The Chinese Year of the Goat is starting on a rather auspicious note for Singapore. The Goat Year, which is supposed to be a fairly gentle year, started out with the news that Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew had been taken to hospital and is now on “life support.” While we should wish Mr. Lee a recovery, we are witnessing an end of an era. Mr. Lee has been visibly frail since the death of his wife in 2010 and at the age of 91, he’s lived beyond the two score and ten recommended by the Bible. His passing should be something that we expect.
While Mr. Lee has remained out of the public eye since he resigned from the Cabinet after the 2011 Election, he’s been the driving force of modern Singapore. I remember a prominent journalist describing as the “Era of Lee Kuan Yew,” and he went on stress that this was despite the fact that, “Lee Hsien Loong [Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s son] is now the Prime Minister and Goh Chok Tong was the Prime Minister for 14-years.”
Mr. Lee was our first Prime Minister. He and his initial governments played a role in creating the policies and institutions that have made Singapore what it is. Mr. Lee was a great visionary. He insisted on things like integrity in the public service and promotion by merit.
Not only was Mr. Lee a visionary, but he also had the rare gift of being a visionary with a pragmatic streak. He had the good sense to surround himself with competent deputies like Goh Keng Swee and Rajaratnam. Mr Lee fought the political battles and allowed his deputies (especially Dr. Goh) to get on with the work.
The results of his vision and pragmatism are visible. Singapore is now a thriving, prosperous, green and safe metropolis. Despite its limited geography, Singapore is held up as a model of what a city should be. The emerging Asian giants, China and India have sent government officials to Singapore to study how Mr. Lee did. India’s recently elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modhi is a fan of Mr. Lee.
While Mr. Lee did some nasty things like ruin his political opponents (there are political prisoners who have been incarcerated longer than either Nelson Mandela or Ang Sung Su Kyi), he has been on the whole a good force for Singapore. Let’s face it, Singapore measures up pretty well in just about everything and these days that comparison is not with third world backwaters like Angola but with the developed nations of the West like the USA and members of the European Union.
So, why aren’t Singaporeans, especially the younger generation showing much emotion over the possible demise of the man who was probably the root cause of the good life that they enjoy.
My personal feeling is that Mr. Lee forgot one of the most important lessons of business – never fall in love with your own business. The man who made “succession planning” and obsession couldn’t help but to create consultancy positions in the cabinet of his successors. He was Mr. Goh Chok Tong’s “Senior Minister,” and then, when his own son took over, he became the “Minister Mentor,” or the man they still needed around to “mentor” the people he chose to run the country.
While nobody can doubt Mr. Lee’s wisdom and the fact that he’s been right about so many of the crucial issues, there comes a point when one forgets that times change and the methods that worked yesterday may not work today. You could say that Mr. Lee was the father of the nation and he was the father that forgot that the children had grown up.
One of the most common failings was to stick onto the myth that he and his party created – they were the party that brought the nation from swamp to thriving metropolis in a generation.
While the PAP and Mr. Lee deserve credit for bringing Singapore up in the world, the message had become lost on a generation that never lived through things like the Japanese Occupation or the riots of the 60s. There’s no point telling a retrenched manager with a mortgage and family to feed that he has it easy when compared to the generation that survived the Japanese occupation. What he wants is to find a way of making a living so he can feed the family.
There were also times when the obsession with the past record was more than just out of touch – it was self-serving. One of the worst moments came when Mr. Lee proceeded to sold Singaporeans for being complacent about national security when there were calls for the Minister in charge of national security to resign after that Minister allowed a terrorist to waltz out of a secured facility. Mr. Lee was known for being ruthless with his own ministers in extracting the highest standards and competence and integrity. Suddenly he was proudly defending the incompetence of his son’s ministers. To a generation of Singaporeans who had grown up thinking of Mr. Lee as a great man who did things for the nation, this was a rude shock. Had he grown to love his power more than his people?
As a young Singaporean, I find Mr. Lee’s demise sad but hopeful. The man had faults and his frailties. These weaknesses have damaged certain aspects of Singapore. However, when you compare him to his contemporaries in Southeast Asia, he did place some safeguards against himself. Singapore’s elections are really run in a “free and fair manner” (the ballot is secret, even if the ruling party may like you to think otherwise.) Mr. Lee did step aside in 1991, unlike Suharto who had to be pushed and confined to house arrest or Marcos who had to flee the nation.
If one looks at Mr. Lee’s family, you have to hand it to him for ensuring they stayed in line and played by the rules. Our current Prime Minister was required to take the same exams that everyone else took. As a reservist colonel pointed out, “Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Hsien Yang went to OCS (Officer Cadet School) and trained – they did not get 12-year deferments of National Service and then got posted to study soil.” The Elder Mr. Lee has kept certain things in line, which many of his contemporaries did not – one only has to go back to how the Suharto family seemed to own as well as run Indonesia.
You could say Mr. Lee’s problem was to set high standards for public officials and the angst that many Singaporeans feel towards the once almighty government is the fact that they feel its moved away from the standards that Mr. Lee set.
It would take courage to admit this but should any government recognize and act of these mistakes, they would have secured Mr. Lee’s decent legacy for the betterment of Singapore.