Lee Kuan Yew’s Enigma: Authoritarian Yet a Kind of Democrat
Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was buried today amidst the sadness and gratitude of his fellow Singaporeans. Over a million of his compatriots, a fifth of the island’s entire population, attended the funeral cortege, either directly on the route or in community centers he created. His funeral ends the era of first generation leaders in post-colonial Asia, in fact in the world, with the exception of a few sclerotic kleptocrats mostly in Africa. His accomplishments are well-noted in an outpouring of memorials and, more important, in the responses of his fellow citizens.
Many of those memorials are of the “yes…but…” genre, noting the accomplishments “but” also the reproaches, especially Lee’s penchant for authoritarian governance. He brooked neither democracy nor dissent. He and his associates jailed opponents or pauperized them through civil court cases alleging slander or other misdemeanors. Even when the courts ultimately rejected the claims, the defendants were impoverished by the costs of seemingly endless court procedures. Then, having to declare bankruptcy, they were barred from contesting for public office.
No one could credibly claim Lee Kuan Yew as a democrat. Yet in certain important respects he was one. Even during Singapore’s earliest years as an independent country, separated in 1965 by the other founding fathers of Malaysia who feared Lee’s appeal to Malaysia’s voters (not only the Chinese), they expelled a potential rival rather than competing with him at the polls, even then the new prime minister and leader of the only credible political party in Singapore recognized the need for public support.
Even as he quashed any potential opponents, Lee took regularly to the radio to explain to Singaporeans, in the simplest language, what the new country faced, what their government’s policies would therefore be, what it would do, and what its citizens needed to do. I personally recall how, in clear terms, he noted the obvious: that Singapore was a poor country with about $500/per capita income rather than the then-incomprehensible $50,000 now. He also noted that it was, as he saw it, surrounded by countries that were or threatened to be enemies, certainly adversaries, who wished it no good. He explained that, without any natural resources and making its living from loading onto cargo ships the raw materials of its neighbors and unloading finished goods, its only resource lay in its harbor and the character of its citizens, and its only chance lay in its integration with far-distant countries. The term, let alone the reality, of “globalization” lay in the distant future. These were the years of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Singapore’s future, he argued, lay with the free market countries of Europe, North America, and Asia, an ironic position given his history as the leader of the “socialist” movement. But no sooner had he taken office as prime minister when he arrested his former colleagues, just another example of his authoritarian leadership style.
Yet his radio talks—similar in many respects to the “fireside chats” of Franklin Roosevelt—proposed a serious social contract that laid out for public understanding and consent the hard road ahead. You will need to work hard and save, he said to his constituents. The road will be very demanding. He would not promise success. We need to be better than others, just to survive. Like Churchill but reciprocally, he would demand, not promise, blood, toil, tears, and sweat. In return, the government would provide good schools and minimal but decent housing and health care. It would educate their children and govern honestly and competently not, as then, corruptly. It would recruit the best talent, pay market wages, but (another bargain) expect superior performance…real performance with serious appraisals, like a company not like the faux evaluations of most Western bureaucracies in which every staff member is, on paper, an “extraordinary” performer, a contradiction in terms as well as reality. It would encode the rule of law, albeit mostly in the commercial area, definitely not in the political let alone human rights area. They would never see the results, he claimed (too pessimistically as it turned out)…but their children and grandchildren would, or at least might. He needed, he asked for, public support and he laid out a very clear, public program to get it. In that respect, he was democratic in its most substantive, although certainty not its formal or procedural, sense.
Retrospectively, Singapore’s success is now taken for granted. It was not then. Had a poll been taken of economists, political scientists, and (certainly) world leaders, hardly five in a thousand would have bet on it. Singapore was then the “basket case” of Southeast Asia, a beggar among countries that were all expected to do better, certainly the Philippines and Thailand. And in the broader landscape, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) was the odds-on favorite, apart of course from (by then) Japan and perhaps Taiwan and South Korea. Not Singapore. It is fashionable today to note that Singapore’s size was in its favor although not, as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, its ethnic homogeneity. Its size and diversity were then presumed disadvantages, and the possibility of communal conflict was, then, an immediate danger, as exemplified by its racially motivated riots in July 1964 with the deaths of some 35-40 people, and again in September albeit with a smaller number of casualty. It was a peril which eventuated much more starkly in Malaysia after its May 1969 elections—less than four years after Singapore’s forced separation—when hundreds of people were slaughtered, when the army was mobilized, when martial law was declared, when a kind of Hobbesian war of half the population against the other half threatened to engulf the country, and when Malaysia’s affirmative action program for the Malay bumiputeras, princes of the earth, was first initiated, and still remains. Yet in those days, it was large size and ethnic homogeneity that were thought to be the keys to economic success: substantial markets, natural resources, ability to mobilize, social harmony. Certainly not little city-islands masquerading as countries. No wonder Singapore was a basket case.
Nor, notwithstanding the justifiable accolades now, was Singapore’s success due only to Lee Kuan Yew and the people of Singapore who, following his entreats, did in fact work hard, invest, and then prospered. In fact, Lee was one of a cadre of Singaporean leaders: most notably Goh Keng Swee, its deputy prime minister, finance minister, defense minister, and interior minister (at different times, sometimes concurrently); and S. (Sinnathamby) Rajaratnam, its foreign minister and also deputy prime minister; and others as well. Still, Lee Kwan Yew was at least primus inter pares and, not so long afterward, just “primus.”
In fact, the anomaly about Lee Kwan Yew was precisely his authoritarianism. The People’s Action Party, the party of Lee, Goh, and Rajaratnam, never faced any serious electoral adversary, no doubt in part because Lee and his colleagues ruthlessly crushed any potential challenger while they were still ducklings. But in part, the citizens of Singapore were more than supportive of their government and of the PAP, which regularly won landslide majorities of 75% and higher. No opponent stood an electoral chance. Lee was chased not by the specter of possible electoral loss but by a deeper, personal demon. He could not understand what could possibly justify the votes of the 10%-25% of the electorate that, unfathomably, voted for someone else, someone clearly less competent. What was wrong with those voters? For a leader constantly searching for a better answer, for better performance, for the right policy, the anomaly drove Lee Kuan Yew nuts. And since it made no sense to him, since he couldn’t fathom it, he moved to extinguish it. But that is a psychodynamic not a political explanation, an emotional not a rational one. His “rational” explanation was that precisely because Singapore was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic society, precisely because of the May 1969 near-catastrophe in Malaysia, he (Lee) could take no chances. Contrary to current analysis, Singapore was too fragile for democracy, he said. Yet with those minor exceptions in 1964, 50 years ago, Singapore was never in real danger of the kind of electorally-motivated ethnic populism Lee said he feared.
So in the end, Lee Kuan Yew remains something of an enigma: a leader who laid out his plans in the clearest, most realistic way, who sought and received his country’s constant and overwhelming support on that basis, and who (in that respect) was more democratic than many who follow form but not substance by pandering to the electorate but never dealing directly with it. Yet he was also a leader who, at bottom, did not really trust his electorate to exercise precisely what he beseeched of them: be practical, be realistic, work hard, invest in the future, trust an honest and far-seeing government, and support its policies and leaders. Instead, he wielded the big stick to ensure his policies, power, and authority.
The ultimate irony is that the success he (and his colleagues) wrought is now incubating precisely the demand for choice, for a real rule of law with due deference to human rights, for a broader set of social policies than material success alone…and for a truly democratic Singapore, in form as well as substance.
Gerald F. Hyman is a senior adviser and president of the Hills Program on Governance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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