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.

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.’