It’s SG50 man, and I thought the right thing to do for a bookworm like me was to buy the book “Up Close with Lee Kuan Yew: Insights from colleagues and friends.”
The book is obviously a tribute to the man who once graced our little red dot, transformed her completely and turned it into a radiating red beacon, sending economic ripples of guiding light around the world - far and wide.
I read it in two MRT train rides (all 300 plus pages). I highlighted it feverishly – as usual. And it was a pleasant read amidst the numerous repetition of effusive praises from admirers who had worked with the man. Not to mention a few principal private and press secretaries who had added to the resonating chorus of endorsements.
It has been one years since LKY’s final send off, and the nation is still mourning. Some sectors of the country even turned personal mourning into a national obsession. I therefore hope I had done my patriotic duty.
But let the reader be forewarned here. The book is mostly praise-galore bursting out of the pages. Recall that it’s a tribute in memory of LKY?
They say that history is written by the victors and the book is unmistakably its victory chant. As such, you will not find people like Chee Soon Juan, the late Francis T. Seow or C.V. Devan Nair being invited to contribute a chapter or two in it. Editorially speaking, they would have hampered its effusive and resonant flow.
Needless to say, they would have offered a different opinion about LKY and it would be an editorial nightmare to separate the vindictive chaff from the redeeming wheat. You see, Devan Nair once wrote that “Lee is gifted with a brilliant brain and an eloquent tongue. But the capricious gods omitted to equip him with the saving grace of that essential wisdom which makes for true greatness.” He accused LKY of betraying the ideals which launched the PAP into political orbit.
And Francis Seow once quoted Dr Reinhold Niebuhr’s warning about “the depth of evil to which individuals and communities may sink when they try to play the role of God to history,” and he wrote that “Singaporeans, too, especially Harry Lee Kuan Yew and his successor in title, can profit from this warning.” So much for birds of a feather flocking together.
Here, I recall that Donald Trump’s son once described his dad as a polarizing man. I think LKY would be equally polarizing – minus the shameless narcissism and excessive self-love of course. And the words of his son (LHL) is instructive. At the wake, LHL made this pointed observation, “Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporean can reply proudly: “look around you.””
Perhaps judging the man alone would give trigger-happy cause for one to polarize towards immoderate views, but taking him in the context of what Singapore is today may make for a fairer, a more tempered assessment? I guess if it takes fifty years to build a nation from bottom up, then for whatever methods that were applied during that time by the leaders, it may just take the next 50 years to not only sustain and grow the country, but to vindicate it.
Of course, LKY is far from perfect. He once said that he had made mistakes but he did not regret them. This is also the same man who said, “I stand by my record. I did some sharp things to get things right – too harsh – but a lot was at stake. But at the end of the day, what have I got? Just a successful Singapore.” The admission in that statement is “too harsh” and the punch-line is “just”. You can see how for him, the end somehow justifies the means and he was not inclined to be apologetic about it – at least not in public. Character flaw or the iron-clad will of a visionary? You be the judge.
And LKY would not have built Singapore from ground up without equally able colleagues and friends. In the book, SR Nathan recalled that his comrade-in-arms, Dr Goh Keng Swee, would say to LKY, “Why don’t you shut up and talk some sense?” SR Nathan also recalled that “this happened on many occasions with Dr Goh and other ministers (referring to the old guards like Lim Kim San, Eddie Barker and S. Rajaratnam) but Mr Lee would also tell them off if they were wrong.”
His principal private secretary Andrew Tan also remembered similar anecdotal exchanges between Dr Goh and LKY. “He was an anglophile, Dr Goh would say, referring to Mr Lee’s close ties with British leaders of the day. If Mr Lee had his way, perhaps the British, rather than the Israelis, would have played a greater part in the build-up of Singapore’s defence. But Dr Goh got his way. The two did not always see eye to eye, but that was the strength of their relationship.”
I can’t say that I did not have a fuller picture of our founding father after reading the book. It was indeed an up-close-and-personal experience. Many things can be said about LKY and Philip Yeo led the charge here when he wrote: “Unlike some other countries, there are no framed pictures or statues of Mr Lee all over Singapore. To many he may seem like an autocrat, and yes, he was firm. But he only wanted what was best for our young nation.”
Here is another opinion by Robert Kuok about LKY in the book: “Kuan Yew achieved a lot and became Prime Minister of Singapore in 1959. He was definitely ruthless. I was close to the action because my brother William, a senior figure in the Malayan Communist Party, felt the heat, although he never directly clashed with him.” There you have it, the words ”autocrat” and “ruthless” appeared in two opinions.
Regarding his methods, LKY epitomizes this saying well: “When you’re wrestling a gorilla, you don’t quit when you are tired. You quit when the gorilla is tired (or dead).” And this was the same man who in an interview minced no words: “When I say I’ll do something, they know I’m going to do it. So when I say I’m going to fix that guy, he will be fixed. Let’s make no bones about it. I carry my own hatchet. If you take liberties with me, I’ll deal with you. I look after myself because when you enter a blind alley with the communists, only one person comes out alive and I have come out alive. So I’m not afraid of going into an alley with anybody, let alone the foreign press.” (page 90 of Hard Truths).
I guess some may say that in his early years of political struggle for survival, LKY may have overkilled the communist gorilla with Operation Coldstore where more than 100 people were detained in 1963 without trial under the Preservation of Public Service Security Ordinance. I have to admit that that part of history will always cast a shadow over his enduring legacy. The grievance will always be deeply felt by those who had suffered the deprivation of their freedom, dignity and future as a result.
But this is also the man who lived and breathed Singapore. He repeatedly said that whatever he did, he did it for Singapore. In the book, Robert Kuok observed that “Kuan Yew had a super gung-ho style. He was like such a powerful elephant that when he stomped on the ground, all the plants were crushed. But in so doing, he created a miracle called Singapore.”
The book focused on that miracle that we are witnessing today. LHL’s firm reminder to Singaporeans to “look around you” tells us much about what LKY and his team had done for Singapore. Lim Siong Guan said that “if I had to describe the man in just three words, I would say he is strategic, patriotic and relentless.” Li Ka-Shing wrote, “Of all the many people that I know, Mr Lee was the one whom I respect the most.” And Wee Cho Yaw added, “Singapore’s success story…is primarily due to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s vision, intellectual superiority, determination to succeed and his courage to press ahead with necessary policies even when he is aware that they would be unpopular. Truly, without Mr Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore would not be what it is today.”
What I personally discovered in the book was the many things about LKY that were not mentioned in his previous books I have read. Apart from scoring a First Class with special distinction, that is, a Starred First, which is exceptionally rare in Cambridge, and having a fabulous mind, strongly determined, disciplined, and uncompromising, LKY was also compassionate, thoughtful even.
Ho Meng Kit recounted this incident: “In December 1992, my fourth child and second son, Samuel was born…with a rare syndrome where his blood platelets are trapped in a giant hemangioma in his stomach wall. He was bleeding at birth. As it was a rare condition, his diagnosis and treatment were not typical, and he was in hospital for almost three months. I was looking after him while doing my job (as Lee’s PPS). It was a tough time then, juggling the uncertainty of Samuel’s illness and not allowing this to affect my duties. Mr Lee knew about my situation and would ask frequently about Samuel. He wrote to me hoping that the illness would be treatable and that Samuel would not be permanently affected. He was concerned. Samuel is now 22 years old and in his second year of studies at an Institute of Technical Education. He is fully functional although he walks with clutches. He is a happy adult. He passed his “O” level examinations, plays violin and swims.”
LKY had in fact shown such compassion on a few occasions. When the wife of Ng Kok Song, the Group Chief Investment Officer of GIC, was diagnosed with fourth stage stomach cancer – just about the same time Mrs Lee had her stroke in London in 2003 – LKY said to Kok Song, “You go back and tell her I asked about her…Now both of us are in the same boat. You are looking after your wife and I am looking after my wife.”
In addition to this, Tan Guong Ching, his PPS, recalled that “Mr Lee never went around believing he knew everything. And that was why he sought the opinions of others. Before he made any major decision, he always sought second or maybe even third opinions.” Moses Lee said that Mr Lee “was truly a lifelong learner…He was constantly challenging, questioning and probing, absorbing new ideas, viewpoints and information which would be useful for charting the future of Singapore.” There are other interesting snippets of LKY in the book that you will just have to read it on your own.
But my point here is to answer the question I first posed in my title, “LKY: propagating an autocrat?” Bearing in mind that the word “autocrat” has two shades of meaning: “A person ruling with unlimited authority” and “One who has undisputed influence.” One is couched as “authority unlimited” and the other as “influence not in dispute.” Subtle distinction?
It is undeniable that LKY is many things to many people. Some call him a great leader, a visionary, a master pragmatist, and others call his a benevolent dictator and even a fear-inducing totalitarian.
You see, in writing this, I am not attempting to give a balance view of the history of what actually happened in the early tumultuous pre-independence years. It is clearly beyond me in scope and depth here. I was born way after that in 1970. My intention is thus far less ambitious. My generation was not even near to the historical epic center of that time.
However, what I wish to do is to remind the reader that LKY is a man of his time. He was born between numerous shifting political tectonic plates so to speak. He was a political actor, no less brilliant of course, trying to make sense of the varying political and ideological scripts – most of which were clearly raw, muddled and even contradictory.
In the Darwinian-like political struggle for survival and viability at that time, he did what he had to do and some may say that what he had done was more inexcusable than excusable. Be that as it may, no critics of any earnest weight would deny that Singapore is where she is today because of LKY and his indefatigable team.
In the end, I would have to make up my mind about the man. Although I have not met him, I have read quite a lot about him. And I would take my cue from what Mrs. Lee has to say about her husband of 63 years.
In his 80th birthday in 2003, she was asked about what was the most misunderstood thing about LKY, and she replied, “I read somewhere that “few statesmen can command as much respect and condemnation simultaneously as Lee.” I will leave it to these writers to argue which one has most misunderstood Kuan Yew.””
In my view, Mrs Lee not only played the much quieter role in politics (as compared to her husband), she also played the wisest one. She knew when to leave well enough well enough alone. In other words, she left it to history future to vindicate history past. And like pubescent boys fighting over their dream girl, Mrs Lee left idealism to wrestle it out with pragmatism in the power swamp we call politics.
I guess she saw with foresight that when the dust finally settles, what is distilled from the infernal ego-cock-fight will be this: Idealism without pragmatism is lame and pragmatism without idealism is blind (to borrow Einstein’s quote about science and religion). The two stubborn allies therefore have to work synergistically together – both knowledge (idealism) and experiences (pragmatism) – in order make things work.
In my view, LKY was in the beginning struggling to marry the two. That accounts for the rough start. This is unavoidable. Recall he was the product of his time, a political actor held between contrasting ideological scripts? But over the years, I think he struck a workable balance between the two with some occasional tension of course.
And when he stepped down and handed the leadership mantle over to the next generation of leaders, he left behind a legacy that we as Singaporean can all be proud of. It is one that is generally sound, with strong economic and social fundamentals, and with a government that is free from systemic corruption. It will therefore be up to the next generation of leaders to sustain, protect and improve on it.
His critics may have been right about him or may have misunderstood him. Or it may be a mixed reaction of both. But the more pertinent question for us, the future generation of Singapore, is this, "How do we go forward with this?"
And for good or bad, our thriving nation would have to start the process of healing and come to terms with her past so as to push for our future. Maybe in the next fifty years, we see our younger generations earnestly striving to close this gap? Cheerz.