Political Commentary

The GE 2011 Political Demise of Lee Kuan Yew: A Supreme Irony

The announcement of MM’s resignation was so unexpected and shocking that I had to sit down, gather my thoughts into a coherent, cohesive whole, and come up with a proper, detailed analysis of the whys, wherefores and what-nows of what must be the greatest surprise of GE 2011, to share with my readers.

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.’

333 comments below

  1. steve choo
    May 23rd, 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Dear Jeya,

    You may be right that it remains to be seen whether Lee Kuan Yew actually stepped down. Despite his age, he may step up again. Who could possibly stop him?

    If daughter-in-law Ho Ching could step down as CEO of Temasek and then resumed her old position within a short period of time, there is no reason why LKY can’t do the same.

  2. rkc lim
    May 23rd, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    Wah, Frankie, you really hantam the paku on the kepala! (Or would it be better Singlish to say pukul kepala paku?)

    If can celebrate National Day, Vesak Day, etc, why cannot have celebration of the release of pent up sufferings? Why must it be in silence? Our good doctor has said that she has been proven wrong about the climate of fear. Not having been a Perdana Menteri, I am not suffering from PPMS (ref TWOG May 22nd, 2011 at 10:46 pm ), just jubilant … and also a bit mabuk from the celebrations. Yam Seng!!

  3. Colin
    May 24th, 2011 at 1:55 am

    Do not throw pearls to swine. A prophet is without honour in his own home I agree that the PAP should show more humility but 1) I’m grateful for the fact that today, our wives, mothers and daughters are not maids or prostitutes 2) I’m grateful that our brothers, fathers, and sons do not have to toil in a construction sites in another country 3) I’m grateful for the highest home ownership in the world 4) I’m grateful I’m not living in a place where property prices are low yet most cannot afford them 5) I’m sure there is a reason why so many foreigners want to come to Singapore 6) I’m grateful that we have a reserve and not he has a reserve 7) I’m grateful for the security and safety 8) I prefer the casinos to illegal gambling dens 9) I don’t believe bosses hire foreign workers just because they are cheap. 10) I believe they used to complain that our market was too small when our population was much lesser 11) I believe that the PAP has be imperfect 12) I also believe that if there is a measurement for perfection, PAP would rank highest

    Sounds like someone pro PAP? No, on the contrary, if anything I have a personal reason to dislike LKY. But I’m being objective. I wish we won’t be misled by the westerners who, with all their failings, have been trying to make us believe in their system of freedom. But like they say a good tree bear good fruit. The grass is greener as they say, but alas when and if we do pick from the western garden, we’ll discover that the fruit are not as sweet as they look and maybe even an odd worm here and there. Becareful what you wish for.

  4. Colin
    May 24th, 2011 at 2:03 am

    Harry Lim,

    I seriously hope you’re joking with the Dr. M thing right? Some of the comments are becoming rather strange.

  5. Anna Wee
    May 24th, 2011 at 8:06 am

    I agree with Charlie Chan completely. Being a Malaysian but schooled in Singapore, I feel Singaporeans are a spoilt and ungrateful lot. You live in one of the safest cities in the world with world class services yet you gripe, whinge and complain. Granted LKY/PAP lack a good measure of humility but this is not a perfect world. And by any standard of governance, LKY shines as a statesman of the highest calibre. His only weakness is his singular love and passion for his nation and his obsession to create it in his own measure of perfection. Singapore, a mere dot in the atlas with zero natural resources is what it is today because of one great man with a vision. His legacy remains unscathed, looms large and will cast a long shadow.

    One only needs to peek across the border to see the mayhem of a corrupt regime. We, on the other hand, have oil, gas, you name it and look at the state of affairs we are at. Give thanks you have so much to be grateful for.

  6. JM
    May 24th, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Well said – excellent article!

    A powerfully successful man may think he’s god. Can’t do any wrong nor say sorry was his sad proof. Rising from his coffin, which I hope not, will be disastrous for Singapore. Now that god the father and holly goat are gone, let the good son do the damage control.

  7. Shoen
    May 25th, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Ms Catherine Lim: You rightly say that Singapore has traded economic success for its soul. Each time someone from a foreign country tells me our per capita GDP is one of the highest in the world, I wish I had told them, ‘But at what price!’

    We don’t have a free and responsible press; we fear repercussions if we vote for the opposition; we hide behind pseudonyms when we denounce the government.

    Does the Singapore of today remind anyone of George Orwell’s ‘1984’? ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’ We need more brave women (and men) like you, Ms Lim. Keep up the good work!

  8. Passerby
    May 25th, 2011 at 9:58 am

    haha, do you really believe Lee Kuan Yew is really senile? A 87, he is still as sharp as ever. Barack Obama and Henry Kissinger can atest to that! If you look at the polls carefully, who actually won? In aljunied, we essentially replaced one of the most left wing mp with the most right wing ,and the most media endorsed i should add, opposition party.In addition, the prime minister was the only one who did well at the polls. slate, while leaving behind perhaps what he must have thought was the best situation, with two right wing parties competiting with each other. Surely a man of Lee kuan Yew’s mind did not believe in the invincibility of the PAP. He surely knows that he won’t be around much longer and he would be the first to know there will be atrophy once he is removed from power. Here is a highly intelligent man who is right winged, articulate, very pragmatic, sometimes has a ruthless streak, cares little about his own reputation and greatest fear at this time, would not just be the mortality of himself, but of Singapore. I do not think that the the whole picture is as simple as it seems.

  9. skkwok
    May 25th, 2011 at 10:58 am

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” …John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton

    “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it” …William Pitt

  10. TWOG
    May 25th, 2011 at 11:22 am

    /// # Harry Lim May 22nd, 2011 at 9:20 pm Hope he has not “over- stay” like Mao Tze Tong. More like Deng Xiao Ping.

    Wonder why can’t he be like Dr. M ///

    I rather that LKY not be like Dr M.

    The other similarity – both are MM – Minister Mentor and Mahathir Mohamad. But the similarity ends there.

    One is a Minister Mentor; the other is a Minister Tormentor.

    One is an icon of the country, the other “I con” the country,

    One is world famous; the other infamous.

    One is invited to the White House to meet and talk with the US President; the other has to pay his lobbyist to be invited.

  11. Stephanie
    May 25th, 2011 at 12:47 pm

    To me this article is your desperate need for attention by leveraging on a national event. I see this as your need for the 3 seconds of fame. i feel sorry for you.

    And all the unhappy Malaysian can go back to their country and write or talk about their share of drama on the courts cases, accusations and scandals.

    Ask any Singapore, young or old, who they would choose as their leader if we had to go back in time. No one would dispute that choice remains as Lee Kwan Yew.

    If you think so highly of yourself and your “insightful views” why don’t you try serving the people? It is always easy to make comments and i detest people who think their view is the epitome of the situation. That is call 马后炮.

  12. OK Chee
    May 25th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    The title is over kill, “demise” is inappropriate. It is just a small lost. It is always very easy for some people to rub salt into wound. If not for his tireless effort you would not be what you are today. Search your soul – be a bit more grateful.

  13. Libran
    May 25th, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    Whether Lee Kuan Yew will go down in history as a villain or a hero will depend on whether his son can right the wrongs that the PAP has wrought on Singaporeans over the last 10 years. Elitism and greed, as seen through astronomical salaries for ministers and political appointees, together with astronomical pensions that will impose a heavy burden on future generations of Singaporeans, unaffordable public housing prices (a major factor contributing to the low fertility rate), opening of the floodgates to foreigners, running the country like a corporation, election gerrymandering, etc.

  14. Chow
    May 26th, 2011 at 12:29 am

    @Stepahnie 12:47

    Aren’t you doing the same by dismissing Catherine Lim in this manner? Everyone has a right to their opinion and may write and talk about it. Everyone else also has a right to comment on the piece, as you and many others have done.

  15. Margaret Pringle
    May 26th, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Being a Singaporean from a time where you had to keep your comments and thoughts to yourself or the few trusted friends, this article has been an affirmation of what has happened in Singapore. Yes, we – Singapore – do owe LKY for the Singapore that is known the world over. Words like stable economy and heavy censorships go together hand in hand. The time of disciplining the unruly children is past and it is truly a moment whereby the people have spoken by means of their votes and the Father must step down and realize that his children are grown and need to make their own decisions.

  16. Tan Chin Woo
    May 26th, 2011 at 2:48 pm


    I think you are too harsh on Lee Kuan Yew, a man who dedicated whole of his life to bring Singapore to current stage. He is also a human being, bound to make mistake and cannot be 100% perfect. A lot of people also criticized that he took advantages on his first generation ministers group hard work and credited all the thing to his name. Can we be sure that when we put a group of talented musicians together and they will automatically form a symphonic band that play any pieces seamlessly with a good conductor? In the tough time in 1960s that Singapore was in, we need a tough leader, a leader that can take us sail out of troubled water to the direction where everyone hope to be there.

    Do you think Singapore will be better if it is run by another guy? Of course we can’t travel backward in time machine to proof this, but when you compare what we have today in Singapore isn’t it still much much better than any country? Yes there are a lot of problems now that need to be fixed, but that’s is PAP government’s problem after 2nd & 3rd generation took over from him. He cannot be blamed and asked to take responsibilities on himself alone.

    His contribution to Singapore exceeded whatever mistakes he ever made during the course of bringing Singapore to current state. Whatever he gained for himself and his family is peanut compare to the total gain of few millions who live in Singapore today.

    Like it or not we can never have 2nd LKY in Singapore history for a long long time, who has fully dedicated his whole life to the well beings of the country. So when the man is walking down the stage let’s give him our salutes and cheers, be grateful what he had given to us rather than criticize the few mistakes he had made. Let him go in pride and peace…….

  17. RDB
    May 26th, 2011 at 4:38 pm

    @Rudy Chen May 17th, 2011 at 1:40 pm,

    Are you seerious? So, do you seriously mean that you are thankfully relishing being born here eventhough it is at the expense of those who were most unjustly detained without proper cause? And that their sufferings for decades like Chia Thye Poh the longest at 32 years don’t matter? The shortest was 9 years! Are you not condoning that such indiscreminate humane acts of agression by in fact jailing opponents in the name of politcal expedience is sound, moral and a necessity too? Is there no evil in destroying not only those lives but also their families’, relatives’ and dear friends’ relationships with them by simply calling them “Marxist and/or Communist” is justifiable cause for the rest of us to enjoy, relish and immerse ourselves in gratitude to LKY for his “pragmatism”?

    Can you and all who thus view LKY’s acts of agressions seriously feel morally right about it to also simply relegate those lives he had destroyed into eternal nothingness because you are all enjoying the fruits of evils of one call LKY? One who use all manner of political innuendos and cliches to justify his agenda to glorify himself in the name of “we live in the real world”? He may be less extreme in evil than the Kims in North Korea due to geographical and other “pragmatic” reasons here, but are you not seriously missing Morally & Ethically the forest for the trees!

    Silence about evil is already condoning it. To claim benefit from it is worse. And is it not being party to evils executions when one expresses unequivocal thankfulness in support of it because one was fortunate to have been born here and by God’s Will too instead of in North Korea? Aren’t you treading on the physical realm with spirtual justification and without a thought for the preceding things I’ve mention? Perhaps you need to be reminded again of LKY’s mentality and unsoulful mindless Mind Boggling stuff? His first salvo back in 1956 is a good start to know of him and his “we live in the real world” lived and executed with absolutely no manner of regret, let alone expect any remorse from such a self-righteous character! Here goes:

    1956 – ON Repressing And ILLICIT Love-Making!

    “Repression, Sir is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love – it is always easier the second time! The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack. All you have to do is to dissolve organizations and societies and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.” – Lee Kuan Yew as an opposition PAP member speaking to David Marshall, Singapore Legislative Assembly, Debates, 4 October 1956

    Most definitely I am aghast at your questionable Moral & Ethical values in your expressed views and thinking. Because you no less oer more being LKY the man himself saying “That the means justifies the end” desired. “Two wrongs don’t make one right” So pragmatism in his “real world” is rotten to the core without respect for human lives you’ve endorsed as follows:

    “Catherine, your article portrays many negative sides of PAP and LKY.

    While I don’t fully agree 100% of their policies, I do count my blessings living in Singapore.

    LKY may have ruled Singapore with iron fist but at least he steered Singapore towards a 1st-world nation and lifted up everyone’s standard of living. Kim Jung Il also rules the nation with iron fist but thank God I was not born a North Korean.”

  18. BN
    May 27th, 2011 at 3:02 am

    If we look at the comments made by foreign friends or singapore citizens who have found a home in singapore, we realize that most of them speak favorably of singapore. Yes, we might be lacking still in terms of being a mature, cultured and caring society but the fact is singapore is a safe place to be. I would like those who speak so badly of MM Lee to think and name me one leader who transformed his country into the way singapore is now in a caring way that everyone loves. And how exactly do u want change, lets all not forget that singapore is such a young country. I personally think that we are lacking in many aspects but can we really expect to be like japan in such a short period of time.

    We can’t. It’s good to voice out and we have seen the new generation of singaporeans voicing out ( did ISA catch anyone yet? ) their political views but lets not bash mm lee for the contributions that he have made for singapore. What mm lee have done is to set a foundation for us and the very fact why there are so many of us educated and free enough to write and think about this. With this foundation, we can move on to better and finer things in life.

  19. Sabrina
    May 27th, 2011 at 3:50 am

    Hey, why is everyone saying that without LKY Singapore would not be what it is today?? Who know? He did what any leader would do, and in the 60’s we were only a population of 1.something million, a population small enough to lead, and who know, we may have been much happier today!!

  20. Tan Chin Woo
    May 27th, 2011 at 12:12 pm

    I would like to share my view on LEE KUAN YEW. Singaporean are very ungrateful, when he brought you what you have today you did not even thank him. When he stepped down willingly (of course if possible he won’t) people start to point out the mistakes he made over the years and mock at what will he feel now. We human being are very quick to point fingers on other except ourselves. Lee Kuan Yew did not became the Lee Kuan Yew the strong man, the PM and therefore the Singapore today just by accident. It is the people who gave him the mandate years after years, why? Because they trust him and not others to bring the best for Singapore. Even up till the recent GE2011, the people are so “kia su”, they still gave 60% of mandate votes to PAP. Why? Same reason, they were scare of opposition screw up, so it is a head WIN and tail WIN “pao chiak” choice. If you have no confidence in them then zero out the votes, have a new government completely form by opposition and see if your life is better or worst!

  21. 1st generation Singaporean born here in 50's
    May 27th, 2011 at 12:20 pm

    Re “Colin May 24th, 2011 at 1:55 am Do not throw pearls to swine. A prophet is without honour in his own home I agree that the PAP should show more humility but………….”

    Honestly, I have gone thru the phase of your believe some time ago and moved on!

  22. Tok Panjang
    May 27th, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Ms Cathferine Lim’s article makes us think and that is the power of her literary command. So when you consider what LKY has done for Singapore, let us give credit where credit is due. GCT’s contribution however did not accrue to the people but to LKY to “warm the seat” to prepare for LHL to take over and carry the “famiLEE” forward. In so doing Singaporeans have not featured since GCT took office, only the wayang cast of both the ruling party members and their kakis have benefitted big time. The 2011 GE results have indeed sent shock waves not only to the men in white but the rest of the population.. The next GE in 2016 will unfold a new era for Singapore. The next five years will be laying the foundation for change to take place, I predict, and I am looking forward to it and hopefully by then, ministerial salaries will not feature. Maju-lah Singapura!

  23. Matt
    May 28th, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Very eloquent.

    One thing I fear with the inevitable liberisation of the media and politics is that undesirable immorality will have more room to seep into our culture, just like how it has corrupted so many western countries. But that’s just my view.

  24. Johnny Ho
    May 28th, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    It’s not the demise of LKY’s political dominance that troubles me. But what happens when Gen Y become the leaders and managers of Singapore after 2020.

    Do these Gen Y Singaporeans have the same passion and love of the country as the old guards?

    I very much doubt they do. Different upbringing in different eras thats why.

    Nice piece Cat!

  25. Smart Ghost
    May 28th, 2011 at 8:10 pm

    You have given him too much credit by not sufficiently covering one important aspect, namely the pre-existing favourable geographical and thus commercial location of the island.

    Even the British would not have been so successful in their plans if not for this ‘God-given’ factor.

  26. Steven Teo
    May 28th, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Brilliant article!

    I hope every cabinet minister, politician & senior civil servant read this article, digest it for a while and begin to understand and scope the ramifications of what had transpired, make real changes, not just cosmetic ones, and learn not just to govern but truly serve this great nation.I am afraid if the PAP fails to heed the people’s voices in a substantive way, their moral mandate will be further eroded. Not only must the people mature, our leaders need too!

    Maybe you should post a copy of your article to of the policymakers and senior government officers as a favor to the nation.

  27. Joan Fong
    May 30th, 2011 at 2:14 am

    Dear Catherine, I think you are great the way you sit silent through some of the vitriol thrown your way, which, to my surprise, upset me the way your remarks about MM upset me. He is a friend, so I was unhappy to have unfair or harsh terms said about him.

    In the same way, you are my friend, and I am also unhappy to have sweeping statements said about you. They might dislike what you say, but I hate it when they get personal and aim it at you. I reread my own letter and cringe in case I am also guilty to some extent. If it hurt you, I hereby apologise.

    We haven’t met for a long time. I remember sitting with you working out figures as to how you could buy a condo flat. During lunches I was amazed at the amount you could eat and yet kept your figure. I would like to say I still hold you dear and sincerely wish you all the best.

    For some reason, my letter to you went viral and got sent around and all my friends are sending it to one another. This was a reason why my book, “Relatively Speaking” got so popular. MM featured from time to time through the pages, at a time when he himself hardly wrote anything about himself.

    I’ve been going through the other comments and am surprised by some addressed to me, and a plea not to leave this blog. They took my letter and posted it on the Temasek Review, where a lot of vitriol got thrown at me with statements so untrue as to be laughable.

    On this bloy, only KMTang kept harping on Jeyaretnam. I have always liked Jeyaretnam and admired him for standing alone against all the PAP hounds snapping at him. At the same time I was concerned that he was saying things which could be held accountable and could lead him to being sued, which was what happened.

    Philip Jeyaretnam and I signed books together at Parkway Parade and I told him about my liking for his Dad and wished him all the best. I got invited to some event at Raffles Hotel, if I remember correctly. I’ve forgotten what it was, but I don’t know why I bought a watermelon for the occasion, and it turned rotten.

    It was very near the time of the event when I realised my watermelon was rotten and it unnerved me that I had nothing to bring, and didn’t show up. A thought crossed my mind that Philip now won’t believe my support for his Dad, and frankly, I didn’t know what to do next, not having his phone number. Philip, if you read this, I want to make amends. Any commemorative event for your Dad and I would like to show up.

    When Devan Nair was exposed as a persona non grata, for whatever reasons I don’t really want to know, I wrote and sent him a letter immediately, saying to the effect, “Welcome Back To The Human Race !!!”

    He wrote a letter back that he is in hospital amd heavily sedated, and cannot write in detail but wanted to thank me because that letter made his day. It was a show of support at a bad moment, probably the worst, of his life.

    On a previous occasion I had sat with him and heard his views about how great it was to go to Spain, perhaps on some official business as President of Singapore. He said there was no security officer tagging along and it was absolutely great! He had wanted to invite Jeyaratnam and Chiam See Tong to dine at the Istana. And the PAP vetoed it. That made me angry.

    While I like people, and have no reason to dislike anyone in the government, for some reason I have always found occasions when I am irked by the government, collectively, for this and that policy.

    I have aired my views in the Temasek Review site on what policies I have found detestable, written also as a comment to the comments that were posted there. And the thing got lifted off that site too and went viral again.

    What delighted me immensely is that this posting I had put here earlier and the second posting in the TR caused a lot of friends and ex-students to remember I exist and they found me on Facebook and we had reunions of a kind.

    Next Sunday, as a result, I might be honoured by a visit by 5 ex-students – Christopher Chen, George Chua, Tan Tee How, Tan Chorh Chuan and Adrian Leong. Other then Tee How and Chorh Chuan whose careers are known to me, I am eager to meet the rest again to see what they are up to.

    Nah, we are not going to talk politics. I hope not. We will talk about other students I’ve taught, like George Yeo (“Poor George!”) and Teo Chee Hean. Charles Chong.

    They got my feedback too. Spoke to George about my views about their (i.e. his Ministry) letting in X-rated films. There is an argument that people are mature and watching these films will not affect them or influence anyone else to become brutes, perverts or even rapists. There is evidence that serial rapists watch pornography,I said.

    And if it is true that watching TV does not influence minds at all to act in a certain way, why do companies spend thousands of dollars putting out ads on TV unless they can brainwash people into buying their product?

    Chee Hean plonked himself next to me during a class reunion, saying, “I’ll sit next to Mrs Fong”. I told him that the A-Levels were getting easier and easier so that practically everyone gets a distinction. It shocked him. He said that teachers were getting better and students had tuition and good study methods.

    I said that U C Berkeley used to exempt my students from first year Physics, which was the subject I taught him and George. Now they admit Singapore students to do first year because they were of lesser ability. Some Universities admitted Hong Kong students with results like 3 B’s. But Singaporeans were admitted only if they have 3 A’s. Our A grade is equivalent to a Hong Kong B grade.

    “The kind of problems I used to set you in physics at A Level is now beyond the ability of the present cohort”, I told him.

    Frankly, I didn’t bother to follow up if either George or Chee Hean did anything with the feedback. I presume they did. But I had a sense of security that they knew what to do and probably did it. Somehow I trust this lot of new Ministers and MPs if they are of the calibre of George and Chee Hean.

    I can’t resist telling this anecdote about Chee Hean. When I taught them General Paper, I happened to tell them about the environment, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She wrote a book telling how pesticides are killing the earth. I said, “So you see, class, be careful how you treat the environment and beware of polluting it or it can cause us all to die.”

    Someone said, “I don’t agree with you.” I looked and said, “Oh, Chee Hean, why?”

    He said, “If that doesn’t get you, something else will.” He wasn’t rude, and sounded as if he was merely stating a fact. I thought it was a good comment.

    Years later I met him when he was the Minister for the Environment Ministry. He said, “I notice you have written a book for us.” I said, “Yes, that’s Tidal Fortunes.” That was a book the Environment Ministry handed out to foreign visitors to inform them as to how the Singapore River was cleaned up. I found it delicious that he ended up the Minister for the Environment and reminded him of what he said about the environment in class. Now it was his job to tackle the environment!

    This is my last visit to this site, simply because I hate to find the URL to come in, as well as the other places where I got featured. Don’t make any more comments please, readers of this blogsite, or be annoyed that i don’t answer. It is just that I haven’t the time to do it or the liking for blogs. I find answering things on my Facebook page also a bother, and sometimes don’t look at emails for a week.

    Catherine, if you are curious as to why, I am back to writing Lower Secondary Science textbooks, just like I did for CDIS in those days when you too were employed there and we could meet from time to time. And I am one month behind in passing up my work. Getting old, I guess.

    God bless and take care!


  28. Apolitical
    May 30th, 2011 at 9:08 am

    Nice story. Quite touching. Even sensible one must say. But still a data point of one.

    We are asked to criticise the policies and not the man making the policies. How do you criticise a policy that is framed in the following manner? Is it wrong to pay Ministers and Members of Parliament a reasonable salary? How about this one: should we ask our neighbours to help till our large farm so that we can cultivate more crops and increase our farm output for our family? Sounds eerily similar to our FT problem isn’t it?

    The way humans make decisions sometimes seem irrational. It may seem so but it is based on the followings: 1. Heuristics; 2. Framing; 3. Emotions;and 4. Personal Experience.

    Heuristics, often referred to as rules of thumbs, are means of reducing the congitive resources necessary to find a solution to a problem. They are mental shortcuts that simplify the complex methods ordinarily required to make judgments. In the past, precisely because our leaders earned so little we never questioned any policies they implemented because through heuristics we believed they were good men. Why would anyone take such a huge pay cut unless they are true at heart and sincere people. Similarly, now the pendulum has swung the other way when we see absurdly high pay for Ministers et al.

    People’s perceptions of the choices they have are strongly influenced by how these choices are framed. In other words, people often make different choices when the question is framed in a different way, even though the objective facts remain constant. Psychologists refer to this behaviour as frame dependence. In the past different choices were framed for us dubiously but we accepted it because of our beliefs that our leaders were good men: see heuristics. Try the same trick today and people wise up and start throwing brickbats.

    People’s emotions and associated universal human unconscious needs, fantasies, and fears drive many of their decisions. Our leaders were able to capitalise on these emotions and used them successfully to gain carte blanche to act against communists or whatever perceived threats Singaporean faced during our growing years. Today, they still feel they have carte blanche. It was withdrawn a long time ago when they started paying themselves way over and above what is a reasonable amount of wages for the privilege of serving the nation.

    Our personal experience is not a static event. It is ever changing and recent experiences are all bad even for who gained economically. Do a survey on high income earners on what they think of our ruling party. It is mostly negative. Why should this be the case since they gain the most relatively speaking in comparison with others in Singapore. Because life is not about getting rich. It is about living rich. To live rich one do not spend time accumulating food on our plates. We spend time eating and appreciating the finer things in life while we eat. Some of us would like to cook too. It is a poor life if our daily activities start and end with the question: So how much food have you accumulated on your plate so far?

    Public service is a privilege and many successful people in Singapore would like to serve. But in the political environment today we have a monopoly. Consumers generally dislike monopolies unless it is a natural monopoly like railways, public utilities, etc.

    It is oxymoronic to have a monopoly on political activities in a democratic society.

  29. Non Partisan Singaporean Patriot
    May 30th, 2011 at 11:32 am

    “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.”

    Let us first be allowed to fly our National Flag on any given day of the year, then we can start talking about having heart.

  30. Joy Cheng
    May 30th, 2011 at 3:46 pm


    Well written article.

    Mr Lee Kuan Yew, we love you and great thanks for everything in Singapore


  31. catherine lim
    May 30th, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    To Joan Hon

    Dear Joan

    Thank for your nice, long, friendly letter.

    No, don’t feel bad about whatever ‘vitriol’ comes my way as a political commentator. It is balanced by the supportive comments. Both come with the territory of political criticism, and each can be a learning experience. Bouquets ad brickbats – they’re okay!

    I have very little knowledge of Facebook, Twitter, Temasek Review, etc. simply because I’m a technophobe and ignoramus in all things high-tech. I’m known to some of my friends as a ‘techno-bodoh’, and if I didn’t have this competent, friendly, patient young person to manage my website, I couldn’t have started it in the first place.

    I enjoyed your personal anecdotes, all suffused with so much warmth and humour! So you have joined those ex-colleagues of mine in education who are always wickedly reminding me of the huge amount of food I used to wolf down during my lunches in the canteen. Well, I’m still indulging in the obscenely rich stuff – bak kut teh, laksa, roast pork rice – but I try very hard to be disciplined at those sinful buffets. I have to , at my age!

    Well, Joan, since this is your last visit to my site, may I wish you all happiness!


  32. Leonard Koh
    May 30th, 2011 at 6:16 pm

    Dear Ms Lim You write of course most eloquently. When poetry and prose flow are guised as political commentary, then eloquence alone is not nearly enough. Being you, you bear a severe responsibility to write in impartial tones. It seems obvious that in your self-professed occupation with civil liberties, you have quite inadvertently tied the Singapore psyche to a rotting post which you have come to believe, perhaps as a result of the length of years or some trauma never quite exorcised. One of the greatest surprises of GE 2011 was not the people’s unequivocal rejection of the PAP style of government, it was the unequivocal election of the PAP and a constituency of moderate opposition members. Simple as that. Lee Kuan Yew is not a casualty. He is but another retiring man. Nothing more, nothing less. If you know politics then you must know that the message that prime minister must be free to act on his own without any interference from the overpowering father is not the only reason that MM took his leave. There are a multitude of reasons, but one which I am willing to believe is that a man recognizes the end of his tenure and in his moment of choosing, leaves the stage in quiet hushed tones – the greatness of his forbearance left to the judgment of future generations. People make mistakes and so do governments in the throes of battle. Should we be grateful that the mistakes were not made when our nation was trying to get on its two feet so that it could share the living space of a crowded international community clamoring for influence and dominion? Have you been to some of our ASEAN neighbors recently? Have you walked the pavement of a road in those cities? Can you walk ten paces without a stone or a wet puddle breaking your stride? Whether he was willing to step down or not is not the issue. Can you not see that the biggest draw at any conference is still Mr LKY? If he really wanted to exert influence, do you think he could not do so and people would not listen. Yes, we might disagree, and quite harshly with some of his comments but listen we will. Why? Because he is Mr LKY and he may not have founded Singapore but he, and his compatriots, surely made it the way it is today. Lest you be mistaken, the nation understands what Aljunied residents have done. They do not think that the WP candidates are necessarily better than those of the PAP there. We Singaporeans believe in giving people a chance and so we are doing this now. MM is going on 88. When a man is meets his challenger, he swings his club the way he always has. He still beats his chest to sound his campaign, he still scolds to make his point and in his blunt inelegant remarks, he is willing to display his vulnerability, warts and all. Is that not how a man should be? I think you did say something quite right: 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, because he had a genuine commitment to the well-being of the society. That was his self-interest: to protect his legacy in much the same way you would protect your rights to your literary freedom – which is your self-interest. In your lifetime, you chose to rapture your readers with your wit and prose. In his, he chose to clothe his audience with food, clothing and roof. What is most wrenching is not the diminishing of his stature in the international community. Of that, few can lay claim to a captive audience at an age of 88 and so he may already have no equal there. What is most wrenching are the unkind comments made when one has done what is kind; kind to his people, kind to their wishes. You are wrong that politics was Lee Kuan yew’s one overriding, exclusive passion upon which he had brought to bear all his special resources of intellect, temperament and personality. Perhaps you think his stumble beside his wife as he bade her farewell one last time was another manufactured moment of propagandist genius. But I for one choose to believe not. I like to think of that as a genuine moment of real human frailty to be celebrated for all its meaning and feeling. There is no irony here. Only a man of admirable sharpness of mind, keenness of foresight and strength of purpose recognizing he had created a new generation of better-educated, more exposed and sophisticated Singaporeans. That he had succeeded and the system would avail itself of these new generations of able people who will prosper the evolution of a Singapore with all the grace, dignity and style of a people admired for their forthrightness and ethics. Yes it was a brilliant paradigm, a model of classic realpolitik. Did it have a place for human values? In your portrayal of “the defeat of presumably worthless human emotions’, you must have brushed over the real emotions of love, sacrifice, atonement, forgiveness and innumerable traits of Singaporeans throughout the 60s to today. I dare say we experience this ourselves every day. Must we be so blind to blame our own lack of sight on an institution? Only a cynic would disallow themselves the privilege of their own sight, hearing, thoughts. Singaporeans can think for ourselves and at this moment of truth, we are demonstrating to our former leader that we have arrived at the shores of independence and he can now relax. Finally he can relax. Yes, mistakes were made in the bloody mindedness of practical application. But that is the past. Let the past bury itself Ms Lim. Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is not mixed at all. Nobody stays connected to the ground for eternity. LKY is not the great hero of an epic tragedy, caught in a maelstrom of forces beyond his control, destroyed in the end by working, ironically, upon a single tragic flaw in his character. That may sound poetic in some way. But Mr Lee Kuan Yew is not a poet nor is the protagonist of an tragic odyssey . He is the master-servant of a fairytale nation. A leader, who seeing the last stop of his station, entrusts his work in the hands of his people; to soar it to the heights even he could not imagine; even he could not dream. That I choose to believe. Even if I am wrong, I can choose.

  33. Leonard Koh
    May 30th, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    Perhaps I may have misread the purpose of your commentary. But this is but to share my thoughts on this particular piece since i know not where to direct to you personally my sentiments on this article.