A Prisoner of his Father’s Legacy

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by Augustine Low

Have you seen the face of PM Lee Hsien Loong when he he talks about his late father? There is wellspring of emotion, a wistful faraway look – a look of yearning tinged with melancholy. Clearly he is still clouded by grief and anguish at the loss of his father to this day.

In a CNBC interview two months ago, PM Lee recounted the sort of advice his father would be giving him now. The interviewer followed up with: “You can hear his voice in your head?” And the reply from PM Lee: “Yes, we can imagine that.” (By “we” he was probably referring to the Cabinet although I think he spoke for himself).

It is poignant that he carries the spirit and the voice of the father with him. It is also telling. The label of “dishonourable son” memorably pinned on PM Lee by his sister Lee Wei Ling simply does not ring true. He is ever the dutiful son, he is every bit his father’s son and father’s keeper. He is consumed (paranoid even) with protecting his father’s legacy and preserving the dominance of his father’s party. This is his life’s mission, governing his thoughts and deeds.

It is perhaps his destiny and a cross that he carries: to be never released from the shackles of his father’s coattails. But I believe I am nearer the truth in saying he is bereft of the courage to break free – moral courage and political courage.

In PM Lee, we have a man who could have carried the torch from his father and gone on to recalibrate a Singapore in tune with the times. Yet he has been simply carrying on the tradition, never championing new ideals, never fashioning a more progressive Singapore. By his own reckoning, he has done well enough. Singapore is stable economically and respected internationally, and after all we we have the world’s most powerful passport. But PM Lee’s political persona has not evolved. One can imagine that confronted with a challenge, he searches for the voice of his father and that voice invariably tells him to retreat to what worked under circumstances of the past, circumstances of his father’s time.

The political ideology of PM Lee has remained stagnant; he still measures success strictly in terms of brick and mortar. At his father’s funeral service, he cited St Paul’s Cathedral in London built by Sir Christopher Wren: “Mr Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore. To those who seek Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s monument, Singaporeans can reply proudly: Look around you.” The GDP, the Marina Bay skyline, the MBS and other like shining icons that dot the country are to PM Lee parameters of success. And we can see why to him 38 Oxley Road absolutely has to be preserved as a monument to honour his father’s legacy.

Where PM Lee has been found most wanting is that he has failed to muster the will and courage to ensure that economic growth is correlated with civil and social progress, with tolerance, inclusion, and political rights and freedom, to enhance the country’s well-being. How can we be progressive as a country when the Internet and social media is suppressed and over regulated, civil society is suppressed, media freedom is restricted, racial card is played for political gain, mediocrity and cronyism are disguised as meritocracy?

Instead of leading Singapore to embrace the aspirations of a new generation, a new century, PM Lee has obsessively taken on the mantle of being his father’s son and father’s keeper. As the dutiful son, he has achieved his mission. But in doing so, he has scorned the opportunity to break free from his father’s coattails and carve out a legacy of his own. It is his loss. It is an even bigger loss for the nation.

During PM Lee’s recent visit to the United States, President Donald Trump,  at the start of his welcome speech, said “your father was a great man, he really was a great man.” PM Lee had travelled halfway across the world to be reminded that he was the son of a great man.

And so it shall be. It is his destiny – and his tragedy – that Lee Hsien Loong, a prisoner of his father’s legacy, will always be first and foremost the son of Lee Kuan Yew and then almost as an afterthought, the third Prime Minister of Singapore.

Augustine Low is a former journalist and managing director of a public relations agency.