“If you have nothing good to say about Mr. Lee, then diam lah. The man is dead, better give him some respect.”
That seems to sum up what a sizable majority of Singaporeans feel about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s passing. It is an unspoken sentiment that criticizing some of Mr. Lee’s more ill-advised policies, or his uncompromising authoritarian bent, ends up politicizing the death of a great statesman. It is, for the lack of a better word, a very Singaporean tendency that smacks of self-censorship and the constriction of discourse into a narrow band of acceptable opinions.
Personally, I hold Mr. Lee in very high esteem. I’ve already discussed in my previous blog post how Mr. Lee, though far from perfect, managed to overcome his personal failings to build a safe and prosperous nation. But to argue (or assume) that the death of a statesman can be anything but political is a painfully naive belief. Mr. Lee wasn’t just the founder of modern Singapore – he was also the founder of the political party that currently governs Singapore. If you were to ignore Mr. Lee’s mistakes, his proclivity toward crushing his political opponents, and his disregard for liberal democratic values, then you too are guilty of using his death as a vehicle to advance political interests. There will forever be an unbreakable connection between Mr. Lee and the PAP. To laud Mr. Lee uncritically is also to strengthen the claim to performance legitimacy that the PAP so craves. To say only the good things about Mr. Lee is also to dismiss the bad things carried out under the banner of his PAP government.
This is why the public’s reaction toward Mr. Low Thia Khiang’s parliamentary tribute speech does not sit well with me. Indifferent at best, intolerant at worst. That worries me, because Mr. Low struck a largely conciliatory tone, saying that Mr. Lee was “an extraordinary political leader” who possessed “outstanding wisdom and courage.” Yes, Mr. Low did point out that Mr. Lee was an extremely controversial figure. Yes, Mr. Low argued that Mr. Lee sacrificed the interests of some Singaporeans to achieve success. But isn’t this an honest and accurate reflection of history? Far more balanced, I would add, than the Straits Times’ special report on Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, which barely touched on Operation Cold Store, completely failed to mention Operation Spectrum, or talk about how Stop At Two led to run-on demographic harms. Sure, the Straits Times is wary of rocking the boat because its profits and newspaper license are on the line. That’s understandable. But surely Mr. Low, the de facto leader of opposition in Singapore, then has a duty to point out the limitations of the government narrative? To belittle or insult him, as I have seen from some Facebook comments, is immensely childish.
This brings me to a conversation I had with my girlfriend yesterday. When a figure as controversial and as pivotal to Singapore’s history as Mr. Lee dies, our emotional selves come into fundamental tension with our intellectual selves. Emotionally, we feel for Mr. Lee Kuan Yew and his family. We read about how he would sit at his wife’s bedside every night to read her a story while she lay immobile from numerous strokes. We see the man who wept on national television, too overwhelmed by the weight of a nation on his shoulders to continue. And we hear from our grandparents about how Mr. Lee personally visited the survivors of the Bukit Ho Swee fire, and promised them new flats in less than a year. He was true to his word. Emotion makes us vulnerable to empty platitudes and superficial words of thanks, because we are grieving for a good man who has passed on.
Intellectually though, we know that Mr. Lee’s death should not be treated like the death of a loved one. No one would ever dream of mentioning Uncle Bob’s alcoholism, or Aunt Mary’s criminal record at their funerals. Because these things cease to be important once they die – we want to remember an idealized version of them. But Mr. Lee is different. His death is the death of a man, but is also the death of a public icon. It gives the chance for Singaporeans to reflect on an era whose final chapter has come to an end. His mistakes and his foibles, therefore, are not irrelevant when he dies. Conversely, they become even more important, because they help us genuinely evaluate his impact on Singapore as a nation and as a society. And that, I think, is what Mr. Lee would have wanted.
That’s why, even though I don’t agree with the message behind it, I think Aflian Sa’at’s scathing remarks regarding Lee Kuan Yew are a necessary contribution to discourse. It mocks the familiar refrains used by the PAP to burnish Mr. Lee’s legacy – that of “being able to walk the steers safely at night” or “going from swamp to city”. Alfian Sa’at may have adopted a needlessly strident and irreverent tone in this time of national mourning, but then again, is there ever a right time to be critical of Mr. Lee? When he was still in his prime, no one dared oppose him too strongly lest they have their livelihoods destroyed. When Mr. Lee stepped down from the Cabinet, people remained silent because they wanted to let Mr. Lee live out his days in peace – judging him after he passed on. Now that Mr. Lee has died, critics are still being condemned for being “too early” and “too disrespectful”. I bet that twenty years from now, Singaporeans who speak up against Mr. Lee will be told that “this is old history. Why bring up past wounds?” It will never end. Counter-narratives from people like Alfian Sa’at are what is needed in order to jolt Singaporans out of their discursive inertia.
Grieve if you want, but remember not to let that grief harden into intolerance. Now is as good a time as any to have an honest discussion about Mr. Lee’s legacy, without having to resort to ad hominem attacks or gutter-sniping. That’s how we truly come together as a nation.