The point of this post is not to claim that LKY is a perfect politician. I have never come across a single political system, government or leader who is the manifestation of perfection. He has his faults, as does every one else. That however is no reason not to pay tribute to his life’s work that steered Singapore towards success.
Since the news of Mr Lee Kuan Yew being in hospital was released, I have seen a variety of reactions from my students. Mostly apathetic, with many of them being completely clueless about the magnitude of the implications of the news. In contrast, my grandmother’s voice started trembling when she first found out about it. This made me realize that the younger generation of Singaporeans, for a whole host of reasons, will never be able to appreciate the extent to which our founding father impacted the trajectory of our nation, a 50 year old nation that is far too young to be sidelining the legacy of its influential leaders.
In this post, I would like to share some of the anecdotes I have read about LKY. This is by no means an exhaustive list, for the man truly is a legend.
The Little Red Dot That Can
When a former Indonesian President first referred to Singapore as a little red dot, it was a stark reminder that not only were we constrained by our physical limitations, it also would be an indicator of the extent of our geopolitical footprint. However, Lee Kuan Yew has never allowed our size to undermine our national interests or determine our interactions with much more powerful states. He demonstrated this by upholding his value system regardless of the country he was dealing with.
When Mr Lee made his official visit to China in 1976, he was presented with a copy of Neville Maxwell’s book “India’s China War”, a revisionist, pro-China history of the two neighbours’ 1962 hostilities. Mr Hua said this was the “correct” version of the war (which was a result of a dispute over their shared border) Mr Lee handed the book back, saying : “Mr Prime Minister, this is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. And in any case I am from South-East Asia—it’s nothing to do with us.”
Given the size of Singapore, it would have been much too easy for China to allow this encounter to impact their diplomatic ties with Singapore, and yet, despite his nerve in standing up to the regional power, they grew to admire him and his leadership.
The Michael Fay incident is another fine example of LKY’s refusal to allow external intervention to dictate our decisions. Despite pressure from the superpower to not cane Michael Fay, who was convicted of vadalism, LKY stood firm in his decision. The Chicago Tribune as well as many other newspapers wrote scathing articles about his ‘dictatorship’ in response to his stubborn refusal to release Michael Fay.
“Lee Kuan Yew, the aging dictator of Singapore, saw a way to make himself the ethnic hero of Asia by posing as the upholder of law and order against the decadence of the West. His method was to provoke and ultimately humiliate the president of the United States by brutalizing and then torturing one of our citizens. The only peep out of the U.S. government at this human rights provocation was a wimpish mumble from Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord that “this incident will have to be taken into account in the overall relationship. Mickey Kantor, our trade representative, said he personally would oppose the holding of a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting in lash-land.”
Despite the backlash from the media and their insinutations about his inability to protect the rights of their citizens against Singapore’s draconian laws, and despite the suspension of various aspects of US- Singapore Bilateral ties, when Bill Clinton first met LKY in 2000, his only regret was, “Why have I not met this man before?”
Also, guess where the 1996 World Trade Organization Ministerial Meeting was held? 😉
It is remarkable that LKY never kowtowed to larger powers, regardless of the possible detrimental impact it could have for foreign ties. While logic would dictate that a small country such as Singapore should not antagonise superpowers, LKY has always taught us that committment to the highest of moral standards will always triumph and this is evident in the way he won the respect of leaders around the world. In his introductory essay on LKY’s Legacy, Kishore Mahubani states that perhaps, these leaders were aware of Vladimir Lenin’s famous quote:
“Probe with a bayonet: If you meet steel, stop. If you meet mush, then push.”
Even his harshest critics cannot deny that LKY was indeed a man of steel.
It infuriates me to no end when the western world refers to LKY as a dictator who imposes his values on Singapore and who has curbed freedom of speech in Singapore to the point where it inteferes with individual liberty. As Kishore Mahubani bluntly points out in his essay on LKY,
“Mr Lee’s tough approach was vindicated by the actions of the United States after 9/11. Despite the strong tradition of individual liverty in the United States, it did not hesitate to suspect the “ideas of habeas corpus and precedents of individual liberty.” when it came face to face with the new threat of international terrorism. Indeed the United States had earlier suspected its commitment to individual liberty when it interned Japanese Americans in various camps in WW2 without any due process.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s crusade against corruption in early Singapore has been well-documented and his clean and efficient system of governance is a model for countries all around the world. Although the current model in Singapore places due emphasis on paying ministers a substantial salary in order to remove the incentive of corruption, in his early years as our leader, he chose to lead by example instead of through incentives, and was abhorrent of corruption.
His devotion and dedication to developing Singapore started when our economy was much less developed and our survival was an uncertainty. His decision to sacrifice his entire life to public service did not stem from the monetary benefits that he could reap, but rather on his total and absolute dedication to his cause.
A study by the London School of Economics shows that he drew a salary of $3,500 when he first started off as a Prime Minister, and only made an adjustment to increase his salary to reflect economic growth in 1973.
He was also a pragmatist who did not expect the younger generation of leaders to demonstrate the same sense of selflessness.
One of the most famous early tests to LKY’s committment to anti-corruption came in 1961, when the CIA tried to bride an officer in Singapore’s Special Branch. LKY was furious, and laid a trap to catch the official red-handed. The CIA then offered to bribe PAP with a million dollars in order to cover up the incident, failing which denied all accusations. In order to prove his point, LKY released a letter to the public, written by the then Secretary of State, apologising for the incident.
It was at this point that he said one of my most favourite quotes by him.
“We have to remember all the time that we are not dealing with an enemy, but the bloody stupidity of a friend.”
The moral choices made by LKY and his decision to uphold Singapore to the highest of moral standards have undoubtedly allowed Singapore to enjoy her well-earned reputation as a clean and incorruptible nation, and on his 90th birthday celebrations, he reminded of cabinet of this when he articulated his birthday wish that:
“Singapore’s Government continues to be clean and honest, and they all do their part to uphold the highest of moral standards”
Harry Lee Kuan Yew – the personal side
Despite his achievements and the accolades he has received, LKY has never been one to seek fame and he has always refused to allow any public building/organzation to bear his name or photograph. He stated that he has visited far too many countries where the names of former leaders were erased from public buildings. He only relented after he turned 80, and hence the LKY school of public policy.
Although he has always been known for his tough exterior, the world first caught a glimpse of his softer side, when his emotions betrayed his fear at Singapore having to survive alone after the separation from Malaysia.
However, the only person who was best able to draw out the man within the politician was wife. I will end off this post with a quote from his eulogy for his wife,
“Every night she would wait for me to sit by her to tell her of my day’s activities and to read her favourite poems.
Then she would sleep.
I have precious memories of our 63 years together. Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life. She devoted herself to me and our children. She was always there when I needed her. She has lived a life full of warmth and meaning.
I should find solace at her 89 years of her life well lived. But at this moment of the final parting, my heart is heavy with sadness.”
While I hope against hope that he will make it to see the fruit of his life’s labour turn 50, i seek solace in the fact that he is one man who can look back on his achievements, and the fact that he did what he believed was the best for Singapore, to the best of his abilities, with pride.