Exit Lee Kuan Yew

May 24, 2011

The equation Lee Kuan Yew = PAP = Singapore had scrolled across the collective consciousness for nearly half a century.

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.