All over the Singaporean internet, there have been outpourings of dedications, expressions of gratitude, unabashed adoration for him and his legacy. As for myself, I feel quite conflicted, and driven to write to better understand my own thoughts.
LKY was definitely a great man. He was intelligent, sharp, an amazing orator, and extremely cognizant of local and global politics. Any obituary to him you find today will list adjective after adjective describing his brilliance, and by and large they will all be true.
But, he was ruthless and heartless, and freely admitted it, and proudly. He was a political fighter from the start, and got to the top by decimating his opponents in any way that he could. He was Machiavellian, and declared that he wished people to be afraid of him. He made arrests, he sued, he created what J.B. Jeyaretnam called “a climate of fear”, where people did not criticize the government because they did not want to go to jail. Even today this belief persists, with for example many people believing that public servants cannot vote for the opposition because if they do they will lose their jobs. Even as I write this essay I can feel the same doubt in my mind: will I get in trouble for this?
The PAP, with him as its architect, made its way to utter dominance in Singapore. It stands accused of control of the media, repressive laws, and gerrymandering of various sorts. There would be no opposition to what he believed was right.
Yet as he himself argued, all these were things that he had to do. He really did believe (as far as we can know) that for Singapore to survive, there could be no other way. “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.” Morality and conscience must give way to his responsiblity towards the nation. That nation which was truly his creation, his life’s work, that he had given his life to.
But perhaps morality and the rights and the wrongs of things were never in his calculus. He was an utter pragmatist, with disdain for any kind of belief in ideology or idealism. Sentimentality had no place in his Singapore. He saw that capitalism was the direction forward, and thus the only things that were valuable were things that made us money. The arts were useless, until they could be mined for tourist dollars. Go be a doctor, a lawyer, a banker, as these are the jobs what will make us rich. If you want to be an author, a musician, a dancer, a painter? Sorry, Singapore is not the place for you. It is no surprise that he was right-wing and mentioned alongside with Reagan, Thatcher and Kissinger. To him, liberalism and socialism were just delusions of the bleeding-hearted who cannot accept the world for the rough place it is.
His dedication to the country appeared to stem from a sense of duty mixed with his own ambition. Ambition not of the petty sort, but that of a man who knew his greatness, and was determined to live up to his own potential. Duty, in that it was a task that he had been given and be damned if he didn’t do it better than anybody else could. Love and compassion never seemed part of it; there are many instances where he appeared to be pretty contemptous for the common folk under his wing. Perhaps one of the reasons why he was authoritarian was that he believed the people to be fools who would ruin everything if he did not.
In 1987, two of my aunts were arrested and detained under Operation Spectrum. They were accused of being Marxist conspirators, charges I do not believe were true. I was only five then, and barely remember anything about the period that followed. Some memories include singing songs like “We Shall Overcome” at the blue gate of Whitley Road Detention Centre, and drawing a birthday card for Auntie Suan. It was a picture of her smiling, maybe with a birthday cake, behind prison bars; I doubt I had any idea what that meant. As an adult, I can now interpret the events of those days both intellectually, and personally.
For all this, I can respect him, but I cannot love him. I find it difficult to be truly thankful for all that he did. I respect his dedication, and his foresight for bringing us to where we are today. Yet I reject his philosophy and condemn the wrongs he commited against others.
At the end of the day, perhaps LKY was necessary for Singapore. His iron-fisted, authoritarian rule is something I cannot accept, but maybe without it Singapore wouldn’t have been able to reach her current state of progress. He crushed democracy and liberalism in the infancy of our nation, but perhaps we weren’t ready yet, at that point in time. Even today, with a much better educated and more politically aware society, there is a disturbing amount of support for people I would not consider to be good for our nation. If populism was allowed to sway the direction we took, might we have ended up in disaster?
In a sense, he cleared the land and burnt down the trees, to allow new shoots to grow. The recent years have shown a great increase in societal consciousness. More and more of us young folk, being better educated and world-wise, have questioned the old ways and asked if we can do better. We dissent, and a large reason of why we are able to do so is because we no longer have to worry about where our food comes from, whether the water we drink is clean. In giving us this prosperous nation, he freed us from our baser concerns and ironically allowed us to become idealists who look at the deeper questions in life
Perhaps that is the true legacy of Lee Kuan Yew. That he set the stage for our society to progress, and ultimately transcend that which he gave us. To become a nation where we can actually care for all the things that he himself thought of as sentimental rubbish.
Rest in peace.