official history which came in the form of National Education implemented by the government in 1997. Would you say the role of national history in Singapore has been constantly reinterpreted to fit the country’s needs through the course of time?
Thum Ping Tjin: Oh, absolutely. Interpretations of history everywhere – history is rewritten by every new generation to help understand their past and to understand the challenges of their future. So as humanity has evolved – as our society and culture has evolved – we have gone from the history of big men and a very white, western history to telling the story of people who were excluded by these official histories – the stories of minorities, of women, and so on and so forth.
History is a constant process of reinterpretation because our understanding of the past constantly improves as we learn more and more about ourselves and our past; and as we face new challenges we seek to draw on the past to meet those new challenges.
Now, for the government, it has used history as a tool. In the post ‘60s, in order to divorce itself from Malaysia, it sought to divorce itself from history. Rajaratnam rejected the idea of Singaporeans as having a history and said, “Our history starts now. Clean slate. We start from here.”
But then in the ‘90s, as that backfired because Singaporeans had no consciousness of what the PAP had achieved for them, so then you start this National Education programme. So the government revises its history, and if you look at how its written its history between the 1950s, 60s, 70s, 80s, that has changed. So they themselves are revisionists, but of course now that there are historians reinterpreting their history, they attack us as revisionists (laughter), which is quite silly.
Lee Chwi Lynn: Is there a common practice of self-censorship and censorship of others in Singapore?
Thum Ping Tjin: Hmmm. I think it’s very complex. It’s not clear cut at all. I think we do censor ourselves. There is a lot of fear in Singapore. I think we do worry about whether we’ll get in trouble for certain things. I think that the motivations for that censorship comes from a lot of different things – fear for yourself, fear for your families, but yes, I would say there is a pattern of censorship in Singapore and censorship of others, but I wouldn’t say it’s all ill-intentioned. We need to think about the consequences of our words and the consequences of our actions. But I think we go way too far with the self-censorship. And of course the government very much encourages it. And they have, with the use of ISA and lawsuits, for some very innocuous things, they have instilled very serious fear in all of us.
But I think things are changing and I don’t think we should have so much fear [that we engage in] self-censorship in the future.
Lee Chwi Lynn: And finally, with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, what do you think the future holds for the Republic?
Thum Ping Tjin: Honestly, I don’t think things will be much different tomorrow than they were two days ago. I think that fundamentally, if you think about it, the current government, let’s be honest, has not achieved much.
The legitimacy – the electoral success of the Lee Hsien Loong government rests on the achievements of their predecessors. And of course what is more, Lee Hsien Loong is his father’s son, and cannot repudiate him. So they will cling to what Lee Kuan Yew did, they will continue to hold Lee Kuan Yew up as an example of why people should vote PAP, and they will continue to cling to the policies of Lee Kuan Yew. So Lee Kuan Yew’s passing is not the watershed. I think it’s when Lee Hsien Loong steps down from power, when he leaves the office of Prime Minister, when he leaves politics – that would be a bigger watershed for Singapore because then that would be first time we would have moved on from Lee Kuan Yew. So I don’t think things would be very different politically.
But what I do hope is that without Lee Kuan Yew around, we will start thinking a lot more for ourselves, we will stop thinking about the words of a man whose heyday was two, three decades ago, and start asking ourselves, what is best for Singapore today? Without this all powerful hegemon to tell everyone what is right and wrong, I hope that we can work out our own solutions through vigorous debate and that we will be far more permissive of dissent, because that is hugely important to debate and democracy.