The adulation of Lee Kwan Yew on his demise is expected. Throughout his rule he had the support of a completely inhibited press. His policies were totally in accordance with western cold war stance and with its consequent policy of globalization. He strutted the stage of world applause. The reality was very different. He played a Punch and Judy show of domination on the micro stage of Singapore. In its heyday, Singapore had a population of not more than two million inhabitants. The days of city states have long passed. Singapore was an anachronism. Its true future would have been as the port city of Malaya, not Malaysia, the pastiche which succeeded to British Imperialism.
The myth being propagated today is that Lee forged some economic miracle out of nothing in the post-colonial world. Singapore is not a miracle. The wealth and growth of Singapore was based on profits, first from the Korean War, and later from Vietnam when Singapore processed the fuel of B59 bombers to destroy other Asian countries. Apart from its massive war incomes Singapore benefited from its later role as economic intermediary between Asian counties divided by ideology. In cold war alliances, trade with China was not allowed. Singapore offered itself as an intermediary, buying from China and selling to other South East Asian countries. Singapore is based on the same ideology as 7-11 stores, location is everything, combined with a merchandise of popular wares. I was once on a ship carrying Chinese products to Jakarta, under the name of a Singapore exporter. The cargo consisted of products such as bottles of ink, Chinese in origin but acceptable from a Singapore source.
Lee Kwan Yew was an autocrat. He schemed and manipulated in his city state. He has never been a statesman. His closest analogue is Mayor Daley of Chicago. Singapore is a city without hinterland, without the responsibilities of a state responsible for rural communities and a dependent workforce. Singapore’s industrial powerhouse depended on Malaysian labour, to whose training and education its budget had not contributed. Malaysian workers grow old or become ill and return to their homes in Malaysia without being a burden to the Singapore economy. Today Chinese immigrants have become the major source of labour.
On what count is Lee Kwan Yew a brilliant statesman? Did he ever show any real interest in the region, other than his overweening interest to establish Singapore as the crossroads of South East Asia. Did he ever have even an elementary understanding of the dynamics of this region and of US policy to dominate it? His policy during the Vietnam War was utterly Machiavellian: while availing of the economic opportunities to supply the logistics of US intervention he maintained a façade of non-alignment.
One may ask, what contribution this supposed statesman has made to the future of ASEAN. Whatever its cold war origins ASEAN is a legitimate attempt to mirror regional associations elsewhere. Does he have a single idea or contribution to this very necessary association other than the principles of non-interference and unanimity in decision, principles which protect his island state but paralyse true regional development.
And what kind of Singapore has this social genius proposed? A global city, based on the concept of capitalist globalization. Singapore will provide the financial and management skills of this pie in the sky. However, the problems of South East Asia are related primarily to its agricultural base. This is our culture, our treasure of knowledge. The world’s genetic resources of rice are ours. LKY knew nothing of this and cared less. Are we to reproduce the madness of the industrial north, leading to accelerated environmental and cultural disaster?
My personal antipathy to the Lee adulation is based on the disillusion of a generation of young people who grew up in his Utopia. University graduates with the idealism of contributing to a viable future, other than the current economic poker game, realized they had neither freedom nor hope in LKY’s Cosmopolis. The best and the brightest emigrated, unwilling to live under an all pervasive tutelage. Doubtless the arrest and reformation of opponents to the LKY regime looked credible to some Singaporeans. I once found myself seated on an international flight next to a Singapore businessman who lauded LKY for “nipping in the bud” “subversive” elements, people who were my friends and students. Many fled abroad. Others resisted and were marginalised for life, submitting to the grey dull hegemony of PAP government which made Singapore, for all its economic success, the most boring place on earth.
It could have been so very different. The expulsion of Lee from Malaysia needs further reflection. Malaya, incorporating Singapore, could have been a strong and compact country. One must pay tribute to the statesmen of Malaya who have solved the problems of racism evolving, for all its fragility, a working accommodation of Chinese and Malay populations. Without the bluster of being a hub of this or that as in Thailand, Malaysia has achieved the highest ranking in Asia as the country with strong development potential, sixth in the world in a list headed by Switzerland. With Singapore as its access point to air and sea links, a modern state founded on their unity would have offered the world example of peace and development. Meanwhile Sabah and Sarawak could have developed independently and finally achieve partnership in a union of States, such as seen in Europe or the Organization of American States. But such a future was blocked by Lee Kwan Yew, whose vision was limited to the maniacal ambitions of a modern day Genghis Khan. Lee built up his army, basing his security on an Israeli model of armed isolation, and with a paranoid diplomacy, neither capable of participation in the true give and take of international cooperation nor even of grasping its possibility.
Lee Kwan Yew relied on a team of gifted technocrats and political allies such as Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam and Devan Nair. One may not call them politicians, because a political process never matured in the island state. Everything was manipulation, short time alliance, and suspicion of challenge to his leadership. Inevitably, he distrusted and cast aside former allies, lifting himself to the status of Il Duce. Ultimately, he could not trust anyone and grudgingly passed power to his son, a kind of one man dynasty that betrays an inability to bind together a likeminded brotherhood of leadership.
What legacy does he leave? He was fearful of the day when he must inevitably pass on the keys of the kingdom to successors who have never learned the skills of association. Singapore itself is a stunted dwarf in the Asian region, without any of the bonds of respect and mutual understanding that unite countries throughout the world. Lee believed in his own miracle, but his State is as vulnerable today as it was in the beginning, without the resources of security against economic and social turbulence increasingly threatening the world of tomorrow. Worse still, he has bequeathed no vision to the young, other than to grab at opportunity and believe in the salesmanship of economic manipulation.
Will Singapore build a giant statue of its founder? Will there be a proliferation of LKY Boulevards, LKY universities, LKY space laboratories? Hardly; they would be empty dreams and disillusion with the flimsy imaginings of this cultural dwarf must surely soon begin. He was clever after a fashion but never wise, never capable of empathy or true understanding of others.
For me, one image of LKY typifies all about him. On the eve of a Singapore National Day, he went to
the studio to record his address to the nation. Seated at the recording desk he called for the director of the studio telling him to solve the problem of a bothersome fly which buzzed around Lee and blocked his concentration. When the director admitted his helplessness, Lee ordered him to open all the inner doors of the studio including the lavatory door, and to bring him a newspaper. He waited until the fly found its way to the cool moist atmosphere of the wash room, rolled the newspaper and followed it. A few moments later he returned with the squashed fly which he deposited with a smirk on the desk of the director. He left, ordering the recording team to come to his home that evening to make the recording. Such was the Austerlitz of this tactical genius. Perhaps an image of Harry Lee and his dead fly could best recall the heroics of the LKY era.