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.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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