The Merlin of the East

Singapore will be celebrating 45 years of independence on August 9. And watching the celebrations will be the man who led the country to independence. Lee Kuan Yew was elected prime minister in 1959, when Singapore became a self-governing British colony – independence came later, in 1965 – and he is a minister still in his son, Lee Hsien Loong’s cabinet.

Only Queen Elizabeth has reigned longer, since her father’s death in 1952. Lee’s only contemporary still in power is Fidel Castro, who led the Cuban Revolution in 1959. But there is one political party which has been in power even longer: the Chinese Communist Party, since 1949. And Singapore, like China, is overwhelmingly Chinese.

Race and culture colour the worldview of Lee Kuan Yew, a man who believes “culture is destiny”, according to the American journalist Tom Plate.  He extols Asian values, muses on the Chinese civilization and exhorts the Malays to do better. The Malays are not as able and hardworking as the Chinese, he told Plate. Sunanda Datta-Ray has written about his admiration for Doon School boys, the Brahmin intellect and the high standards of the former Indian Civil Service. If that seems old-fashioned, put it down to his age – Lee is 86 – and history.

He did not greet independence as a “tryst with destiny” like Nehru. He fought back tears as he announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia. That was how independence came to Singapore. It was unwanted by Malaysia which, with a substantial Chinese minority of its own, did not want the Chinese-majority seaport to tilt the racial balance. But Singapore had no natural resources: how could the little island survive on its own?

Yet, look at Singapore now. Its per capita gross national income ($34,760) is even higher than Japan’s, according to the World Bank.

Singaporeans, growing up amid prosperity, are not all Lee Kuan Yew fans. There were unkind comments when he said  there should be no retirement age, adding: ”If you ask me to stop working all of a sudden, I think I’ll just shrivel up.” Critics online acidly noted  the high salaries of Singapore ministers.  He and his son are both paid more than President Obama.

He has expressed admiration for Jawaharlal Nehru; yet the differences are manifest. Nehru wrote under a pen name in the Modern Review before independence, criticizing himself as having the “makings of a dictator”. But he allowed a free press unlike his daughter.

Indira Gandhi was right, however, when she had Emergency rule imposed in India, Lee told  Datta-Ray. He also told Plate: “I do know that the present system is not, as (Francis) Fukuyama believes, the end of history, that nothing else can excel democracy. That’s not true.”

Singapore’s history of suing critics – a 75-year-old British freelance journalist is facing trial for a book critical of the legal system – may be related to Lee’s faith in the power of the word.  There are no statues in his honour, no roads named after him. Instead, there is the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, where former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan is a visiting professor.

The cabinet bristles with scholars – both Lee Kuan Yew and his son graduated with first class honours from Cambridge – the island boasts world-class universities and books are coming out singing the academic equivalent of hosannahs.

Sunanda Datta-Ray wrote Looking East to Look West, about Lee Kuan Yew and India-Singapore relations, as a visiting fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, which is funded by the Singapore government. Tom Plate’s book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, is published by Marshall Cavendish, which is owned by Singapore Press Holdings, whose chairman is former deputy prime minister Tony Tan.

Both are informative. “Lee and Indira Gandhi shared a brutal commitment to power, an almost brutal pragmatism and a fascination with mystic predictions of the future,” writes Datta- Ray. He recalls when Britain decided in 1968 to shut down its naval base, Singapore’s then labour minister urged the Singaporean base workers – many of them ethnic Indians – to leave Singapore with full retirement benefits rather than risk unemployment. He notes that Singapore introduced caning for overstayers – whose visas had expired – after 900 Indians were arrested for working illegally in 1989.

The leader most admired by Lee was the late Deng Xiao Ping – an economic reformer but also the man who crushed the pro-democracy uprising in 1989, says Plate. The American journalist has reservations about Deng, but about Lee? “It seems to me that Lee Kuan Yew is where Plato meets Machiavelli – in the special land of Confucius,” he raves. Datta-Ray is no less mesmerized: “Like an ancient soothsayer, a Merlin of the East, Lee peers into the mists of the future to draw on a lifetime’s experience to sum up the sweep of history…”

Yes, he is all that. To quote Henry Kissinger, “There is no better strategic thinker in the world today.”

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