The Man, The Legend: Lee Kuan Yew
On March 23, 2015, one of Asia’s giants left this world. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first leader, having ruled for an astounding three decades from 1959 to 1990 under the banner of the People’s Action Party (PAP), passed away, leaving a gaping hole in the hearts of many Singaporeans. Nothing has made this more evident than the millions who stood in the pouring rain to pay their respects to the larger-than-life figure who brought Singapore to the international fore. While Lee Kuan Yew, affectionately known as LKY, is credited with transforming Singapore from a Third World country with no natural resources to an Asian Tiger economy, along with getting diverse groups of people to establish themselves as Singaporean nationals, his government was credited with crackdown against political dissidents, careful monitoring of the press—as evidenced by the explosion of the story of a young Singaporean boy who issued a fake statement about LKY’s death 5 days before it happened -- behavior that was often cited as an example of a “nanny state.” His son, Lee Hsien Loong, continues his father’s legacies—and that of PAP—leading some to wonder whether Singapore will develop a dynastic autocracy. This raises the question of what is most important: economic prosperity or political freedom?
While it cannot be denied that governing a country through the ups and downs of 30 years, and especially through a transition to independence from Malaysia, is an extraordinary feat, there are definitely some more curious aspects to LKY’s policies. For example, he advocated that the reason that multi-party democracy and free political expression was limited was due to the need for economic stability. Some abroad may question why Singapore has continued this path of limited political freedoms in the face of a growing economy. It would be mistaken to assume that all of this backlash and criticism is strictly coming from outside of Singapore. Dissidence has begun to arise in many forms across Singapore, including the first strike—considered illegal in the small nation-state—since 1986 in 2013 and an increased presence of opposition parties in the Singaporean parliament. Filmmaker Eric Khoo was famous for his subtle criticism of LKY’s governance through disturbing films such as “Mee Pok Man” and “12 Storeys,” seeking to highlight the lives of the Singaporean poor and the tensions that existed between residents of public housing respectively.
The focus of Western media on this critical lens is astounding. While some—including renowned journalist Fareed Zakaria—supports Lee Kuan Yew almost unequivocally, many have poked holes in the LKY Asian development model, joking about the serious punishments for infractions such as buying and selling chewing gum and criticizing the bankrupting of political opponents by the Lee family. However, political pundits understand the value of having a leader like Lee Kuan Yew in a region that has otherwise produced brutal military dictators, and that many leaders viewed LKY, as he is affectionately known, as a role model, including China’s Deng Xiaoping and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the latter country, there are even plans underway to build a statue and construct a museum in honor of Lee Kuan Yew in the state of Tamil Nadu, where most of Singapore’s ethnically Indian citizens hail from. There is a sense that perhaps LKY defied the West in creating a distinctly Asian system of national achievement. Lee Kuan Yew’s iron grip on Singapore resulted in flourishing economic success, but at the cost of political democratic freedoms.
Lee Kuan Yew intimidates the West in many ways, and for good reason too. If more Asian leaders turn to the Lee Kuan Yew model to improve their countries’ economic growth, that could mean less influence from Washington and London. This could leave the development of strong economic states with weaker civil societies in its wake.
- Anjana Sreedhar