"Ordinary people do not fear the Internal Security Act as much as they fear that if they voice criticisms against the government they will be punished in ways that can directly affect their livelihoods. Shopkeepers and taxi-drivers worry their licences will be revoked, and businessmen whether big or small, have the same apprehension. Civil servants fear their independent views on public matters will deprive them of promotions or get them transfers to insignificant ministries or the ultimate punishment - loss of employment. The press fears. The police fears. The ISD (Internal Security Department) fears. The army fears. The PAP MPs fear. And the ministers fear...Everyone fears Lee."
- T.S. Selvan, author and former ISD officer
"Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless."
- Lee Kuan Yew, Oct 6, 1997
Opinions of Lee in the country are many. More often than not they are a curiously alternating vocabulary of praise and criticism. As his talents and gifts are many and unusual, so are some of his defects. They tell on the way people view him when in their different moods. When people are angry, they forget his merits, and when are happy, they ignore his faults. He then becomes the only barrier between man and chaos. He is glorified to a point where it is said that since God has forgotten to endow the country with any natural resources, he redresses the oversight by giving Lee to the country.
Some are genuinely caught in a moral dilemma because as they condemn of some of his shortcomings they cannot easily overlook his outstanding contributions to their material well-being. He has not been a mindless despot like some of the Third World politicians. Some, however thankful they are, still find it hard to morally excuse him for treating his political opponents with an almost neurotic disapproval and condemnation. He is accused of binding everyone to his system while he himself stays out of it. Even the Godless think he plays God. But they do not say whether God is a dictator.
But what is the long and short of it? Where does Lee stand? Curiously, what will Lee himself think of his role as he continues to lead his flock? Will he be chuffed by his admirers' adulations? Will he be stung like Prometheus by the diatribes of his critics? Or does he have his hopes pinned on history's final judgement?
To look back. When the British finally left the island, the migrants invested Lee with the power of sovereignty and they expected this sovereignty to be used in their rights and interests. The migrants did not wish the bossy and holier-than-thou colonial type authority. That phase was over. It was time, the migrants rightly thought, to belong and identify, to participate and be counted. It was in recognition of this right that the Sahib had also returned the island to the people.
Lee took over. Democratic politics immediately became an irredeemable sin; a political perversion. An Easterner by upbringing and a Westerner by education, a Machiavellian by instincts and a Zarathustran by genes, he at once concluded that a state could neither be run on Judeo-Christian virtues nor by any airy-fairy Western liberal exhalations. He sought authority in the way the East and governments of all larger states had been ruled before the British, American and French revolutions. Lee must have also picked up some handy habits from his early partnership with the communists. Communism, which believes that the state is a divine idea, subsumes the complexities of human experience under a rigid collectivist and monolithic order - one single will, one single state, one single party rule. More importantly, the communists' faith in the grave philosophy of the end justifying the means became a lethal weapon in Lee's hands. Not to forget, once in power, the communists do not capitulate; they want to rule forever.
As soon as he took over he made his people recognise and accept without question the absolute sovereignty of the state which became synonymous with his own sovereignty. The man and machine became one. He smashed all threats to his power. As ends and means became entangled in his politics so were the problems of the state and his own became enmeshed into one and the same. He fustigated the communists, set the dogs on a free trade union movement, and closed the doors on a free press. The communalists and racists had to be flattened because they subverted the nation. Many of his political opponents were kicked around like dogs. Some yielded entirely and became his willing poodles. To his credit, there has never been an instance of political killing in three decades. When this fact was pointed out to a Westerner, a frequent visitor to the country, he said, "When you have detention without trial, your problems disappear very fast. You don't have to worry about wanting to make people disappear."
To sustain and legitimise his moral authority he constantly emphasised the weaknesses of man. He could call up at will historical precedents, imperatives, and cruel memories of a dark age. Unquestionably, he created a permanent sense of crisis. Again and again he went back to the question of the country's security: He warned of the shortage of natural resources and the smallness of the country. He reminded people of the divisive racial and linguistic pulls, and fretted nighmarishly of Humpty Dumpty going to pieces. To a migrant society without permanent security and without much education, these fears, real as they were, became dangerously real. So fearing the decay, and fearing Lee's Leviathan, they fearfully accepted his authority. Here it must be said that although Lee is a propagandist, he actually believes, one thinks, in what he says about the past and the calamitous history of the country. But if the purpose of the propaganda is to teach, it is also intended to sustain his own power.
Lee is completely and consumately absorbed with power, but no leader can continue to hold on as long as he has and be counted credible if he does not deliver. People in the end get tired of fine talk. When the masses get tired, no fear, no tyranny, can hold back the bursts. And this is where Lee is unequalled by many other authoritarian rulers. It is from his ability to pay well that most of his arrogance and invincibility stems which in turn moves his politics. As he made people fear his political ruthlessness, he also shared his extraordinary gifts as a professional businessman; a first-rate achiever. As fast as possible, he gave as much as possible. It was a bang-up job. A materialist, he believed that facts and figures shout louder than slogans.
As he continued to deliver, he also continued to erect comprehensive social policies, his Facts of Life, to consolidate society. He never tolerated state welfarism, never allowed self-indulgence, insisted on hard work, tabooed pornography, told parents to discipline their children, drilled the youths in the army, admonished the people to uphold the family system, kissed the jury system goodbye, ordered the police to administer proper justice to the criminals, hang the heavy peddlars of dope, campaigned for the people to bow their heads in courtesy, urged his people to take better aim in public toilets, and guide their saliva into a spittoon.
"I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn't be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think."
- Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Straits Times, 20 April 1987
In short, Lee has so far created from irrelevance a successful society where economic security and social order flourish. This in itself is an extraordinary tour de force but the setback to the system is the lack of political liberty. This appears to be Lee's biggest failure. Foreign critics are not quite out of touch with Singapore when they describe it as a "city of fear". The fear is real, and it is not just at the top-layer of people's feelings. It is deep. Worse, people are sometimes terrified out of their wits. Worse still, there is a lot of fear but no courage.
Ordinary people do not fear the Internal Security Act as much as they fear that if they voice criticisms against the government they will be punished in ways that can directly affect their livelihoods. Shopkeepers and taxi-drivers worry their licences will be revoked, and businessmen whether big or small, have the same apprehension. Civil servants fear their independent views on public matters will deprive them of promotions or get them transfers to insignificant ministries or the ultimate punishment - loss of employment. The press fears. The police fears. The ISD (Internal Security Department) fears. The army fears. The PAP MPs fear. And the ministers fear. No joke. Once in the mid 1980s, a senior civil servant went to discuss certain aspects of a policy decision with a minister. The minister said, more or less, that he was willing to say what he really thought about the decision but was reluctant to do so because it could be carried to the Old Man's ears. ...Everyone fears Lee.
The perception of fear is something that refuses to go away. More often than not some of these fearful people exaggerate (before they do this they look to the right, left, and over their shoulders) their self-importance and value by attributing their personal failures to having the guts (imagined, of course) to go against some of the government policies. As much as fear is real in the country, this group of self-important people is also real. Most of these people can be found predominantly among top civil servants, university lecturers and business elites.
Young yuppies who may have the inclination to go into opposition politics are hesitant because they, among other things, think that the government with its powerful machinery will rake up past indiscretions, however silly they are, and distort them into acute public embarrassment. We are here talking about PAP gutter politics. There is also the fear that the government will continue to hound them in the future through other means. The concern is valid because the record of the government is unhelpful to its image. On the other hand, some use this fear as a convenient excuse for not entering politics. Life, you must remember, is bountiful under Lee.
As fear threatens the people, something else is beginning to scare Lee and his government. The society is slightly more complex now than it had been a decade or two ago. Wide diffusion of English education, economic opportunities, the power of machine, social mobility, and exposure to other political viewpoints, are all conspiring to shape the political attitudes of the citizens. In other words, Lee's very success is working against him.
The young are particularly resentful of the way they are being governed : control, yet more control. Look, it is happening again, they sneer. They feel that the over-administration of the classroom suffocates creativity and individuality. They are gradually beginning to reject Lee and his moral prophecies because they suspect the perpetual hand of a controller yet again trying to manoeuvre his way through to increasing his own glory and power. Although they were born and bred under the PAP regime, they are beginning to break free like rebellious adolescents often do. Lee is not their king. Youth, with its idealism and energy, is Lee's greatest threat.
How long can a government continue to suppress real discussion and be intolerant of mediocrity? How long could it avoid compassion and caring for the really under-privileged? How can a society hope to mature and progress if there is little political intelligence and awareness? Can political loyalty to the system be taken for granted when the people are suspicious that Lee and his party control all the rules of the game? Perhaps there is a question to ask: could Lee himself, presuming that he is an ordinary man (i.e. not a politician), live in such a society without being too constrained and unhappy? Could he bear to see his prime minister enjoying all the freedom while he is denied it?
The kind of political system that is found in the country is bound to nurture indifference. When the citizens, if the government so decides, can be arrested without the due process of law, it strikes fear. It erodes loyalty. The government urges the different races to be tolerant and to harmonise their relationships to build a nation together but its own intolerance of critics and differing viewpoints is seen as Double talk. The government is happy when the press, whether local or foreign, pleases it but comes down vindictively when it ceases to praise. When a foreign press criticises the government it is accused of involving itself in the political process but when its own citizens, those who think differently, question and challenge some of its policies, they are being put down for the very act of participation. For example, immediately after the 1984 general elections, the government seemingly opened up the system and invited discussion and feedback. When the Law Society of Singapore attempted to do just that (the Law Society sought to persuade the government to change its mind about the Amendment Acts to the Press, and it did not encourage the citizens to disobey or break the law - there is a big difference here) it was disgraced out of court. One of its members was kicked around like a ball. Can a system be thought of a great success when it brings unnecessary pain to others?
Lee's Singapore or the Singaporean's Singapore?
Why is Lee, given the intensity of his Superman vision, so obstinate in his heroism in not wanting to allow for real democratic changes? Power is just part of the explanation, though a good part of it. But more importantly, is Lee certain of his vision of the future? Will he be proven right and others wrong in the end?
Lee has no God but he cannot give up playing God. He will always think he is right. That is his destiny; his own star to follow. "If there are gods," exclaimed Zarathustra, "how could I bear to be not a god?"
His adversaries who do not like Lee and his politics and would like to see him go, will have a mountain of a task to crush him. Their Macbeth is not ripe for shaking, yet. And one thing appears certain. Whether you like him or not, Lee is a legend. If Raffles was the taker of Singapore, Lee certainly is the creator, and a better story to tell. For the moment one hesitates to place him alongside the other Asian greats - Gandhi, Nehru, Mao - although intellectually he could claim equal, if not better depth. Using a different scale, if one gives Pol Pot 1, Marcos 3, the late Sukarno 5, Tengku Abdul Rahman 7, Lee gets a 9. If either of the scales does not fit that must be because Lee is quite clearly in his own league.
Before Singaporeans reach their own decision on their most famous legend and his creation, are they themselves clear in what they want of society, of life? Do they think someone else could do a better job? With the same per capita income, jobs, houses, schools, hospitals, roads, snazzy cars, snappy clothes, but more democratic politics. What is their dream of an ultimate island? If people are inclined to accuse Lee of becoming an island unto himself, are they becoming an island unto themselves? Are they themselves naively prone to over-emphasise their own importance and wisdom (and I don't write this with any kind of sneer or cynicism) as Gibbon, the great historian, thought the Greeks did? Commenting on the Byzantium, Gibbon said: "Among the Greeks, all authority and wisdom were overbonne by the impetuous multitude, who mistook their rage for valour, their numbers for strength, and their fanaticism for the support and inspiration of Heaven."
Human societies appear hopelessly destined to a cyclic process of growth, decay and disintegration. But a good vision is said to change or delay this process to some extent. Without this vision a society perishes quickly and when that happens all the King's men could not put back Humpty Dumpty. The poetry will made short. It is a dance of death on a narrow wall.
On the first day that he took over the leadership of the island from the white man, on 3 June 1959, Lee told his semi-colonised people: "Once in a long while, in the history of a people there comes a moment of great change..." The change has come, but is not great. The quintessential Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore (it should not happen, but it does) must be turned into Singaporean's Singapore. We must hope for the real Lee Kuan Yew to emerge over a period of time.
- T.S. Selvan, 1990