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.

 
 
 
 

In New Zealand, climate change is driving an eco-nationalist revival

The green and pleasant land of the South Island. Image: Getty.

“Ten years ago I would have called them settler f*****g land squatters,” Mike Smith, Maori-dom’s most tenacious activist, said last November as he reflected on the agriculture industry’s central role in driving climate change. “Now I have to try and get these people on board.”

Smith is infamous for taking a chainsaw to Auckland’s most prominent tree on a damp October night in 1994 in protest of the “Pākehā” – or white European –dominated government’s fiscal envelope restraining treaty settlements. Now he’s turned his hand to another cause close-to-home for the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous population: the environment.

“We’re super vulnerable, like we are to anything,” Smith says. “When it comes to climate change it’s like the poorest people in the world are going to be hit the hardest first, and that’s a lot of us.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern appears, at least rhetorically, the most sympathetic leader to his cause in a decade. In her campaign launch speech late last year, she made the future government’s position clear: “Climate change is my generation’s nuclear free moment.”

This message should resonate with followers of her Labour party: the NZ left has long nurtured an environment-orientated “culture-of-protest”. So Ardern’s call to arms was bound to gain her loyal support among children of the 1960s and ‘70s, who led the march against nuclear ship visits, spurring on the government of the time to wriggle out from the US nuclear umbrella, and place a ban on foreign nuclear ship visits.

Now, it is to the tycoons of deep sea oil exploration they aim to close NZ’s ports.

In this, Smith is not short of support locally, with marches run by grassroots organisations and international animal welfare funds beginning to gain traction with every day New Zealanders. In this, Ardern’s prediction is correct: the Coal Action Network Aotearoa (CANA), is reminiscent of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), an earlier cluster of left-wing pacifists and nature lovers who drove the creation of the nuclear free zone.  

In December, 15,000 passionate protesters marched through the capital. And with the government’s recent ban of offshore oil exploration projects, Jeanette Fitzsimons, former Green party co-leader and the head of CANA, is optimistic about similar change to the energy and farming sectors.

The Labour-NZ First-Green party coalition seems focused on setting a new global precedent, weaning NZ away from a United States which has jettisoned the Paris Agreement. The move replicates another 20 years ago, when New Zealand’s anti-nuclear movement was central to an upsurge in New Zealand nationalism. Now, the same sense of going it alone on foreign policy is apparent both locally and in Parliament.

Dr. Gradon Diprose, a senior lecturer at Massey University, argues that this echoes an older expression of colonial nationalism, that saw “New Zealand as a land of natural abundance”. This: “eco-nationalism” is centered on “protecting certain visions of picturesque landscapes and unspoiled natural beauty”. The slogan “Clean, green New Zealand” is prevalent in popular culture and tourism marketing. The public seems to have latched onto it too, and ranked keeping NZ’s waterways “clean and green” top of a recent survey of of kiwis’ top concerns.

Three decades ago, it was the 10 July 1985 sinking of the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior that thrust local activists’ fears into the public eye, resulting in an almost nation-wide expression of climate-protectionism.


The bombing, a French intelligence operation sparked by Greenpeace’s calls for an end to foreign nuclear testing in the Pacific, galvanised a great deal of change to New Zealand’s overseas defence policies. A lack of censure from New Zealand’s Western allies drove Wellington to distance itself from the United States, while the shock of seeing a friendly nation violate NZ’s sovereignty left many at home seething.

Thirty years on, the foreign policy split throughout the Anglosphere, regarding Russian-Western relations, globalism, and the old international rules-based order, is becoming wider. Climate change is just the tip of the iceberg.

Most Kiwis you talk to will shake their heads in disapproval at US president Donald Trump’s scandalous outing last year in Helsinki. But US defiance of internationally brokered climate resolutions is something they can see clearly reflected in rural communities across the country.

The country saw records broken at both ends of the extreme weather spectrum last year. As 2018 kicked off, Kiwis sweltered through the hottest summer on record, while in Golden Bay, a small inlet near the northern tip of the South Island, residents endured the largest flood in 150 years. So, when President Trump tweets “So much for Global Warming”, the majority of New Zealanders look back fondly on NZ’s 1985 decision to boycott the “ANZUS” treaty, putting New Zealand at odds with its war-time ally America on defence legislation.

Public calls to take the same track on environmental regulation have become louder in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. The former US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, received a frosty “unwelcome” while on a flyby to the capital in 2017, with the New York Times’ Washington correspondent, Gardiner Harris remarking: “I’ve never seen so many people flip the bird at an American motorcade as I saw today”. Protests against President Trump’s stance on climate change are beginning to gain greater traction further still, with the hundred-strong “march for science” setting the tone for the new government later that year.

New Zealand certainly isn’t afraid of radicalism, and its activists are persistent. It’s already banned single use plastics in supermarkets. Plenty more is to come, Smith says.

And yes, reform is going to inhibit sometimes vital industries: “It doesn’t matter which way you spin the dice on this, whatever’s being done is going to hurt. People who are looking for a painless way of mitigating climate change, [but] I don’t think there is one.”

But among Smith’s troupe of climate agitators, the feeling is that, without drastic change, “the land”, the heart of the Maori ethos, is going to be hurt far more.

Back in Auckland, NZ’s financial hub, an electric scooter craze is gripping the city. This, too, has gained the support of local environmentalists. In New Zealand, a national sense of pride is always coupled with a certain eccentricity. In a country this size, change always starts small.