(WARNING: 2000 words post ahead)
You couldn’t have missed it. The news have been covering it all the past two weeks. The death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister and one of our founding fathers, have brought on a wave of emotions in our island nation and a unheard of reaction from all over the world for an ASEAN leader. Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect for what the man did. He was the right person for the right time, a period after the world war where SEA independence were the in-thing. Given a different time, he would have been a Churchill, de Gaulle or Roosevelt.
But one must never forget that he could just have easily been a Stalin or Musolini or Tojo. He chose an economic takeover instead of military, and preferred the assassination of dissent to death camps for enemies. I’m not saying this out of spite, but from a pragmatic standpoint. Lee Kuan Yew had a lot of similar traits as the leaders mentioned. Drive, intelligence, adaptability and forward thinking. It is not hard to see that if he were to have come to power 50 years earlier or later he could have easily been SEA’s very own Hitler. I think the World Wars softened the population, and in turn, his plans. It would not have been easy to win over a country decimated by the Japanese Occupation through more brute force, and his focus on economic growth was exactly what was needed at the time.
In this special two part posts, I’m going to delve into some of my thoughts on his passing, his impact on Singapore, and the nation’s reactions and the citizens replies, along with musing and rebuttals at policies and debates. In short, really boring shit. Enjoy!
(Before we move on, you need to know one thing about me. I am blunt as hell when I’m writing. I’ll never intentionally hide my disdain for people. If I am offending you, it should be clear and without question, and nothing written here is meant to insult. If you feel offended, you might need to check on your pride levels because they might be a tad too high -yes, just this part is an insult-. Remember, I hate everyone equally. You’re not that special.)
Mr. Lee left behind many things. From regional stability to a first world country. Quite a number of them are good. But there were also a few downs. Like a stifled media in Singapore and a political system that continues to favour the rich. Elitism its called. In lieu of his passing, there are many out there who would say that the discussion of his policies, politics, and life, are now in bad taste. And though I agree that angered conversations are not of form for the occasion. I firmly believe that tactful debates should still be held, as this would probably be the last time that the late man have the power to influence future generations and policy making.
I find it wildly unfitting an end to get overtly emotional for such a pragmatic leader. Respect him. Mourn him. But do not let emotions cloud your judgement on the here and now and the consequences of the man’s actions. Actions that we still have to live with today, be them good or bad. I was talking with some of the older people in the media industry a few months back, and they told me how the former prime minister, in post war, offered them a choice. Join up with the state run media and get support, or be left to struggle with independent media while being scrutinized by the government. The dude went Darth Vadar on them. ‘Join us or die.’
Over the past week, I have slowly seen friends and family, who once had little to no interest in politics or was otherwise wholeheartedly against Mr. Lee, swung over to the other side. My sister in fact, started recording the coverage of his procession, though promptly fell asleep halfway through watching. But I digress.
One of my friend told me that he respected Lee Kuan Yew, and stated that whatever the man did in life, he was still human, and was bound to make mistakes and should be given a pass given the good he has done. He was quoting an article he had read, of course, but it begged me to question him. Should Hitler’s torturing of prisoners be given a pass too? Given that it produced some of the greatest medical advances of that century and saved millions of lives?
You might ask me not to compare the man to Hitler, to which I refer you back to the start of this post. This is not to say that I hated the prime minister. No. When I was young, he was like a superhero to me. The man who pulled Singapore out of the depression of war and transformed the nation into a 1st world country within 50 years. But as I grew older, I could no longer justify all the things he sacrificed in return for stability in the country.
I’ve always believed that every human needs a foil. A person or entity or collective consciousness capable of stopping them should they go that step too far. And I think Lee Kuan Yew knew that, which was why he made such a concentrated effort to put a stop to everything and everyone that could pose a threat to his power. Though he did leave a semi-democratic system that would still oust him if he did went beyond too far. In doing so, coupled with his intellect and visionary leadership, he turned himself into something truly amazing and terrifying. He became a walking nuclear deterrent.
A human being, with almost unlimited economical resources and overwhelming trust of the people. Like the atomic bomb, he was the needed weapon of his time. Also like the bomb, the outcome of his tactics were questionable, but were undoubtedly effective against his enemies. With powers unmatched, he was free to shape Singapore to his vision. And I feel that we were just lucky that his vision had not come from a different era.
What I really want to talk about though is not what he did or didn’t do, but rather, the society that was left behind in his wake. This country, Singapore, filled with smart idiots and dumb geniuses.
This post was originally supposed to go in a slightly different direction, but the events that happened throughout the week has caused me to rethink my approach. Originally, I was going to point out truths and fallacies with some of the local news, state-run or otherwise.
But I realized, through interactions with the people around me, that the media is no longer the issue. The news had long since done its job in shooting down dissenters and reshaping the political view of the country. The issue now boils down to the citizens and their choices and beliefs.
Over the past week, my life and social media feed had been flooded by discussion on Lee Kuan Yew, his passing, and most importantly, his policies. I wished I had time to cover them all. But to do so would require a book, with tightly packed words and a magnifying glass to read. So I decided to cover the ones that I felt the most pressing.
Freedom in Singapore.
Hotly debated, heavily criticized. But at the same time, defended harder the Battle of Thermopylae (300). I will quote two paragraph from former nominated member of parliament, Calvin Cheng’s Straits Times article, which questioned the validity of the debate of freedom in Singapore being traded for economic success.
“Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning, to be able to leave one’s door open and not fear that one would be burgled. Freedom is the woman who can ride buses and trains alone; freedom is not having to avoid certain subway stations after night falls. Freedom is knowing our children can go to school without fear of drugs, or being mowed down by some insane person with a gun. Freedom is knowing that we are not bound by our class, our race, our religion, and we can excel for the individuals that we are – the freedom to accomplish. Freedom is living in one of the least corrupt societies in the world, knowing that our ability to get things done is not going to be limited by our ability to pay someone. Freedom is fresh air and clean streets, because nothing is more inimical to our liberty of movement than being trapped at home because of suffocating smog.
These are the freedoms that Singaporeans have, freedoms that were built on the vision and hard work of Mr Lee, our first Prime Minister. And we have all of these, these liberties, while also being one of the richest countries in the world.” – Calvin Cheng
This has to be one of the most collected argument I have ever read on the topic, and it is the one that many people have quoted to me over the past few days. Clearly, citizens’ minds are being changed. Smart idiots following the trend. So I want to be the foil. The second opinion. An open mind.
The idea of freedom is filled with nuances. People just like to categorize them for simplicity. But when it boils down to it, freedom is a value neutral thing. The ability to do what you wish to do with no repercussion. Your natural rights in life. Rights like walking, partying, praying, and speaking your mind. But that also includes the more questionable acts, like rape and murder and sales of firearms and drugs.
Freedom will always be value neutral. You have to trade one for one. Give up your rights to bare arms and you gain in safety . Conscription for security. Finance for infrastructure. It’s rare for there to be both. Though I am more than able to debate the merit and consequences of every point mentioned by Calvin Cheng, I am just going to focus on one, less this post becomes a graduate thesis. The most complex freedom right that had been stifled in Singapore of course, is freedom of speech, the topic I have the most knowledge in, so I will talk about that.
On one side of the scale, clamping down on the media and free speech in Singapore gave the government the ability to prevent dissent and increased control over social tension. This has prevented racial riots over the years, which was crucial during Singapore’s earlier development, and also became a powerful tool for the ruling party in their political tool-kit. It has also helped pushed Singapore economically, though by hiding some of the major corporations shadier dealings.
On the other, to weigh out the pros and cons, are the consequences. Singapore, in 2014, ranks 150 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, 1 rank down from previous year, and nestled cosily between countries like the Russian Federation (148) and Iraq (153). Independent arts and media scene in Singapore is rare and next to impossible to start up, limiting job opportunities and advancement of the field.
Some would question the tight free speech laws in the current era. As Singapore has long since found its footing as a first world country in the new age. These questions should not be met with disdains and rebuttals, but actual, thoughtful considerations. Just because the laws have been working so far, doesn’t mean that they are worth what they were in the past.
Free speech should no longer be a concern for racial tension, as Singapore heads SEA as one of their leaders in education. In return, Singaporeans should be smart enough, and with an entire generation of experience to back it up, to know that racism is wrong. If we continue to rely on an aged law tell us to be nice to our fellow human beings, what does that say of us as people, let alone a society?
A freer media can bring about plenty of new ways for Singapore to grow. For starters, the media could start becoming an independent force for the people, keeping check of the powerful upper class and making sure that the actions of company heads, politicians, and other leading figures, are in lined with the perceived morality of the general public.
Singaporeans should open their minds and think things through. Understand the situation from all sides and make an educated decision without contraints. I have never met Lee Kuan Yew in my life, though I suspect we would have ripped each others throats out given the chance. But I think he can agree with me on one thing.
Intelligence and change is the way to the future. Making an informed choice is part and parcel of that. We must no longer be idiots who think they are smart for following the common trend.
(Next, I will jump into my thoughts on the reactions of ordinary citizens in the face of complex politics, and how Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s death might have brought about a new age of politically minded individuals.)