Image credit: Lyn Ong for POSKOD.MY
Dear friends, I recently took a break from my China/India book to write two pieces on the great leader.
The first is on POSKOD.MY, a Malaysian outlet that had the neat idea of publishing two reflection pieces, one by a Malaysian, one by a Singaporean. I was asked to respond to “What LKY means to Singaporeans”.
My second piece is on Mothership.sg. Here I had to write more of a traditional obituary. But rather than a comprehensive sweep, I chose to focus on some of his seminal life events and influences, such as his wife.
You can read it here.
As you might imagine, it is both easy and difficult writing about this complex man. Easy because there is so much good material. Every time I poke my nose into one of his books, I come away with a memorable quote.
But therein lies the problem. Curating becomes a massive exercise. I now regret that I didn’t start my research a year ago. But I genuinely thought I’d have more time. Like many other Singaporeans, I am still having trouble digesting the fact that he’s left us before our 50th birthday.
Finally, how does one come to a conclusion about his legacy? The good, the bad and the ugly? Having read the responses to my first piece, I realise that there are so many subjective views out there, mine of course included. One reader’s “balanced piece” is another’s “one-sided commentary”.
I guess the important thing to note, as with history’s other legends, from Gandhi to Thatcher, is that there will never be one conclusion. Our understanding of these people will simply become richer and more sophisticated with the passage of time.
It is crucial, then, that we encourage a diversity of views. And this is where I have some trouble with traditional, conservative Singaporean society.
One of the most shocking reactions I’ve seen this week is from people suggesting that Op-Eds, obituaries and reflections on Mr Lee should steer clear of anything negative. Apparently, this isn’t the right time. Not now. We should just mourn him and adulate him.
Really? While the media is expected to write objective obituaries about every other personality, when it comes to Lee Kuan Yew, only the positive. The negative can come later, much later, or maybe never at all.
But why do we want to whitewash his legacy? That wouldn’t be fair to anybody. Not to the people he hurt; not to the Singaporeans whose dreams he crushed; and not to the millions who seek a holistic understanding of Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore.
In trying to understand this reaction, I have three thoughts. The first is that we genuinely consider him to be our adopted father. “Ah Kong” is not just any other public figure. Nobody likes to hear untoward things about their own father.
The second is that some Singaporeans may be confusing an obituary—which should strive for balance—with a memorial, eulogy, tribute or condolence note. This is partly because of our immature, sycophantic media, which has never published a proper obituary on any Singaporean leader.
For those of you outside Singapore, it may not come as that much of a surprise to learn that for this entire week, Singaporeans have been hit by a wave of newspaper, TV and radio programming on how great LKY is. But not a single “balanced” view.
The third is that Singaporeans don’t like having a mirror held up in front of us. For so long, we have accepted the many trade-offs inherent in “the Singapore consensus”—loss of liberty, loss of civic and democratic participation, scores of lives locked up without trial, etc. etc.—as necessary for growth, for stability, for progress.
But what exactly did we lose along the way? And, more importantly, were those sacrifices really necessary?
Most people here would rather not seek answers to that. That kind of introspection is for academics. Because life here is about bread, butter, and the next Ferrari.