Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 15, April 4, 2015
Lee deserved all the praise he got. But his idea of prosperity without freedom can never win
Sunday 5 April 2015, by
The way the world reacted to Lee Kuan Yew’s passing was a measure of the greatness he had achieved as the Prime Minister of Singapore. His lifelong disappointment was that he did not have a country big enough to match his vision. He made up by turning Singapore into a world showpiece, marked by efficiency, beauty, cleanliness and absence of perceptible corruption. In his later years he also achieved the status of a philosopher-king whose views were sought by other countries, including China. He was an honoured speaker at America’s think-tanks.
India’s own admiration for Lee Kuan Yew was always out in the open, clinched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to attend the funeral. Many of our leaders extended a different kind of compliment when they boasted that they would turn this city or that into another Singapore. A momentary political point scored with that bunkum, they went back to the shenanigans that have turned our cities into nightmares.
Occasional shenanigans are unavoidable in running a country in today’s world. Lee had had his share. The defining question in all such cases is: Are they aimed at enriching oneself or at achieving national goals? The world evidently
judged that Lee’s intentions were honourable, hence the graciousness of the accolades showered on him. The New York Times report referred to the International Herald Tribune apologising when libel suits were filed by Lee. But it was too polite to mention its own cancellation of a lunch invitation to Lee in New York in protest against its correspondent being rudely thrown out of Singapore.
Lee’s libel suits were numerous and famous. He did not lose one of them. He literally turned prosecution into persecution when lawyer J.B. Jeyaretnam won a seat in Parliament on an Opposition ticket which Lee considered an unpardonable offence. He punished the constituency that voted for the Oppositionist. Then he chased the MP relentlessly until court orders disqualified him from functioning as a lawyer or as an MP and declared him legally
bankrupt. The Economist’s obituary in 2008 referred to a party organised by its corres-pondent in Singapore. The moment Jeyaretnam entered, most of the guests withdrew into corners to avoid being seen with a man the Prime Minister disliked.
Significantly, the reportage following Lee’s death described him repeatedly as the founding father of Singapore. Actually there were four co-equal co-founders. Two of them could be said to have made contributions more solid than Lee’s to the transformation of Singapore. Goh Keng Swee was responsible for the economic miracle in Singapore while Toh Chin Chye was the no-nonsense builder of the People’s Action Party, keeping it strong and safe for Lee. S. Rajaratnam provided ideological ballast to Lee and, as the Foreign Minister, gave wing to Singapore’s gospel.
But three of the four founding fathers went off the radar towards the end of the 20th century. Some foundations and university chairs were named after them; otherwise memories of them were allowed to lapse. One reason was that health failed them sooner. Suggestive of an agreement that they would only die as nonagenarians, Rajaratnam moved on in 2006,
aged 90, Goh in 2010, aged 92, Toh in 2012, aged 90, and now Lee, aged 91. Lee, enjoying relatively better health and intellectually sharper, emerged more equal than the others, enabling him to arrange “leadership transition“ the way he wanted.
Lee was Singapore’s Prime Minister till 1990. That year, with the other founders virtually invisible, he handed over prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong while remaining in the Cabinet as a senior Minister. In 2004 Goh withdrew and the prime ministership passed to Lee Hsien Loong, with Lee remaining in the Cabinet as a Minister Mentor. Chok Tong and Hsien Loong were by no means the brightest men in the party or government. But Hsien Loong was Lee’s son. The leadership transition was so neatly executed that there were articles in the Herald Tribune under headings like “All in the family“ and “Dynastic politics in East Asia”. Anxious to ensure continued circulation in Singapore, the H-T apologised, paid substantial fines to settle the libel case, and agreed that only merit mattered in leadership choices.
All very neat. But it’s a new Singapore now, with new ideas, new ambitions. The new generation wants prosperity with freedom. In the general election in 2011 good old Jeyaret-nam’s Workers’ Party scored unprecedented success. Son Lee’s Singapore is already different from Father Lee’s. An old maxim is filling the air again: Arbitrary power does not last, only people’s power does.