Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1239, (26 March - 1 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Obituary: Lee's legacy

Lee Kuan Yew (1923 - 2015)


Al-Ahram Weekly

In his memoir From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who died this week, expressed a special affinity with Africa, elucidating a poignant and recurrent theme that both troubled and puzzled him.

The founding father of Singapore pointed out that most African nations at independence had a far higher per capita income than did impoverished Singapore, then a poverty-stricken fishing port devoid of the natural resources of most African nations that gained independence from Britain roughly at the same time as Singapore.

Yet, in the space of one generation, Singapore metamorphosed from third world to first world. The makeshift wooden waterfront shacks were transformed into glitzy skyscrapers that flaunted the city state’s conspicuous consumption.

“Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s president, did not rejoice at the news [of the coup d’état in neighbouring Nigeria]. He himself had a narrow escape about two years earlier, just before I visited him in January 1964,” Lee Kuan Yew mused.

“One month later, on 24 February, as Nkrumah was being welcomed with a 21-gun salute in Beijing, China, an army coup took place in Accra. The news saddened me. I never visited Ghana again,” he added.

The Southeast Asian visionary was a great believer in tutelage. Empowerment he acknowledged to be a prerequisite for a people’s development, even though his critics at home and abroad accused him of restricting human rights.

The Singaporean statesman prided himself on making his city state “work”. “I know why [Singapore] works. It works because I made it work,” was one of his unapologetic statements.

He was sympathetic to Africans precisely because Singapore, and much of Asia, shared Africa’s colonial experience. He vowed to purge the colonial elite. “Here in Singapore you did not come across the white man so much. He was in a superior position. I decided when I got back [to Singapore], I was going to put an end to this,” he wrote.

The brutality of the Japanese occupation of Singapore during World War II did not embitter him. A contrite Japan later hailed the Singaporean leader, with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe describing him as “one of Asia’s greatest leaders.”

The Japanese occupation was an eye-opener, as far as the “Father of Singapore” was concerned. “The old mechanisms had gone and the old habits of obedience and respect [for the British] had also gone because people had seen them run away. They packed up,” he observed, and from then on respect for Britain evaporated. He came to believe in what he termed “Asian values,” and in fact coined the phrase.

It was a concept later adopted by the former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed. But Lee Kuan Yew was devastated when Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation in 1965. Race and religion played a part, since Singapore was predominantly Chinese, and Lee Kuan Yew was himself fourth-generation ethnic Chinese.

Singapore’s neighbours, Malaysia and Indonesia, had large and economically vibrant ethnic Chinese communities. But race riots erupted in both predominantly Muslim nations and the ethnic Chinese were targeted.

Observing the future of his resource-poor city state, Lee Kuan Yew ruled it for three decades with an iron-fist. He had no qualms about an autocratic style of leadership. Among the things that irritated him, and a good many did, was the Western powers’ feigned altruism. His chief objection was that the West set moral standards and universal values that it did not abide by.

Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 on religious and racial grounds. “Out with you,” Malaysian politicians at the time told him, and he burst into tears. His views on religion were ambiguous.

“I would not call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God — nor deny that there could be one,” he said. That mindset set him apart from his largely Muslim and conservative neighbours.

The Japanese occupation of Singapore left an indelible mark on him. “The dark ages had descended on us. It was brutal, cruel. In looking back, I think it was the biggest single political education of my life because, for three-and-a-half years, I saw the meaning of power and how power and politics and government went together,” he said. The Japanese occupation undoubtedly helped shape his politics and was one reason for his considerable pride in the Pan-Asian ideal.

“I was not optimistic about Africa. I thought their tribal loyalties were stronger than their sense of common nationhood. This was especially so in Nigeria, where there was a deep cleavage between the Muslim Hausa northerners and the Christian and pagan southerners,” Lee Kuan Yew wrote.

Few Asian leaders had such insight into African affairs, or instinctively understood the dynamics of African politics. When he reflected on the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe crisis in the 1970s, he was as observant as ever. “Of the white leaders, Lester Pearson of Canada was by far the most liberal in his instincts and sympathetic to the cause of the Africans and the underprivileged,” Lee Kuan Yew said at the time.

Lee Kuan Yew eschewed the overseas Chinese predicament. He was acutely conscious of his nation as a multi-racial polity. An ethnic Chinese, he distanced himself from the “Overseas Chinese.” He derided their “chauvinist appeals.”

“We had seen how susceptible the China-born were to pulls of sentiment and blood,” he recounted in his memoirs. China had to give up its principle of jus sanguinis, the law of the blood that any person descended from a Chinese father was automatically a Chinese national.

In a conscious policy decision to stress the multi-racial character of Singapore, he resisted visiting China for decades. “Premier Zhou sent me an invitation to visit China [in 1975]. I did not respond,” Lee Kuan Yew confessed.

Later he relented. “I asked for a lengthy visit to see as much as China as possible. They fixed it for 10-23 May 1976. To make doubly sure that no one doubted we were not going in as kinsmen Chinese, we had in our 17-member delegation a [Hindu] Jafna Tamil foreign minister (Rajaratnam) and a [Muslim] Malay parliamentary secretary (Ahmed Mattar),” the late leader explained. Meetings in China were conducted in English, as opposed to Chinese.

Western leaders have acknowledged his political acumen and practical wisdom. United States President Barack Obama described him as a “true giant of history” this week. “In office, I read and analysed every speech of Harry’s. He had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong,” the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said of the Singaporean leader.

He was Christened “Harry,” hence Thatcher’s referral to him as such. He dropped the name upon assuming office as Singapore’s prime minister on 3 June 1959.

“History shows that normally prudent, ordinary calculations can be overturned by extraordinary personalities. In the case of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore’s emergence as a national state, the ancient arguments whether circumstances or personality shape events is settled in favour of the latter,” noted former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

“I have never been over-concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader,” the late Singaporean statesman said. He was unapologetic about his brand of benevolent authoritarianism and criticised what he described as the “liberal individualism of the West.”

As he said, “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

He was a staunch champion of women’s rights. His wife, Kwa Geok Choo, who passed away in October 2011, was his inspiration and lifelong companion. His son, current Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, has declared a week of national mourning to pay tribute to his father, the father of the nation.

Gamal Nkrumah

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