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Why the Lee family saga can be good for Singapore

by Dr Ong Hean Teik M Med (NUS), FRCP, FACC

Many have expressed their view that the Lee family dispute is an embarrassment and bad for Singaporeans. In fact behind every cloud is a silver lining, and there may actually be a beautiful rainbow waiting for Singaporeans who can see beyond this saga.

There is no doubt that Lee Kuan Yew worked hard for Singapore’s success. As he himself puts it, “At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life!” (1)

He also famously threatened that if something were to go wrong with Singapore, he would get up to set it right even if on his deathbed and about to be buried. And so perhaps this Lee sibling conflict can be seen as a lesson designed for Singaporeans by Lee Kuan Yew himself but from beyond his grave. For Singapore and Singaporeans to progress in this modern ever evolving world, they must challenge established ideas and brave new frontiers in thought and action. This can only happen if no institution is considered infallible, opinions are constantly challenged and no one is idolized.

While every family would happily emulate the professional achievements of the Lees, none would want to follow their acrimonious personal discord. Thus, Singaporeans are being shown that for all the wonderful success the Lees, or anyone else, have achieved, they are merely mortals, with good traits to follow and bad erring faults to avoid. Only by considering every institution to be equally fallible and open to criticism would the young dare embark on independent and pioneering thought so much needed for continued innovation and success today.

That Lee Kuan Yew himself was open to criticism comes across clearly when reading what those close to him had to say. Eddie Barker, respected friend and fellow lawyer spoke of being summoned to an angry Kuan Yew’s office who demanded to know why Barker criticized his proposal so aggressively in a cabinet meeting. Barker recalled replying, “You told us to speak openly, not to be a Yes-man. If that is what you want, starting tomorrow I shall agree with everything you say.” Lee’s reply to Barker was to continue speaking honestly and openly. A month before Barker’s retirement, Lee Kuan Yew pointed to him at a cabinet meeting and said, “He’s always disagreeing with me. Why don’t you guys do it more often?” (2)

Similarly Andrew Tan, his Personal Private Secretary wrote of being given a wedding present which was pushed across a long table which was caught just before it fell off; Kuan Yew was immediately and openly admonished by Mrs Lee in front of the embarrassed young man, “Harry, that’s not the way to give a present” (3). If Lee Kuan Yew did not consider himself infallible and is open to criticism, then perhaps Singaporeans and all their institutions must learn not be excessively sensitive and defensive when criticized. After all no one has a monopoly on ideas or initiatives for the betterment of society and country.

There is ample proof that Lee Kuan Yew was himself worried about the inability of his countrymen to emulate the entrepreneurial spirit of others right up to his latter days. Robert Kouk, a life-long friend, wrote about receiving a letter from Lee in 2010 asking why Singaporeans were not more like the people of Hong Kong. Kouk hesitated wondering if he should reply honestly, and after being reassured that Lee was indeed seeking honest opinion replied that it is “because he had straight-jacketed too many of his people in his zeal and impatience to develop Singapore too quickly” (4).

There is much good in the Singapore system but the reluctance to question and challenge authority is not among them. The questions raised by the younger Lee siblings and the open invitation by the eldest to be questioned in Parliament should be seen by Singaporeans as a call from Lee Kuan Yew to be henceforth no longer docile sheep awaiting instructions, but path-finding questioning explorers seeking a better course for their country.

References

  1. Han FK, Zuraidah I, Chua MH, et al. Lee Kuan Yew: Hard truths to keep Singapore going. Singapore. Straits Times Press 2011, pp79.
  2. Lam PE, Tan KYL. Lee’s Lieutenants: Singapore’s old guard. Australia. Allen & Unwin 1999, pp 90-91.
  3. Up close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insight from colleagues and friends. Singapore Marshall Cavendish 2015, pp 276.
  4. Up close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insight from colleagues and friends. Singapore Marshall Cavendish 2015, pp 19.