It has been just over a year after the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew whose name has always been linked to the development of post independent Singapore. Given the overwhelming outpouring of grief at his death last year, it is no surprise that his first death anniversary was marked with equal fanfare and adulation.
It would seem however that Ms Lee Wei Ling, daughter of the late Mr Lee is of the opinion that her late father would not have approved of the intensity of the commemorative events. As his daughter, she would have known him much more intimately than members of the public, which in turn gives her the authority to comment on what her father would have liked.
Perhaps Mr Lee would indeed have “cringed” at the degree of commemorative events that were organised to mark the first year of his death. Yet, this declared abhorrence for “hero worship” does seem at odds with the actions of Mr Lee throughout his political life, where he often took firm and high-handed actions to protect his reputation.
I would argue that, rather than believe “what he did was all for the welfare of the nation and its people”, as Ms Lee has claimed, some part of what Mr Lee did was to protect his own image. If one wishes for his best side to be shown and promoted to the public, could this not be logically argued that he wishes to be “hero worshiped”? Otherwise, why bother to put so much effort into cultivating this image of dignity, high morals and impeccable standards?
It is no secret that Mr Lee took out numerous defamation suits against detractors in his years as a politician. Many a time, the actions were justified on the basis that it was vital for the authority of the State that the desired image of his person be preserved. Wouldn’t equating a person’s reputation with that of a nation lead to the formation of a personality cult? Why would Mr Lee and his supporters advocate this if not for this reason?
Many of the defamation suits were initiated over election campaign statements uttered by opposition politicians at political rallies. In most democratic countries, such statements or questions raised by opposition politicians would have been regarded as par for the course in the political game. Yet, Mr Lee was of the view that the preservation of his reputation should trump the questions or jibes raised by opposition politicians as part of their campaigns which most of the democratic world would not have considered defamatory.
It also doesn’t help that alternatively accounts of history have been suppressed, with well-studied intellectuals and award-winning film-makers denigrated as “revisionists”. Indeed, Mr Lee had ever said, “What they think of me after I’m dead and gone in one generation will be determined by researchers who do PhDs on me.” If Mr Lee so abhors personality cults and hero worship, why the reluctance to allow well-thought alternative views of him and his legacy?
The point of this article is not to pass judgement on the rightness or wrongness of Mr Lee’s actions but to highlight the inconsistencies between Ms Lee’s sentiments and the actions that Mr Lee undertook in his tenure. How can a man who has initiated so many defamation suits and cultivated a system that clamps down so heavily on detractors be called a man who did not believe in “hero worship” or a “political cult”?
I don’t question that he laboured hard for Singapore and I do not deem it respectful to question whether or not the betterment of his person was also part of the agenda. As far as I am concerned, those questions are not relevant – not just because he has passed on, but also because it matters not. There is no harm in him having benefited from the growth of Singapore as long as there was no corruption. I don’t see the development of Singapore and the betterment of Mr Lee as a person as mutually exclusive.
All I want to highlight is the inconsistencies between Mr Lee’s actions in life and the sentiments expressed by Ms Lee. Mr Lee probably believed that his good reputation was essential for the efficient and smooth administration and development of Singapore, which in turn led to his lifelong control over the media and how his name and actions were portrayed.
By denouncing hero worship and personality cults, Ms Lee is doing the very thing she is preaching against. Mr Lee religiously guarded his image in life. By denying this, Ms Lee is perpetuating the myth of his leadership, while criticising the public for doing the same.
Perhaps the best way to heed Ms Lee’s advice “to work for the well-being of Singaporeans” is to call a spade a spade and commemorate the spade for what it was. After all, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a spade. It is a useful tool that should be celebrated. Let’s just be honest about it.
The cult for LKY's image, and calling a spade a spade