Go with a smile!

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Lee Wei Ling

There is something curious and fairly unexpected that happened since I last blogged about our prime minister. I said that he wasn’t a man of the people, and in some ways, I still stand by that. But there was something more to it than that. Rather to my surprise, Lee Hsien Loong has turned out to be a digital native. He is a native of Silicon Valley. We all know that if he weren’t a prime minister / cabinet minister, he would be a mathematics or computer science professor. It is something that you would not find that surprising in hindsight, but it wasn’t that apparent from his first few years as a Prime Minister, and something that only really happened after 2011.

I don’t follow the news that much, but I’ve been noticing the little things that he did, taking pictures of places that he likes in Singapore and sharing them on social media. Either he’s hired a good media consultant, or he has mastered social media.

I didn’t think that this change was possible, because for the longest time, he had been prime minister and showed no signs that he was finally coming into his own. (from 2004 to 2011 it was 7 years.) All this time, he had continued policies from Goh Chok Tong’s time that were already known to be very unpopular – widening the gap between the rich and the poor, allowing property prices in Singapore to shoot sky high, and opening the floodgates to foreigners in our already very crowded city. But somehow, he managed to make Singapore look like a place where a lot of interesting things were going on (even though nobody can really afford to live there.)

But against my expectations, he had managed to make himself look like some kind of a regular dude, although it’s not really much of a surprise that he’s still pretty awkward around people. But now you see portraits of him going about his daily business. This is your prime minister taking pictures of things he likes about our beloved Singapore. This is your prime minister lining up for hawker food. (No more gaffes like Mee Siam Mai Hum). This is your prime minister patting people on the back for doing well at a sports event.

And against my expectations, he managed to win over the digerati. You know, they’re naturally like a bunch of very rebellious teenagers, and they have a natural suspicion of government and power. But if you can demonstrate that you are one of them, then suddenly things become very different. He’s even on first name basis with some of the guys from SMRT feedback. Suddenly, he’s giving a lot of help to people who want to make Singapore into some kind of a tech hub, and he gets a lot of kudos for that.

You see, the prime minister of Singapore is a really special job, because the mayor and a head of state are two different jobs. The head of state is a little like a king who rules you from the capital, which may or may not be far away. He has some distance between you and the commoner. Even the governor of the province is usually to be found in the capitol. The mayor, on the other hand, has the common touch. He’s one of the folks in your city, and he’s got every opportunity to be very close to the people. He’s like some kind of a school principal. He gets his hands dirty with the city projects, and he gets to forge a closer and longer term relationship with the people. If you think that it’s weird that two Lees have ruled Singapore for a combined total of 43 years (assuming that the meat in the Lee sandwich, Goh Chok Tong, was really his own guy. Maybe he was, but not entirely). Think about Chicago who had the two Daleys ruling it for 40+ years also. Suddenly the two Lees doesn’t seem so weird after all.

There was something really curious about the relationship between Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Wei Ling. After the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the “children of Lee Kuan Yew” jointly declared that they wanted to take charge of how LKY was going to be commemorated.

I wasn’t that sympathetic to the idea of 38 Oxley Road being demolished as per Lee Kuan Yew’s wishes, but I think I understand that maybe the two siblings of Lee Hsien Loong are not that keen to see their father’s death commemorated more than once, whereas Lee Hsien Loong realizes the propaganda value, much like Stalin understood how important Lenin was as a symbol of the Soviet regime.

That said, even though I understood where Lee Wei Ling was coming from when she wasn’t happy about her father’s dead body being trotted out every single year, it was a little alarming how she chose to express this sentiment. There is something a little unhinged about it all. She actually compared this to North Korea. Well, I don’t know what aspect of North Korea she wanted to highlight. If she just didn’t like the idea of the North Korean “eternal President / Great Leader”, that’s fine. But if she’s saying something about her brother shouldn’t be the prime minister, that’s something that would raise a few eyebrows.

I’ve always thought that Lee Wei Ling takes after LKY, whereas Lee Hsien Loong looks a bit more like Kwa Geok Choo. Unfortunately, Lee Wei Ling has inherited her father’s propensity for picking fights with people, sometimes to an extent that is somewhat unnecessary. When you view things in this light, it makes sense. Usually people regard LKY’s legacy in Singapore as being positive, but a few of the things he did were incredibly mean spirited and petty to the extent that we’re wondering how and why he should be considered a national hero. LKY is not villainous like Stalin or Hitler. But a few of the things that he was infamous for, for fixing political opponents long after it was necessary to fix them, of not trusting the process of democracy any more than maintaining a token semblance of it, seemed quite petty.

Now that I think about it, quite a few of the accusations of LKY being a dictator arose from petty squabbles – with the “Marxist Conspiracy”, with Devan Nair, with JBJ, with Francis Seow. It wasn’t that Operation Spectrum was a worse abuse of human rights than Operation Coldstore – it wasn’t. But what really stood out was how unnecessary it was. Cracking down on communists the way he did in the 60s was possibly a necessary thing to do – we’ll never have a definitive answer. In the 70s, it had the whiff of flogging of a dead horse. In the 80s, you had the Marxists who weren’t Marxists. Basically the best explanation of what it was all about was that they looked at what happened to Marcos in 1986, and just wanted to crush anything that smacked of that. When you see it in this light, maybe it isn't so much that LKY was a despot who ruled with an iron fist, but rather he has a pretty unfortunate habit of picking fights with people he shouldn't have picked.

It seemed as though he were a participant in a long-standing argument which had been going on forever, nursing an ancient grudge and he didn’t want to back down for anything. And it’s pretty unfortunate because some people think that overshadows all the good that he does for Singapore. (It doesn’t, but still…)

So I sometimes wonder how much of what Lee Wei Ling is doing is similar to that. Yes, you don’t really want LKY to be deified. But the social media postings, the mudslinging with the Straits Times editors. It just looks bad.

What is LHL going to do about this? It does seem that he’s set up his premiership so that a lot of it runs itself, and he mainly tries to make the really important, exceptional and non-trivial decisions. And it does seem like he can basically disregard his pesky little sister. But what becomes of all this? No point trying to fix the opposition if you can’t even fix your sister, mate. Maybe you should do a Dhanabalan on her.


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