If you had the opportunity to read your own obituary before you died, would you? To know how you would be remembered long after you’re gone, whether or not you left an indelible mark or painful scar on this earth. My guess is that Mr. Lee Kuan Yew wouldn’t bother. Enough has been written and said about Mr. Lee over the last decade for him to know exactly what his legacy will be. And even if that wasn’t true, Mr. Lee would probably dismiss it as irrelevant – such is the strength of his conviction that he always did what was right based on the information he had, opposing views be damned.
Reading what people and newspapers have to say about Mr. Lee, however, can actually be very enlightening. Ever the polarizing and divisive figure in life, Mr. Lee stays stubbornly true to form in death. On one hand you have the vitriolic critics, the staunch anti-PAP naysayers who have crept in on public discourse via Twitter feeds and Facebook posts. These are people who see Mr. Lee’s death as yet another chance to slag off the great politician (much like how many took to the streets in celebration when Margaret Thatcher died), blithely ignoring his achievements while targeting his illiberal tendencies. And on the other hand you have the pro-government supporters, the people who have fully bought into the simplistic narrative spun by the mainstream media and the PAP. That Mr. Lee was a near-infallible philosopher king who always knew best. That giving thanks for his incredible contributions to Singapore also involves ignoring the fearsome violence with which he went about demolishing his critics.
My worry is that when you do either of these things, you cease to commemorate the life of a great man. You end up co-opting the story of Mr. Lee’s political career to suit your own ideological inclinations. Because, as with most things, Mr. Lee’s legacy can never be judged on the metric of good versus bad. Can we ever truly say that having a HDB roof over our heads was worth sacrificing some of our democratic freedoms? Can we all agree that it was good that Mr. Lee mortgaged our liberty to purchase prosperity? For every hundred Singaporeans who have managed to climb up the social ladder, moving out from their kampongs to HDB flats to bungalows, who can safely walk the streets at night, there is one Singaporean dissident who has been sued into silence, who has been subject to arbitrary detention under Operation Spectrum, who has been viciously attacked in the media.
I admire Mr. Lee because he was an economic visionary, a firebrand politician, and consummate professional. Only he could look out toward the barren shores of Jurong Island and see an industrial base. When we were cast out of Malaysia, only he could turn setback into opportunity. He had lost Malaya, so he made the world our hinterland. And it was only Mr. Lee who would dare tell us in 1965, “Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis! Never fear!” This was a man who, in the space of 50 years, transformed a reluctant country that was given independence against its will into a regional leader that would never even think about re-joining Malaysia.
But at the same time, his searing passion for Singapore and unshakeable belief in his own ability was as much weakness as it was strength. It doesn’t sit well with me that Mr. Lee wasn’t content with merely beating his opponents. He sought to humiliate his political enemies, leaving them bereft of dignity and money. I reject the idea that reducing Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam into a destitute old man peddling his books along public streets to pay off his debts was necessary for the development of Singapore. I’m doubtful that bankrupting Dr. Chee Soon Juan in numerous, well-publicized lawsuits was at all beneficial to discourse within Singapore. And I’m pretty sure Mr. Chiam See Tong would have something to say about how Mr. Lee made the Straits Times publish his ‘O’ Level results in an effort to insinuate that Chiam was incompetent. For someone who was famously incorruptible and morally upright (when the CIA once tried to bribe Mr. Lee with USD 3.3 million, he immediately demanded they pay ten times the amount to the Republic of Singapore in the form of developmental aid), Mr. Lee often opted for the path of least resistance come election season. He didn’t have to ruin the lives of his opponents. He didn’t have to resort to the mechanism of the courts, or even smear campaigns in the media, to win political ground. Mr. Lee was an inspirational orator who was more than capable of holding his own in a fair debate. He did not have to dismantle his opponents along with their arguments.
Look, I’m also willing to accept that some degree of authoritarian suppression was necessary in the past – the Communist threat posed by the Barisan Sosialis during the 1960s, for instance, was a very real and very chilling prospect. But after the height of the Cold War had passed in 1987, was it really needed to imprison 22 social and religious workers on the suspicion of a ‘Marxist Conspiracy’? To this day, noted historians like Mary Turnbull flatly reject that such a conspiracy even existed at all. And this is before we go into the Orwellian controls on the traditional media implemented under Mr. Lee, or the anti-democratic adjustments made to our Westminster system of government that made it so much harder for any opposition party to gain a foothold.
As it is usually the case, Mr. Lee said it best when he told the Straits Times in 1987, “We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” Thank god for the people of Singapore that Mr. Lee tended to be right. But the point I’ve been trying to make is that you can’t point to the 8 out of 10 times you’ve been right, and say that it justifies the two times you’ve gone wrong. Because no matter how much the average Singaporeans’s life has improved under Mr. Lee’s reign, this isn’t going to return the 22 Operation Spectrum detainees their freedom. This isn’t going to make JBJ feel any less wronged, and this isn’t going to make our democratic system any freer or fairer. Perhaps that will be Mr. Lee’s legacy – not that he was a great leader because of his authoritarian tendencies, but rather that he was a great leader in spite of his authoritarian tendencies.
That’s why we shouldn’t deify Mr. Lee as some eternal font of wisdom, or condemn him as a Southeast Asian dictator. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, or any number of revered politicians in our collective history, Mr. Lee was very much human – with his own insecurities, fears, and flaws. And at the end of the day, he doubled down on his instinct to be a warrior, to crash through any political opposition with the subtlety of a bulldozer and the force of a tropical storm. In his prime, he was very much the right man in the right place at the right time. A fighter who gave Singapore a fighting chance. Thanks Mr. Lee.
“Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That’s the way I had to survive in the past. That’s the way the communists tackled me.”
– Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, 1998.