24 May 2011

Lee Kuan Yew's Political Obituary

A superbly written and well-reflected piece by Catherine Lim.

One of the greatest surprises of GE 2011 was the people’s unequivocal rejection of the PAP style of government. But none could have imagined that the biggest casualty would be Lee Kuan Yew, one of the founders of the PAP, Singapore’s first prime minister and subsequently, de facto Chief despite holding only an advisory role as Minister Mentor.

Indeed, the nations’ shock on 14 May, just a week after the election, at the resignation of MM from the cabinet (together with Mr Goh Chok Tong, Senior Minister) could only be described as seismic in the Singapore political landscape. It reflected the uniquely powerful position of the father of modern Singapore, presumably the only political leader in the world whose name was synonymous with the party he founded, whose name, in turn, was synonymous with the country it rules. The equation Lee Kuan Yew = PAP = Singapore had scrolled across the collective consciousness of the society for nearly half a century.

He was once compared to the immense banyan tree in whose shade only puny little saplings could grow. He was once the mighty Colossus in whose shadow little people cowered.

Was. Had scrolled. Once. Cowered.

It gives one a feeling of surreality to write about Lee Kuan Yew’s influence in the past tense. But that is exactly how it is going to be from now onwards, judging from the various public statements made by the prime minister, MM himself, Mr Goh and other PAP leaders, following the announcement of the resignation. Almost in one voice, they spoke about the need for the party to move on, to respond to the needs and aspirations of the people, so painfully made clear to them in GE 2011. The courteous, deferential tone called for by the occasion masked the urgency of the message: the prime minister must be free to act on his own without any interference from the overpowering MM who is also his father.

Perhaps the announcement of MM’s exit should not have been so unexpected, as it had been preceded by a clear harbinger. For midway through the campaigning, when the PAP had already sensed an impending loss of the Aljunied GRC whom earlier MM had offended with his ‘live and repent’ threat, PM had hurriedly called a press interview in which he gently, but firmly, dissociated himself from MM, and assured the people that he was the one in charge. The necessary follow-up action for this public repudiation had obviously been part of the promised post-election ‘soul-searching’, which must have concluded that indeed MM must go.

Despite MM’s assertion, in the joint statement with Mr Goh, that the resignation was voluntary, in order ‘to give PM and his team the room to break from the past,’ doubts about his willingness will be around for a while. For right through the election campaigning he was in upbeat mood, declaring his fitness at age 87, his readiness to serve the people for another 5 years, and roundly scolding the younger generation for forgetting where they came from. Moreover, he had, amidst the gloom of the PAP campaign, confidently stated that the loss of the one Aljunied GRC would be no big deal, and contended, a day after the election, that his blunt, controversial remarks about the Malay-Muslim community, had not really affected the votes. In short, he was expecting to stay on, his accustomed ways of dealing with people, unchanged.

And then came the shock announcement of his resignation from the cabinet, and an uncharacteristic affirmation of the need for change.

That Lee Kuan Yew was prepared to do a drastic about-turn, so at odds with a lifetime’s habit of acting on his convictions, must have been due to one of two causes—either he had been driven into a corner and simply had no choice, or he had a genuine commitment to the well-being of the society, that was above self-interest. In either case, the decision to go into the obscurity of virtual retirement after decades of high political visibility both at home and abroad, must have been most wrenching.

The extent of the personal sacrifice can be gauged by the single fact that politics was his one overriding, exclusive passion upon which he had brought to bear all his special resources of intellect, temperament and personality. He had made himself the ultimate conviction politician with an unrelentingly logical and rationalistic approach to dealing with problems, dismissing all that stood in its way, especially sentiment and emotion. He had developed a purely quantitative paradigm where the only things that mattered were those that were measurable, calculable, easily reduced to digits and hardware, whether they had to do with getting Singaporeans to have fewer or more babies, getting people to keep the streets litter-free, getting children in school to learn the mother tongue. It prescribed a mode of governance that relied heavily on the use of the stick.

The supreme irony of Lee Kuan Yew’s political demise was that the paradigm which had resulted in his most spectacular achievements as a leader taking his tiny resource-scarce country into the ranks of the world’s most successful economies, was the very one that caused his downfall. The related irony of course was that a man of admirable sharpness of mind, keenness of foresight and strength of purpose had failed to understand, until it was too late, the irrelevance of this paradigm to a new generation of better-educated, more exposed and sophisticated Singaporeans.

There is no simple explanation for such a paradoxical disconnect between a man’s massive intellectual powers on the one hand and his poor understanding of reality, on the other (complacency perhaps? political blindsight? political sclerosis?) A detailed analysis of the irony, substantiated with examples over more than four decades of Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership of Singapore will be instructive for understanding this unique personage.

Even a cursory review of the history of Singapore will show that it was Lee’s actions, driven by the passion of his convictions, that had saved the nation, at various stages in its struggle for survival in a volatile, unpredictable, often unfriendly world. With his characteristic strongman’s ruthlessness, he cleaned up the mess caused by Communists, communalists, unruly trade unionists, defiant students and secret society gangsters plaguing the young Singapore. Within a generation, he had created an environment where Singaporeans could live safely, earn a living, live in government-subsidised flats with modern sanitation. Ever conscious of Singapore’s vulnerability, he was ever on the alert to smack down its enemies and, even more importantly, to seize opportunities to raise its standard of living.

A special achievement showing Lee Kuan Yew’s foresight, boldness and determination in his espousal of the economic imperative deserves more detailed treatment. In the 60s, he foresaw the dominant role of the English language for international trade, business, scientific technology and research, and made an all-out effort to promote the language in the schools, as well as make it the language of public administration. This meant in effect distancing Singapore from the other newly independent nations such as India, Malaysia and some African nations which, in their nationalistic fervour, were kicking out the English language together with the British flag.

Even when Singapore joined Malaysia and Malay became the official language, Lee Kuan Yew quietly continued the promotion of English, so that after separation in 1965, it re-emerged, as strong as ever. The result was the creation of an English-speaking environment that was very conducive to international business, attracting huge corporations such as Shell and Esso. Through the decades that followed, the economic success of his policies was replicated, to put Singapore on a rising trajectory of stunning development.

Singapore’s remarkable development under Lee Kuan Yew, using the hard indicators of home ownership, level of education, degree of technological advancement, extent of foreign investments, etc, has seen few parallels, making it a poster child for economic progress in the developing world. Consistently ranked among the top three in international surveys on best-performing airports, sea-ports, world’s most livable cities, best infrastructure, etc, Singapore receives the most enthusiastic accolades from foreign visitors instantly impressed by the cleanliness, orderliness and gleaming appearance of the city state.

How could such a brilliant paradigm, a model of classic realpolitik, be the cause of the GE 2011 political demise of Lee Kuan Yew? The answer: mainly because it had no place for human values. It was a model of governance where, if there had ever been a conflict of Head vs Heart, IQ vs EQ, Hardware vs Heartware, it had been resolved long ago in the defeat of presumably worthless human emotions.

Once I was giving a talk to a group of British businessmen, on my favourite subject of civic liberties – or lack of them – in Singapore. During question and answer time, one of the businessmen raised his hand and said politely, ‘I have a question or rather, a suggestion. Could we please have your Lee Kuan Yew, and we’ll give you our Tony Blair, with Cherie Blair thrown in?’ Amidst laughter, I said, ‘Our Mr Lee won’t like your noisy, messy, rambunctious democracy,’ and he replied, ‘No matter,’ and went on to pay MM the ultimate compliment. He said, ‘You know, if there were but five Lee Kuan Yews scattered throughout Africa, the continent wouldn’t be in such a direful state today!’

This light-hearted little anecdote is meant to provide a probable reason, though in a rather circuitous manner, for MM’s ironic downfall: the material prosperity that he had given Singapore, which many world leaders could never match, was no longer enough compensation to Singaporeans for the soullessness that was beginning to show in the society . For the fear that his strongman approach had instilled in them for so long, denying them the fundamental democratic liberties of open debate, public criticism and an independent media, that are taken for granted in practising democracies, had made them mere cogs in the machinery of a vast capitalist enterprise.

There are enough examples, going back to the early years of Lee Kuan Yew’s rule, of draconian measures of control, that had created this fear and its inevitable product, resentment. The most egregious instances include the higher accouchement hospital fees for a woman having a third child in defiance of the ‘stop at two’ population control measures, and the sterilisation policy, which had a particularly vile moral odour , for it required the woman wanting to get her child into the school of her choice, to produce a sterilisation certificate.

Years later when the demographic trend reversed, and more births were necessary to form the necessary future pool of expertise for the country’s industrial needs, the PAP government started a matchmaking unit , called The Social Development Unit, to enable single Singaporeans to meet, fall in love, get married and produce children. It singled out graduate women for favoured treatment, because Lee Kuan Yew believed that only highly educated mothers produced the quality offspring he wanted for the society, alienating many with the noxious eugenics.

By the 70s and into the 80s, Singaporeans were already waking up to the hard truth of the high human cost, in terms of the need for self-respect, identity and dignity, that they were paying for the material prosperity, and worrying about the creation of a society in complete and fearful subjugation to the powerful PAP government. Over the years, it became increasingly clear that the leaders, flushed with success and confidence, and following Lee Kuan Yew’s example, were developing an arrogant, highhanded, peremptory style that had zero tolerance for political dissidents, publicly castigating them or, worse, incarcerating them for years, bankrupting them through defamation suits or forcing them to flee into exile. Lee Kuan Yew had consistently maintained that the fact that the PAP was regularly and convincingly returned to power at each election over forty years meant that the people acknowledged the government was doing the right thing.

By the time of GE 2011, it would appear that the PAP leaders had reached the peak of hubris, making decisions with little regard for the people’s needs and sensitivities—increasing ministerial salaries, bringing in world-class casinos to attract tourists, engaging in blatant gerrymandering prior to elections. Then there were the policies that had created special hardships for the struggling wage earner, such as the increasing cost of living, the unaffordability of housing, the competition for jobs with a large number of foreign workers who, moreover, caused overcrowding in public transport.

The decision that had created most resentment was the one which enabled the PAP ministers to pay themselves incredibly high salaries, Lee Kuan Yew’s argument being that this was the only way to get quality people into government. (Resentful Singaporeans invariably point out that the Prime Minister of tiny Singapore gets about five times the salary of the most powerful man in the world, the President of the United States) Priding themselves on their intelligence, competence and efficiency, the PAP leadership nevertheless made huge losses on investments with public money, and glossed over the scandalous prison escape of a top terrorist, made possible by an unbelievably lax security system. In the eyes of the people, they had lost the moral authority to govern.

That the people’s anger broke out only in GE 2011 and not earlier was due to a confluence of forces, interacting with and reinforcing each other, to provide the most unexpected momentum and impact. These included the rise of a younger, more articulate electorate, the power of the Internet and the social media, which allowed free discussion on usually censored topics, and perhaps, most significantly, the emergence of a newly strengthened opposition who were able to present candidates matching the best in the PAP team. Or it was a simple case of the people waking up one morning and saying, ‘Enough is enough.’ The PAP were caught off guard.

While they were prepared to make conciliatory gestures and promises to stem the rising hostility during the election campaign, Lee Kuan Yew stood firm on his convictions till the very end, clearly preferring to resign rather than to say ‘Sorry’. That word had never been in his vocabulary. When he had to apologise to the Malay-Muslim community for disparaging remarks made months earlier, clearly because of some pressure from his PAP colleagues alarmed by the community’s rising anger, he could only manage a terse ‘I stand corrected.’

He is likely to carry this stance to his grave, believing till the end in his own misfortune of having an ungrateful people incapable of understanding him and appreciating all that he had done for them. Outwardly chastened but inwardly disillusioned, he must be particularly disappointed with his own PAP colleagues, for their failure to share his passionate belief that his was the right and proven way to achieve the well-being of the society. It is not so much megalomania as the sheer inflexibility that convictions sometimes harden into, something that will probably continue to give him a completely different interpretation of the devastation of GE 2011.

This kind of intransigence, for all its reprehensibility, can, rather oddly, have a commendable side. Years ago, on an official visit to Australia and taken on a sightseeing tour, he suddenly fell into a mood of somber introspection, turned to his Australian host and said, ‘Your country will be around in 100 years, but I’m not sure of mine.’ The same absolutism that had produced the unshakeable sense of his infallibility, had also produced an unqualified purity, selflessness and strength of his dedication to the well-being of Singapore, well beyond his earthly life, investing it with the touching anxiety of a caring parent.

When he made the famous pronouncement that even when lying inside his coffin , he would rise to meet any threat to Singapore’s security, he meant every word of it. In political limbo now, will he ever feel that need? I can think of three possible events, when he will experience that Coffin Moment, each posing a threat to what seems to be his greatest concerns for Singapore: 1) when the strong ties between the government and the unions that he had assiduously helped to build for nearly fifty years, are in danger of being broken 2) when the nation’s vast reserves, protected by a law he had carefully devised to allow only the president of Singapore to unlock, are about to be foolishly squandered 3) when the PAP leadership is in danger of being dominated by those same young Singaporeans whom he had regularly chastised for being selfish, thoughtless and heedless and for whom he had specially written his last book on hard truths about Singapore’s future. In the event of a threat to any of these concerns, his old passion is likely to be fired up once more to make him come out of the coffin to do battle.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is so mixed that even his greatest detractor must acknowledge his very substantial achievements for Singapore, and even his greatest admirer must admit that along the way, alas, he lost touch with the ground. He puts one in mind of the great hero of epic tragedy, who is caught in a maelstrom of forces beyond his control, that destroy him in the end by working, ironically, upon a single tragic flaw in his character. Alone and lost, unbowed and defiant, he still cuts an impressive figure, still able to tell the world, ‘I am me.’

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