On Monday (23 March), at 5.30AM, my husband woke me up and said that Lee Kuan Yew had passed away. Though bleary eyes, I checked FB for further information and found out that he died a couple of hours earlier at the age of 91. Even before his death, we all knew it would be imminent when he was hospitalized for severe pneumonia in February and had been in critical care since.
To be honest, my feelings toward Mr Lee are mixed. I was a long time critic of him and the party he co-founded (PAP) as I felt he was unscrupulous in persecuting the rival Barisan Socialist party in the 1960’s (Operation Coldstore), and cracking down equally hard on political opponents in the later years as well as on the so-called Marxist conspiracy (Operation Spectrum) in 1987. I disliked his draconian rule which instilled fear among the people, and felt he was given too much credits when the other first generation team members should have been equally lauded. I was also pissed by his comments in his memoir “Hard Truths”, that Singaporeans were from the peasant stock and didn’t have the capabilities like the Taiwanese or Hong Kongers. And who can forget his remark about Singaporeans needed spikes in our arses to spur ourselves forward because we had become soft and not hungry like the Chinese.
But I realized recently, even though this country was no fishing village when the British left in 1963, the systems put in by the latter were not enough to guarantee any form of success. Mr Lee arranged a merger between Singapore and Malaysia, after the British granted independence to the Malaya Peninsula in 1963, to ensure our survival. But the leaders in both countries had very different ideologies, and when we were kicked out of the merger in 1965, the future of the country was very uncertain.
Perhaps we under-estimated the difficulty of governing a small country, thinking that it’s actually easier to control. The truth is small countries usually don’t do well and unlikely to survive, especially if there is no natural resources or the protection of a bigger country, and governance is not just about controlling the people. So it is actually pretty amazing that this country not only survived those initial tough years without a hinterland nor a protector, but thrived and became a global metropolis. I know that credits should be given to the entire first generation team, however I realize that there had to be a leader to take charge, and Mr Lee was that leader who moved everyone forward.
It’s true that Mr Lee ruled Singapore with an iron grip. Though I am ambivalent about it, I understand it actually provided a stable platform that enabled huge foreign investments to pour into the country, generating tremendous economic growth. You can say that Singaporeans gave up civil liberties for prosperity, which I felt we also gave up our political power, but I think that was what majority of the people at that time wanted: a better life. After all, majority of the population were living in squalid and cramped conditions. The PAP government had to quickly decide on the policies to lift the people out of poverty, they took big risks and executed successfully.
My husband told me that a leader has to be a little machiavellian, and even great leaders were not perfect and might have to resort to unsavory tactics. But these leaders did it for the interests of their nations. Mr Lee had used high-handed methods to put down opposition to create a stable environment for business, and he had said to the western press that he didn’t think western-style democracy can be imposed on other societies. I guess, from the various examples in the world, he is right. But I thought he could have done it better, instead of using a hammer to solve every problems.
Not all policies enacted were the right ones (the “Stop at 2 children” policy that started in the 1960’s is one example), but on the whole, there was more good than bad. I admit I am still not a fan of Mr Lee, but I respect him for what he did for this country and for making us proud to be Singaporeans. Though I gripe about the political stranglehold of the PAP, I can’t help but feel pride when I receive accolades from foreigners on Singapore. This is the result of what Lee and his team did for the country.
In death, Mr Lee unites all of us. We are seeing a historic outpouring of emotions and respect for him during this week of national mourning. Even after 6.30pm this evening, there is still a long line of people waiting to pay respect to him at the wake in Parliament House. The wait time was up to 8 hours from lunch time today!
I am also amazed by the simple acts of kindness shown to people paying respects at the wake.
No matter which political party we support or how political apathetic we are, the people do recognize the tremendous contributions Mr Lee made to this country and we thank him for it.