Lee Kuan Yew was a founding member and inaugural secretary-general of the People’s Action Party, the dominant political party in Singapore whose steel grip on power has often been scrutinised by various media outlets. He became the Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959 following the PAP’s landslide victory at the general elections.
The popular narrative we hear today had been about how Lee defended Singapore from the communist threat, and how he has essentially brought Singapore from a swamp to a shining metropolis. The implied narrative is that, without Lee’s PAP, Singapore would not have survived. How much of this is true, and how much of it myth?
“Fighting” the communist?
That year, the British colonial authorities had granted full internal self-government to the bustling port city, which had been a Crown Colony. At that time, there was an insurgency led by the Communist Party of Malaya raging in the region, causing widespread political instability. Many ordinary citizens of Singapore were sympathetic to the communist cause, notably the Chinese-educated ones. The previous Labour Front government led by Lim Yew Hock had aggressively pursued communist sympathisers and imprisoned them without trial. It had thus alienated a large segment of the local Chinese population as such.
The PAP itself was not immune to threats coming from the left wing, but it would also be wrong to believe that Lee rejected outright the lure of the communist left.
On 12 November 1954, Lee, together with several English-educated middle-class men, formed the left-leaning PAP in an expedient alliance with the pro-Communist trade unions. The pro-Communists had widespread support from the Chinese-speaking citizens, who made up close to 70% of Singapore’s population at that time.
Lee was English-educated and had little appeal to the Chinese-speaking members of the electorate. He thus needed the left-wingers to help drum up support for his party in order to have any chances at the polls.
Author Tan Jing Quee in the book Comet in our Sky implies that Lee played both sides of the fence, pretending to take the side of the jailed labour members of his party while colluding with the British to stop that faction from attaining power. Tan also said that much of the unrest had been fomented by Lim Yew Hock, whom Griffith University’s Greg Poulgrain said was secretly in a party with Lee.
It was this sort of cunning that allowed Lee to rule unopposed for almost three decades. He managed to shake off a challenge to his authority from the hardcore leftists, who later seceded from the PAP to form the Barisan Sosialis. BS was wary of Singapore joining the upcoming Federation of Malaysia, although Lee strongly advocated for it and did not give voters a “No” option in the 1962 referendum on whether Singapore should even join Malaysia at all.
The merger with Malaysia was considered crucial to persuading London to relinquish colonial rule in September 1963. However, communal and political tension meant such a union was short-lived. Prior to the merger, the Singapore authorities, with the collaboration of British and Malayan intelligence services, launched Operation Coldstore to round up suspected communists, when in reality the bulk of those detained where from Barisan Socialis.
In recent years, declassified records have shown that this whole operation was not about nullifying the communist threat, but rather about crushing dissent altogether. BS was severely weakened as a result, and came off second-best at the 1963 polls held just days after Singapore’s entry into the Malaysian federation. This election was hard fought by the PAP and their victory was seen as something of a miracle.
Lee was to conduct two more waves of arrests and detention of social activists for involvement in alleged communist terrorism. November 1974 saw Tan Wah Piow, a popular union leader, arrested for his purported involvement in an industrial dispute. Tan was charged and jailed for unlawful assembly and rioting, and following his release, sought asylum in London for fear of his personal safety during National Service.
In 1987, several Catholic social workers and lawyers – including Vincent Cheng and Teo Soh Lung – were rounded up under Operation Spectrum on charges of involvement in a Marxist Conspiracy. Tan Wah Piow was subsequently identified as instigating them. For many years, the truth about these events have not been satisfactorily addressed by the government.
The common refrain we hear today in support of these political battles is a narrative of “sacrifice” – Lee did what he had to do in order to ensure the survival of post-merger and post-independence Singapore.
After the separation of Singapore from Malaysia in August 1965, Lee Kuan Yew shed tears on national television. In the days following Singapore’s independence, he did not sleep well and fell sick, spending the following six weeks in isolation while parliament hung in suspended animation, as fellow Cabinet member and close associate Toh Chin Chye put it.
With the tiny island void of natural resource suddenly cut loose, Lee’s ruthless pragmatism was often credited as the force that steered the ship to safety. Nevertheless, he also benefitted from having capable men like Toh, Goh Keng Swee and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam holding the most important portfolios in the Cabinet.
While Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was credited for turning the once-sleepy fishing village into a thriving entrepot port, Lee’s team built on Raffles’ foundation and made Singapore a regional economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. His successes certainly did not come cheaply. The nation’s efficient and corruption-free civil service made it fertile ground for much-needed foreign investment.
But when it came to the issue of human rights, there were dark clouds hanging over the subject. Lee retained many aspects of the British Indian Penal Code, sometimes even expanding its application. Caning was made mandatory for various petty offences, and the death penalty was to be used for drug offenders. All these were necessary to make Singapore a safe country if it were to succeed economically.
The only thing Singapore had was its people. The scourge of narcotics was seen as harmful and harsh penalties for their misuse had to be put in place, for better or for worse. The Internal Security Act, a legacy of the British, remained in force and many were detained without trial after being arrested on suspicion of subversive activities.
To build up its military defences, conscription was introduced. Healthy male citizens of the age of 18 were to be drafted into the armed forces or the police force. Initially, this was met with resistance from Chinese families, who believed that good men did not become soldiers. In time to come, many Singaporeans accepted that conscription was here to stay and serving the country in uniform was a show of their patriotic colours.
With land being such a scarce resource in Singapore, it was necessary for high-density housing to be built. The Housing and Development Board was thus set up. It was responsible for building many high-rise apartment blocks in the new towns, many of which were planned from the ground up. This had the effect of displacing many rural dwellers, most of whom were forced to give up their livelihoods when the government acquired their farmlands. They were relocated to the new housing estates, sometimes living side by side with neighbours of other ethno-linguistic or religious backgrounds. Over time, these people learnt to accept each other’s cultural practices and be good neighbours.
Within a generation, Singapore had undergone a tremendous transformation. It was an industrialised regional financial hub graced by opulent skyscrapers. It had diversified its economy from entrepot trade, with high-end manufacturing and banking as the major pillars. Singapore was looked upon with envy by neighbouring countries, many of whom were endowed with way more natural resources.
In a way Lee Kuan Yew leaves behind a mixed legacy. He had been credited for the development of Singapore in the post-Independence era. Lee’s policies can be likened to pulling up seedlings to stimulate growth and were aimed at getting the best possible results within the shortest time frame.
This now appears to be unsustainable as Singapore’s growth has been slowing down in the last 15 years. The way Lee designed the system, it seems that he did not have a Plan B. Present-day Singapore is feeling the heat of globalisation and it certainly is not pleasant. The education system has long been heavily theory-based, loosely following the factory model.
Essentially, the policies enacted by the Lee Kuan Yew regime set the stage for the polarisation of Singapore society in the 21st century. On the surface, Singapore is one of the wealthiest countries on this planet. Yet there are thousands of people who can barely afford healthcare costs. A large number of low wage earners can barely make enough to cover the Minimum Sum required for their mandatory superannuation fund accounts.
At the other end of the spectrum, Singapore’s Cabinet ministers earn seven-figure salaries per year, way more than most of their Western counterparts. Ironically, many Western countries have clearly defined social security nets to protect their most vulnerable citizens and keep the income gap under control. Following Lee Kuan Yew’s elder son Hsien Loong’s appointment as Prime Minister, cracks in Singapore’s social fabric have become more exposed, no thanks to the rise of social media.
During Lee Kuan Yew’s tenure as Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, dissent was almost alien to him. His iron-fisted rule made people reluctant to speak up or express themselves freely. All media outlets were consolidated and competition was limited – if you can consider two state-owned media houses as having competition. Articles and broadcasts critical of the ruling party have not been allowed to be seen by audiences, and foreign journalists and publications have been sued for defamation. A number of opposition politicians have also been bankrupted as a result of defamation lawsuits filed by Lee and his associates. Many observers see it as yet another powerful tool to maintain the status quo.
In short, while Lee Kuan Yew deserves accolades for what he achieved as Singapore’s inaugural prime minister, the social costs of his achievements should be taken into consideration. For what does it profit a man who gains the whole world but loses his soul in the process? Was his sacrifice just his own, or borne on the backs of Singaporeans who were essentially no less patriotic than Lee himself?