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Going beyond symbols, honoring Lee Kuan Yew

by Benedict Wu

The Straits Times recently published an article by Harvard Belfer Center Fellow Derwin Pereira on June 24th entitled “Symbol of the Singapore story”.

In the piece, Mr Pereira compared the 38 Oxley Road house to that of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Hall and Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall. He suggests that these buildings serve important historical significance, and that preserving the Oxley Road house would provide Singaporeans something to remember their founding history.

Mr Pereira states outright that he disagrees with the claim that retaining the house would create a political cult around Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Instead, he believes that a better way of reminding Singaporeans of his “lasting influence” is to rename Changi Airport after Lee Kuan Yew. He then cites how cities like New York name its International airport after President John F. to honor his contributions to civil rights.

What’s missing from Mr Pereira’s account, of course, is the fact that his thoughts about the political cult phenomenon are irrelevant, because the founding father himself believed that given Asia’s political context and recent monarchical history, it is easy to slip into individual worship that is not constructive to progress. Never mind that Lee Kuan Yew himself would disagree with Mr Pereira, it is even more puzzling to suggest that naming an airport after an individual would be the “better way” to commemorate his contributions—the decrepit airport in New York with bad Wi-Fi signals and inefficient airport security check lines is now associated with the freedom fighter turned President; even JFK might disagree that his legacy has been properly recognized with the airport.

There is a troubling trend in recent commentary around the Oxley Road issue around the symbolism of the house. Some range from extremely romantic views that the house belongs “to the people of Singapore” (as does Mr Pereira), while others tell us that the dispute itself is a symbol of the cracking of the political establishment from within.

But Lee kuan Yew was never about symbols. He was always of the view that Singapore’s advantage and its human capital means that we must be pragmatic and always consider options that advance our strategic interests. As DPM Shanmugaratnam mentioned of ministerial committees, we are—and should be—always on our feet to make sure that our long-term interests trump immediate ones.

We are 2 weeks into this ongoing debate, and a Ministerial statement will be issued early next month, which suggests that this dispute is not merely a “family matter” but one of national strategic interest.

However, if Lee Kuan Yew’s thoughtful pragmatism is to be taken seriously, the debate should be less about the eventual decision to demolish or keep the house. Rather, the longer term issues here are important: firstly we need to know, as a people, who gets to decide “national interest”; secondly, we need to figure out how the state decides to override private interests.

Rather than glib remarks by commentators who insist that letting the state override private interest is an approach coherent with Lee Kuan Yew’s governance approach (as did Mr Pereira), the citizenry deserves to know how these decisions get made—how do we decide whether one’s estate deserve to be looked at by a Ministerial Committee, does the Will ever matter, and do family members have any claim on what to do with one’s estate?

As Mr Pereira rightly pointed out, even though Lee Kuan Yew did not like the cult of personality, it is a fact that Singapore’s modern development is imprinted with his legacy. This was perhaps to Mr Lee’s chagrin, but it also makes the issue of the house all the more important.

As Singapore’s development story matures beyond Lee Kuan Yew and his first generation of leaders, we have to begin to consider the institutional structures in place that determine one’s strategic interest against another’s private wish.

Determining whether a particular case is worthy to be recognized as “national interest” is an issue of accountability (such as the Ministerial committee). Figuring out how said national interest might override the interests of the private citizen is an argument on legitimate processes that society should decide on.

To call this a “scandal” or “embarrassment” is to rob Singaporeans of our right to participate and shape political discourse.

Rather than damaging our reputation as a business-friendly city, this ongoing dispute is only the latest in a series of case examples to probe our decision-making system, to show the world that we can have vibrant and respectful discourse that holds our leaders accountable to make transparent, difficult decisions.

While many of us may have had enough with Oxley Road, the final outcome does not matter as much as the process through which the final decision is made.

It is this process which keeps all of us keenly watching. And to thoughtfully use this case to solidify our governance system would be the best way to honor Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.