Death of LKY
Well, it’s finally happened. It had been in the works for a while, and everybody knew that it was time. It would not be a sudden death – LKY does not do this sort of thing. There would be a carefully managed transition. IT would take place during a major anniversary, and there would be a great outpouring of grief and hopefully that would swing back the election.
I’d probably want to say a few things which are not that obvious about him, that people haven’t already mentioned, because I see on social media a lot of people making tributes to the man. I’m trying to find out why he matters.
1. LKY as a post-colonial leader.
To be sure, it was an extremely exciting time to be in the 60s, not only because of its uniquely revolutionary character, it was also the decade of the rise of the post-colonial leader. But his peers have mostly faded away. LKY is no Che Guevara or Fidel Castro. He’s not Sukarno, or even a Kwame Nkrumah. He's not a Julius Nyerere, helming a stirring revolutionary struggle. In a sense, he’s not even a Lim Chin Siong. He doesn’t do stirring rhetoric stuff. The British ceded control of Singapore, and one or two election cycles later, he won power. That's it. We have one of the unsexiest founding myths ever.
His real peers are Park Chung Hee and Chiang Kai Shek. Dour, strongman dictators who laid the foundations for a prosperous future. Deng Xiaoping took a few lessons from LKY.
2. LKY is seen as being responsible for much that is Singapore.
To be sure, leadership is probably something that you really want if you are living on an island. (And I referred to Singapore being an island in terms of its not being contiguous with its surroundings). If you were living in a big city in a big country, you couldn’t care less what your mayor is. But if you were surrounded on all sides by countries that are less developed than you are, then it does matter that who that captain of your little boat is. Will we get kicked around by larger and more powerful forces, or will we continue to pull our weight in international affairs?
In a way, Singapore is a great giant Chinatown, and LKY is the biggest Huay Kuan leader of them all. People in an unfamiliar surroundings need all the help they can get to get by.
So we know that we are from the same stock as the Taiwanese and the Hongkongers – at least, the Chinese, who make up the majority of Singaporeans. Is it inevitable that we would have been as prosperous as them? I think, on balance, we would have succeeded. But maybe not as well as if we were under LKY. Overseas Chinese always succeed in what we do. We’re a little bit like the Jewish – we always get it done in the end. But LKY took it a step further, and maybe he always had ambitions for Singapore to be a great world city, and it had the potential to be one. But Singapore’s position as a world city is precarious. In a way, you could see the whole stretch of islands in the sea off China to be a strange ghostly empire, half sea and half land. Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia would be part of this great chain. And there is an emphasis on the impermanence of things. In Japanese culture this is called “the floating world”. We are not a great continental power like China. Empires rise and fall. They flourish for a while, and then they’re gone. The Majapahit, the Funan, the Angkor, the Ayutthya, Rangoon and Mandalay. So while we do have a great strategic location – out of those circa 20000 islands in that big chain, we’re one of the few that it is absolutely imperative for ships to sail around. Like we’re Cape town or something.
That said, I saw an article which said that the African strongmen all tried to be like Lee Kuan Yew, and none of them truly succeeded. There are reasons for that, other than that they’re not LKY. Notice that all the overseas Chinese societies are to a greater or lesser extent economically successful. That is because we Chinese carry parts of our culture wherever we go. Now, we’ll always have our differences with Mainland Chinese, that’s a given. But we’re still more like them than different, and we were brought up with the same values, and had the same types of parents trying to go one up on each other over their kids’ achievements. We always talk about forbearance and hard work.
The Africans – it’s not that they do not have good values. I’ve heard it said before – values like Ujaama and Ubuntu. About how villages can live in peace, about how the wisdom of the tribal elders can make a very meaningful and good co-existence. Well and good, all of this. But the problem is that there’s no practice of building a large society, of doing something that’s more modern. In many parts of Africa, living standards are struggling to reach the level that China reached during dynastic periods. It is the Dark Continent, far away from the rest of humanity, and nobody ever has to pass through there for anything. They’re all stricken with malaria and river blindness. There’s only so much that you can achieve in those circumstances. This is not Singapore, where large ships laden to the brim with the latest goods pass through the port every few hours. Do you think that LKY would have done anything? You got to be kidding. But there are at the moment 1-2 million Chinese people in Africa who are settling there in order to get away from the overcrowded mainland. And they’ll be bringing their energies, their business sense and their organizational skills. And of course a few Africans here and there will be exploited, but I think they will be bringing knowledge and change and it might be a good thing for all.
3. LKY has articulated the logic behind strongman dictatorship.
I used to think that it was especially damning that Chia Thye Poh was the longest held political prisoner in the world. And yes, it is true that the man has suffered greatly for his beliefs. But later on, when I thought about it, the reason is that Singapore has been a very successful dictatorship. Every other dictatorship in the world would have either been overthrown in a revolution, or in a coup by now. For him to be a political prisoner for such a long time is a testament to the longevity of the PAP regime. And maybe he never got amnesty because he refused to sign papers that denounced his previous beliefs, and maybe there was the issue of whether he’s actually a member of parliament or not.
LKY is a heck of a controversial leader. I don’t mean controversial as in a bad or an evil leader. LKY is a man who polarizes opinion like no other. LKY, in running a successful dictatorship, has raised a heck of a lot of questions. First of which is, is Singapore a dictatorship or a democracy? Political discourse – especially American political discourse – has tended to divide all political systems into “free” and “unfree”. This is because a lot of Americans are still living in the Cold War era where everything is “them” or “us”. There are all sorts of reasons why you’d classify Singapore as a “dictatorship” but at least two very awkward reasons why this is wrong. Singapore is nominally democratic and runs on a Westminister system. And also, Singapore was a staunch Cold War ally of the USA. The irony of the USA calling itself the “leader of the free world” is that the “free world” included such free states like Mobutu’s Zaire, Marcos’ Philippines and Suharto’s Indonesia.
4. LKY died in time for SG50
It’s very typically Singaporean to queue up for something that turns out to be underwhelming. The thousands of people who queued up for hours in the hot sun, the MRT that runs for 24 hours to ferry people to and from the funeral.
SG50 has been heralded as a time to access the legacy of Singapore. The independence of Singapore is not any less of a social experiment than the USA or France. Singapore was a unique place because it was very unique that you had a city that was absolutely controlled by one political master. LKY was even more of a complete dictator than Stalin. Stalin had to set up famines, send entire populations to the gulag in order to bend people to his will. LKY just said what he wanted done, and it was done. Singapore has always been told that its small size was a massive disadvantage. But LKY had the freedom to do what he wanted to do. He was not a municipal governor or a mayor who had to answer to a higher federal authority. The Separation made sure of that. LKY did not really have to manage peasants. HE did have to manage squatters, which are usually what peasants turn into when they enter a city for the first time. But he did it well with the HDB projects.
Goh Keng Swee was the man with the midas touch. Everything he managed, he turned into gold. Defence – he made a small island capable of defending itself against larger and more populous – albeit also more laid back neighbours. For Education, he laid the foundations for a rigorous and solid education to be available for everybody. It faces charges of being too elitist, but in this respect it is not different from most other Asian countries which have succeeded brilliantly in grade school education. Finance, he managed Singapore’s economy so well that we had a surplus every year.
I don’t know that well what American political philosophy says about educating your youngsters. In Singapore, under LKY (although this is beginning to disappear), we had a political leader who was a stern disciplinarian. He hectored his children to strive for excellence and consistently do better. That was the Asian way, and it was consistent with how things were done elsewhere in Asia. But not necessarily something that Westerners were uncomfortable with.
Singapore had always punched above its weight diplomatic way because of our unique situations. I was conversing with an old friend and he told me that Southeast Asia had a very Indian substratum. Indonesia is called Indonesia because the entire region had such a heavy Indian influence that it was practically an extension of India. We were basically an archipelago of Indian temples in the beginning. Then we absorbed Arab and Chinese culture. Then we had contact with the West. This unique set of circumstances allows us a good insight into at least one half of the world’s population. LKY became an explainer to many of the world leaders and I can imagine that he would have helped to smooth things over between the West and many of the Southeast Asian countries, at a time when the Vietnam War was waging. When Margaret Thatcher praised LKY for being really smart, I wonder if LKY had something to do with being able to bring Deng Xiaoping to the table with her to discuss Hong Kong.
The great concern of westerners in politics stems in large part from their particular colonial experience. Westerners are greatly concerned with power relations because it is the particular experience of westerners that anybody who has power will screw around those people who do not have power. If I had to sum up Confucianism in two words, it is “noblesse oblige”. It assumes that it is possible that extremely unequal power relations exist in society, but this arrangement can still be beneficial for all parties. This is the aspect of Confucianism which flies in the face of most western philosophy.
Another thing about LKY is that he was probably extroverted enough to want to communicate with people all the time. Unlike many of the other Asian leaders who were secretive, he was not shy about reaching out to other world leaders. He spoke in English, and was able to communicate directly to the Western world without the need for an interpreter. For other leaders, it was possible that the language barrier made an excuse that you didn’t have to understand each other. It was not possible with LKY.
That’s why he initiated this conversation with Asian Values. I was pretty intrigued when I went to Snowy Hill and I wanted to take a history course in Southeast Asia, and I saw on the course syllabus that when it came to Singapore and Malaysia, they talked about the Asian Values debate. Unfortunately I didn’t take that course then and when I returned the next year, the next edition of that course did not talk about Asian Values. Asian Values is a debate that is probably more significant to the westerners than Singaporeans. Singaporeans either live and breathe Asian Values all the time so it’s pretty insignificant to them, or Asian Values is just a charade. Either way we don’t care about that debate so much. Because it’s not an existential crisis for us. It’s not a challenge to our deeply held and cherished values.
In a way I think that LKY matters because he started this very big debate about Asian Values. It was a challenge to much that the West believed in. For a while it was possible to believe that the whole world was careening towards liberal democracy. Asian Values changed that. At first, it was just a rip in the fabric, with a few Asian Tigers adopting the model. Then later, you had this large behemoth called China going down a road which more closely resembled what was articulated in “Asian Values” rather than what the West was like. And suddenly the rest of the third world are starting to wonder what’s so great about liberal democracy.
At the end of the day, I believe that liberal democracy is more of the end state of political and economic development, rather than a means towards progress. In the end, I think many observers had it the wrong way around. Liberal democracy is a sign that you have progressed in the world and you have arrived at a finished state. But it is not the first step that you take towards that finished state.
5. What would LKY have been like as prime minister of Malaysia?
One of the reasons put forward for the separation of Singapore and Malaysia was the remarkable success of the PAP. It was rightly seen as a threat to Barisan Nasional. The most mystifying thing, and one of the most discussed episodes of his life, were the tears of LKY. Why did he cry? His detractors say that he did a lot of actions that precluded a union with Malaysia. But equally, we all know what LKY is like. He does what he wants to do.
For LKY to be prime minister of Malaysia, it simply wouldn’t be possible for him to be as dictatorial as he would like. As a person who’s a minority in Malaysia, that would have been quite a bit of a problem. IT’s relatively easy to throw a few communists in jail. But having to deal with the majority Malays on a daily basis would have been much tougher than Lee Kuan Yew. LKY, being a person who appeals to reason and competence, would have had a hard time dealing with the Malays. Culturally, he also appears to be suspicious of Malays. I don’t think he’s racist, but his personality is just incompatible with the culture of the Malays. He’d have a very hard time seeing eye to eye with them. As the chief minister of Singapore, it would also have been problematic for him to stay in Singapore. Singapore and Malaysia are like NYC and upstate New York. NYC may be a small part of New York landwise, but it is probably as significant as the rest of the state put together. I used to think that he was a little too arrogant in giving himself the title of “prime minister of Singapore” even when Singapore was in the federation but it’s a bit like saying that the job of the mayor of NYC is almost as large as the job of the governor of NY State.
One of the points of disagreement was that the Barisan Nasional wanted to run for elections in Singapore, but they were not willing to allow Singapore to run for elections in Malaysia. The PAP was a multi-racial party. The Barisan Nasional was a coalition of parties, each of which represented one race of people, with UMNO, the Malay party of BN being the most powerful. This was highly counter to the way LKY envisioned Singapore society.
What would life have been like if Singapore had been part of the union at the time of the 1969 race riots in Malaysia? That was the incident which solidified the political scene of Malaysia and ensured the long term survival of the Barisan Nasional system. Perhaps the PAP would have been wiped out by that incident, or there would be an open warfare between the BN and the PAP over which vision would prevail. Perhaps Singapore would still have seceded from Malaysia at a later date, and under much more messy circumstances.
What about the other possibility, that Singapore and Malaysia were run like one country two systems? Perhaps it would be that Singapore would belong to the PAP and Malaysia would belong to the BN. As it turns out, Singapore and Malaysia were not economically reliant on each other, although Malaysia would have had access to much more resources than Singapore and in the long term is a more viable political entity. Malaysia may or may not have been in a mood to see Singapore thrive.
I think that LKY would not have been as great a PM of Malaysia as he was of Singapore. If he were PM of Malaysia he might have lasted 4-5 years before he got ousted by forces hostile to him. The bumiputra policy in Malaysia exists for a reason. It may have retarded progress in Malaysia and it may have pissed off the Chinese, but Malaysia would not be a peaceful place if the Chinese pulled up too far ahead of the Malaysians. LKY might still have been able to solve that particular problem, but there would have been so much hostility against LKY’s “Malaysian Malaysia” that he would have found it hard to govern.
But the fact that he was in charge of Singapore, and through using Singapore as a laboratory or a microcosm with which to test all his ideas about social control, LKY was able to win a few arguments. He would get a city made in his own specifications (his own image is a bit of an exaggeration). And maybe, one or two generations down, other cities might want to emulate Singapore if they wish.