Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Ripples and Reflections - April 7

[Ripples and Reflections on Lee Kuan Yew - April 7]

Behind the no-nonsense demeanour, a heart that beat for Singapore

APR 7, 2015


I HAVE seen how Mr Lee Kuan Yew responded to protests. This was in Hong Kong - Dec 7, 2000. It was an episode I will never forget, as it revealed what, in the end, counted most for him.

He had gone to Hong Kong to receive his honorary doctorate in law from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In the month leading up to the ceremony, some student activists had mounted a campaign against Mr Lee, denouncing him as a "notorious dictator", a "legal terrorist" and as being "anti-Chinese education".

They challenged the university's decision to confer on him the degree - the first foreign political leader to be given such an honour.

Their agitation was part of the thriving protest culture in Hong Kong, as if to proclaim like a loud-hailer its democratic credentials after its transition in 1997 from British rule to Beijing's control.

I was covering Mr Lee's three-day visit to Hong Kong as The Straits Times' senior political correspondent, and was struck by how little the student activists actually knew about Singapore.

It was telling that the 21-year-old student leading the campaign - the students' union president - had never been to Singapore.

Despite the controversy, Mr Lee turned up in Hong Kong out of a desire to maintain Singapore's good relations with the territory.

At the ceremony, the university gave Mr Lee a glowing tribute - he was hailed, among other things, as "one of the great statesmen of the last century in any country, and a brilliant politician, who has become a valued adviser of many governments besides that of Singapore".

The accolades seemed to roll off Mr Lee.

He wore a no-nonsense expression as he faced the 4,000 graduating students before him.

While some students withheld their applause, none turned their backs on him, as urged by their students' union.

The mood was taut. A clutch of student protesters, cordoned off at the far end of the convocation area, chanted: "Shame on Chinese U!", "Shame on Lee!"

Amid the muffled clamour, Mr Lee addressed the graduands in a matter-of-fact tone.

With his forthright manner, he held their rapt attention as he told them that the future of Hong Kong was what the people and leaders of Hong Kong made of it.

Then he stated some hard facts on Hong Kong's future which would prove prescient.

Pointing out the political chasm between Hong Kong and China, he said he believed there could be advances for Hong Kong to have a more representative and participatory government "if they can persuade the leaders in Beijing that they are willing to work within the framework of the People's Republic of China and Special Administrative Region constitutions".

He warned that failure to do so would find the Chief Executive and the people of Hong Kong locked in a "frustrating process of attrition" with Beijing.

He could well be describing the political situation in Hong Kong today, with the city in a deadlock over an electoral reform proposal by Beijing.

But, at the time in 2000, some foreign journalists were more seized with the students' protest than Mr Lee's analysis. They pressed him for his response to the protest.

Without a pause, he responded: He did not come to seek the approval of the protesters in Hong Kong. "I've been called many bad things before and I have survived them all. I have been elected in Singapore eight times in eight democratic elections by the people of Singapore."

And that was that, his final word on that subject.

Following the event, several Hong Kong newspapers called the protest against Mr Lee a failure.

As indeed it was.

High standards

THIS incident at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his stout retort came to my mind over the last week after Mr Lee's death, as I read some commentaries in the Western press rehashing the usual criticisms of Singapore's democracy, and branding Mr Lee a dictator.

They seemed not to have put much store, if any, on the fact that Mr Lee enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Singaporeans, who are educated well enough to make their own choices on the type of government and society they wanted.

As a former political journalist who tracked Mr Lee's career in politics, and now as Member of Parliament, I know that, at the end of the day, whatever names his critics in any part of the world might call him, one fact ultimately counted for him and his case: The popular support of his people, the Singaporeans he served since Singapore became self-governing in 1959.

As their prime minister from 1959 to 1990, he had governed with the heavy knowledge that the people had entrusted their lives to him and looked to him and his team to lead them through the nation's darkest moments and into a brighter future.

Having struggled and survived so many desperate moments together to build up Singapore, he had formed a deep bond with the people as they returned him to power in each general election - despite some of his tough policies.

Their support was not handed to him on a silver platter. Every inch had to be fought for, every vote wrested from bruising political battles.

For decades, his biggest political challenge came from Chinese opponents who deployed the race/language card to appeal to the Chinese majority.

It would have been easy for Mr Lee - a Chinese prime minister - to do the same if political dominance was all that he sought.

But he and his colleagues wanted to build an equal and just society for all, regardless of race, language or religion. This took political courage.

He led, not by fiat, but through personal example - incorruptible, capable and completely committed to Singapore's interests. The people saw that, and supported him.

His idea of looking at humanity was to see in it what united the people. His guiding principle for the country's survival was to organise society such that peace and stability would prevail - essential conditions for a small, vulnerable multiracial state to compete in a harsh world - and that the best was brought out of that society.

Mr Lee, like so many of his Old Guard, had been seared by the memory of the mortal battle against the communists and communalists, and the race riots that shook Singapore in the 1960s.

He had been called many names: Anti-Malay by the Malay ultras, anti-Chinese education by the Chinese chauvinists, and a traitor to his race and country by the communists.

Using a volatile mix of innuendoes and outright condemnation, they tried to stigmatise him and whip up hatred against him, in an attempt to weaken him and sap his willpower to govern.

From such scorching experiences, he had learnt not to be intimidated by political vilification from opponents but to meet them head-on. From every such struggle, he emerged with harder calluses, but also with greater faith in the people's ability to make the right judgments.

He won every election he contested since his first in 1955, when he won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the colonial Legislative Assembly. He remained its MP till his death on March 23.

He set and demanded high standards from all, including himself. He guarded his Government's hard-won moral standing from being sullied, so that he and his team could govern effectively and improve the people's lives.

Many a time, he had observed how leaders in some Western democracies had found themselves hamstrung and unable to deliver on their promises, because their credibility had been irreparably harmed by the constant barbs and the endless political bickering.

Hard-won respect, support

THE essence of Mr Lee's convictions, acquired under fire on the political battlefield, was that for Singapore to be governed effectively, the respect that people have for its leaders must be preserved.

As he told me in an interview in 1995, once that respect is lost, "you can stumble along from day to day and pretend that it's business as usual. But nobody really takes the Government seriously".

People can take issue with his policies; just be prepared for a robust exchange. But let no one doubt the integrity of the Government and its leaders.

If anyone accused him or the other political leaders of corruption or uttered all manner of untruths to confuse the people, then get ready to be challenged or to appear in court to prove the charges.

I once asked him if he needed to take such a strong stand.

He replied: "Supposing I had been a different person and when people throw darts at me, I smile at them. Then they will take an arrow and put arsenic on the tip and strike me, and I smile back? You think today's Singapore would have come about?"

It was not the kind of answer that would please his Western liberal critics. But then he was not seeking their approval. They did not have to deal with Singapore's vulnerabilities, or live with the consequences.

The most important thing is that we the people of Singapore know: Behind the no-nonsense persona was a heart that beat for this country.

Of course, he was not perfect - he never pretended to be so. Like any leader of conviction, he had his share of critics and detractors.

Some could be found within his own trusted circles.

One of his closest Old Guard Cabinet members, the late S. Rajaratnam, a staunch advocate of a colour-blind Singapore, was viscerally opposed to the move towards community self-help groups and had great arguments with Mr Lee on it.

I myself did not always agree with Mr Lee's views. This was not a problem as complete compliance was not something he insisted on. What he did demand was intellectual honesty, moral courage and an understanding of Singapore's specialness.

Also some basic courtesy.

In Mr Lee, I saw a leader whose attitude towards his country was at once deeply affectionate and fiercely protective, ruthlessly critical and engagingly hopeful.

He was acutely aware that the political system must evolve to respond to a changing population and environment.

Anxious that Singapore would survive him, he quit office voluntarily, stepping down as prime minister in 1990 at the age of 67, while still able to lead and enjoying the people's support.

No other independence leader of the 1960s did this.

In the week after he died, at Parliament House and at the community sites, I have met tens of thousands of Singaporeans who paid tribute to him, often with tears in their eyes.

Theirs was not an unthinking emotional outpouring of grief, but a thoughtful reflection of Mr Lee's legacy and their own role in Singapore's nation-building.

One woman aged 40 told me that Mr Lee's death caused her to reflect on her own life and was a major turning point for her.

In her tribute note to Mr Lee, she wrote: "I ask myself what I can give to this country… I tell you, also myself: Only my best from now on."

By their actions, Singaporeans have made their own judgments on Mr Lee's legacy.

They have renewed their heartfelt support for the principles he upheld, and promised the best of themselves to build a better Singapore. And that was that, their final word on the subject.


The writer is an MP for Tampines GRC.

Death of Mr Lee is also China's loss

APR 7, 2015


WITH the death of Singapore's founding leader, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, China lost a figure who, in the eyes of Communist Party leaders, showed that economic prosperity could be achieved under crisply efficient one-party rule, immunised from the temptations of liberal democracy.

Singapore won an outsized influence as an inspiration for Chinese policymakers from the 1980s, after they embarked on an experiment with controlled capitalism that turned China into the world's second-biggest economy.

Mr Lee's tiny tropical city-state, with a population a quarter the size of Beijing's, offered Chinese leaders a model of how to navigate economic and social transformations without losing political control.

"Singapore has a special position in the Chinese leadership's mind," Professor Huang Jing of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said in a telephone interview.

"It is symbolic, showing that the Chinese can be successful, both in terms of economic modernisation and political modernisation," he added. "It shows that a non-Western political system can also succeed."

Mr Lee had been extravagantly mourned by China's news media, almost as if he were one of the country's own leaders, and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs hinted at the status that he held in Beijing, as a sympathetic interlocutor with Western countries and South-east Asia, and as a flinty critic of liberal values.

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a uniquely influential Asian statesman and a strategist boasting both Eastern values and an international vision," ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a message on Mr Lee's death. (The English version called them "oriental values".)

In a separate statement of condolence, President Xi Jinping praised Mr Lee as "an old friend of the Chinese people and a founder, pioneer and promoter of Chinese-Singaporean relations".

In November 1978, on the cusp of inaugurating far-reaching economic changes, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore. And in 1992, when Deng urged China into a frenzied burst of market liberalisation, he offered Singapore as a reassuring example that the Communist Party could still maintain firm control.

"The social order in Singapore is quite good," Deng said while visiting southern China to promote faster economic change, according to an official transcript.

"They run things strictly, and we should borrow from their experiences and run things even better than they do."

Since the 1980s, and especially the 1990s, Chinese officials have visited Singapore, seeking to absorb its experiences or burnish their credentials with a tour.

In a recent paper about China's fascination with Singapore, Professor Mark Thompson and Dr Stephan Ortmann, both from the City University of Hong Kong, cited one estimate that 22,000 Chinese officials made study visits to Singapore between 1990 and 2011.

Singaporean universities offer public administration programmes and courses tailored for Chinese administrators.

"They want to learn how Singapore is run and why it has been so successful," Prof Huang said of the Chinese officials who take his classes.

"And, second, they want to learn in Singapore how to deal with the outside world, because one major problem with Chinese officials is that they don't know how to tell their story."

Mr Lee built the People's Action Party and Singapore into Cold War fortifications against communist revolution, and established full diplomatic ties with China only in 1990.

Paradoxically, though, Mr Lee and his Government came to offer successive Chinese leaders an idealised example, much visited and studied, of how the Communist Party could absorb market changes and exposure to the outside world, without succumbing to public discontent and rampant corruption.

"What they are looking for is ideological reassurance that they are not falling into what we call the 'modernisation trap', that by advancing economically, they are not necessarily creating the basis of their own collapse," said Prof Thompson, who is director of the South-east Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, in a telephone interview.

The Singapore experience came to mean even more to Chinese admirers as other authoritarian Asian governments gave way to electoral democracy and fractious party competition.

"As political change occurred in South Korea and Taiwan," said Prof Thompson, "increasingly, it became only Singapore that combined for the Chinese leadership a very interesting model of effective economic governance, rapid growth, of state involvement with meritocratic rule, on the one hand - and, on the other hand, strict limits on political participation and democracy."

Starting in 1976, Mr Lee visited China 33 times, met all of China's party leaders from Mao Zedong onwards and found something to praise in each.

In a book published in 2013, Mr Lee also held heady hopes for Mr Xi.

"He has iron in his soul," he said of Mr Xi. "I would put him in Nelson Mandela's class of persons. "A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he is impressive."

In the last decade of his life, Mr Lee gave advice to the Bush and Obama administrations on how to handle a rising China and, frequently, they did not like his blunt assessments.

When Professor Graham Allison and former United States ambassador Robert Blackwill, both at Harvard University, asked him whether China's goal was to become the predominant power in Asia and then the world, he responded: "Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world.

"Unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West. The Chinese will want to share this century as coequals with the United States."

Chinese leaders reciprocated the praise. For them, Singapore has offered a particularly attractive role model because most of its people have Chinese heritage, and Mr Lee promoted a melange of Confucian precepts and other traditions as a uniquely Asian set of values, resistant to the decadence and disorder that he denounced in advanced Western societies.

"Singapore created a miracle of development that has astounded the world," said a commentary issued on March 23 by Xinhua, China's state news agency.

"The impact and significance of this miracle lie in how Singapore forged a path that did not lead to Westernisation, and instead took a path of Singaporean modernisation through self-reliance, drawing from the strengths of West and East."

But Dr Cherian George, a former Singaporean journalist, now media academic in Hong Kong, said Mr Lee's more authoritarian admirers abroad failed to note that he allowed a degree of regular electoral accountability that, while circumscribed, was unavailable in purely one-party states.

"From the very start, he insisted on an incorruptible system," said Dr George. "There is no shortage of strong leaders around the world and their fans who say they look up to Lee Kuan Yew, but ignore this very inconvenient aspect of his governance."

What practical lessons Chinese officials might learn from Singapore is less clear. Running a city-state of 5.4 million people is, after all, enormously different from running a country of 1.3 billion. For all the echoes that people seek in the People's Action Party, Mr Xi has so far not lived up to hopes voiced in 2012 that he might draw on Singapore's experience to carry out a measure of political relaxation.

Many of Singapore's policies for fighting corruption, such as salaries for officials so high that the commercial sector and graft have less allure, could not be replicated in China, said Prof Huang.

"As soon as those Chinese officials arrive in Singapore, after a few weeks of learning, they really learn they cannot copy the Singapore experience," he said.

"But still, they go back with the idea that 'If Singaporeans and Lee Kuan Yew and his people can do it, then so can we.'"


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