Transcript of a lecture given at NUSS on 22 August 2012. The event was organized by the NUSS Graduate Club
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a real honour and pleasure for me to be here this evening, to give a talk, to share with you certain ideas, thoughts, musings, on a topic that is of great interest to me.
Someone once described the ideal audience as intelligent, highly educated and a little drunk. Well, you qualify except on the last point. But there’s somebody among you who’s probably now wishing for a stiff drink or two to calm her nerves. This is a nice, caring friend of mine who worries endlessly on my account, because of a what she calls my ‘ daring and dangerous’ political speeches. When I told her that my talk this evening would be about Mr Lee Kuan Yew, she let out a little shriek of horror, threw up her hands, rolled her eyes, shook her head, and said in utmost exasperation, ‘You really are so mm-chai-see!’ And she genuinely believes that right here, hidden among you somewhere is this hall, is a PAP man in black with the handcuffs at the ready, to escort me out after the lecture!
I would like to say to my kind, nervous friend, ‘It’s okay. There’s no need to be afraid.’ Ten years ago, five years ago, maybe even as recently as one and half years ago, public speakers would need to be a little afraid if they dared to speak on politically sensitive topics, that is, those subjects forbidden by the famous out-of-bounds markers. But since the amazing General Election of last year, things have changed, and today it’s okay for Singaporeans to speak freely and openly (but civilly and respectfully, of course) on any issue of national interest and concern.
For nearly 20 years now, I have been writing commentaries and giving talks, on various aspects of the Singapore political situation, and all of them, without exception, have been underlain by one common, unquestioned assumption—the powerful influence of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Whatever my topic—the uneasy relationship between the PAP government and the people, the lack of civic liberties and other democracy deficits, the attitude of young, sophisticated Singaporeans who see emigration as an attractive option—the conclusion reached each time invariably pointed to the self-evident truth of Mr Lee’s dominance in the political scene, whether as Prime Minister, Senior Minister or Minister Mentor, in the fifty years of his leadership.
Indeed, it would be no exaggeration to say that the sum total of Singapore’s successes and reverses, its strengths and weaknesses, its best and its worst, can be ultimately traced to one man, the founding father of the ruling party and the first prime minister. Mr Lee has been aptly compared to the huge banyan tree, and his colleagues to the little saplings allowed to grow in its shade. To the outside world, his name is synonymous with Singapore.
It was inevitable that at some point I would be tempted to pull together all these separate allusions to Mr Lee, and come up with a single, comprehensive narrative, with Mr Lee as the focal point of interest. And the most fitting time to share this narrative is now. For this is a crucial period in Singapore’s development, a time of great uncertainty and change, brought about by the unprecedented events of the General Election of 2011 (GE 2011), which events can, arguably, be traced to Mr Lee. For the most bitterly contentious issues in the election leading to the worst ever performance of the PAP, were none other than those policies that he had most stoutly defended and promoted, namely, those related to the enormous ministerial salaries, and the liberal employment of foreign workers.
The rejection of these policies was by extension a rejection of Mr Lee. This astonishing, never-before-seen hostility against the most prominent leader in Singapore, has ushered in a somewhat awkward transition which, for the purposes of this presentation, I will call a post-Lee Kuan Yew era, although Mr Lee is still around. I have used the prefix in the phrase to refer not, to Mr Lee’s physical demise, but to the more shocking demise of his long and illustrious political career, brought about by circumstances that no one could have imagined, least of all, Mr Lee himself. Thus a post-LKY era is used here not in the literal but in the ironic sense, not in the temporal but the experiential sense, to refer to the present, when Mr Lee is still around to witness and be daily reminded of possibly the most painful fact of his political career—that he was, in effect, the biggest casualty in GE 2011.
Sometime in the future, the term may be much softened by nostalgic memory and retrospective regard. But right now, it can only have a disquieting surreality, as, in the aftermath of a bruising election, the most powerful man in Singapore is, paradoxically, reduced to a political nonentity with nothing left to do except tie up the loose ends of his legacy, by writing his memoirs, giving advice when asked, making personal donations to his pet causes such as the proper teaching of Mandarin in the schools, and traveling abroad, when he can, to receive honours.
Yet when Mr Lee joined the campaigning in May last year, his thoughts could not have been further from this drastic change in his political fortunes. As in the previous elections, he entered the fray with his usual energy and buoyant optimism, convinced that his vision for Singapore would once again prevail, that despite voter discontent here and there, he could always count on a sensible majority to return his government to power with another ringing endorsement, and enable it to go on with its good work.
For Mr Lee’s vision for Singapore was a truly admirable one—to enable a tiny, vulnerable, resource-poor island-state to become such an outstanding example of prosperity and stability that the whole world would have to sit up and take notice. To achieve this vision, Mr Lee knew, from the start, that he needed to do only two things: first, compel the party he founded to conform to his stern image of a hard-working, competent, disciplined and incorruptible leadership, and second, compel the people he led to conform to an equally stern image of a totally co-operative, totally compliant society that had better not give any trouble. Underpinning both aims, of course, was an unshakeable confidence in himself and a corresponding disdain for those liberal democratic processes that could only cause distraction, disruption and unruliness.
Thus, when Mr Lee joined the hustings of GE 2011, he must have been specially gratified that at the advanced age of 86 and still in good health, he could continue to promote his vision, and entrench permanently the PAP model of governance that he had created and nurtured. His carefully devised plan for a smooth transition and leadership succession, had already been securely put in place, a plan by which his successors would always be stringently selected, trained and tested, to ensure that they would always abide by the principles embodied in the model of governance. Mr Lee left nothing to chance.
If, like his PAP colleagues, he was aware of signs of impending trouble in GE 2011, such as the greater-than-usual rumblings of discontentment from the people, the rise of a young, noisy and bold Internet population and the emergence of a newly energized opposition, he showed no indication of it, but went among his constituents cheerfully telling them that he would be around for a while to take care of them.
As for the openly defiant Aljunied GRC, he sallied forth to give them a good scolding for not knowing what was for their own good, using words that amounted to a Biblical curse: ‘Live and repent!’ The outburst must have been most alarming to his colleagues who had been carefully cultivating a placatory style to win over a newly assertive electorate. Suddenly there was disarray in the PAP camp.
Some future analyst might be tempted to identify that thunderously dramatic moment in Aljunied as the precise point at which Lee Kuan Yew, the most senior and respected member of his party, became its greatest liability. What could never have happened in any of the previous elections, happened very quickly in this one, as Mr Lee’s colleagues scrambled to do damage control.
Midway through the campaigning, the Prime Minister called a press conference to gently but firmly, dissociate his government from Mr Lee’s behaviour. It was an extraordinary public repudiation of his father that must have been the most difficult decision he had to make.
But it was only the beginning of a series of equally painful decisions. Immediately after the election, the Prime Minister announced that Mr Lee had decided to resign as Minister Mentor (together with Senior Minister Mr Goh Chok Tong). In view of Mr Lee’s earlier ebullient optimism, the decision must have been a most reluctant and anguished one. Next came the announcement, obviously in continuing appeasement of a still angry electorate, of the setting up of a committee to review the ministerial salaries, followed in due course by the announcement that the policy of the foreign workers would also be looked into.
There was still much more placating work to do. What could not be publicly announced but could be clearly signaled to the people, was a quiet dismantling, or at least a toning down, of the special hallmarks of Mr Lee’s rule. These included the two fearsome instruments of control, the ISA (Internal Security Act) by which political activists could be detained indefinitely without trial, and the defamation suit by which political opponents could be financially ruined. Although both instruments are still officially around, it is obvious that they will never again be used in the same way that Mr Lee had used them. Indeed, it will not surprise anyone if eventually they take on a symbolic rather than a substantive function.
Other policies initiated or endorsed by Mr Lee, which have been around for a while but which had been controversial in their time, such as the GRC (Group Representation Constituency) system, and NMP (Nominated Member of Parliament) system, will likely come up for debate in a Parliament that now has a noticeable and confident opposition presence.
Future PAP proposals that are reminiscent of the old era, for instance, proposals for changes to existing electoral rules, that suspiciously smack of gerrymandering, will be strenuously scrutinized, debated and resisted, not only in Parliament but in the social media. Gone are the days when PAP proposals could simply be tabled, pushed through and rolled out in one swift, easy sweep.
As for Mr Lee’s most infamous, egregious and draconian policy, that of population control decades ago, by which a woman would have to produce a sterilization certificate to enrol her young children in a school of her choice: well, the government would only be too glad to consign it forever to the dust heap of history, to erase it forever from collective memory.
The most visible disavowal of the LKY legacy is the complete transformation of the old PAP style of lofty superiority and stiff formality into its exact opposite—casualness, friendliness, approachability and buddy-buddyism, best exemplified by the new, young leaders as they fan out to reach the people. It is a style that can only irritate LKY who once spoke of the need for gravitas for proper leadership demeanour. He probably links this happy-clappy style with a lack of intellectual substance, as was evident when he walked out during a parliamentary speech by one of these new, young PAP recruits.
But the strongest repudiation of Mr Lee is his colleagues’ quiet but firm exclusion of his presence at public events of political contesting, when PAP heavyweights normally make an appearance to gain support for their chosen candidate. This exclusion was already evident in the campaigning in GE 2011 after the Aljunied incident, and was again apparent in the campaigning in the Presidential election some months later.
As for the Hougang by-election this year, under normal circumstances, Mr Lee would only have been too happy to lend his enormous prestige to the PAP contestant. But now his presence is seen as more toxic than tonic. In any case, Mr Lee’s haughty pride and integrity would never have allowed him to be where he was not wanted, to be seen as a sad, spent force. When he resigned as Minister Mentor, one can easily imagine him rejecting outright his colleagues’ offer of a continuing position, but under a different designation, like the Emeritus title accepted by Mr Goh Chok Tong.
It is quite clear that currently the Prime Minister and his team are grappling with a colossal task: how to strike the right balance between the need, on the one hand, to divest the old model of those elements no longer acceptable to the people, and the desire, on the other, to preserve its core principles of hard work, discipline, competence, moral integrity and incorruptibility. These words which once rang with grand authority now have a hollow resonance, following the people’s grievances about what they had perceived as gross PAP negligence and complacency that had resulted in, among other things, a widening income gap between the rich and the poor, an influx of foreign workers overcrowding the buses and trains, and the incredibly easy prison escape of a top terrorist. There is little wonder then that the PAP leaders have to do some urgent repackaging and come up with new terminology, such as ‘new normal’ and ‘inclusiveness’.
At this stage of my deliberations, I would like to ask a rather tantalising question: why did Mr Lee’s colleagues who for decades had lived with, even appreciated, his style, suddenly decide that they could no longer afford it? How could this inner circle, groomed by Mr Lee, cast in his image, utterly respectful of his seniority and authority in the best Confucianist tradition, have repudiated him the way they did?
A ready answer would of course lie in the unprecedented exigencies of GE 2011. After the election, Mr Lee’s colleagues must have realised that they had to do something quickly, if they did not want a repeat of the disaster four or five years hence. Indeed, by the next General Election, the opposition would presumably be stronger, and the voters more assertive, making their task that much more difficult.
Hence Mr Lee’s colleagues, much as they disliked it, had no choice but to let him go. They must have been mightily relieved that he had himself offered to resign, but even then, given the highly charged atmosphere of those days, they still had to convince the people that Mr Lee’s domineering influence was well and truly gone, that he would no longer be the power behind the throne. All these moves were really no more than those dictated by the brute calculus of political survival.
But this straightforward answer obscures the complexities of the relationship between Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his colleagues, a subject of considerable interest to political commentators. For years, I had tried to infer as much as I could from the behind-the-scenes tensions and disagreements between a strong-willed, old man used to doing things his way, and his younger colleagues acutely aware that his way could be hopelessly out of sync with the changed mood and temper of the times.
While Mr Lee preferred the knuckleduster approach, his colleagues know they have to settle for the soft touch or what they call ‘the light footprint'; while Mr Lee believed in the efficacy of instilling fear, they understand the greater efficacy of consultation and persuasion.
Indeed, the conflicts go back a long way, (back to a time when many of you here today are too young to remember) when Mr Lee’s colleagues bravely tried to dissuade him from certain proposals that he had put forward in his usual peremptory style. These proposals can only be described as the eccentric side of his genius—changing the one-man one-vote system after a humiliating loss to a hated opponent in a by-election, bringing back the traditional practice of polygamy to solve the intractable demographic problem of declining births, setting up a kind of Bohemian enclave to contain the unruly artistic crowd.
Moreover, Mr Lee had the habit of making blunt, scathing criticisms in public, sometimes deeply embarrassing his colleagues. On one occasion, during the premiership of Mr Goh Chok Tong, Mr Lee revealed that his choice of successor had been Dr Tony Tan and not Mr Goh whom he then proceeded to evaluate in the most unflattering terms. On another occasion, which was much more recent, he had harsh words to say about the Malay-Muslim community, which greatly upset them. If the target of his criticism was the sensitive neighbour from across the Causeway, then all diplomatic hell could break loose, forcing his poor colleagues to rush in for a massive mopping-up job.
Understandably, these long-suffering colleagues had to draw a line somewhere and impose their own restraints on the irrepressible Mr Lee, especially when the political stakes were high. And the stakes were highest in a general election where Mr Lee’s irascibility could mean a severe loss of votes.
This was exactly what the colleagues had feared in the general election of 2006 in what may be known as the ‘James Gomez Incident’. Mr Gomez, a member of the opposition Workers’ Party, had angrily accused the PAP government of ignoring his application form to register as a candidate in the coming election. Unknown to him, there was a surveillance camera in the premises, which showed him, not submitting the application form as he had claimed, but quietly putting it in his sling bag before walking away.
This act of brazen dishonesty and taunting accusation was something that Mr Lee simply could not tolerate. He was furious, and for a while his colleagues joined him in vigorously attacking Mr Gomez in the campaigning. But when they became aware of a rising tide of voter sympathy for Mr Gomez, they stopped. Mr Lee continued to be angry well after the election, calling Mr Gomez a bare-faced liar and challenging the Workers’ Party to sue him. He must have been most annoyed with his colleagues for not taking action against Mr Gomez and probably privately rebuked them for being weak-willed and cowardly.
The James Gomez incident may be seen as a precursor of the more serious Aljunied incident where the political stakes were even higher, forcing the PAP government to realize that they simply had to do something, once and for all, about Mr Lee’s propensity to cause trouble.
In the light of the astounding, almost bizarre plunge of Mr Lee into political anonymity after GE 2011, one is tempted to ask an intriguing ‘What if’ question. What if the Aljunied incident had never taken place? What if the PAP performance in the election, even if bad compared to those in previous elections, was considered by the leaders as good enough for them to brazen things out, to act as if nothing had happened, to carry on as before? After all, in the eyes of the world, it was a clear victory, and in the eyes of Mr Lee, continuing endorsement of the PAP.
In this ‘what if’ scenario, where Mr Lee would still be a dominant influence, one can easily imagine, knowing his implacability, that he would make use of his remaining years to toughen up the PAP leadership, to make sure that the GE 2011 debacle would never happen again. To punish Singaporeans for voting irresponsibly, for jeopardizing, in his view, the very survival of the nation, he would most certainly reinforce the climate of fear, resorting, if necessary, to extra-constitutional measures. (Some years ago, at a public function, I asked Mr Lee, whether in the event of a serious threat of a freak election, he would send in the army. He did not answer directly but emphasized his responsibility to prevent any government from coming in and squandering the vast national reserves).
Mr Lee’s unremittingly tough stance would likely alienate the more moderate of his colleagues, and could even create an open split in the party, a ‘what if’ scenario that would certainly have major political repercussions for the society.
But whatever the extent of Mr Lee’s fall, no evaluation of him will be complete without due acknowledgement of his very real achievements. Indeed, his brilliant success in making Singapore what it is today is unreservedly acknowledged by both his admirers and detractors, and is extensively documented. It must be the regret of many Singaporeans on both sides of the divide, that his political exit had not taken place some years earlier, when it would have been graceful, noble and pleasing, instead of being the ignominious and embarrassing fact it is today.
Beyond all these considerations, even his severest critics will have to agree that here indeed was a man of extraordinary conviction, boldness, strength and purposefulness. To this laudatory list, I would like to add one more shining attribute—selflessness. I believe that Mr Lee’s commitment to the well-being of his country was completely devoid of any self-interest, vainglory or personal cultishness, a quality rare enough when seen against the megalomania of so many world leaders bent on having magnificent monuments put up for them.
The best proof of the selflessness of Mr Lee’s commitment to Singapore was in his ardent—some would say unrealistic—desire to take care of the nation for all time, beyond his earthly sojourn, beyond even the life of his party. Surely greater love than this hath no leader!
Mr Lee’s worst fear was of a rogue opposition party taking over and laying its corrupt hands on the fabulously vast national reserves that his government had so carefully built up for the society’s permanent well-being. To prevent this, he did something extraordinary. He changed the constitution to build in a special custodial role for the President of Singapore, empowering him to prevent any government from appropriating the reserves.
Whether this system can actually work in practice is another matter. But the passion behind it must impress by its sheer force and sweep. A man of little sentiment, Mr Lee expressed his love for his beloved Singapore in the best way he knew how—by a grand political strategy.
But even this towering passion could be sobered by a dose or two of reality and take on a melancholy tone, as happened when Mr Lee paid a visit to New Zealand years back. While being shown around, he suddenly turned to his host and said sombrely, ‘ Your country will be around 100 years from now, but I’m not so sure about mine’.
The unavoidable and, to me, dismaying truth about Lee’s brilliance, genius and vision is that, somewhere along the way, he allowed it to harden into inflexibility, intolerance and vindictiveness. Because his knuckleduster approach had worked so well in the early years of his rule when he gave order to a young Singapore beset by threats from all sides—from Communist sympathizers, communalists, racist newspaper editors, intransigent trade unionists, rioting students, triads and gangsters—he had come to believe that it should work for all time, under all circumstances. His vision had narrowed into a singularly monolithic, undifferentiated one, trapping him in a time warp.
It also gave him a sense of his infallibility, which had two distinct consequences. Firstly, it blinded him to his own faults while amplifying those of others. Secondly, it gave a particularly vicious quality to the way he treated all those who dared to oppose him openly. Indeed, his hatred of his political opponents was so intense that he had no qualms about incarcerating them for years, even decades, bankrupting them or forcing them to flee into permanent exile. In short, his vision had taken on a dark side that had no place for those human qualities that we normally like to associate with even our sternest leaders, qualities such as empathy, magnanimity and humility. Mr Lee had become his own worst enemy, his own nemesis.
A man of intense pride, he is unlikely ever to have this perspective of himself, and to his dying day will probably regret that his people for whom he had worked so hard for so long, never appreciated him, never understood the depth of his commitment to them, when he declared, famously, that even when dead and inside his coffin, if he sensed a problem out there, he would up and solve it for them.
I remember being so impressed by this passionate declaration that I wrote a poem on it, a rather light-hearted one. Here it is:
The coffin was enormous
To match the godlike status,
For both in life and death
He was a true Colossus.
Someone who with the Opposition
Was clearly in cahoots,
Whispered, ‘Ah, a new dawn!
No more defamation suits!’
At which the corpse sprang right up
‘Who said that?’ it roared,
‘He’s defaming my good name,
So get our lawyers on board!’
Now living out his remaining years in political limbo, Mr Lee has lost that great Coffin Moment. When I think of those angry words that he had flung at the Aljunied constituents that day, I can’t help wondering if he may be using the very same words today to throw at the whole nation, in a mixture of sorrow and anger. ‘Live and repent!’ he may be saying to an entire society moving towards its ruin because it had failed to heed him. I’ve also written a poem on the subject, as a kind of sequel to the Coffin poem:
Ah, all that mayhem in Parliament,
Democracy’s noise and furore!
I could have quashed it all,
But my Coffin Moment’s no more.
So you’re celebrating freedom,
You say it’s come at last.
I could have stopped the madness,
But my Coffin Moment is past.
Disruption, disorder, chaos,
A terrible era is born,
I can do nothing now,
My Coffin Moment is gone.
Mark you this, you people,
You’ll live to regret and repent,
Your rejection of what I’d offered,
The gift of my Coffin Moment.
You know, I have been such a keen and fascinated observer of Mr Lee for so long that I would hate to end a talk on him with something as trivial as a doggerel. What I would like to do now is to share with you, very briefly, some thoughts about an entirely different kind of post-LKY era, which could yet be the most brilliant vindication of Mr Lee’s special philosophy, his special model of governance.
You must all be aware of a certain significant geopolitical development in the world today, a trend being set by a group of five countries called BRICS (comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Although an economic grouping, BRICS is said to have the potential to be a political model, that might even replace the Western model of liberal democracy which is now undergoing much stress and strain. BRICS is attractive because it cleverly espouses, on the one hand, the strong leadership associated with authoritarian regimes, and, on the other, the unbridled capitalism of fully practising democracies. In other words, instead of seeing these two systems as mutually exclusive, it has skillfully combined them and come up with something that has the best of both worlds. Although still a model in the making, it is being watched with great interest by emerging economies in the developing world.
Now the Singapore model created by Lee Kuan Yew is precisely of this kind: it does away with certain elements of democracy such as free speech and an independent media, but unabashedly embraces its other half, capitalism. The resulting material prosperity has caused international economic surveys to consistently rank Singapore among the top three business-friendly countries in the world. When Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore in 1978, he must have been so impressed with what he saw, that he took back ideas for his own plans for an overhaul of China; soon afterwards, he put China firmly on the capitalist road, but with the authoritarian face of Communism intact.
The BRICS influence is likely to grow in a highly globalised world, where powerful international investors are looking around to see where they can park their billions. Singapore is an attractive destination. In fact, a top investor from the US, Mr Jim Rogers, and the co-founder of Facebook, Mr Eduardo Savarin, have already made Singapore their home and the base for their business operations. It is very likely that other big businessmen, notably from China, India and Russia, will follow suit. And it is no secret that the PAP government simply loves to welcome big money to its shores.
What long term implications would this have for Singapore? Would these new citizens with their enormous clout turn the nation into one huge, mega business corporation, fittingly called Singapore Inc? What would eventually happen to Singapore culture and identity?
Above all, what would Mr Lee think ( from whatever ethereal, eternal abode he might be in)? Would he feel pleased that at last his vision was being vindicated, not only by his country, but by the world? Or would he be dismayed by the loss of a Singapore identity?
I think it would be the latter. For Mr Lee cared deeply about roots, about the special nexus of family and community. More than 30 years ago, when he worried that the younger generation was becoming too westernized because of their English-medium education, he introduced the policy of compulsory mother-tongue learning, in the belief that it would restore traditional values to give society the cultural and ethical ballast it needed. Again, through his memoirs, he had a strong message for the younger generation: ‘Know where you have come from’.
In the light of this concern with roots and belonging, Mr Lee would be alarmed by Singapore Inc. Could he have done something in his time to prevent it? Could he have had one final, great Coffin Moment to save the country he loved so well?
This is a subject that is obviously far too vast for this talk, and certainly far too complex for me to do more than share a few anxious conjectures, throw out a few teasing questions that might be worthwhile picking up.
We are indeed in the midst of one of the most exciting times in Singapore’s history, a time fraught with paradoxes, perils and promises, brought about by a general election that has been described as a watershed, a sea change, a transformation, not least because it ended the era of Lee Kuan Yew. Mr Lee’s legacy is so mixed that at one end of the spectrum of response, there will be pure admiration and adulation, and at the other, undisguised opprobrium and distaste. But whatever the emotions he elicits, whatever the controversies that swirl around him, it will be generally agreed that for a man of his stature and impact, neither the present nor the future holds an equal.