Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore’s Mercurial Father

Illustration by Lyn Ong.
Illustration by Lyn Ong.

This is part one of a two-part feature, remembering Lee Kuan Yew from across the Straits. Part one is written by a Singaporean. Part two is written by a Malaysian.

Mercurial fathers are perhaps the only species for whom one can feel intense love, pride, respect, fear, shock, disgust and even the occasional bout of revulsion. This maelstrom of emotions inspires a unique bond. For most Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew is this adopted father: an essential, enigmatic part of our very being, synonymous with country, family, job, with life itself.

His path was not pre-destined. In the 1950s, a phalanx of anti-colonial agitators emerged, including the articulate, compassionate David Marshall and the fiery, charismatic grassroots champion, Lim Chin Siong. Aloof and ill-at-ease with the Chinese-speaking masses, Mr Lee was not the natural frontrunner to lead the country. But over a twenty-year period this masterful orator morphed from a Fabian socialist to a swashbuckling, egalitarian labour lawyer and then finally a shrewd politician with a firm belief in (state-led) capitalism.

He eliminated his domestic opponents, including politicians, trade unionists and journalists, through a series of Machiavellian manoeuvres. Many were alleged communists but, unlike purges elsewhere in South-east Asia, not one was killed. Mr Lee simply imprisoned them without trial; some claim they were tortured. In all this he deftly skated on the right side of public moral indignation.

 

He eliminated his domestic opponents, including politicians, trade unionists and journalists.

 

He also transformed from a dedicated Malayan, who savoured the confluence of three cultures, into a Chinese cultural supremacist. Konfrontasi with Indonesia and then the messy separation from Malaysia convinced him that Singapore’s future lay away from the perceived prickly Malay archipelago.

Through all these machinations, we imbibed two cherished values from “the old man”. The ends justify the means; and economic pragmatism above all else. Nothing in life was sacrosanct for him. Not ancestry, not friends, not allies, not history, not culture, not language. All are malleable, even dispensable, in the quest for growth—the only elixir that can sustain this “vulnerable” nation-state.

So on the socio-political canvas that he wiped clean, Mr Lee scripted one of the twentieth-century’s economic success stories. He moulded Singaporeans in his image, stressing hard work, commitment, the rule of law, incorruptibility and a belief in meritocracy.

Though his cultural biases influenced certain policies—for instance importing more Chinese migrants to maintain the ethnic supermajority—institutional racism was minimised. Integration was forced. Singaporeans learned to be tolerant, if not wholly welcoming, of each other.

Intelligence and ability assumed paramount importance. Mr Lee believed in equalising opportunities for success through good public schooling, housing and healthcare. But beyond that, a Darwinian, paper-based meritocracy clinically sorted society. Though living standards rose, the spoils were not fairly distributed. For the winners, the world’s riches. For the losers, in what would become one of the most unequal countries around, a lifetime of struggle. Wary of sloth, Mr Lee never countenanced welfare.

Better, he reckoned, to purify the country’s genetic stock. He incentivised non-graduates to sterilise themselves and graduates to procreate, but the policies were short-lived because Singaporeans, for once, complained.

How dare we answer back! To remind us that Father knows best, Mr Lee periodically underscored his paternalistic credentials, censoring the media, caning graffiti artists, supporting the ban on chewing gum. Singaporeans blissfully traded away basic liberties, drunk on the promise of ever-more wealth.

Mr Lee encouraged the pegging of politicians’ salaries to those of top private-sector earners, believing that money buys talent and loyalty. Consciously or not, the pursuit of money was thus fortified as a central tenet of being Singaporean. Nationality, it seemed, was just another tool for individual wealth creation. Class consciousness and status competition became entrenched in everyday life.

 

Consciously or not, the pursuit of money was fortified as a central tenet of being Singaporean.

 

Singapore’s success was also built on globalisation. From the beginning Mr Lee courted foreign investment, quickly becoming the darling of Western diplomats and businesspeople. Talented workers were attracted by our curious blend of benevolent authoritarianism, social conservatism and Randian economic liberty. So were plutocrats, from savvy billionaires to unsavoury despots. Mr Lee welcomed them all, while bumptiously pummelling his critics, local and foreign, into submission.

Even in old age the old man could do no wrong. We wanted him in parliament, even though he tottered around, contributing little. We humoured his controversial, anachronistic statements. We remain uninterested in all the “nasty things” he did. Though Singaporeans generally seek the truth, with the old man we prefer to forget, lest a spotlight on him illuminates our own complicity. We blindly accept creation myths, the most egregious being that the British had left Mr Lee a “fishing village” rather than a thriving trading port, by the 1950s already one of Asia’s richest cities.

But sentiment is changing. Perhaps this moment, now, as we celebrate fifty years of independence, may herald the peak of our devotion to the old man. For the many problems brewing in Singapore society are, in fact, symptoms of the values he fostered. Yawning inequalities threaten cohesion and tilt the playing field, undermining social mobility. Elite governance has bred a seemingly entitled class out of touch with ordinary people.

The homogenous political landscape can no longer satisfy the demands of an increasingly sophisticated electorate. Persistent attempts to crimp free expression have dulled creativity. The heavy use of carrots and sticks has nurtured a population primed to extrinsic incentives but starved of intrinsic direction. And by defining progress in such narrow monetary terms, he has contributed to a vacuous sense of national identity.

Then again, that a younger generation of citizens can even ask these questions, or have these evolving aspirations, is largely due to him. A victim of his own success?

Mr Lee’s sycophants, from Arabia to Washington, lament that he didn’t govern a bigger territory, like Malaysia. This is hubris. Singapore’s inherent characteristics, including its geographic location, tiny size and overwhelmingly urban population, were crucial ingredients for his success. His ability to exert control depended on him being accessible, whether hoisted up on the shoulders of jubilant supporters, garlanded and beaming, following the PAP’s first general election victory in 1959; or at his weekly “Meet-the-people-sessions”, which he held up till a ripe old age.

It was on this raw love-fear dynamic that our tempestuous relationship flourished. Like father and child, Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore should be grateful for each other.

Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh is a Singaporean writer. He is the author of Floating on a Malayan Breeze: Travels in Malaysia and Singapore, and co-author of Hard Choices: Challenging the Singapore Consensus. He is currently working on a book about China and India. He blogs at sudhirtv.com

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