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Lee Kuan Yew and the price of political stability

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There is little need, in my view, to start writing about what one thinks of LKY at this moment of his passing. What can one write that has not already be written? Why add to it, then? From a marketing perspective, it doesn’t make sense to fight for attention in the face of so much ‘competition for attention.

Regardless, I think the most interesting thing to do is to observe what has been written and summarize it insightfully, if not learn something from it. Someone actually has done just that. She gathered what’s captured on social media and categorized them rather relevantly under ‘populist memory-making in progress’, ‘mobilizing collective effervescence’ etc. Check it out here.

As for me, I think I’d wait 100 days before I pen my thoughts…so that I should not be caught up with the ‘effervescence’ of the moment…but say something worth time to write about and others to read.

Meantime, here’s a piece by Chris K…worth reading.

The writer pays his heartfelt respects to the late Lee Kuan Yew whom he saw as a brilliant but deeply flawed man. The deserved accolades and equally deserved brickbats underline the political stability and economic goods delivered by Mr. Lee even if many were uneasy about his repressive methods to achieve his goals.

Indeed, much has been written and will be said in the coming days of the essential political stability which was the foundation for successful nationhood. The writer has no qualms in agreeing with this view. Here is a story from the past.

There was social and political unrest in the country. Workers were on strike and many clashed with the authorities. The people yearned for less troubled times and more social order. An up and coming political leader claimed his main party opponent infiltrated or a front for communism. Its key members were arrested, crippling it as a political force. That leader delivered his promised political stability with strong and decisive leadership.

That country was not Singapore but Germany. Those rioting workers not Hock Lee workers but German workers. That opponent crippled by wrongful arrests not the Barisan Sosialis but the Social Democratic Party, one of the two main parties that governed the present day Bundesrepublik. That political leader not Lee Kuan Yew but Adolf Hitler.

The writer never thought Mr. Lee was Herr Hitler even if he copied some of the latter’s (and Josef Stalin’s) methods.  Though his attempt at eugenics was awfully close to the Nazi’s Herrenmenschen (Master Race) ideology, he knew to stop short of  turning Singapore into a totalitarian state. But the real trouble was the people’s legitimate desire for order and stability was also the sea in which a Mr. Lee or a Herr Hitler swam, to paraphrase Mao’s words.

For such yearning above all else has far reaching consequences in the hands of a leader with overarching ambitions. It becomes a blank check for the curtailment of civil rights, the suppression on freedom of expression and the exercise of political repression using a plain and simple desire of the people for order and stability as raison d’etre. From there, the banishment of opponents and the accumulation of power is just a short step to restrictive social conformity and total political dominance.

Mr. Lee was commonly said to have a dark perception of human nature. Not surprising if one remembers his famous admonishments such as “native Singaporeans are failing because spurs are not stuck in their hides”. That same dark perception of human nature is a warning not to put trust in humans exercising total political dominance. Humans simply cannot help themselves when it comes to abusing power. Mr. Lee, himself, was a prime example. Many felt the repressive methods to achieve political stability at the dawn of nationhood was necessary (the writer does not ascribe to it). But once political stability had been achieved, total political dominance and the repression that comes with it were shown to be a habit easily acquired but hard to kick. For it was comfortable to govern without scrutiny and accountability but the consequences are that Mr. Lee’s successors are themselves failing because those spurs are not stuck in their own hides.

The desire for social order and political stability is human. But that desire needs to be tempered by an acceptance that the democracy is by necessity noisy, quarrelsome and even shaky from time to time. And democracy is crucial in the protection of rights including economic rights (think CPF) and to the curtailment of the power of the state vis-à-vis the individual. Germany and Japan showed the pre-war political stability bought by repression was a false paradigm and the post-war embrace of liberal democracy and yes the instability that comes with it propelled them to greater heights.

Singapore today is not the Singapore when Mr. Lee was Prime Minister. For all his accomplishments, the nation needs to move on from the habits of the past. The best way to preserve social order and political stability is to have political inclusion not exclusion, cohesion not disparity, a civil service not beholden to party politics and acceptance of diverse opinions not “we know what is best, never mind what the people think”.

Most of all, in today’s Singapore a reliance on total political dominance and opacity in government is for losers. Real men and women in politics ought to be unafraid of contesting on a level political field. This is the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew that the nation needs to overcome.

Chris K


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