As Singaporeans mourn their charismatic leader Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), whose political acumen, drive and ideas defined the young nation and played a major role in its successful development, attention turns to assessment. Moments of transition always bring reflection, and this is especially the case with the passing of the man who both personified and defined Singapore. The fact that LKY has passed on in the pivotal year of the nation celebrating the country’s 50th anniversary only serves to reinforce the need for review.
There is good reason to acknowledge the accolades of a man who has been labeled as one of Asia’s most influential leaders. Most of the media, especially in the government-linked media of Singapore, lay out these reasons well. LKY was a force to be reckoned with, a complex man who made no excuses in his views and was direct in stating his opinions. He trusted few, but chose to collaborate with those who shared his hard work ethic with talent and ideas to develop the busy port of Singapore into a safe dynamic cosmopolitan city-state. He will rightly be remembered for not only putting Singapore on the world map, but as a model that is admired and respected by many the world over.
LKY was a man who was respected, but importantly not loved by all. He used fear to stay in power. From the inception of Singapore’s independence – when it was expelled from Malaysia – the ideas of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘survival’ were used to justify decisions. He promoted the idea that Singapore had to have a strong armed forces, requiring national service in 1967, to protect itself as a nation surrounded by the perceived threat of its Malay neighbors. The enemies outside were matched by those inside, who had to be displaced and in some cases detained. Among the most controversial were the arrests of men labeled as communists in Operation Coldstore of 1963 and Operation Spectrum of 1987 (a.k.a. the ‘Marxist Conspiracy’) that targeted social activists who promoted greater social equality and were seen as challenging LKY’s People’s Action Party’s (PAP) authority. Two other round-ups occurred with Operation Pecah (Split) in 1966, which coincided with the year of the arrest of Dr. Chia Thye Poh who was held under detention and restriction until 1997, and the arrests of the ‘Eurocommunists’ in 1976-77. Many others from opposition politics, business to academia faced the wrath for challenging and questioning LKY, his PAP and the politicized decisions of its institutions, castigated in the government controlled media, removed from position, forced to live in exile and, in some cases, sued and bankrupted. In the relatively small city state, it did not take much to instill a political culture of fear by making a few examples.
A main point of contention goes that LKY sparred with Western critics over democracy and human rights, with LKY dismissing these ideas as not part of ‘Asia’s values.’ The debate was never about differences in values, but the justification of holding power in the hands of a few for nearly five decades. Singapore’s political model is at its foundation about the elites, with Lee, his family and loyalists at the core. In recent years, reports in Singapore have highlighted a growing trust deficit in the PAP government that LKY founded. The real deficit that defined LKY and became embedded within the party he molded is that he never fundamentally trusted his people.
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Bridget Welsh is a Senior Research Associate of the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of the National Taiwan University where she conducts research on democracy and politics in Southeast Asia.