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Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore, passed away on 23rd march 2015. His supporters called him a great leader and outstanding politician who turned Singapore from a poor British colony into one of the richest country (if wealth is calculated per capita wise) in the world. His detractors would derided him as a dictator, and violator of human rights and civil liberties.

Personally, I have quite a biased opinion towards Mr. Lee Kuan Yew both as a man and a politician. More than twenty years ago, I applied for admission to colleges in the US, one of them required an essay titled “Which world leader do you admired the most? Give the reason for your choice.” Of course, the leader I chose was none other than Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. My view of him has since changed slightly since I have greater access to information provided by newer published books and the internet. My subsequent life experience gave me an even deeper understanding of the man, if I may say so.

I was born in the island state of Penang, Malaysia and grew up there. I spend pretty much the 18 years of my life on the island city called George Town. In many ways, Penang island mirrored that of Singapore, a small British colonial city populated mostly by ethnic Chinese who moved there during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Like Singapore it also has a sizable Malay and Indian minority. In many ways, the people that live there be it the Chinese, but also the Malay and Indian shared a very similar worldview as those of Singapore in the tumulus years of the 1940s and 1960s. Nevertheless, we eventually drifted apart after the separation of Malaysia and Singapore as a country.

However, due to historical reason and geographical closeness. I would say that pretty much every ethnic Chinese in Malaysia today has a relative in Singapore. My father’s sister and her family are now Singaporean, so are my wife’s sister and her family. This may seems like an anecdote example, but if you are someone who frequent both Malaysia and Singapore,  you will know this is pretty much the reality on the ground. My uncle and my brother in law both work in government related industries, and they both moved to Singapore many moons ago when they perceived that their career has hit a glass ceiling. I myself, worked in Singapore after graduating as an engineer from the US. I also worked in a state owned enterprise. The interview process was and is extremely strenuous,  after the preliminary I finally met the final interviewers. At the end of the interview, I was given the good news and a shock lesson of how Singapore works. I was told that in the future, when considered for promotion, a Singaporean citizen would be given priority unless I become one myself. Seeing the surprise on my face, the interviewer quipped that they don’t promotes dummies even if they are Singaporean though. Looking back this pretty much summed up Singapore’s state policy.

There is no doubt LKY was responsible for shaping Singapore’s emphasis of efficiency in all field. The biggest misgiving by foreign and local commentators alike are that he curtailed political and civil liberties. To compare Singapore against a host of countries are rather difficult. In term of population size, there are actually over two dozen countries which are close but they mostly has much larger land mass. For the best comparison I feel that Singapore is closest in term of political history to Hong Kong, and its economic development as well, on top of that they both are predominantly ethnic Chinese. Have it ever occur to you that Britain was never criticised by main stream Western press for curtailing civil liberties and deny democracy to Hong Kong residents? In Singapore there are full election since 1959 but none in HK even when the last British colonial governor was pushing for “democracy”. Why is LKY and Singapore continually attacked on this front but none hurled against the various British governors and the prime ministers who appoint them? Interesting isn’t it? LKY himself once took a swipe against HK by saying that HK indeed has “one person one vote” under the British, the prime minister cast his one vote and walla,a new HK governor is sworn in.

Well, in my opinion LKY and Singapore was mostly criticized because of its failure to privatize many monopolistic industries. After its independence, Singapore invested in many state owned enterprises which came to dominate Singapore’s economy. LKY and his colleagues feel that profit from important industries such as utilities, telecommunication, finances, transportation, housing should be controlled by the government. Those companies would be listed in the stock exchange, but the government would hold a controlling stake. So LKY in reality is more a socialist than capitalist. Singapore allows private business to flourish and has one of the most supportive government policies for private business in the world, but for key areas I have mentioned earlier, they are state owned and planned. For example, around 80% of Singaporean live in housing estate run by the state owned HDB, financed by state owned bank and if one don’t have the required deposit one can withdraw fund from the state retirement fund CPF. Until today, those are considered leased hold properties whose true ownership belong to the state. However, Singaporean dislike the idea that their property are not their own so the government changed the leased period to 999 years! In contrast, HK allowed those industries to be privatized and for the longest time was dominated by British companies.

Sorry for such a long introduction before going to the man himself. So much has been written about LKY that I feel that I should write the aspect that is least written and less well know. A lot of people assume LKY is an anglophile born into a hard core anglophile family, he is portrayed as not knowing Chinese and only picked up the language much later in life. The fact is LKY spoke the Hakka and Hokkian (Minnan) dialect fluently since his boyhood. True, he has no formal Chinese language education at all but to get around in Singapore in the 1900s until 1960s, one need to speak Hokkien which is the lingua franca of Singapore. It was only under LKY, Mandarin and English were made mandatory in school for ethnic Chinese, Malay/English for ethnic Malay and Tamil/English for ethnic Tamil. In the colonial days only the elite has the luxury of English language education, LKY’s family is such an elite. However, in the day to day interaction, Hokkien was used by close to 80% of the populace. Well, if one need to take a trishaw one need to give direction in Hokkien, same for going to a store, restaurant, barber etc. The reality is most people in Singapore are illiterate during colonial time, only the elite and upper middle class has access to education. So as a boy until a teenager, LKY has fine practice of the lingua franca. Nevertheless, it is true that English is the language he used in school and interaction with those in the elite circle. A little known incident was when LKY was visiting rural Taiwan together with Jiang Jingguo. In the 1970s, most older rural folks still can’t converse in Mandarin, LKY surprise JJK with his ability to communicate with them. This incident prompted JJK to learn the Minnan dialect.

Like I have said before 80% of Singapore’s populace speak only Hokkien and is illiterate during LKY’s rise in politics. LKY was able to communicate successfully, with the English speaking elite and won them over, he was also able to successfully rouse a crowd using his Hokkien and Hakka skill. It was during then that LKY realized his language short coming. For in Singapore there exist another group of elite, the Mandarin fluent intellectuals. In order to win them over, he started learning Mandarin and writing the Han script. He wasn’t proficient but he impressed those crowd as well.

Universal suffrage is a number game. In reality all politics are local. LKY didn’t just burst into the political scene out of nowhere in the 1950s and lead PAP (People’s Action Party) to sweeping victory. The foundation has been built up much earlier in the 1930s through 1950s. The Hokkien speaking majority are the decisive king maker as their numbers alone would decide who would win the election when it is allowed. In colonial Singapore, different ethnic groups would congregate in different areas. I left out the minority in my narrative not because they are not important but politics in late colonial Singapore are dominated by the Hokkien speaking majority. The majority at that time are poor workers edging a living in a British dominated economy, there were a tiny number of rich, and small middle class but life and living was extremely hard for most. Under such an environment, socialist ideals thrives. As such labour unions were the precursor of political movement, although no political party was allowed until after the Second World War.

Why did the British gave independence to Malaya and Singapore? They were receiving more money from the tin mines and rubber plantation there then they got from the Marshall Plan. That’s an observation made by LKY himself. The British also didn’t want to relinquish their lucrative colonial trading house Hong Kong until being pressured by the PRC. The answer comes in the form of labour unrests which was lead by the communist party underground, which make holding the colonies an increasingly difficult proposition. The victory of the communist leading to the formation of PRC was a great inspiration to overseas Chinese. Although in no way related the Chinese Communist Party, the Malayan Communist Party drew a lot of inspiration from their Chinese counterparts. The MCP’s biggest success was their fight against the Japanese occupiers when the British surrendered and withdrew in 1942. Although their contribution was seriously downplayed later. Shortly after the war, the top three MCP leader like Chin Peng were given accolade like the OBE (Order of the British Empire), in other words they were knighted. The British’s plan was to give high ranking government position to the communist leaders to entice them to disarm and disband. Some leaders who joined the MCP solely to fight the Japanese took up the offer, however, the hard core communist wanted to end colonialism and conflicts ensured.

The late 1940s and 1950s saw major combats between the MCP and British. Atrocities were committed by both sides. The British increasing gained the upper hand after they have came up with the plan of herding rural folks in known MCP operating areas into barb wired new villages (Kampung Baru). By cutting off the food base the communist starved despite receiving monetary support from the populace. With no outside support, they eventually moved to the Thai border and was marginalized. The US tried a similar strategy in Vietnam under the advice of the British but the same strategy  didn’t work there because the Viet Cong can received arms and supply through North Vietnam.

Although the MCP armed faction became ineffective, the labour unions in the cities lead by clandestine MCP leaders were to gain strength. Workers’ rights and right for self-determination became the most hotly debated political issues of the day. The beleaguered British colonial authorities knew their days were numbered as public opinion turned increasingly against them. In their best case scenario, they would allow election and cultivate a party favourable to their interest in place. Unfortunately for them, election is a number game and the majority Hokkien speakers didn’t want them. So this is where the PAP comes in. The PAP is a political party that appeal to not just the Hokkien speaking majority, it also tried to fight for the interest of all Singaporean.

Despite being outlawed, the MCP was held in high esteem by the people. Their ideals in workers’ rights and self determination would made them unbeatable in most middle class and poor areas if they are allowed to contest. But their ideals in collective ownership scared some middle class and most of the rich. By positioning itself across the broadest spectrum of voters, the PAP are destined to be the power house in Singaporean politics. Of course, it wasn’t as simple as that. Everybody knows LKY was a founder of the PAP but few remember Lim Chin Siong. To not know Lim Chin Siong was not to know the political history of Singapore. This is how LKY described how LCS mesmerized a crowd in his book:

“…a ringing voice that flowed beautifully in his native Hokkien. The girls adored him, especially those in the trade unions. Once he got going after a cold start at the first two meetings, there was tremendous applause every time he spoke. By the end of the campaign, Lim Chin Siong was seen as a charismatic figure and a person to be reckoned with in Singapore politics and, what was of more immediate concern, within the PAP.”

LKY’s own background meant that he belongs to the rich minority English educated demographic. LKY realized that to win elections, grass root support is needed. As such he knowingly collaborated with many suspected communists to form the PAP. In fact, after coming into power he found out that he is listed as a suspected communist by the police’s special branch as well, due to his association. To cut the story short, LKY eventually has Lim and many suspected communist  in the PAP arrested after the party is assured of victory in the electorates. LKY was able to convince the majority electorate that they also have a milder form of socialist program. The reason I mentioned Lim, was to emphasize that Singapore was built by a group of dedicated people. LKY and Lim are just two out of many. Unlike the hard core communist, LKY was willing to work with the British even after independence. To the surprise of the British he encouraged the British to maintain their forces in Singapore. So much so that when the British wants to leave in the late 1960s he implored them to stay. He did so mainly for pragmatic reason, hosting the British forces contribute a decent addition to the economy; secondly, their presence gave Singapore a sense of security. In the 1960s, Singapore not only has a marginally friendly Malaysia as a neighbour but also an outright hostile Indonesia which claimed pretty much the whole of Malaya, including Singapore.  The PAP also made its pro-market economy stand known to the US, to attract their support and investment. Although there is a fine line between market economy and capitalist economy, Singapore’s economy is clearly more of the former.

Singapore’s position in the Cold War is why he was viewed negatively in mainland China, to the extent that his passing attract proportionately the most negative opinion of any group. In LKY own view, he has always been friendly to China since day one of Singapore’s independence. In fact, he seek and received help from China to help form Singapore fledging air force and navy. Of course, the China here is the Republic of China. One must understand that although he is ethnically Chinese, LKY is prime minister of multi-ethnic  Singapore. His job is to secure the best interest for the people of Singapore. His obligation to China should go both ways! Many in the mainland believe that LKY should take a pro-mainland stand no matter what. If they think that Singapore should do such and such for PRC, did PRC do the same for Singapore? In my view, LKY and Singapore actually has little choice in this matter. If he was to take a pro-communist position, what would have happened to Singapore? The most likely outcome is that the US and UK would undermine Singapore’s economy and the CIA would seek to install a friendly administration much like they have done throughout newly independent countries in the 1960s to 1970s. Please bear in mind that this is the era of the Vietnam war. If LKY turns red, the best  outcome for Singapore would be a situation like Cuba, which is not an enviable position.

LKY, the shrewd politician weighted his options. The USSR lead communist bloc has little to offer Singapore, neither is the PRC which was mired in political upheavals. So he simply followed the money and encouraged investment and later skilled workers into Singapore. Many has written of this aspect so I will not elaborate further and will continue on how I view LKY. As a statesman, LKY is easily one of the most outstanding. Many commentators lament that the world lacked more politicians like him, if not there would be Singapore everywhere. It is easy to commemorate LKY’s role in making Singapore into a success story. However, when LKY left his post as prime minister in 1990, HK is easily as developed as Singapore. How come nobody celebrate the various post war governors that turned poor under-developed HK into an economic power house as well! If LKY is so highly rated, wouldn’t  selected HK governors be considered great statesman too? I am not downplaying LKY’s achievement here. In fact, based on the criteria of making Singapore rich and strong, I highly admired him and the system he put in place.

If you haven’t realized that I am an avid follower of LKY, you should by now. By studying him closely, LKY’s action and political view helped shaped my world view. I once wrote an article that Hakka and Hunanese Chinese disproportionately dominated Chinese politics. This observation was actually brought up by LKY in his book when he commented that  many of his cabinet ministers are Hakkas. I am not convinced when I first read it but after it occurred to me that in the 1990s the top politicians of mainland China, Taiwan and Singapore are all Hakkas. That prompted my study into this field. The political leaders LKY admired most are Churchill, De Gaulle and Deng Xiaoping, this admission gave us an insight to why LKY made some of his political decision. LKY also has this view that Singapore’s experience cannot be easily duplicated by other countries as they all have different history, geography, religion, demographic, social norm etc. Just ask yourself, would LKY be able to turn Myanmar, Philippines, or Indonesia into super sized Singapore? In fact, LKY wouldn’t even be able  to shape Malaysia which he was once part of. The sad reality is, Malaysia is also not short of statesman the calibre of LKY. LKY was widely credited with championing the motto “Malaysian for Malaysia” to dilute the ethno-religious aspect of communal politics which is the leading cause of success for Singapore. The idea was actually raised by a prominent ethnic Malay politician, Onn Jafaar. What I am suggesting is not to overly demonize or elevate a political leader, rather we should study the subject matter with an open mind and walk a mile in their shoes. And for any politician to achieve greatness, on top of ability, a right time and place are essential for reaching his or her full potential. LKY has all that and make full use of that and left a big print in history.








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  1. N.M.Cheung
    March 31st, 2015 at 13:41 | #1

    Interesting and informative. We have different viewpoints on LKY and his place in history. But what about the future? The young as usual are restive. LKY was critical that late marriage and low reproductive rate on upper class endanger his view of ruling class. The Hong Kong turmoil is now affecting the tourism trade from mainland. How does the push for democracy in Hong Kong affect Singapore? China’s push for Silk Road land bridge to Europe can’t help but affect Singapore’s strategic position, not to mention with internet, and the rise of China, she may siphon off the best and brightest from Singapore.

  2. March 31st, 2015 at 17:04 | #2

    Singaporean youth has a very different mindset than HK’s, mainly in a sense that the former has a very high esprit de corps. This spirit of belonging to Singapore is cultivated by the tough 2 year national military. To top it off the wealth and success of the island state boost the ego of most citizens. Singapore already has universal suffrage and during election the subject of discontent is always in regards to wages, cost of housing, education, job opportunities, foreign workers etc. These subject matters are common to even countries like New Zealand, Ireland etc. The young electorate does not hate the PAP even though they nicknamed it pay and pay. They just like to put pressure on it to keep its on its toes. Also gerrymandering by PAP also give it advantage in election.

    Singapore’s social and formal education is one of the most competitive in the world and produced generation of ultra competitive “kiasu” graduates. So Singapore in a strategic sense is much like Luxembourg or Switzerland, being a financial and trading hub serving European, US, Japanese and now Chinese and Indian business interest. Low birth rate is not a problem affecting Singapore, it affect HK and Taiwan and most of western Europe as well. Singapore alleviate it by taking in large number of immigrants and foreign workers.

    You might disagree but I always feel that a government is a reflection of the people. In Singapore’s case it has produce extremely efficient and pragmatic politicians, bureaucrat . This is why from 1997 onward, the income gap between HK and Singapore which is close become greater and greater. The former was mired in mindless political bickering(still is) while the latter seeks out new business opportunities. For the foreseeable future, it is Chinese immigrants going to Singapore. There might be some cases of reversal but unless the jobs paid over $100,000 per annum I don’t see much Singaporean going that direction.

    Here’s more Singaporean local news http://www.straitstimes.com/?a=1

    I am confused by your use of the phrase “LKY was critical that late marriage and low reproductive rate on upper class endanger his view of ruling class.”

    Also watch some Singaporean comedy on youtube

  3. danielxu
    March 31st, 2015 at 20:32 | #3

    Thank for the lengthy article.
    Coming from Jakarta your story sounds familiar to me, unfortunately hokkian in Jakarta is fading, use sometimes when bargain the price of goods; although Mandarin has gained popularity.
    I like to know more about Hakka people, they are over-represented in the politics as you wrote. Do you know that the current Governor of Jakarta, A-Hok, is also Hakka.
    I wonder what is so special knowing well I’ve married with one of them.
    Sorry to deviate from main subject.

  4. N.M.Cheung
    March 31st, 2015 at 21:17 | #4

    I was referring to the Singaporean government’s attempt for arranging marriages for highly educated women who decided against marriage. Also what about the case of Amos Lee, who posted a video in YouTube, “Lee Kuan Yew is finally dead”, and was arrested and face 3 years in jail.

  5. danielxu
    April 1st, 2015 at 21:21 | #6

    “Gam-Sia” for the link.
    Now I know why my Mrs is so tough and stubborn.

  6. April 2nd, 2015 at 06:25 | #7

    “Bo Boon Tay” If you enjoy Hokkien joke here’s one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Nj0ENgMDxA

    Popularity of Hokkien in Singapore today (English & Chinese sub):

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