We will pay the price for unrealistic views of Lee

Seven days are over, and now I have the time and proper space to make sense of all that has been said about Lee Kuan Yew over the last week. Lee casts a long shadow over all of Singapore, and how we handle his narrative in the years and decades to come will have great bearing on how we change as a society.

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

Lee Kuan Yew (image credit: biography.com)

In death, the man still has the power to unite us. From his grave, he still could be the one to tear us apart. But the choice rests with us rather than with him – our handling of the legacy that we, willingly or unwillingly, have in our hands.

There are two ways forward now. In one future we polarise ourselves, we retreat into two camps: one that idolises and one that vilifies (both unjustifiably). In another future we manage to gather our senses, sit down together and have earnest conversations about the man and about our future.

Lee Kuan Yew was unashamed of his choices – why are we ashamed on his behalf? Why the need to fabricate some narrative of unmerited perfection? Sure, he has received some unfair criticism, but even while it is wise for critics to steer away from criticisms during the man’s wake, it is similarly disrespectful to caricature his achievements and the hard choices he made.

MOE all but mandated a whitewashed history lesson in the days after his passing, and most teachers fed it to their students unedited. Die-hards like Calvin Cheng and Indranee Rajah had to reach for mockery and distortion to try and rebut what they saw as attacks on Lee Kuan Yew’s character. Talk about there being no trade-offs is pure nonsense. Talk about us having sacrificed only bad things in exchange for good things is likewise naive. Talk about how everything is totally humane fails to give Lee credit where he is due – that he made and stood by his choices in a fallen world where not everything can be win-win for everyone all the time.

And this is also the very same mistake that many of his critics make – seeing his actions in isolation and refusing to acknowledge the effective but imperfect outcome.

If Lee had not made those choices, and sacrificed dreams, even people, we would not have what we have today. And by any sensible critic’s reckoning this outcome for Singapore, out of all possible outcomes, is far, far better than what we could ever have hoped for.

Lee also sacrificed a part of his humanity. One cannot make hard choices like he did without hardening within; and to live with no regrets as he did meant that a hard pragmatism had to overrule.

Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is admirable BECAUSE he made those sacrifices. He is a leader par excellence BECAUSE he had to bear the consequences of the people he sacrificed. He is a visionary without peer BECAUSE of all the futures and freedoms he steered us away from. As much as I may want an apology for all the things he did, I honestly am glad that he never apologised. The legacy handed to us is crystal clear.

Let us remember the man he truly was, not some cartoon hero or villain of our own imagination.

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66 thoughts on “We will pay the price for unrealistic views of Lee

  1. And your point being? Rather then throwing darts and hoping it will hit a balloon in the sky, try not to beat round the bush but get to the point and state what your views are rather than fluffing around with questionable language. No one is perfect, Mr. Lee was no exception but Singapore was and is still stable and its people have a roof over their heads – what else do you want?

      • ‘White ants’ invading your blog lately? If they can’t figure what you have written, then they probably don’t deserve to read.

        Gee.. how thick-headed can these people be?

        Are we paid to write? Do we have to fit to their norm of what an article should be – a header, a body and a closure with in-between an objective to drive home a point? We write because we love to publish our opinions.

        They are like a**holes, everybody has one.

        That aside, I liked your writing and I get your drift.

        Kaffein

    • It’s right there in the last line: “Let us remember the man he truly was, not some cartoon hero or villain of our own imagination.” Not very hard to understand, surely.

    • If I’m not wrong, I think his point was exactly what you just said in the second last line. It’s kind of like a good functional relationship – you accept both the great traits and the flaws of your lover. To deny either would be to deny the fullness and beauty of him/her.

      • I knew what your point was, Daniel and I might have sounded harsh though I don’t mean it in a harsh way. You have correctly said that it is difficult to strike a balance when emotions are high. Remembered when I was a kid – my mom always tells me,”What to say when you don’t know what to say – many a times it is best to keep silent instead”. Keeping silent to me does not imply I’m trying to shrug away from reality, but rather it does help to view things from a wider perspective rather than struggling with the very few things that we refuses to let go – that meaning both good and bad things, though more with humans, due to human nature behavioural, the latter.

      • To every thing there is a season. A time to speak and a time to refrain from speaking. There has been a time set aside to mourn the man, but now is the time to speak – for me at least.

      • Now now – no need for you to try quoting Ecclesiastes 3. You have totally missed my point in my last comment and what I’m trying to imply. Heyho, good luck to your keyboard warrior mode – aka whinging rather than moving on. Sometime I really wonder and ponder – what’s with some of this new younger generation of Singapore! Does Singapore really need another war time crisis to wake up these muddle brains to stand in one accord with the nation ………………….. sigh

      • O no, I for one not a keyboard warrior, I just happened to be notified by a post on facebook via my colleague and thought to myself – another “si ge na” ranting about the whole grey sky – not knowing what’s behind the grey clouds is all about.

  2. “If Lee had not made those choices, and sacrificed dreams, even people, we would not have what we have today.” This is not true. You, I, nor anyone else knows what “might” have happened if he didn’t “sacrifice people” and since when does any human have the right to “sacrifice” another for fear based politics? If one violates human rights they aren’t a good leader. Period. Futhermore, the people around him built the country as well, he didn’t do it alone. Did he enact many good policies? absolutely (again, with the help of others). Lee admired Machiavelli and had his traits as well. Again, not a good leader…

    • True, we could have hoped for more humanity. I do not think he was terribly humane. Some could also have hoped for more economic gain (at a price, who knows what price?) We will never be satisfied, and should never be. But we should not be upset just because we do not find perfection in this world.

      And yes, he had a team working for him. I would even say that he had the unwilling sacrifice of several detainees working for him. Yet he was their leader. Is a CEO not worth praising for business success? Is a team manager not worth praising for winning a trophy? It is up to them then to raise their team members up to share the glory, and this LKY certainly did.

      It is good that you concern yourself with ethics and rights. These things are needed to balance hard-hearted pragmatism and ruthless efficiency. Yet, in the long run we must have some of this and some of that.

      • So it’s worth trading off the humane treatment of others for the potential of a higher GDP? Machiavellianism at it’s finest. Being a humane leader does not mean being a perfect one, e.g. Jimmy Carter, and no one is speaking of perfection here. Enacting human rights is not “perfection” its basic good leadership 101. And who says in order for a government to work effectively we must, as you say, “have some of this and some of that” ? What would Lee have lost for the country were he more humane? He very well could have gained more. None of us can answer that question. However, when leaders suppress others’ expression of thought it’s based on fear; fear is weakness, not strength.

      • I’m not sure how the direct connection of suppression of others’ expression of thought is necessarily ONLY based on fear. It could be based on a lot of other things. Control. Money. Mission objectives.

        Unless you were making some off-beat Yoda quote reference… sorry if I didn’t get that.

        It is perfectly fine to call LKY’s leadership into question. I have no issue with you doing that. But you must realise that your standards of a “good” leader (while valid) will differ from the standards that someone else has. Ultimately, we live in a democracy (isn’t that a “good” thing?), and people raised him to power. And kept him there. For 60 years.

        Perhaps one day when the majority of people see good leadership the way you do, we can vote in someone who qualifies, but in all honesty I do not see a single candidate in the opposition who holds your values (although many of them SAY they do). In fact I think there may be a few PAP backbenchers who really think like you do. Possibly Inderjit Singh, maybe Patrick Tay.

  3. The only certainty here is we will confirm have to pay and pay regardless of race language or religion or how lky is portrayed. Hahahah. Jokes aside, pragmatism is so entrenched in our society that it will be the one attribute of ours that will systematically work things out. No need to talk about empty ideals. Singaporeans where got time… Do what works. Ideals? Meh…

    • Here’s a thought: what if Lee’s pragmatism was in fact idealism? The ideal that Singapore should be a nation for all races, the ideal that a people should live in safety and stability, the ideal that a people should prosper and not have to serve another master (colonial or otherwise), the ideal that the rakyat should be free from the military threats of her neighbours?

      With so many such questions unanswered during LKY’s time, I could almost say that he was a great idealist. 🙂

  4. Yes, suppression of expression it is based on fear; the fear of the loss of, as you wrote, “control, money, mission objectives”, etc. And of course people will not agree on what is a good leader, or most any definition, though, I dare assert, most people would prefer a humane leader which abides by basic human rights laid out in international legal documents.

    Hummm… “democracy” another debatable term.

    “Singapore is not an electoral democracy. The country is governed through a parliamentary system, and elections are free from irregularities and vote rigging, but the ruling PAP dominates the political process. The prime minister retains control over the Elections Department, and the country lacks a structurally independent election authority. Opposition campaigns have typically been hamstrung by a ban on political films and television programs, the threat of libel suits, strict regulations on political associations, and the PAP’s influence on the media and the courts.” https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2012/singapore#.VRlxAvmUeSo

    I agree there might be no one at the time who holds these values. My complaint is with the saying or implying that Lee was a “good” leader, full stop and “good on him for having no regrets”. It’s more accurate to lay out the good and the bad positions he took and, where possible, what the positive and negative consequences were.

    Counter points by a Singaporean of a different race says it in a more eloquent manner than I do: “…I ask that you think of the privileges you have had which have allowed you to unreservedly speak of the man with such respect and gratitude. The privilege of not having had your religion described as an impediment to integration. The privilege of not having your loyalty to the country doubted. The privilege of not having been thrown into prison, sued or censored for your political affiliations and views.

    (Was the ‘national period of mourning’ a propagandistic exercise too? Without a doubt state resources were employed to the fullest—the sentimental music on the airwaves, the indoctrination of schoolchildren, the non-stop television coverage. But as we have witnessed this past week, there is something about death where propaganda is forgiven. In fact there were even demands, both overt and implicit, that some of Lee Kuan Yew’s crimes and excesses be forgiven, because one does not ‘speak ill of the dead’ and ‘it was necessary at the time’ and ‘he did it for the greater good’. But while it is well within your right to make these assessments, it is not your right to insist that people forgive what to them is unforgivable, especially when you don’t know what these people have suffered and endured.)

    While I understood why some people would want to believe that Lee Kuan Yew’s death would unite Singaporeans, I also think it was a fanciful idea that has led to a lot of unnecessary anger. To some he was a visionary, a miracle worker, a world-class statesman, a father figure. To others he was a supremacist, a eugenicist, a misogynist, a despot. Better I think to stand behind other national symbols like our flag (and the principles embodied in it like democracy, equality, justice, peace and progress), our anthem, and our pledge.” Alfian Sa’at – https://www.facebook.com/alfiansaat/posts/10152652373342371?fref=nf&pnref=story

    • The problem with “good” and “bad” is that (at least in the public reckoning) they are subjective. There is no single definition for good or bad that everyone agrees on. Your judgement is as valid as someone else’s.

      And, ref Alfian, LKY was all of those things: father, despot, visionary, misogynist, miracle worker, eugenicist, world-class statesman and supremacist all at the same time.

      My caution is that we cannot simply discount the opposing view as “wrong” or invalid.

      EDIT: sorry, let me rephrase that last sentence: We cannot simply discount the opposing view as invalid because we think it is “wrong”.

    • A flag is an inanimate object…. a symbol built by the people behind it.

      Singapore is not an electoral democracy…. and I like it that way… for now. I seriously haven’t seen a better option, be it in a country or a company. The founder (eg. LKY, Steve Jobs) is a visionary, those that come after seem pale in comparison, but a sound structure is put in place to ensure the country/company will not go down with the visionary gone. Would you like to suggest any single country’s political system which you think is better?

      Mr Lee was a hard man…. but the situation then called for it. Arguably, the situation now still calls for one, but that’s a whole separate discussion. Did he ever do anything illegal or immoral? At least to the public eye, it did not seem so. His persecution of the opposition? I see no reason for the need to be friendly to an organization set up to oppose one’s own. Were the lawsuits fair? I don’t know the full details of every lawsuit that happened…. but I am familiar with the one with Chee Soon Juan and his infamous “typo” error. If you use wrong data or falsehoods to accuse me publicly of wrong doing, I will use the full extent of the law to defend myself. I personal think this a lot more effective than the constant bickering amongst political parties in some countries. I find the need to hide behind “political freedom” laughable.

      We have had good opposition politicians who didn’t need to require to falsehoods to get ahead. Chiam See Tong, Chen Show Mao…. both have my respect. When they talk, I listen, and I choose to agree or disagree. Nicole Seah was passionate with her heart in the right place, albeit I found her words filled with the innocence of youth. When Chee Soon Juan, Han Hui Hui, Roy Ngerng open their mouths, I divert my attention to things more worthy of my time. Low Thia Kiang and Sylvia Lim…. I haven’t given up on them… yet. But they seriously need to get their house in order and start making an actual difference in the running of our country instead of coming up with excuse after excuse.

      One can criticize all one wants about Mr Lee and his methods, but I dare say no one loves Singapore more than him. And he will be a national symbol I gladly stand behind.

      • I agree. Perhaps more apologetically, but I definitely agree.

        I am amazed that LKY spilled no blood and did not give in to corruption. His latter opponents (those he crushed, like Chee) were handled fairly enough, although in the early years there were many actions that, in this day and age, will be defined as unjust, especially the ISD detentions of supposed “communists” (who denied it then and to this day still show no signs of actually being communist).

        That said, I truly have no great criticism for LKY, but to his die-hards I caution that deifying the man only weakens the usefulness of his symbolism.

  5. Lee did the right thing. If I knew my enemies I won’t have mercy on them, he needed that in him to lead our little red dot into this bustling city today. Felt sorry for those that opposed and their family members but they would have change history if they outsmarted Lee. In that era, you get killed for wandering into the wrong village, visualize it and talk again. He’s a warrior. A decisive one.

  6. From my late teen years, I had try to read up and follow the news from both sides of the Causeway. Whilst LKY was all out for progress and improvement in the livelihood of the people he put words into action. He suffered no fools and stood no nonsense aka sloppiness and corruption. The time tested rule of “Do not do unto others what you do not want others to do unto you” was strictly enforced. Although the Chinese form the majority of the population every race was given equal opportunities. Even the Malays were given extra opportunities.
    Ever so often, in between the years someone will take umbrage with the house rules. That is to be expected but rules are rules. If you are mindful of the utterances then it is okay. But, if you say something which is libellous then be ready for the consequences.
    Fifty years have gone by. You have past presidents of different racial background. You can expect prompt and efficient service from every government departments. Your General Hospital is even better maintained and managed than some private hospitals in Kuala Lumpur. Of course, there is a price for e everything. Owing to the inept and inefficient system north of Singapore, many bright and intelligent Malaysians have voted with their feet and made Singapore their choice of career and home.
    Finally, before anyone wants to complain about LKY may I suggest that you come over to Malaysia for a week. Then you may want to change your mind.

    • I’m not one to use the “go live in X country and you will know” argument. Doesn’t seem to work the way it is intended to.

      Of course that doesn’t mean that we don’t have it good here.

      • Great article and comments. I hope for a time when we can sit down, listen and discuss one another’s positions without being offended and resorting to insults or disparaging comments.

        > I’m not one to use the “go live in X country and you will know” argument. Doesn’t seem to work the way it is intended to.

        This last comment struck a chord. Such comments are way too convenient. First of all, why compare with something/place worse and not set our own standards? E.g. instead of being content with “Look, the train system here is better than in , okay,”
        why not say,
        “Look, this level of crowdedness is not what Singapore aspires to. Let’s do better?”

        LKY and the first generation of leaders did their parts, for better or for worse. Now it’s our turn to do better. I think listening and respectfully debating would be a nice start leh…

  7. Great article. People kept posting that awful Calvin Cheng piece and I kept biting my tongue because I didn’t want to sound like a foreigner criticising LKY. But you put it very well.

  8. Hi Daniel

    I just wanted to humbly point out that some may have missed, or be confused, about the TRUE view/intention/point of your article (me included – correct me if I’m wrong but it’s in the last paragraph, right?) as your title already gives off an anti-LKY vibe (“pay the price” and “unrealistic”) whereas you conclude with a (somewhat) neutral tone.

    – Andrew Fu

      • Hi Daniel,

        I would like to confess to misinterpreting your title of your article.

        I read your article half expecting some points on how some of the views of the late Mr Lee are unrealistic and will affect us etc. In the end, I was somewhat confused by the disparity to my expectations.

        It only hit me upon reading this comment. Yes, it IS perfectly neutral.
        The human brain is interesting indeed… How a single word or word placement may change the meaning for different people. Shall (sheepishly) brush up on my reading skills… Heh… :p

        But I must say, this is a fine read. And some of the comments are interesting too. Haha…

        Thank you.

      • I can only hope I was deliberately misleading. LOL

        But I do wonder how much our predisposition towards a particular topic clouds our ability to interpret properly. Is it such that when we hold one extreme view, we tend to imagine that a neutral comment is actually opposing our view?

  9. Sorry Daniel. although you are free to write your opinion in articles. But reading your comments to people’s feedback makes me feel and think you are simply an arrogant snobbish dafu………. It does pay to take it humbly what people write, if you don’t like the comments, then simply don’t reply not write at all. Simple as that!!! Writing online always runs a high risk of backlash. So whether to be a dafu or not rest on the individual shoulder and stop being so arrogant and ignorant.

  10. Dear Daniel, I honestly do not get the point of your article. LKY has many admirers, there are many things to admire about him. Some love him out of gratitude. Some because he has achieved so much in life. For me, I admire his discipline, his sense of mission. Give some credit to Singaporeans. They are not fools who blindly admire LKY or think he is some kind of superhero. One week is not too long to celebrate or grief the life of a great leader. People know his flaws. If you want to make a veiled criticism of LKY or state his weaknesses, please go ahead. Please do not condescend, for that’s honestly what i felt reading your piece. Thanks.

    • Hi G Lim, I myself am a keen admirer of the man. How is it that you came to the conclusion that I am not? I admire him because of a realistic view of him. A caricatured positive view of him actually diminishes my respect for him because it makes his achievements look cheap.

    • It is like having my favourite football team win the league, but then turn around and say that every other team in the league was talentless and pathetic. That would actually diminish my favourite team’s effort, accomplishment and struggle to the top.

      • Precisely Daniel, you are intelligent and can discern so I can’t understand why are you appear worried (read the title of your piece) that people are eulogising him as a superhero for a week? Emotions ran high, some to the point of veneration – that’s to be expected. I don’t think people think that others are talentless because of LKY’s talent to use your football speak. Walk around Singapore this week, we are back to our daily lives. For me, the sense of loss lingers but stoically, we press on. kind regards.

      • I believe the likes of Calvin Cheng are still staunchly defending their claims. The MSM is still ignoring the other side of LKY’s life. Opposition extremists are still asking for apologies and painting him as a tyrant. I think my worries are not unfounded.

  11. Thank you for this piece. Very balanced, with very salient observations. I think as a country we need to grow alot more to think in less black and white terms all the time!

  12. Everyone who is a Singaporean, this is going nowhere. Time to move forward and continue building the nation.

    Non-Singaporeans, i applaud those of you who have been to SG and know what is good. those of you who have not, you will never ever understand.

    Someone, somewhere wrote previously :

    If freedom of speech means, freedom to be shot dead, freedom to rape or be raped, then stay where you are. Singapore will not be for you.

    • Actually, Donald Low’s rebuttal of Calvin Cheng included a proper definition of civil liberties vs security. There is a conflation of the two ideas, although they are related.

  13. still think your worries are unfounded…

    Calvin Cheng’s got his views, agree or not, he defends LKY, he is an ardent fan, what’s the harm? If you disagree with him give reasons like Donald Low did. Do you expect MOE or MSM to emphasise LKY’s imperfections? Is that realistic? We live in Singapore. We may not have the freest press, but we have access to the internet and can travel. It is easy to read or hear alternatives and form our own judgements. LKY critics, some very harsh, are all over foreign media and social media. This is normal political discourse, nothing unusual.

    Maybe you tell us what is the price we need to pay for unrealistic views of LKY? I didn’t get it from the article even though I was looking forward to it from the title. Share your worries with us, Dan. regards.

    • I actually rebutted Cheng in depth on his wall. You can go see. 🙂 I believe that he is NOT defending LKY, but rather he is corroding the man’s legacy with caricature.

      The price we pay is a polarised society, as I outlined in paragraph 3 and 4.

  14. Deng Xiaoping closed the question of Mao Zedong’s legacy with the Chinese by proclaiming that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong. It’s an inclusion approach which looks about right and humanizes than polarizes.

  15. This is a sober and maturely written article, balanced and well-nuanced. Like thousands of others I mourned for Mr Lee: at the Community Tribute site, at the Parliament House, even under the pouring rain in the streets during his funeral procession. I was overcome by emotion and gratitude, but not to the extent that I would forget that he had made hard and controversial decisions that had broken and exiled families, driven some to bankrupty and infamy, for what he believed (and I believed it was necessary given the climate he lived in) was for the greater good of the people. You were spot on when you said we should be not only aware that he made such decisions, but that HE was aware of it as well and was no hypocrite. I think a big problem (as you have stated) with both pro and anti- LKY camps is that they can’t seem to strike a fair balance in analysing him and end up totally whitewashing/blackwashing him, which ends up doing him (and themselves) quite a bit of disservice really.

  16. you took the words right out of my head.

    i particularly love your second last paragraph that the sacrifices, public and personal, made what he achieved even more admirable and that he was a great leader precisely because he had to make hard choices, sometimes between two evils.

    no on is infallible. believing LKY to be so will do us no good. and no decisions are right for all times. even the choices that LKY made that were right for his time may very well be wrong for our time. even though the style that LKY used to govern SG may hv been needed in his time, it is, in my opinion, completely wrong for our time. pretending that that isn’t so is not good for SG.

  17. There is no doubt about LKY’s contribution that made Singapore. The man is not flawless, and no one is. I only wished that we had a government with people and character of that generation. Our current G seems to be out of ideas and usually behind the curve. The sense is that they are usually fire-fighting rather than visioning where we should be. People seem to get left behind more and more. LKY wouldn’t have approved 😉

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