Enough time has passed since the Funeral for me to write about the whirlwind of media enquiries during that period. Virtually all the enquiries came from Western media, though a Hong Kong newspaper was an exception.
The initial thrust of questions posed to me was somewhat dismaying. Largely, they took this form: Now that Lee Kuan Yew is dead, what are the prospects of liberalisation in Singapore? It was dismaying because it revealed a tendency to see Singapore politics through just one personality. No doubt he was a dominant personality in the 1970s and 1980s, but he had gradually receded, and after the rebuff by Aljunied voters in the 2011 election – when despite his threats, they voted out the People’s Action Party candidates – he seemed to have gone into a sour sulk.
Perhaps it was foolish of me to think that reporters might actually see complexity in Singapore, or that their editors might really give them the column inches to describe it.
Anyway, I decided to he helpful to the reporters. If I didn’t take some trouble to flesh out the story for them, how can I later accuse them of shallow reporting?
I told every journalist who asked about the prospects of liberalisation that the question was mainly off the mark. If Singapore is illiberal today, it is illiberal because it suits Lee Kuan Yew’s successors, not because Lee willed it to be so. His death therefore changes nothing.
Each politician has a policy bias – it’s called his ‘beliefs’. But most politicians, unless they are all-powerful, which even Lee Kuan Yew was not — he craved international respect, which thus ruled out the more brutal or depraved options – also operate on the basis of cost-benefit calculations. This is not to say that the calculations they make would churn out conclusions similar to the ones we might reach; they might have different facts in view, or place different weights on them. If Singapore is illiberal today, it should be far more fruitful to ask how this comes out of the present government’s biases and calculations than to ascribe it to Lee Kuan Yew.
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