Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Lessons in Nation-building from a Master Statesman

Mr Lee Kuan Yew: Lessons in Nation-building from a Master Statesman

By Dr David KL Quek

A truly world class statesman passes on...

The past week saw the gradual mawkish deterioration, then finally the demise of one of Asia’s truly iconic statesmen, 91-year old Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It is the closure of one very long sturdy chapter of nation-building at its iconoclastic best or worst, depending on one’s perspective. But I would argue, that the ‘success’ of Singapore speaks for itself, warts and all…

What do we in neighbouring Malaysia think about that, except for the fact that Singapore was once upon a time, a part of Malaysia? That Singapore was unceremoniously kicked out for being that unwanted ‘tumour’ that had to be excised! Mr Lee and his uncompromising coterie of PAP leaders and that ‘small red dot” Singapore were expelled from the then fledgling Malaysia in 1965.

The actual historical reasons for this enforced separation might never be known. But many historians are at pains to note that perhaps Mr Lee Kuan Yew was just too brash, too bull-headed, a tad too chauvinistic, too ethnically Chinese-dominant, to fit into the aspirations of  Malaysia’s fractious founding partners then.

One could argue that his vision of the presumptuous “Malaysian Malaysia” then was perhaps a little too premature for the ethnically-sensitive Alliance leaders of the cobbled together Malaya-Malaysia polity. Even Alliance’s Chinese (MCA) counterpart Tun Tan Siew Sin went on to berate Mr Lee’s “nauseating hypocrisy” at that juncture to reject that call for ethnic inclusiveness as “Lee Kuan Yew’s Malaysia”.

Mr Tan Siew Sin had claimed (1st June, 1965) then that ‘The concept of a Malaysian Malaysia was born on the day the Alliance was born.” But alas, this bold but explicit declaration has been stillborn since Merdeka! Many Malaysians of other ethnic origins than the Malays, now feel increasingly alienated that this precept was not to be, and has never been cast in stone by the current Alliance-Barisan Nasional regime for the past 57 years! Many continue to feel second class, and have been shouted down repeatedly as ungrateful “pendatangs”! In nearby Singapore, Mr Lee’s remit had been singular and plain: race and religion should not foreshadow national vision and mission, so that in that regard, the nation has moved forwards, more united in its (yes, lesser) diversity, with all ethnic groups in tow!

This expulsion of Singapore on August 9, 1965 was a momentous decision made by Tunku Abdul Rahman, our benign if lovable Malaysian founding father, then guided by the political realities of ethnic numbers, Alliance affiliations, and Machiavellian options… The rest as they say, is history… the unparalleled history of Singapore.

What of Singapore then? Resource poor, it has thrived against all odds. Small tiny island, with no natural resources, no water even. To quote Mr Lee who had said in an 2007 interview with the BBC: “To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist. To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.”

But its geographic locale at the tip of the Malay Peninsula was its saving grace—its historic and geographic entrepot trading centre nonpareil continues to bask in its well-tended, well-honed logistics for convenience and superlative efficiency—it continues to be the regional-international hub for trade and financial services. BBC’s recent obituary lauds LKY as one “who transformed that tiny island outpost into one of the wealthiest and least corrupt countries in Asia,” indeed the world over!

It has challenged the wisdom of historical templates of successful or failing nation states, to succeed as never before understood. As well put by contrarian political journalist Zainuddin Maidin (Zam), Lee Kuan Yew “turned tragedy into a blessing”. It has trumped and dismissed snide and disparaging calls as to its unabashed leader-knows-best dictatorship and sometimes arrogant autocracy controlled by a small cabal of political elites.

Over the decades, Lee and his PAP party members have been accused of fostering a state-wide orderly but love-hate-fear relationship with its no-nonsense authoritarian stance. Many of their political dissidents and opponents have faced the jagged edge of ruthless and impenitent repression! Mr Lee and his government brooked little dissent particularly when anti-establishment critics were disdainfully viewed as dismissible unequal upstarts, not at par with their unmatchable standards or calibre for political challenge or debate.

Against political oppositionists—and many have been bankrupted by libel suits—careless, less than impeccably error-free comments or criticisms were punishable under the full weight of the law! Critics, even foreigners and journalists, have been sued for daring to utter other than the un-interpreted facts as deemed ‘accurate’ or have their commentaries retracted when these have been found to be construed as willful distortions, by the Singaporean government.

It has systematically and unapologetically crushed most of the ruling party’s political opponents. Said Mr Lee: “If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you… Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

“I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial. I’m not saying everything I did was right. But everything I did was for an honorable purpose,” Lee had no qualms in saying, in a later interview with The New York Times published in September 2010.

Therefore, the usual Singaporean psyche has been dumbed-down to one of apathetic circumspection and timorous acceptance… the begrudged nanny state might be obvious for all to see, but the manifest economic benefits and wealth generation for the common man in the street, appear to outpace concerns for the lowly-placed neo-Confucianist individual freedom and rights… all for the ultimate greater good! But, be that as it may, many the world over, continue to admire Singapore’s zero-tolerance on corruption, and its indisputable economic success!

“I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think,” an unapologetic Lee had earlier said in 1987.


Being a Johor Bahru born just across the Johor Straits has given me a unique perspective for what it was like to be born and raised in the long-overshadowed sleepy border town, in shocking contrast to our much hallowed and prodigious neighbouring city-state. When I was pursuing my medical housemanship in JB, the Ringgit and the Singapore dollar were at par value, in 1979-1980. The current state of our currency disparity speaks volumes for itself!

In my teens, we students visit each other through societal exchanges, science and math competitions and youth camps, we were not much different both in intellect or education, then… But the contrast in Singapore’s educational push for excellence and meritocracy really began to sweep in, in earnest in the mid-60s and 70s onward.

When I did well enough in the Lower Certificate Examination (LCE), many of us were invited to interview for ASEAN scholarships to study in Singapore, through offers made to individual schools. I opted to stay, but again following good grades at the MCE (Malaysian Certificate of Education), we were offered again to further our education with scholarships to their Junior Colleges, about one quarter of my class left. I stayed on in English College (Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar) for my ‘A’ levels. And the ASEAN Merit scholarships were offered for those of us to further our tertiary education in the then University of Singapore.

Of the top scholars from JB who opted to study Medicine, 4 accepted the Singaporean offers, but 2 of us chose University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, for whatever our youthful minds decided—patriotism or fear of the unknown, or just pure whim... More importantly nearly half of those who did well in their A levels went on to study in Singapore, and most have stayed on since…

It is said that most ‘migrants’ to Singapore from Malaysia then, were from Johor, Melaka and Penang. It is now estimated that some half to one million former Malaysians are now Singapore citizens or permanent residents. How much these highly educated migrants have contributed to the nation building of Singapore can be debated and is arguable, but they must have played sufficient if not significant roles in improving the talent pool. These days, the easy immigration policies of Singapore for talent are legend and extremely attractive. Migrants not only come from the usual Chinese/Indian diaspora, but also from the Indian subcontinent, Greater China and indeed from Europe too.

The lure of Singapore as an educational hub, global financial and service centre, world-class healthcare services, high-value manufacturing industrial state, and a decent safe place to live in, has continued to flourish. While Malaysians were attracted by its orderly growth, wealth, proximity and job opportunities, these were initially and predominantly made more attractive because of our close cultural and familial roots. Now Singapore’s global reach remains even more tangibly magnetic. The subtle but increasingly compelling pull effect of Singapore has now blossomed into full bloom: a small, dynamically vibrant, wealthy, corrupt-free and orderly first world polity in the background of third world developing nations… This must surely rank as one of the notable but indisputable achievements of that singular vision of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his charges.

My reminiscence of the Singapore-Malaysia contrast is to help me rethink the art of the possible, in the divergent political practices in our respective countries, caught in the slipstreams of increasingly widening political exigencies and experiences in our two nations.

Singapore has been brazenly forward looking, people-centred, unashamedly meritocratic, exempliflying its ‘mandarin’ bureaucratic administration par excellence, and is unreservedly development-focused.

Malaysia, on the other hand, appears to have become more and more inward looking, more racially-polarised, more religiously politically-manoeuvred. We are inundated with more unpunished corruption-linked scandals, we're more mired in blinkered rent-seeking/patronage and public-burdened financial straits; almost as if in locked-down self-destruct mode… Dare we hope to have another visionary in the style, the brand and the pragmatic bombast of Mr Lee to re-steer us in another direction?

To sum up, Mr Lee Kuan Yew epitomised that iconic benevolent if autocratic leader-ruler in the mould of an ideal Platonic philosopher-king governor. Or as Mr Lee would have preferred, the arrogant incorruptible Confucian leader-king... Resource-poor but mentally-ideologically resourceful Singapore owes its tremendous success to this one man and his political philosophy!

But that is not to say that Mr Lee had no faults. He had plenty and had acknowledged his cunning and Machiavellian approaches to politics. As can be seen in many of his cringingly brutal and frank quotations, Mr Lee had not always been his flattering best. On the low down he was as crass a bully and an unflinching a dictator as the worst that could be. But his unvarnished if cruel pragmatism and unwavering vision in life had left him in fairly good stead! Importantly the overall sum of his legacy has been more societally benevolent than that of malicious self-aggrandizement, now so prevalent among despicable political princes...

I mean let's just look at Singapore today! Not necessarily the most ideal model of a successful wholesome society, but a damn sight near close to one, that nearly every nation, every leader worth his or her salt, on earth, envy! We salute you Mr Lee Kuan Yew!

“In the end, my greatest satisfaction in life comes from the fact that I have spent years gathering support, mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races — and that it will endure beyond me, as it has,” Lee said in his 2013 book, One Man’s View of the World.

RIP Mr Lee Kuan Yew! The world salutes you! Indeed what has Mr Lee left behind, except a very successful and enviable Singapore!