Singapore’s Founding Prime Minister, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew was laid to rest on Sunday, 29 March 2015. The ceremony marked the end of an incredible week for Singapore. Nobody, including the government lead by the late Mr. Lee’s son expected the sudden outpouring of grief from the public. The government, which had a worldwide reputation for efficiency, found itself challenged managing the logistics of dealing with the crowds of people who gave up their working day to pay respects to the man.
Suddenly, everybody remembered the great things that Mr. Lee had done. He had, as many people said, brought us up from the swamp of third world poverty to a thriving metropolis. There were of course, one or two voices that talked about his darker side; the people he locked up without trial or had been sued into bankruptcy but other than the odd voices, Singaporeans were content to deify Mr. Lee.
When I read through the online comments from friends, the news reports and clips of his old rallies, I’m inclined to ask myself, who was the real Mr. Lee. Was he the saint who devoted his life to the betterment of the people, or was he a power hungry maniac who kept the people under his thumb? I believe the truth lies somewhere in between.
Let’s start with the obvious – Mr. Lee was a natural politician who recognized power and relished it. For the man, power was not about enriching himself or his family – it was there to be used by him to the fullest extent. Mr. Lee had a genius for moving the masses, either through himself or his deputies and he had an equal if not greater genius for playing the great powers. At times, it seemed that he understood the ground in big Western democracies better than the leaders of the said democracies. Mr. Lee could afford to have an American teenager canned for vandalism despite protest from the US President – the reason was simple, Mr. Lee ensured that the average citizen in the USA agreed with him. Likewise, the same was true when an Australian citizen was hanged for drug trafficking despite protest from the Australian government.
While Mr. Lee claimed that his favourite sage was Confucius, the truth was that he was, by his own admission, a student of Niccolo Machiavelli, who argued that it was better for a leader to be feared than loved. You could say that Mr. Lee was the “Prince” that Machiavelli wrote about (The comparison is apt, Singapore is by geographical size is similar to the Italian City States in Machiavelli’s day.) The “Good Life” that Singaporeans enjoy comes from the fact that Mr. Lee understood power.
The fact that Mr. Lee loved power is obvious. His early political career was spent maneuvering between Communist (mainly from Singapore’s majority Chinese population) and ultra-nationalist in Malaysia. The Colonial power of the region, the British had no interest and money to maintain the protection he needed and the new power, the USA had other priorities. Mr. Lee had to find a way of taking on and winning against ruthless opponents who had more resources.
However, when he had defeated his early enemies, it seemed that he missed the “fight to the death” challenges of his early career. Opposition politicians were ruthlessly crushed for the mere crime of being politicians who disagreed with him. Nobody ever thought that JB Jeyeratnam was a threat in the same way that the Communist were but Mr. Lee made it a point to use every trick in the book and the vastly increased resources of the state to ensure that Mr. Jeyeratnam would die a poor and broken old man.
Mr. Lee justified his ruthlessness in the name of National Security. It was better to crush Marxist and Islamist than to risk the nation being destroyed and dragged into conflicts. However, one has to ask if it was really necessary to hound even old allies like Devan Nair for the crime of having a disagreement?
Mr. Lee’s love for power and political fights and maneuvering was however, matched by wisdom and the understanding that it was better to have people working with you rather than against you. Being ruthless was necessary to get power and to maintain it. However, Mr. Lee understood that being ruthless was only one aspect of power.
For one, he understood that he needed the people on his side. He had the strength of character to allow competent deputies like Goh Keng Swee and S. Rajaratnam to do the work unhindered by political considerations and money worries. They worried about implementing ground policies and he worried about the politics. It was a combination that worked.
It worked for the simple reason, the lives of the people improved and the majority of his government’s policies proved to be correct. Singapore’s GDP per capita figures have become a religious mantra for the government and Singapore’s prosperity is not just in its statistics. Singapore remains a beacon of what a country should be to many in the region.
Mr. Lee’s success for Singapore turned out to be a model for the rest of the world. In the end, he was not only mourned in Singapore but in India and New Zealand, which both flew their flags at half mast.
In the end, Mr. Lee was a force of good for Singapore. He was by no means a Saint and you could say he did a few things that you could call diabolical. But in the end, Singaporeans have benefited from his leadership and for that we should be thankful.