By Augustine Low
It was meant to damn Thum Ping Tjin and exonerate Lee Kuan Yew. But it achieved neither – as far as the court of public opinion is concerned. Instead the now infamous six-hour grilling of Thum by Minister K Shanmugam has raised more questions than answers.
To begin with, where does Shanmugam and the PAP draw the line? Thum was giving testimony at a Select Committee hearing, he was not being indicted in a court of law. The grilling and interrogation he was subjected to seemed spiteful at times.
Shanmugam as tormentor-in-chief went the whole hog to dubunk allegations about Operation Coldstore. But what about Operation Spectrum, where 22 people were arrested and detained without trial in 1987 for alleged involvement in a Marxist Conspiracy? That is shrouded in even greater controversy and represents a more clear-cut case of injustice, to many people.
Why didn’t Shanmugam delve into Operation Spectrum, which Thum has also deemed fake news? Because he had less ammunition? Because he ran out of time?
Next, we have the question of whether Lee Kuan Yew is above criticism and reproach. Is he a man without human frailties, a man who has done no wrong? It would appear that the PAP thinks it is so, going by how rigorously he is defended, the adulatory speeches made and the PAP-sanctioned books published.
But plough through biographies and psychological portraits of great political leaders and you will find that they are invariably complex personalities with a darker side. Consumed by ambition, they ascended to the heights by mastering and applying the necessary tools of statecraft – by turns cunning, scheming and calculating, at times devious and manipulative.
Is Lee Kuan Yew above the fray? Is he a paragon of virtue? Donning the cloak of self-righteous indignation whenever his behaviour or actions are called into question is not a magic bullet for Shanmugam and the PAP.
Another question that begs to be asked: Can the likes of Thum Ping Tjin taint the reputation and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew through their allegations?
I would submit that the greatest threat to the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew comes NOT from charlatans like Amos Yee and critics like Thum but from within, from the Lee family itself.
The ministerial committee for 38 Oxley Road has outlined three broad options for the property. This is nothing more than buying time and kicking the can down the road. It merely prolongs the saga and things could still implode anytime.
As long as there is bickering over the fate of 38 Oxley Road, as long as PM Lee Hsien Loong refuses to accept the finality of his father’s last will and testament, as long as Lee Hsien Yang and Lee Suet Fern remain in self-exile, as long as Li Shengwu is unable or unwilling to return home because of contempt of court proceedings against him, as long as Lee Wei Ling simmers with discontent, we have the House of Lee in tatters. And that remains the greatest threat undermining the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew.
For a parallel, one that is heartbreaking, let’s look at Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter who after 27 years in prison, emerged to forgive his oppressors and lead his people to political liberation.
Mandela’s legacy of peace, dignity and selflessness should be untouched. But after his death in 2013, his children and grandchildren began a mad scramble for the financial benefits of his legacy. They tried to turn his gravesite into a tourist attraction. They fought to gain control of a trust fund and foundation Mandela had created for his heirs. Two granddaughters even started a reality TV show called “Being Mandela.” Others marketed Mandela’s name and image in commercial ventures.
Through greed and in-fighting, Mandela’s heirs have contrived to potentially sully the image of the great man. It shows that dignity and values cannot be inherited. Mandela’s heirs are not motivated to uphold the legacy of peace, equality and reconciliation that he left behind. Once the great unifier passed on, the ideals and principles he stood for vanished into thin air.
Mandela fathered children with three wives so the problems and in-fighting that followed his death are complicated and multi-faceted. The Lee family feud centres on 38 Oxley Road so it is more straightforward. Yet no truce is in sight.
Who would have thought that Nelson Mandela and Lee Kuan Yew could come to be mentioned in the same breath, in the same context of epic familial failings and squabbles? That they were both unifiers in life but in death, their legacy risks being tarnished by in-fighting among family members?
Having the Lee family feud festering and simmering presents the gravest threat to the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew. If the House that Lee built goes up in flames, metaphorically, what does that say about the institutions he built, the ideals and principles he stood for, the very notion that the family is the critical building block of Singapore society? Is the memory of Lee Kuan Yew being betrayed by his own flesh and blood?