23 October 2018
Street vendors in the central business district sell special editions of The Straits Times newspaper dedicated to Lee Kuan Yew. Photo: Bloomberg
Street vendors in the central business district sell special editions of The Straits Times newspaper dedicated to Lee Kuan Yew. Photo: Bloomberg

What Singapore has to worry about in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era

Singapore’s Prime Minister’s Office has declared a period of national mourning until Sunday following the death of the city state’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

After a state funeral Sunday at the University Cultural Centre at the National University of Singapore, a private cremation will be held at Mandai Crematorium.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Lee’s elder son, said in an emotional address to the country Monday: “The Republic will not see someone like Lee Kuan Yew again … He gave himself, in full measure, to Singapore …

“He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none and made us proud to be Singaporeans.”

Lee Kuan Yew truly deserved these words.

His many accomplishments earned him global recognition and respect, and even the Chinese Communist Party – Lee battled its disciples in Singapore but later developed a good relationship with leaders such as Deng Xiaoping – has been generous with its praise.

Lee was a great statesman.

Numerous books have been written on Lee and Singapore’s ascent.

After his semi-retirement in 1990 following 31 years in office as prime minister (he assumed the post of senior minister and, later, minister mentor), Lee became a prolific commentator, writing two volumes of memoirs and a dozen books on global diplomacy and the secret to Singapore’s success.

Interestingly, of the several biographies of Lee, not one has been written by a Singaporean.

In my commentaries over the years, I have mentioned and recommended five or six books on Lee. A section on him in a compilation of stories about young elites in Malaya compiled by a University of Malaya professor in the early 1950s made a particular impression on me.

The book described Lee as a man with decency and an obstinate adherence to what he thought was right.

That stance remained unswayable and consistent throughout his political life.

As early as the 1980s, officials and the intelligentsia in Hong Kong began to take heed of Lee and the thriving city state under his rule.

Some argued that we needed to choose a man like Lee to lead Hong Kong.

I noted in a December 1982 article that while it was unrealistic to tread Singapore’s path, perhaps Hong Kong’s officials could take a page from Lee’s wisdom to improve the governance of the then British colony.

I wrote back then that why Lee could command the mandate of his people was because he was popular among Singaporeans: he stopped using his English name, Harry, shortly after he became prime minster, and he spared no time learning Mandarin and underwent a paradigm shift in the way he led his personal life.

Lee kicked his English habits, like smoking a pipe and having afternoon tea, and refused to accept honors from the British monarchy, in an assertion of national dignity.

He even engaged in public disputes with the British to convince the people that he was a nationalist rather than a lackey of London (at the same time, he managed to maintain a good, tacit rapport with Britain).

Though most critics don’t pay much attention to these little things, I believe they are precisely the reason why Lee could stay in power and was widely respected for decades.

Some observers attribute that to the remarkable achievements and improvements in the people’s livelihood during his tenure, yet without the common esteem with which he was regarded as a leader from the people, Lee wouldn’t have been loved by Singaporeans for such a long time.

Lee was also known for his straightforward, unreserved comments on Hong Kong affairs, and sometimes he even offered his recommendations on governance.

But I believe Lee never shared with Hongkongers his secret to running Singapore: that is, you must round all the commies up and put them in prison.

Lee relied on local communist groups to aid his rise to power, and the People’s Action Party that he co-founded in 1954 advocated socialism, yet soon after he became the island’s leader, Lee jailed these same communists – some of whom had connections with the Chinese Communist Party — and forced them to confess their crimes on television.

Why was Lee so treacherous?

It was all for Singapore’s good. He knew too well that these people would overthrow a capitalist system and replace it with a dictatorship and political struggles, and the socialist welfarism they advocated was financially unsustainable.

Yet a quarter of a century after he purged communism from the city state, Lee sought to develop a friendship with Beijing in October 1990 amid a changing political landscape.

Since then, Beijing has called him “an old friend of the Chinese people”, a tribute that it reserves for only a few trusted foreign leaders.

Lee’s pragmatism was seen in his break with the communists after using them for his purposes.

He also had the insight that housing is the foundation of social stability.

Shortly after World War II, Singapore was described in a British report as a “shame in the civilized world for its strips of perhaps the world’s most dilapidated slums and squatter huts”, as the colonizers failed to address the city’s housing woes.

Upon his election as prime minister, Lee issued orders to build numerous large housing estates across the island.

Some of the flats built in recent years for sale to the public have a layout designed to house three generations of a family.

It’s unlikely that youngsters will become troublemakers if they are disciplined by senior family members who live with them under the same roof.

Cheap public rental flats as a substitute for other forms of social welfare have also trimmed the government’s expenditures on support for the poor, which provides a vital assurance to investors from overseas that the government will avoid welfarist and populist policies.

When more than 80 percent of the population lives in public housing flats, social stability is almost a given, and wealth disparity is kept under check.

The lukewarm domestic market and limited returns have driven Singapore’s developers to look abroad for profit, and some of them have flocked to Hong Kong to reap the rewards of the boom in real estate.

From his 20-odd years of contact with Chinese cadres since the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1990 — especially a bitter tussle regarding Suzhou Industrial Park, a major project in Jiangsu province where Singapore agreed to replicate its experience in planning and management — Lee developed a good insight into the Chinese Communist Party and the common characteristics of the people under the party’s rule.

Lee warned in his memoirs that once you open an office in China, your clients there will regard you as one of them and expect you to behave and think like them.

They will push you to rush the designing and decision-making process, which ought to be given time.

He said China had already become conceited even before getting rich, and with its economic muscle, it would “treat you with condescension”.

Lee regarded China as a vital business partner that Singapore could not afford to lose, but he put equal emphasis on keeping a safe distance from it.

Singapore has become a first world oasis in a largely third world region under Lee’s leadership, earning an enviable position on the global economic map.

But now that Singaporeans have a decent home, they are beginning to lose the perseverance and stamina of their forefathers who built today’s Singapore.

The government is overly hands-on in virtually all aspects. When people become too obedient and content with what they already have, they may become unwilling and unable to see the need for change.

If Singapore’s economy becomes lackluster, it will not be because Lee is gone, but because Singaporeans have lost the spirit of fighting for a better life.

Although the PAP’s share of the vote in the last election dropped to the lowest since independence, the chances of another term for Lee Hsien Loong are still high.

Still, a more underlying challenge is the grievances of young people about the lack of rights like freedom of speech and a free flow of information.

Many western newspapers and media organizations, like the Economist, Newsweek, Time, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and Bloomberg, were subjected to legal action by the government for their reporting.

They may now intensify their call for press freedom in the new era.

Anyone will think about his civil rights once his subsistence is no longer an issue. It is the same in an affluent society like Singapore.

The younger generation’s growing demand for more rights from the government could be a grave challenge to the city state when it enters its post-Lee Kuan Yew era.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 24.

Translation by Frank Chen

[Chinese version 中文版]

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A bird’s eye view of modern Singapore. Photo: Bloomberg

A famous Hong Kong writer; founder of the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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