CONSIDERING THE LIFE AND TIMES OF SINGAPORE'S FIRST PRIME MINISTER, LEE KUAN YEW
BY ROKU FUKUI
In fifty years, Lee Kuan Yew, or LKY as he is also known, transformed Singapore from a backward port into a gleaming first-world city-state. With his recent death at the age of ninety-one, I felt both remorse and a sense of duty to rationalize his semi-authoritarian leadership. I was born and raised in Singapore and although I chose not to enter the military service at the age of eighteen and thus surrendered my permanent residence, I recognize and appreciate what LKY did for Singapore.
The death of LKY brought to mind the life of a lesser-known gentle old man. Chia Thye Poh is a former political prisoner and was once a Member of Parliament in Singapore. Though never indicted, he was imprisoned for twenty-three years and detained for an additional nine years under house arrest for allegedly engaging in pro-communist activities against the government. Held under the Internal Security Act, which grants the executive the power to enforce, detain or suppress persons in the name of Singapore’s security, Chia is among one of the longest serving political prisoners in the world. For his lengthy detention, he is often compared to Nelson Mandela. Chia’s imprisonment highlights the sometimes abhorrent politics of LKY that lacked serious considerations of justice and universal human rights.
Chia also happens to be a family friend.
I met Chia, or Uncle Chia as I know him, at the end of LKY’s thirty-year term as prime minister. Uncle Chia was under house arrest on the tiny island of Sentosa, now a theme park and casino, but back then, I was much too young to recognize his repute. Even back then, LKY had already accomplished a great deal for Singapore. When he was inaugurated as the first prime minister, Singapore was a sleepy British colonial outpost. Today the country is an efficient and clean metropolis characterized by a business-friendly environment with low taxes, meticulous urban planning, and single-party governance.
The policies implemented by LKY caused the standard of living in Singapore to skyrocket, but this prosperity and order came at the cost of personal freedoms and tight government control. The government issues fines for minor offences and does not tolerate political dissent. One year, Uncle Chia came to our house for Thanksgiving and I remember it was his first experience with Reddi-wip aerosol whipped cream. I was delighted to have dessert early that night but it was not until later that I realized that the early dessert was due to Uncle Chia’s mandated curfew.
In the days after LKY passed, Western news described how the leader lived and worked under the Japanese Occupation, where he learned that ruthlessness and dictatorial rule could achieve political objectives faster than democracy. LKY’s forceful authority was overplayed in the news to the point of cliché. Anyone who has ever heard of him would know of his un-democratic measures.
Leaders around the world have expressed a desire to replicate Singapore’s economic development, but for almost a generation, Singaporeans have been told how to live, behave, and express themselves, and what to study, consume, and think. The control of the press, and the self-censorship resulting from both the desire to publish and the fear of being published, precludes any real exchange of ideas that may challenge state-aligned thinking. Newspapers are used as mouthpieces to promote social harmony above all else, rather than as a space for new ideas.
To the government, the average Singaporean is seen as valuable only in so far as he or she contributes to the economy. Spontaneity, creativity and humor have been lost to pragmatism and efficiency. There is a lack of lively debate and conversation comparable to other countries, rich or poor. It is a disappointing result of this comfortable but repressive city-state.
On human rights, LKY’s transgressions are inexcusable, but in his later years, he may have recognized that too. In a 2010 interview with The New York Times, he commented, “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”
Though the means through which LKY developed Singapore are controversial, he may be the single greatest economic policymaker of the twentieth century. Also notable was his influence on Deng Xiaoping, whose economic policies contributed to raising 600 million people out of poverty, the greatest reduction of poverty in human history. But do the many benefits of improved standards of living outweigh the costs of the few undemocratic moves he made? Is the economic prosperity of the country justified if it continues to suppress certain freedoms? Does the extent to which I associate LKY or Singapore with authoritarianism reflect my western prejudice? Will Henry Kissinger, who attended the official funeral, and was a good friend of LKY, be remembered for orchestrating political, military, and diplomatic operations that led to coups and armed conflict in states across the globe?
After witnessing the millions of deaths at the hands of socialist engineering in the 20th century, the historian Eric Hobsbawm said that if the communist utopia had been achieved, the deaths would have been justified. Has Singapore achieved its utopia?
I expected to see more of an outpouring of emotion in Singapore after he died. On Tuesday, flags flew at half-mast. But for the majority of people it was just business as usual. Business being the operative word. Then again, that’s what LKY would have wanted.
On Friday, for those who were able to pay their respects, the wait to LKY’s coffin in the Parliament building was over ten hours long. The line of people stretched from parliament past the Asian Civilizations Museum, wrapping back around Boat Quay and Clarke Quay (Singapore’s historical port and now the center of the business district), all the way to Hong Lim Park, which is the only location on the island that permits public protest. I wonder how many saw the irony.
By Saturday, half a million people had paid their respects to LKY at the Parliament. His leadership bettered the lives of millions of Singaporeans. Their lives improved visibly, on a great scale, and at a rapid pace. Singapore is their country. It is also Uncle Chia’s country. But if Uncle Chia was the cost to pay for the Singapore of today, maybe most Singaporeans would accept that, and maybe that is democracy.
As Singapore mourns the loss of LKY and looks forward, I believe it will inevitably open to greater political and democratic engagement. Singaporean textbooks will no doubt remember Lee Kuan Yew as Singapore’s esteemed founding father. His critics will recognize the sordid past, but recall him with respect and admiration. Would Uncle Chia’s presence in the prospering Singapore have prevented the success of LKY’s policies, or would his dissenting voice have made the city more vibrant and creative? Regardless, in the Singapore of today, there will be no monuments to Uncle Chia.