In a move that surprised everyone, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew decided that he would retire for the cabinet. Mr Lee has been positioned as modern Singapore’s “Founding Father,” and even Mr Lee’s harshest critics have found it hard to think of Singapore without Mr Lee’s presence in the cabinet.
As well as being Singapore’s “Founding Father,” Mr Lee has also been something of a “Rock Star.” He is the one political leader that Singapore has produced that seems to be recognised by everyone else. Both West and East laud him for taking the sleepy crime-infested tropical swamp and turning it into a modern metropolis within a generation. Let’s face it, Singapore is a young nation that actually compares quite well with many developed countries in terms of its physical and dare I say, legal infrastructure.
So, Mr Lee is rightfully lauded for his achievements. If you look at his record, he’s proven right on more than one occasion and on more than one issue. You could say that he’s the right person to have as a mentor.
This was the argument that Singapore’s Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, had used when he retained his father in the cabinet some seven years ago. Mr Lee Kuan Yew was given the title of “Minister Mentor,” and as the title implied, he was supposed to “Mentor” the cabinet with his years of experience as a leader and international statesman.
However, how much of a “Mentor” was Mr Lee? Well, in the end, it turned out that Mr Lee wasn’t much of a mentor but a senile uncle who left the Ministers he was supposed to mentor, scrambling to cover for him. It started with his comments about Muslims needing to “integrate” better by being less serious about their religion. This was compounded by his prediction that the Group Representation Constituency the PAP was about to lose would have five years to “Repent,” for voting in the opposition. His comments left the Prime Minister in the unique position of having to call a press conference to distance himself from his father.
So how did this wise man that did so much to make the PAP and Singapore, end up looking like a fool of the highest order?
I think part of the problem lay in the fact that Mr Lee forgot that his title was to “Mentor,” rather than to take charge. As mentor, ones role is to provide advice but to accept that ultimately the responsibility for any action lies with the person who receives your advice. At best, mentors work in different organisations and their advice comes from a private capacity. This was never the case with Mr Lee. Apart from announcement that he was “No longer in charge,” Mr Lee took a very active role in running things. When he felt Members of Parliament needed a dressing down, he would do it personally. When foreign dignitaries wanted to visit someone, he would make sure he was an important port of call. Mr Lee travelled extensively, brining Ministers on his trips so that he could “open” up markets. Mr Lee even went as far as to make his importance visible on a symbolic level. At the last National Day, Mr Lee got himself driven into the arena, a privilege previously held by the Head of Government and Head of State.
Then there’s the question of experience. What exactly are the experiences that Mr Lee brings to the cabinet? Well, I suppose it’s always good to have someone else to give you “experience” or the “benefit of their wisdom.” Both experience and wisdom usually come with age – a case of learning through hard knocks, which comes with time. In this aspect, Mr Lee was a font of wisdom for those who consulted him.
However, most mentors are known for certain strengths and most of us have forgotten where Mr Lee’s strengths lay. Generations of Singaporeans have grown up believing Mr Lee’s strengths lay in governance. In fairness to this assumption, Mr Lee led a team of brilliant ministers. Mr Lee had the foresight and security of character to allow the likes to Dr Goh Keng Swee and S.Rajartnam to do certain jobs. Once they convinced him of a certain course of action, he supported them all the way and ensured that they had what they needed to get the job done.
However, Mr Lee, himself was not an administrator himself. His real strengths lay in political street fights. He was the campaign orator, the man who knew how to mobilise union leaders and he knew when to lock them up. He was the one who shrewdly read political sentiments in the UK and Malaysia and how to use them to the advantage of Singapore. Mr Lee has always been a pragmatist who knew how to sell ideals to idealist. He was the English Educated lawyer who learnt Mandarin and Hokkien in the span of six-months so that he could make the masses move.
If you read his biography, his genius was not in being an all wise and all knowing statesman, even though he’s been known as one. His real genius came when he was the underdog – the leader of the minority English educated taking over a party dominated by Chinese educated populist, the leader of an untried and untested party against colonial administration and so on.
Ironically, the person who seems to have best understood this aspect of Mr Lee appears to be Mr Low Thia Khiang, Secretary-General of the opposition Worker’s Party. Like Mr Lee in his younger days, Mr Low is fully aware that he’s fighting against massive odds and he relishes it.
Mr Low, like Mr Lee understands the value of getting the people’s support. While the ruling has often chided Mr Low for not doing much in proposing alternative policy, Mr Low has realised that his success lies in ensuring his constituents are looked after. Like Mr Lee in his younger days, Mr Low works hard to ensure that the people remember him – he attends every birth, wake and funeral in his constituency. The PAP has spent 19-years trying to unseat him and each time they’ve tried, he’s been returned to office with a stronger majority.
Like Mr Lee, Mr Low is not afraid of having highly intelligent people by his side. In his early days, Mr Lee had the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam. Today, Mr Low has Sylvia Lim (Polytechnic Lecturer), Chen Mao Mao (Lawyer with international regard) and Pritam Singh (Academic). Mr Low may not speak the Queen’s English but he’s smart enough to surround himself with the people who can work it.
So, the irony of Mr Lee’s spell as a “Minister MENTOR,” is that he actually may have mentored someone, even if it was the last person he would have wanted to tell the world he had mentored.