Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew was admired by his countrymen but mocked by western critics for his iron-fisted rule.
He was a tough-talking leader who never shied away from saying exactly what he wanted to say.
One of his most memorable quotes was: “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.”
No western or Hong Kong leader would dare to say that. Democratic societies, particularly liberal societies, nowadays expect their leaders to be politically correct.
Hong Kong does not have electoral democracy but, in reality, is a free and democratic society.
That’s why Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying would be put through the meat grinder by his many critics if he said anything politically incorrect.
In fact, he did say something controversial in his annual policy speech in the Legislative Council in January that was considered politically incorrect by his political opponents.
He accused the University of Hong Kong student union magazine Undergrad of advocating independence for Hong Kong.
Critics slammed Leung, saying it was unworthy of a chief executive to single out a student magazine for criticism in his policy speech.
But Leung was unrepentant, just as Lee Kuan Yew would have been unrepentant.
The Singapore leader never allowed his enemies to silence him.
Another of his memorable quotes was: “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”
Leung Chun-ying is, of course, not the towering political giant that Lee Kuan Yew was.
There is no comparison between the two, because they climbed to their leadership roles under very different political circumstances.
But the Singapore leader’s death on March 23 at the age of 91 sparked much comparison between Hong Kong and Singapore.
Both were British colonies without natural resources and with a predominantly Chinese population that struggled to reach first-world status through hard work and innovation in a competitive world.
As both soared in global status, each regarded the other as the main rival in trying to achieve top spot in the region.
Both became the envy of other cities in the region but achieved success in different ways.
Although the British governors of Hong Kong, appointed by the queen, had virtually dictatorial powers, the colonial government ruled in a benevolent way, following the principle of positive non-interventionism.
Hong Kong did not have democracy in the western sense but had a free media, the rule of law and an independent judiciary and was a free and open society accountable to a democratic government in Britain.
Lee Kuan Yew was unimpressed with western-style democracy.
When Singapore became independent from Malaysia, he ruled with an iron hand, using authoritarian powers to control the media and suppress his political adversaries, sometimes through the courts.
The election system was skewed to always return his ruling party to power.
He once said: “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”
Although he was an authoritarian who suppressed democracy, free speech and the media, he made Singaporeans contented by focusing on livelihood issues and improving the economy.
He did such a good job that Singapore today is not only the envy of the world but also of Hong Kong.
It is corruption free, more than 80 percent of the people live in affordable and spacious public housing flats that they own, the air is clean, education standards are high, the standard of English is far higher than Hong Kong’s, innovation surpasses ours, and the government is efficient.
Lee Kuan Yew achieved all that not through democracy but virtual autocracy.
Yet the leaders of the world’s democracies praised his many achievements when he died.
They hailed him as a visionary leader who turned a sleepy town into an Asian economic powerhouse.
US President Barack Obama called him a giant of history and a visionary.
When Lee died, no democratic leader criticized him for his authoritarian rule, nor did any of them mention the fact that the many achievements they praised him for were made possible not by democracy but by his autocratic rule.
We in Hong Kong lament the lack of democracy but envy Singapore’s housing, clean air, efficient government and societal contentment.
Less than 50 percent of Hong Kong people live in public housing. For the rest, prices and rents have become unaffordable.
Our air is filthy, and poll after poll shows most Hong Kong people are not happy.
We compete with and judge ourselves by — not Asian democracies like the Philippines, India, Thailand, and Taiwan — authoritarian Singapore.
The iron rule there has pulled it ahead of us in innovation, education and lifestyle.
It lacks so-called true democracy, but most Singaporeans are happy.
We demand true democracy but yearn for the things Singapore achieved through autocracy.
Lee Kuan Yew mocked democracy, saying a limited dose was enough for Singapore.
Yet Hong Kong people admire him and loathe Leung Chun-ying.
Where is the logic in that?
Today, Hong Kong is stuck, because of our never-ending fight for so-called true democracy.
Ceaseless filibusters in the legislature prevent us from even extending landfills or creating a technology bureau, while Singapore surges ahead of us.
We were once the model for other Asian cities but have now lost much of our competitive edge to even mainland cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen.
Pan-democrat legislators have made clear they will vote down the government’s political reform proposal for universal suffrage for the 2017 election for chief executive.
This will plunge Hong Kong into an indefinite period of political stalemate.
Legco president Tsang Yok-sing and others have warned that the legislature’s rejection of Beijing’s political reform framework will make Hong Kong even more ungovernable than it is now.
Is it time for Hong Kong’s people to ask themselves whether they want democracy more than the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by Singaporeans?
Can the genuine democracy that the pan-democrats demand produce the impressive results that Lee Kuan Yew achieved through autocracy?
Is it worth paying the price of indefinite political stagnation in order to fight for so-called genuine democracy?
Are the democracies of India, the Philippines and Thailand working better for the people there, or is the authoritarian rule in Singapore working better for its people?
It is politically sensitive to suggest that Hong Kong should be ruled with an iron hand to achieve the many good things that Lee Kuan Yew achieved for Singapore.
Most Hong Kong people would not want to be ruled with an iron hand, even though they admire Singapore’s achievements.
Our history and culture has made us embrace freedom.
There would be an angry uproar if, for example, we were not allowed to chew gum, as in the case of Singapore.
The public outcry over introducing national education in schools forced Leung Chun-ying to abandon the proposal.
Hong Kong people would not tolerate many of the things that Singaporeans have learned to tolerate in exchange for a comfortable lifestyle.
But 18 years after the British left, we are still struggling with our identity and what we want.
The population is dangerously divided on how we should move forward politically.
Maybe it’s time we started thinking outside the box.
Maybe it’s time we seriously asked ourselves what works best for Hong Kong instead of blindly fighting for so-called true democracy without even clearly defining what it, in fact, means.
Maybe it’s time we found a way to protect the many freedoms we already have but also mix in a little dose of dictatorship Lee Kuan Yew-style so we can move forward instead of stagnate while our competitors outpace us.
This article first appeared in the May issue of Hong Kong Economic Journal Monthly.
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