Saturday, June 11, 2011

Comment on Catherine Lim's post on Lee Kwan Yew

Catherine Lim blogged about Lee Kwan Yew's stepping down. Twice.
This was my comment.

Dear Catherine,

There seems to be many aspects to you at least on this subject matter. I choose to see you in the interview you gave to Crispina Robert (ST 29 May 2011).

I thought you were most gracious in that article. And as you commented in your earlier post, in private informal discussion, one can tone down the "portentous, baleful terms" and speak with greater humanity. (Though I would ask, why can't we speak with humanity even in public announcements and statement? We do not have to be the product of the arrogant PAP, no?)

But whatever your views of Lee Kuan Yew the person, it is your narrative of history that I find disappointing, specifically the three classes of victims you identified: the victims of the family planning policy, the political dissidents, and the victims of the mother tongue policy (which specifically means Chinese).

I am reminded of the time I read some misguided feminist's literature that condemned the views, policies, and politics of "Dead, White Men" of the 19th century, and excoriated them for being conservative and for not treating women as equals.

What was missing from the feminists' assessment of those "Dead, White Men" and your assessment of the not-yet-dead Lee Kuan Yew is the historical context.

Certainly, from the vantage of today with the benefit of  20/20 hindsight, with the declining fertility rate one can clearly see the stupidity and redundancy of the family planning policy of the 1970s. But what did people see then?

The early 70s were fragile years. The British had pulled out. Malaysia was still waiting for us to fail and go crawling back to the federation, on their terms. And we were still developing and establishing our industries and economy. We were self-sufficient in neither food nor water. And the post-war baby boom years had only just ended.

And the lessons of history is that poor, impoverished countries become poorer and even more impoverished as population exploded uncontrollably.

The protests (silent or otherwise) against the family planning policy were based on stark principles. (The right to breed like rabbits?) No one had the foresight nor the clairvoyance to say, this is stupid. We don't need the family planning policy. Most people are choosing of their own accord to stop at two. Some (even then) don't even start. In 10 years or so, we are going to see a problem of not enough babies.

Of course, if there was such a clairvoyant, he might have been ignored anyway.

With all the evidence available to the policy makers then, they made policies as they understood the situation and the consequences then.

[Even so, my sister, the fourth child was born in 1971 and my father paid dearly for the maternity and other charges. He did so with all the equanimity his faith could give him. "Render to Caesar..." he said.]

You mentioned Chia Thye Poh so to recap, he was a Barisan Socialis MP. He quit parliament together with the other BS MPs with the objective of "extra-parliamentary" struggle against the ruling party. The BS MPs were arrested under the ISA, and all the rest were released when they agreed to renounce violence and sever all links with the communists. Chia refused on principle that the agreement was tantamount to an admission of guilt.

But everyone else ditched their principle and got on with their lives. Apparently Chia didn't get the memo. He didn't even seek to challenge the reason for his detention before the ISA advisory board. Principle. Pride. Ego. Whatever.

As for the other "dissidents", they ranged from opposition members who were sued again and again (e.g.  J.B.J. & Chee Soon Juan), usually for making spurious accusations they could not prove (and based on the many ridiculous online comments I've read, they should be elected MPs because they represent a large segment of Singaporeans); to those who self-exile (i.e. run away).

The first category has already been defended by the PAP. The best evidence that the PAP will play fair if the opposition plays fair (in terms of slander) is Chiam See Tong and Low Thia Khiang. They have never made slanderous accusations, and they have never been sued.

As for the self-exiled, I read the chapter in Subhas Anandas book on Francis Seow. I don't have the book with me for reference, so this is what I remember in a nutshell: Seow lied to put Lee Kuan Yew in a spot, and when push came to shove, he ran instead of fighting. Mr Anandas expressed disappointment in him.

Of course we cannot generalise to all the self-exiled. Just as no two dissidents may have the same motivations, neither are all dissidents in the same category. So while all may have suffered, I am not sure that all had no cause to suffer. Or that all had injustices done to them.

So I will leave it at that.

My point, and I do have one, is that what motivations does one ascribe to the PAP and to Lee Kuan Yew?

Do we believe that the stop-at-two policy was a policy against one's natural rights to procreate? To what end? Was the mother tongue policy a means to torture children? To what end?

Again, as an aside, I was one of those victims who had not passed Mandarin since Primary 6, so I have reasons to be as aggrieved as any other victim of the mother tongue policy. But I am not.

Perhaps I would have done better in Mandarin with a more flexible approach such as the ones now introduced. If so, I blame not Lee Kuan Yew, the PAP, or MOE. I would sooner blame the teachers, & the Chinese language and culture chauvinists. I do not believe a more flexible approach to teaching Chinese could have been implemented at that time. The Chinese language teachers would have protested, and walked out. Even recently, when Ng Eng Hen said that Chinese language weightage in the exam might be lowered, there was a big protest and near revolt by the Chinese-speaking community, if not just the Chinese language teachers.

Culture and chauvinism are still strong political elements. Why is it that even now after so many years, there are no Malay-language SAP schools? (Okay, not a fair question.)

To return to my point. One may disagree with Lee's decision, often with the clarity of hindsight, but often without the understanding of the context, concerns, and constraints of the times, or the zeitgeist of the times. But his choices has always been for the good of Singapore. To explain what we do not understand, we ascribe less than noble intent and motivations. We assume petty human foibles where there were none. Or shortsightedness when it is the simple lack of clairvoyance.

Or as Lee has put it many times. We do not understand or remember the historical context of the decisions made. We stand in the clinically safe present and pass judgement on choices made then, in the miasma of doubt, uncertainty, and limited knowledge.

I do not expect anyone to think him a saint. Brilliant tho he may be, he is neither perfect nor infallible. But he is not evil. And that is where I disagree with your pronouncement of his "ignoble means", his "blackest, vilest measure" by reason of a "flaw in leadership".

That is a pronouncement of judgement that no one has a right to call upon him without a demonstration of an understanding and consideration of the historical context.

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