By Augustine Low
PM Lee Hsien Loong said last week that the Opposition (unfortunately for them) does not have a Lee Kuan Yew. He and his Ministers have also from time to time bemoaned that the PAP and Singapore no longer has a Lee Kuan Yew.
Some Singaporeans share the sentiment, wishing for a Lee Kuan Yew to solve the country’s problems.
Apart from indulging in wishful thinking, just exactly why do people wish for a Lee Kuan Yew? He was from a different time and era. What makes people presume that LKY would be able to work his magic today?
Let’s imagine LKY telling us today why his style of leadership works for Singaporeans: “It’s like with dogs. You train it in a proper way from small. It will know that it’s got to leave, go outside to pee and to defecate.”
Or his advice to Singaporeans: “So when the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him he’s a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you’re going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright.”
How about LKY in 2018 thuggishly warning his opponents the way he did back then: “Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
It’s no use saying we’ll take the intellect of LKY but not the methods. They are inextricably intertwined, they make up the man. It is impossible to disentangle one from the other, the intellectual rigour and visionary foresight from the authoritarian, unforgiving, roguish, take-no-prisoners style and personality.
A Lee Kuan Yew today would be totally out of place. He would struggle to make sense of why he cannot govern Singaporeans with an iron-fisted, almighty, omnipotent hand (like training dogs, he said), and why he cannot wield a hatchet to whack the Opposition into submission.
In fact towards the end of his political career, LKY had already lost touch with the mood and expectations of the people. He famously went to Aljunied and told voters they had “five years to live and repent” if they voted in the Opposition. That only succeeded in spurring on the voters to throw their weight behind the Workers’ Party.
There are legions who salute the singular vision of LKY and his unrelenting commitment to the cause, personal and political. But it would be unseemly to salute the style and the methods, which include the merciless bludgeoning and banishment of political foes. In the twilight of his life, LKY said that “everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.” Whether honourable or heinous, legitimate or fabricated, the jury is still out. K Shanmugan and his PAP colleagues do not have the last word, nor historian Thum Ping Tjin.
It is also untenable to imitate the LKY style today. It does not sound and look pretty whenever the PAP tries to do so. The Select Committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods is a fine example. The “performance” of Minister Shanmugam, questioning professional competence and generating contempt and condescension, was disconcertingly reminiscent of LKY tactics. Prior to that, there was the perceived intimidation of Sylvia Lim in Parliament over her GST hike “test balloons” remarks.
If the PAP persists with playing hardball in the post-LKY era, there may be repercussions down the road. At the Select Committee hearing, Shanmugam was dead sure he had the intellectual crispness and willpower to carry the day. But in a style, tone and manner that seemed targeted at belittling Thum? And they are not yet done with the belittling, with the Select Committee now publicly clarifying Thum’s academic credentials. Why not let it go? What’s the use of winning the battle but losing the war?
So neither putting on an LKY nor wishing for another LKY is the answer. Singapore must move forward on a different footing, without the unsavoury imitation and the foolhardy, wishful thinking.
We are in the post-LKY era. To keep wishing for a Lee Kuan Yew, even if only to make a symbolic point, is to keep looking back, to be bereft of ideas and sound leadership, to wish for a return to the era where one man had the guile and gumption to wrest absolute control, almighty and omnipotent. Past is past, the future of Singapore should not lie in the hands of one man or one family.
Do we hear the Indians wishing for a Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru? Or the British wishing for a Winston Churchill? They were men who made the greatest impact because they possessed the unique personality, style and attributes that were right for the circumstances of the time.
Today a Gandhi or Nehru, a Churchill or a Lee Kuan Yew would no longer be relevant because time does not stand still.
Augustine Low is a proud but concerned citizen. Voicing independent, unplugged opinion is his contribution to citizen engagement.