Singapore’s former leader Lee Kuan Yew passed away on Monday at 91, leaving behind a mournful nation that is also feeling some apprehension at the future without him. Lee, one of Asia’s, and perhaps the world’s, greatest 20th century leaders guided his tiny island nation from independence after being cast off by Malaysia to one of the world’s most prosperous and impressive nations. He was unapologetically authoritarian whilst at the same time implementing economic and social policies such as public housing to boost economic and social wellbeing.
What I find striking is that some Singaporeans have mixed feelings about LKY, with younger people not as fond of LKY’s rule (he was prime minister from 1959-1990, then stepped down but remained behind the scenes as senior minister and minister mentor up to 2011). Of course, he was widely admired as can be seen by the over 250,000 Singaporeans that turned out to line up to view his body, resulting in the government telling people not to come out anymore, as reported by the BBC.
Despite Singapore being a genuine rich country with a mostly uncorrupt government and good social services for its citizens due to LKY’s rule, some people still feel aggrieved due to the limited political freedoms such as protest and media restrictions (LKY was famous for suing the hell out of political rivals, and media outlets, and in at least one case, bankrupting his opponent).
I contrast this with China, where there is a grudging, and in some cases casual, acceptance of the party’s rule and repressive policies over society in return for economic prosperity. While I don’t think many Chinese blindly adore the party, it seems many of them are easily satisfied with doing well materialistically in a society that has many limits such as media and online censorship, lack of independent judiciary, and bans on protests, activism, and civil society. However, as one of my colleagues reminded me, when the economy is doing well, it is easy for people to not care too much about politics and rights, such as in Hong Kong during the 70s and 80s, and the opposite is true, as can be seen in Taiwan right now.
The CCP openly admires LKY and what he accomplished with Singapore, though they place too much emphasis on the economic liberalization and political repression, while overlooking that LKY and his government also put into place abundant social policies and limited political rights to help his people.
Also, LKY’s rule was characterized by firm rule based on rigid but clear uncompromising laws and policies, which is the opposite of China’s firm rule based on unclear and ambiguous policies (as an acquaintance put it, at least Singapore owned its authoritarianism, making things clear even if it was not nice).
While the official response from the people on top in China is of admiration and respect for LKY, I wonder what regular citizens think, especially at the actual differences between Singapore’s and China’s governments (corruption, lack of social policies, unclear and abstract laws) as well as the fact some Singaporeans are not satisfied with just economic prosperity and value more freedoms and rights.
For me, I respect LKY and I do believe Singapore would not be as successful as it is without his leadership. But he did some things that were not nice and which still linger in today’s Singapore, such as its limited media freedoms, suppressed civil rights, and limited democracy that favors his ruling PAP party – it was considered a crisis for the ruling party in 2011 when the opposition party won a whopping 6 seats out of 87 in total. LKY reportedly admitted he was harsh in some ways, but he maintained that it was for the benefit of his country. Ironically, the fact Singaporeans can live in such a prosperous country and strive for more political and civil freedoms, that is a testament to how much progress Singapore has made and the success of LKY’s reign.