The passing of Singapore’s founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew has seen an outpouring of praise and admiration matched with an equal amount of scrutiny and judgement for the nation’s first Prime Minister. Many in the Western press have contended Mr Lee to be a ‘benevolent dictator’ that built a prosperous and stable ‘nanny-state’ devoid of certain civil liberties such as the right to freedom of expression. He has also been criticized for his bullying moralism, penchant for nepotism and relentless use of ‘calibrated coercion’ to secure the People Action Party’s (PAP) hegemony since 1959. Indeed, since the very beginning, Mr Lee’s ideals and actions were by no means democratic or liberal by Western standards. Since the 1960s, Mr Lee stifled the press, authorized political detention without trial and curbed dissent in all its forms, persecuting his political opponents often for libel. Highlighting Mr Lee’s shortcomings is natural, if not necessary, as it allows for reflections on his profound impact on Singapore – good or bad. After all, no leader is perfect.
Nevertheless, one should approach these accounts and commentaries that politicize Mr Lee’s death with prudence, bearing in mind that context is key and the circumstances that arose out of historical and cultural differences are permissible. Mr Lee’s harsh policies and control should be evaluated against the backdrop of Singapore’s postcolonial and post-independence period, wrought with vulnerability and threats such as that of communism. Western notions of individualism, liberalism, free association, and separation of powers that might have proved to compromise Singapore’s nation-building aspirations were put aside in favour of Asian, ‘Confucian’ values that stressed order, respect, discipline, self-reliance and familial ties.
Above all, it was pragmatism that Mr Lee adopted; he did what he thought was best and necessary for his people and he stuck with what worked. He was never apologetic for his style of governance. Decades of one-party rule by a group of devoted technocrats under Mr Lee’s guidance transformed Singapore from a decrepit, resourceless colonial seaport to a cosmopolitan, multicultural, world-class city of 5 million. Over the past 50 years, the real GDP per-capita in Singapore grew twelve fold. In current dollars, the average Singaporean’s income grew from approximately USD$370 a year in 1965 to an estimated amount of USD$41,000 today, with Singapore ranking 6th in the world for highest purchasing power. The country’s efficient bureaucracy, unparalleled fiscal stewardship, rich trend of entrepreneurship and thriving research, innovation and knowledge-based industries have all led to its explosive economic growth which continues to attract investments and businesses from around the world. Enticed by Singapore’s commitment to meritocracy, foreign talent has also been flooding in, strengthening the country’s manpower. Moreover, the Government’s emphasis on healthcare, infrastructure, education and housing has resulted in high standards of living for Singaporeans.
Mr Lee shaped not only Singapore’s development but also that of the wider Southeast Asian region, pursuing his country’s national interest without neglecting the interests of neighbouring states. He constantly promoted regional integration and engagement efforts, specifically endorsing the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as a vital platform for cooperation and dialogue. Mr Lee eventually became the informal spokesperson for several ASEAN nations, particularly to China and the West, and helped usher them into the global stage. Mr Lee was also quick to adjust to the changing international security and geopolitical climate, strategically solidifying Singapore’s bilateral relationships with emerging superpowers like China, India, and Russia, while maintaining an enduring and close friendship with the United States. Singapore has long played host to the United States’ Navy assuming an instrumental role in facilitating American rebalancing towards the Asia- Pacific region.
The recent arrest of a 16 year-old student who uploaded a YouTube video slandering the late Mr Lee has unearthed further debate within the country on its strict censorship laws and intolerant culture of political deference he had left behind. While many Singaporeans expressed approval for the student’s arrest, condemning his actions as defamatory under the penal code as well as a violation of the sedation act, others shared a different sentiment, stating that his actions, although disrespectful, should be condonable. This incident underscored Singapore’s enduring reservation on rights and freedom – the 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked the nation a hundred and fifty-third out of a hundred and eighty countries, just below Russia, all domestic television channels in the county are under government control and same-sex relations between men remain de jure illegal. Nonetheless, perhaps freedom was something that could (and can still be) sacrificed in lieu of social, political and economic progress. Perhaps a more pertinent notion to consider is that the ‘freedom’ Singaporeans now experience lies in something entirely different from the likes of free speech and genuine democracy. Instead, ‘freedom’ in Singapore takes the form of having one’s well-being safeguarded by low unemployment rates, low crime levels, and top-notch healthcare.
Was Mr Lee Kuan Yew a conservative? A socialist? An authoritarian pragmatist? A dictator? These labels, with or without a trace of truth in them, are ultimately inconsequential. What matters and what speaks for itself more than anything is Mr Lee’s achievements that earned the following and respect of important figures and leaders worldwide who sought his advice and wisdom. Compassionate and gracious as he was uncompromising and staunch, Mr Lee was truly what President Obama called ‘a giant of history’. His service to Singapore and the world was undisputable. This is his legacy.