By P.N. BALJI
A frail Lee Kuan Yew marked his 90th birthday on September 16 in a country that is transitioning from his iron-fisted form of democracy to a new style of politics that will emerge in the next couple of elections.
The man who once famously declared he would come out of his grave if he sees Singapore going the wrong way is witnessing changes taking place very different from what he would have ever imagined for the city-state.
The biggest game changer has been the Internet, which has put the government of his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, on the backfoot, not knowing how to react to flourishing public debate.
The national mood is sour, with a host of issues like the affordability of housing, high cost of living, a transport crunch and the influx of foreign workers all coming together to create a perfect political storm.
All of these issues are getting free play on the Internet, more often than not drowning out the government’s voice.
Singaporean author Catherine Lim, a fierce critic of the government, blames Lee for the fallout.
She said in her blog, soon after the Senior Lee stepped down from the cabinet as Minister Mentor more than two years ago: “The supreme irony of Lee Kuan Yew’s political demise was that the paradigm, which resulted in his most spectacular achievements as a leader taking his tiny resource-scarce country into the ranks of the world’s most successful economies, was the very one that caused his downfall.
“The related irony of course was that a man of admirable sharpness of mind, keenness of foresight and strength of purpose had failed to understand, until it was too late, the irrelevance of this paradigm to a new generation of better-educated, more exposed and sophisticated Singaporeans.”
Political demise. Downfall. Irrelevance. Very strong words that hardly existed in Singapore’s political vocabulary when describing a man who towered over nearly every facet of Singapore life for the last 54 years.
In those years, Singapore’s first prime minister turned a small, initially impoverished oasis in a turbulent region into a prosperous metropolis that is envied by many in both the developing and developed worlds.
He fought his domestic political adversaries with brute force. He jailed them, sued them and tore them to bits in public debates.
Lee was also loyal to his loyalists. He flew to Jakarta to see a dying Suharto just to demonstrate to the world that the former leader’s achievements should not be forgotten, despite criticism of his autocratic rule and the corruption that flourished under it. Under Suharto, Singapore-Indonesia ties blossomed.
The Singapore leader was also a pragmatist, prepared to hit the refresh button when he felt Singapore had to make policy about-turns. He was uncomfortable, for example, with having casinos in Singapore, but relented when he saw their economic benefits.
He was even prepared to re-look at the law that made homosexual sex illegal.
Populism, however, never existed for him. He was clear from day one of his leadership that pandering to the Chinese-language activists would only bring trouble for Singapore in a region dominated by Muslims and non-ethnic Chinese. Also, he realised early on that making English the city-state’s dominant language would help Singapore more easily plug into the international community and move away from third world poverty to first world status.
Swimming against the tide was his favourite hobby. When the Philippines gave notice to the Americans that they had to leave the Subic Naval Base, Lee was the only one in the region prepared to accommodate the U.S. Navy in Singapore. Thus was born the Changi Naval Base.
His obsession with leadership renewal set him apart from many leaders. An elaborate and rigorous scheme was devised to get the best and the brightest into politics and in the cabinet. He voluntarily stepped aside so that a younger man, Goh Chok Tong, could take over as prime minister in 1990. But he remained in the cabinet as Senior Minister and later as Minister Mentor.
In hindsight, perhaps he should have stepped out of the cabinet altogether. That decision to stay on was one of two of his biggest failings. The other was not to understand the importance of giving full voice to the citizens of Singapore.
More than two years after an election result that saw the mood of the nation swing away from the ruling party in 2011, Lee announced in a terse statement his departure from government.
When he was offered the honorary title of Emeritus Minister Mentor, a bitter Lee said: “I don’t need it.”
For a man who inherited a marshy island and turned it into a modern-day miracle of superstructures, that shock departure on May 14, 2011 must have been difficult and disappointing.
Leaders, both and good, often don’t know when to exit the scene. Some stay on because of the good life, some because they want to amass more wealth and some because of their obsession to ensure that their countries don’t fritter away their gains.
One man who bucked the trend was South African statesman Nelson Mandela. After being released from a long incarceration and becoming the country’s first black president, he made up his mind to rule just for one term from 1994 to 1999.
And he kept that promise. That is a great leader with no buts and ifs.
If only Lee had taken a page from Mandela’s book, critics like Catherine Lim might have been kinder to him.
What is even worse is that this man who could sniff out problems before they even appeared on the horizon never realized that a citizenry cannot be bottled up forever.
If only Lee could have predicted that and allowed his citizens a bigger and more meaningful say in determining the future of their country, Singapore today might not be in the restive political mood it is today.