*I have changed my title of this post as I recognize the previous one could be insensitive. However, I have kept all the points in this post.
Throughout this month, there has been lots of talk about Lee Kuan Yew after he was admitted into hospital on the 5 February.
On my newsfeed, I’ve noticed two main types of responses.
One was an outpouring of emotions about how sad people felt about it. These were made by his ardent supporters and fans. I’ve seen some selfies and videos of people crying to show their grief to their friends and family.
Unfortunately, there were also those who were gloating about it and some going to the extent of making baseless accusations.
The objective of my post today isn’t really to judge other people for how they feel, or how they wish to express it. Rather, I wish to share my own perspective.
For me, I am more towards the group in the middle ground – who feels sad about it but not to the extent of the first group. Hence, my previous title ‘sad but not THAT sad’.
I am definitely not one of those people gloating or who are going like “I can’t wait for him to die,” etc. In fact, I do feel sad about it in a sense like “Oh one of the key people who helped build Singapore up is going to die soon” and “loss of talented and smart man to society”.
There are many qualities I like about Lee Kuan Yew and plenty of good traits and leadership lessons we can learn from him.
Whether we agree or disagree with what he has done, we cannot deny that he is a man of intellect, talent, and ambition who contributed to building the Singapore we have today.
Here is my take as someone on the middle ground about this whole issue:
1. We need to give credit where due.
Nobody is disputing that LKY indeed contributed to Singapore’s success. What is up for contention is how he contributed and the degree to which that contribution is presented.
The first misconception is that Lee Kuan Yew was the one who brought Singapore from a fishing village to the first world city we have today.
They even go as far as to call him our “Founding Father” when he is not. Stamford Raffles was the guy who founded Singapore.
Yes, Singapore was a fishing village but that was when Sir Stamford Raffles set foot on it in 1819. In 1965, Singapore had a pretty okay civil service (police, education, hospitals etc), public utilities (water, electricity, drainage), was a thriving port and a public transport network.
The second misconception was that Lee Kuan Yew made us the wealthiest country in Asia. This is untrue. Since 1800s, even before WW2, Singapore was already one of the world’s most important port. This is due to her strategic position at the southern most point of Asia.
As Singaporean historian Thum Ping Tjin, Research Associate at the Centre for Global History at the University of Oxford, described:
“By 1950, Singapore was the richest country in Asia. The only country in Asia that was richer than Singapore was metropolitan Tokyo. It was famous then for everything that we are famous for today – tall buildings, wide boulevards, clean drinking water. We had more cars per capita than anywhere in Asia. We were famous for being a trading port, an offshore financial centre, a specialised commodities futures centre, world market for rubber and tin, an oil distribution centre.
Lee Kuan Yew himself in 1960 as his electoral fortunes declined as he got more and more unpopular, kept going around saying, “Look, Singapore has the highest income in Asia.” If you read the Straits Times in 1960 he kept saying this to point out how good we were doing.”
If you find it hard to believe, you can see the photos of Singapore for yourselves here.
Contrary to popular misconception, Lee Kuan Yew was not the person who came up with the brilliant economic policies that brought us to success.
It was Dr Albert Winsemius, the Dutch economist sent by the United Nations in 1960 to help Singapore industrialize. Singapore merely followed his economic plan for Singapore.
Another key economic mastermind was Goh Keng Swee. He initiated the setting up of the Economic Development Board which was established in August 1961 to attract foreign multinational corporations to invest in Singapore. He also proposed that the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) is established to invest excess reserves.
So how did Lee Kuan Yew contribute to our economy then?
According to PJ Thum, Lee Kuan Yew’s contribution was to reduce wealth inequality, “working with the trade unions, helping to make Singapore a much more egalitarian and much more socialist place.” This is something he is rarely credited for when he truly deserves to be.
I think it is also important for Singaporeans to realize that while LKY’s leadership was important to the old guard, he was not some super hero who made all these contributions alone.
Strangely despite their key contributions, they were not featured very much in our social studies textbooks, so not many young people know about them. They are Lim Kin San, Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam and Ong Pang Boon. In fact. many young adults today do not even know of these people or what they have done for our country.
- Lim Kin San led the development of the public housing we had today. He even did it for free for three years.
- S Rajaratnam built up the Foreign Service and helped to establish diplomatic links with other countries and secure international recognition of the new nation’s sovereignty.
- Hon Sui Sen led the implementation of Singapore’s industrialization strategy crafted by Albert Winsemius.
Each of them contributed very very different things to the PAP and they worked incredibly well together as a team. They laid the foundation which made Singapore the great city it is today.
Yes some of you may say that without LKY perhaps Singapore might not be as successful. However, I would argue that if LKY did not have the contributions from everyone else, he won’t be able to achieve this success as well. It might be better if we took into consideration their work as well so that we can have a good sense of how Singapore’s success came about.
To put simply, just like how I disagree with us blaming LKY for every problem, I also disagree with crediting him for everything that went well in Singapore and for the things he did not do.
2. I would think that if Lee Kuan Yew is in great pain and suffering, it is better to let him go than wish for his pain to be prolonged.
Have you ever heard your grandparents and parents talk about how living till a ripe old age isn’t as important as living a quality life and dying without suffering and pain?
From my interactions with the elderly on the ground and my own family members, I’ve grown to realize that many old people are not obsessed with leading a long life but rather living a quality life and dying painlessly, peacefully and with loved ones by their side.
I feel that the same may be the case for Lee Kuan Yew too.
If he passes on, we should feel happy that he has gone to a better place (if you believe in religion) and don’t have to feel pain anymore. Otherwise, wouldn’t it be selfish of us to want him to stay in this world and to suffer?
If you put things in perspective – Lee Kuan Yew had already achieved a quality life. He led an extremely good and long life by most Singaporean’s standards.
Of course, he chose to live humbly. However, he had a choice and everything he wanted – status; power; married the woman of his dreams; access to top quality healthcare; long life; going to top schools; having his own bungalow in river valley; having powerful friends; getting to travel a lot; having lots of children and grand children who got prestigious state scholarships and not having to do hard labour at an old age.
Compared to many members of the pioneer generation who built up this country, he would have a much better life by these standards.
Many old people his age who die alone because of Singapore’s poor social security schemes and who have to pick up cans and cardboards at such an old age. They too were extremely important for Singapore’s success and worked hard to build the country we have today. Yet, they are living in terrible conditions with one out of five senior citizens in Singapore not having enough income to meet end’s meet.
3. Did he “sacrifice” a lot for Singapore?
I agree that Lee Kuan Yew did his best and contributed immensely. However, I feel pretty perplexed when I see comments online about how Lee Kuan Yew “sacrificed his whole life and so much” to contribute to Singapore.
To me, there is a big difference when you say “Lee Kuan Yew SACRIFICED” a lot versus “Lee Kuan Yew CONTRIBUTED a lot”.
While I agree his contributions are integral and extremely significant, I do not consider it a sacrifice.
His family has ultimately benefited greatly from his involvement in politics. Even if he has to sacrifice privacy and time, isn’t it something that all celebrities choose to sacrifice?
Many are too quick to assume that his involvement in politics is completely altruistic. However, I feel that there exists a possibility that there could be other mixed motives.
Just like how others do not have evidence that he is selfless and compassionate, I also don’t have evidence to show that he is interested in power, prestige, glory or wealth.
However, what I’ve noticed is that Lee Kuan Yew is definitely deeply interested in politics and governance. In fact, he is so passionate that he has served different types of governments in Singapore’s history.
His track record which demonstrates his interest in politics includes:
- Japanese Occupation: Working for the Japanese propaganda department in World War 2 to transcribe Allied wire reports for the Japanese government
- British Rule: Volunteering as an election agent for John Laycock under the banner of the pro-British Progressive Party in the 1951 legislative council elections
- Singapore’s road to independence: Leading the PAP from 1950s to present
Some people have felt that I should take down this post and apologize to his family. Their opinion is that if someone is gone, we should give respect to them and not point out any of their shortcomings.
However, it seems that Lee Kuan Yew and his family considers expressing a less than positive opinion about a public figure after his death disrespectful.
“I was sad to learn that your father, Mr Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam, has passed away..He used to engage in heated debates in the House…. he sought by all means to demolish the PAP and our system of government. Unfortunately, this helped neither to build up a constructive opposition nor our Parliamentary tradition …Nevertheless, one had to respect Mr JB Jeyaretnam’s dogged tenacity to be active in politics at his age.”
Just like how Lee Kuan Yew felt that public figures who have passed on should be assessed fairly for their good and bad, I am sure he would agree that the same applies to himself.
No doubt LKY has did his best and contributed greatly to our country but I guess many people have a very exaggerated view how perfect he is because their impression and knowledge of him is entirely based on what they’ve studied in Singapore’s history textbook; mainstream media or his memoirs.
The content in our National Education textbook would of course be extremely biased because history is always written by the victors, even political ones.
I am grateful to LKY’s contributions to Singapore. He is a monumental figure in our history who transcends politics.
However, I feel that is important for us to have a complete, balanced perspective to the man. We should not be afraid to discuss the good but also controversial and the bad. If you want to discuss his “tremendous moral courage” in achieving a success, please discuss also his questionable policies and his contentious treatment of dissent. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be education, it would be propaganda
To get a better understanding of our nation’s history, it would be good to explore other perspectives and get a holistic and more accurate depiction of things.
Moving forward, I hope our national education curriculum will be able to give more coverage to the contributions of other people in the first batch of PAP ministers. When I suggest this, people often say I am ungrateful to LKY, but is highlighting the contributions of the rest of the old guard and talking about how we should acknowledge them too necessarily mean that LKY did not anything for us?
Furthermore, it will be good if we can give a more balanced perspective on Lee Kuan Yew’s contributions and mistakes and remembering him for the good and bad.
This will better help us all learn from his victories and failures better. It will help students understand Singapore and raise a generation of people who are critical thinkers and better leaders.
Like all leaders, it is important to commemorate his passing not by declaring his divinity and being entirely responsible all that is good in Singapore, nor by portraying him as some kind of evil person responsible for all the problems we have today.
Ending off, I wish LKY will no longer have to suffer and strength to his family members to stay strong during these difficult times
I understand that this post has been taken negatively by some. Please read my response on Asian Correspondent here.