Lee Kuan Yew leaves behind an ambiguous legacy in Singapore

Singaporeans mourn Lee Kuan Yew. Image: Getty.

This week, we're looking at different perspectives on Lee Kuan Yew's governance of Singapore. Yesterday, we looked at Lee's positive impact on the city-state's economy. Today, we examine the more questionable aspects of his legacy. 

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died last month at the age of 91. His passing will come as no surprise given his health had worsened in recent times, but it will come as a shock to the Singaporean people nevertheless.

No leader of modern times has been more closely associated with a single country’s fate than Lee. For Singapore’s entire existence as an independent state, Lee exerted a profound direct or indirect influence over the nation and its citizens. Even in retirement as the “minister mentor”, he cast a long shadow from which Singapore has yet to fully emerge.


Despite Lee’s relatively modest background, his intellect and self-confidence distinguished him even while at Raffles College. His education was interrupted by the Second World War and the profoundly shocking, ignominious defeat of the British at the hands of the Japanese. Lee made the pragmatic decision to learn Japanese and work for the occupying forces.

After the war, Lee managed to win a scholarship to Cambridge, where he also met his wife. On his return to Singapore, Lee became immersed in local politics and established the People’s Action Party (PAP), which was originally imbued with a brand of Fabian socialism Lee had acquired in Britain. Lee’s pragmatism was once again in evidence when he briefly allied himself with the Malaysian Communist Party in what he described as a “marriage of convenience”.

As the leader of an increasingly dominant PAP, Lee was at the centre of the on-again, off-again federation with Malaysia. While Lee saw federation as a way of accelerating the end of colonial rule, the Malays eventually baulked at the prospect of including Singapore’s large ethnically Chinese population in the federation. Singapore was expelled and the future looked grim for the small, impoverished, unexpectedly independent city-state.

No doubt Lee played a large part in the subsequent developmental “miracle”, which saw Singapore ultimately achieve some of the highest living standards in the world. And yet Singapore was also in the right place at the right time. The reason Singapore exists at all is because of its place as a natural trading hub in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. There were immense natural advantages to be exploited as the rest of Asia began to take off.

It is not obvious that the paternalistic, authoritarian, semi-democratic model that Lee built will survive his passing

Singapore’s remarkable economic success story has attracted enormous attention – perhaps more than is merited for a small city-state with a unique and unrepeatable history. Lee was never shy about suggesting why he thought Singapore had prospered, however: far-sighted leadership and guidance from an elite group of incorruptible technocrats and hard work by a grateful population.

By contrast, much of the West was becoming work-shy and decadent. This was one of the reasons Lee famously thought that Australia would become the “poor white trash” of Asia.

Lee’s ideas about the superiority of the Singaporean model came together under the banner of “Asian values”, which he did more than most to champion. Lee’s enthusiastic adoption of Chinese culture, language and some of the principles of Confucianism provided a template for Singapore’s domestic development and a way of explaining the region’s overall development to the rest of the world.

Asians work hard and respect authority, the story goes. This is a convenient combination for any leader not enamoured with individualism or Western-style democracy.

The implausibility of the Asian values story was dramatically undermined by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the PAP’s political dominance remained undiminished. On the contrary, Lee pioneered new ways of defeating political opponents: a compliant judiciary was used to sue political opponents for defamation.

An equally obliging media did little to hold government to account. Even more effectively, perhaps, Singaporeans who contemplated voting for opposition parties were none-too-subtly reminded of the possible cost of being deprived of government funding in their electorates.

Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s current prime minister. Image: Gobierno de Chile.

But as in so much of the world, inequality is on the rise in Singapore. Social and ethnic tensions are growing as a consequence. It is not obvious that the paternalistic, authoritarian, semi-democratic model that Lee built will survive his passing. Young Singaporeans may not be as willing as their parents were to make the implicit trade-off between economic development and political liberty that seemed a feature of the Lee era.

And yet given that Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current Singaporean prime minister, it is also possible that an enduring dynasty may be in the making.

Many Singaporeans will no doubt be genuinely saddened to see such a dominant figure depart the stage. They have, after all, never known a time when Lee wasn’t exerting an influence over every aspect of their lives – even who they spent their lives with, in some cases. Surely only Singapore would have come up with a government-sponsored dating agency for the nation’s brightest and best?

But it is not just Singaporeans who will mark Lee’s passing. Lee’s memoirs were adorned with endorsements from the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, confirming his status as the Asian oracle and a champion of right-wing politics. Lee quite literally helped put Singapore on the map and its subsequent influence far outstrips the tiny island’s geopolitical significance.

That China’s leaders are now also seeking to learn from Singapore may prove to be Lee’s most enduring legacy – if the lessons are transferable. Whether we would want them to be is another question.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics at University of Western Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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