We need to talk
about him

On the 23rd of March of 2015, Singapore lost not only a man, but a leader. A fierce, unforgiving politician who brought the small little island of Singapore to prominence, wealth and prowess, Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore from a British colonial port into the economic powerhouse it is today.

It pains me to write this article, because the death of Lee deeply polarised my circle of friends, and worse — it’s not along the line that separates friends and acquaintances. But I feel like I owe people an explanation of why I feel like I have to speak up.

One camp, where many of my close friends are in, feels that it is disrespectful to be critical of Lee in the days immediately after passing — that we should revere him as the leader of Singapore, the person who brought Singapore up from the slums of a fishing village (which is not exactly true, for Singapore being quite the bustling port, although mismanaged in many ways, during British colonial times). One acquaintance accused me for being a foolish idealist who engages in a “circle jerk of free speech”.

The other felt that meaningful conversation should take place, and that all views should be heard, especially the objectives ones. The moment of mourning presents itself the perfect forum for meaningful discussion, as the whole nation comes to the realization of a profound loss of a founding father and starts to shape a distinctive memory of this undeniably impactful and unforgettable character.

Founding father

Founder of the People’s Action Party (PAP), Lee spearheaded many political movements and changes in Singapore. He constructed the legal system for the sustenance and growth of business entrepreneurship. He implemented one of the world’s best (here and there are just a few) — or some say the best, based on what metrics you are measuring with — education system, on the basis of meritocracy and equality, unlike the race-based policies implemented by an immediate neighbour to the north. He nurtured close ties with China, recognizing that Singapore will thrive and benefit greatly from this relationship.

Singapore ranks 5th in 2012 and 7th in 2014, as one of the least corrupted countries in the world. Data gleaned from https://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results.

Through the enactment of strict laws, corporal punishment and what many would see as a hard-handed leadership, Lee ensured that Singapore thrived under a stable civil and political landscape. He effectively, tirelessly and rentlessly bulldozed corruption in all levels of hierarchy within the government with the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, making Singapore one of the cleanest, corruption-free country in the modern world. But what is most remarkable, is that Singapore is by far the only Asian, and by extension, Southeast Asian country, that claims a position in the top-1o position on the corruption index that is Western-dominated.

However, at the price of stability, the political landscape of Singapore has never quite changed since it gained independence. The ruling party PAP has been in power for five decades, with a smattering of opposition parties holding miniscule amount of seats in the Parliament. Singapore has often been cited as a classical textbook example of illiberal democracy. While I am not in a position to comment on how this pseudo-democracy Singapore has been operating on since time immemorial has affected the island country, and how a true democracy would have changed the course of the country, we all have to admit that Singapore did flourish under some degree of political oppression — our education has never been better, the nation’s GDP has never been higher.

Lee believed in autonomous right to subscribe to any religion to all. He allowed religions to flourish in Singapore. Based on Lee’s description and his take on religion, he is more of an agnostic than an atheist:

“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist.
I neither deny nor accept that there is a God.
So I do not laugh at people who believe in God.
But I do not necessarily believe in God — nor deny that there could be one.”

On LGBTQ issues

While washing the government’s hands clean of ensuring equal rights for the LGBTQ community, Lee was quoted, in 1998, much to the relief of many in the community, that the government will “leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people”.

“I mean, we don't harass anybody.”

Lee addressed the issue again in 2007, believing that homosexuality is genetically imprinted and therefore should be accepted as it is presented. However, the penal code 377A, an archaic law — inherited from Singapore’s British colonial rulers — criminalizes sex among consensual males and comically leaves out female-on-female sex, still stands (emphasis my own):

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.
— Section 377A of the Penal Code

As a homosexual man comfortable in his own shoes, I was admittedly surprised by Lee’s admission — I have lived in Singapore for ten years, a society that I would describe as orthodox and conservative, and highly influenced by religion. I wouldn’t expect him to agree on every single detail on the laundry list of the modern gay rights movement, from gay marriages to adoption by same-sex parents, but his openness and acceptance, do pave a small but not insignificant road towards gender equality in Singapore.

My two cents

Rephrased and further refined from an earlier Facebook status update I have shared, I wish to humbly share my opinion about Lee’s passing.

When a fellow member of academia, despite in a different field, was attacked over her apparent clinical analysis of the social media landscape hours after Lee’s passing, I felt that I have to speak up and lend voice to the middle-ground minority. Some commentators, whipped up by the emotional frenzy perpetuated on the state-controlled media, accused her of being disrespectful to the grieving Lee family.

But how should we look back from the future — near or far — and comment, view, appreciate, commemorate, remember this national event of Lee’s passing, and the accompanying public mourning, realization and acceptance — objectively — should one never document and chronicle the event from a third party’s objective?

As much as I have the deepest respect for Lee for how he transformed the island of Singapore and put our little red dot formidably on the world map, as an academic, I also respect the due process of documentation and observation by a neutral party. The presentation of facts, of what Lee has contributed to historical and contemporary Singapore, of his dreams and nightmares, of his legacy and faults, of his character and personality, are all important towards shaping a public memory of him, a repository of his mark on Singapore and the world.

When Margaret Thatcher passed, some mourned, some celebrated. For she was a divisive character in British politics. She was praised for her iron-fisted rule; yet she was reviled by many for her indifference towards the plights of miners and the unemployed. There were few who shared a middle ground — who remembered her for her iron-fisted rule, but who also remembered her for her struggle to join politics as a lower-middle class underdog, a member of the less represented sex, and more.

Lee was an equally divisive character. When Singapore was forced to leave Malaya, he shed tears — the second and last time ever known, the first being after his mother’s passing. He was worried of Singapore, of how, deprived of almost any form of natural resources, could thrive. In the interest of the newborn nation’s sovereignty, he immediately sought recognition from UN as an independent state. He institutionalized compulsory conscription of all able-bodied Singaporean male to join the military. He reinforced the armed forces in Singapore, with the help of countries with advanced military knowledge, so that she can defend herself against neighbours in a hostile geopolitical landscape. He wiped out corruption, made kids in Singapore one of the brightest in the modern world. And more importantly, under his rule, Singapore flourished, for nine years straight, as the most desirable location to conduct business in the world.

Without Lee, Singapore will not be where it is today.

Yet he silenced the opposition, jailed those who crossed his path and even sued those who stood against him into bankruptcy. The legal system was alleged to be rigged in favour of the government, and people who criticized it were taken to court. The media and telecommunication companies operate under government control, many say. You even have to apply for a permit in order to speak freely, despite Article 14(1)(a) and (b) guaranteeing the freedom of speech — the oxymorous of it is profoundly baffling.

There will be no Singapore without Lee.

But from now on, Singapore will have to lead a life without his physical presence. She will be hobbling in unchartered territory, but despite this, his legacy lives on — every transformational touches he has on the sunny little tropical island will be evident to the generations that are yet to be birthed. His stories should be told — every triumph, every fall; every victory, every defeat. Lee, like many of us, carry the burden of human conditions, for we are never born without our faults.

It is of great comfort to know that Singapore’s society has matured over the years. Acts of altrusim were observed as the line for people paying tribute to the first prime minister grew in length, snaking through underground pedestrian crossings, corridors of heritage buildings, tree-lined boulevards. This is the Singapore that Lee envisioned, I felt. A city that does not only have hardware to show, but heart-ware to bolster.

I am a product of Lee’s legacy. I was born in Malaysia, in a country that shows scant respect towards equality and meritocracy. At the age of thirteen I moved to Singapore in search for a better education system, and I have benefited greatly from it. But does that mean I cannot think for myself, or that I relinquish the exuberance of choosing not to agree all that is said — wholesale, blithely, blindly? Would I not be doing this world-renowned education system a disservice and labelling it a farce, if I have not learned how to speak for myself, objectively and neutrally, especially during events of great public interest?

I encourage people to speak. We need to talk about Lee. The good, the bad. The stories, the shortfalls. He is just human. Just like how we remember the fallen and the dead for the deeds they performed and the mistakes they made, why should we deprive Lee of this very human experience of grieving, remembrance and mourning?

We need to speak about Lee, and distill what he has contributed to Singapore to further the country forward, to propel the island country to the cutting edge of success and prowess. We listen and observe his stories — what can we learn from him that made Singapore so successful? What mistakes can we avoid committing again, so that we can make things even better? It is with humble appreciation that we learn from his experience, extract the essence of what is good, learn the shortfalls that serve as a reminder, and let these virtues guide us in the age of post-Lee Singapore.

I know that speaking up for myself will cost me. I will be crucified, berated, marginalized, picked on, for whatever neutral ground I choose to stand in. I will lose some friends, annoy a magnitude of acquaintances, tick off many patriots — for them choosing, at their own accord and with their rosy, tinted glasses, the “least respectful way” of honouring Lee’s legacy. But I am not.

I just feel that we need to listen and observe.

What is hearing for when we do not listen? Listening is very different from abetting, let alone disrespectful.

What is vision when we do not observe? Observing is decidedly distinct from agreeing, let alone contemptuous.

I am not trying to be flippant, ungrateful, discourteous or blasphemous — unless you unfortunately choose to see so.

RIP, Lee Kuan Yew.

Further reading:

  1. Mr Lee Kuan Yew and the spectacle of death: The first twelve hours on social media — by Crystal Abidin, an academic researcher who accused of dissing and being disrespectful in the period of national mourning
  2. A Middle Ground Perspective on Lee Kuan Yew’s death — by Jeraldine Phneah, who received a lot of flak for her middle-ground and fact-based opinion

Terry is a confused molecular biologist who decided to have a go at writing some months ago. He used to describe himself as politically apathetic, but now takes on a liberal, center-left stance. Currently based in the small Danish city of Aarhus, he lived in Singapore between the years of 2002–2012.