Damned If You Develop, Damned If You Don’t

The late Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) and Singapore do not fit easily in the imagination of Anglo-American media. In this idiosyncratic universe, a normative standard persists in the form of an Orientalist dichotomy: a “developed West”, and the “underdeveloped Rest”.

Deviations from this dichotomy are rehabilitated in various ways, with some enjoying preferential treatment over others. Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore occupy a peculiar position in this matrix; under the former’s autocratic supervision, Singapore ‘caught up’ with the developed West. Yet, her difference has not been forgotten. Her failure to adhere to a normalcy defined by an Anglo-American reality is always highlighted, underscored, punished. That such penalties are dealt out across the board, by publications of different ideological persuasions, emphasizes the entrenchment of this conventional wisdom and moralizing rubric. It exposes the common ground upon which supposed ideological poles can meet and agree to condemn another. And why not? There is always a greater Other.

I focus here on two recent reactions to Lee Kuan Yew’s death. They are The Economist’s “Lee Kuan Yew: The Wise Man of the East”[1] and Counterpunch’s “Lee Kuan Yew and the Singapore City-State: The Idiosyncratic Autocrat”[2]. The former is widely considered to adopt a neoliberal view of the world, whilst the latter is a publication popular among left-wing circles.

The Economist’s article, in brief, praises LKY while portraying an inanimate, lifeless Singapore. LKY is praised only as a “geostrategist”, an “astute observer” of the world, as an “incorruptible” leader. His authoritarianism is criticized, and the article is especially wary that China’s leaders should draw this lesson from Singapore and import its model back home.

The corollary to the authoritarian Old Man is a passive, muted Singapore, held under thrall by “strict social control” and “[illiberal] [s]ocial policies”. Evidence of strict social control? “Strikes and other forms of protest have been extremely rare.” And proof of illberal social policies? “[H]omosexual acts … remain illegal.” These typical, narrow stereotypes that are ignorant of complex lived realities are, unfortunately, peddled incessantly in western media.

It seems ridiculous to have to repeat such a basic principle, but in different societies, we observe different ways of living out and expressing same human lives. Modes of protest vary from one context to another; instead of strikes and physical protests, the Singaporean medium of choice for political criticism is the internet. There are historical and political reasons for this, and the early decades of Singapore’s independence was indeed marked by ugly political repression, issues which many are now revisiting and resurrecting. Yet, this did not mean that political expression was stifled forever; it merely found another outlet. The most prominent example illustrating this would be the 2011 General Elections, in which the People’s Action Party had shockingly lost one constituency – these elections witnessed an intensification of internet discourse. At that time, I was editor of a small student-run online newspaper, the Kent Ridge Common[3]. We had published highly critical pieces of the PAP and enjoyed unprecedented visits for the month of elections – an exciting time for students mucking around the internet. I should note also that there were many other political websites more significant than ours.[4]

As for “illegal homosexual acts”: is it so surprising that legal reality and lived reality should differ? A visit to Tanjong Pagar on any night may initiate the western journalist into the vibrancy of our local LGBTQ scene. The party drug scene, too, is well alive despite the heavy penalties. Again, I repeat: different societies have different modes of living. Try to understand others on their own terms.

In sum, the Economist article eulogized LKY while portraying Singapore unceremoniously as “Pyongyang with broadband” – the title of a sub-section in the article. Granted, the article never directly accuses Singapore as such, citing others instead to do the work for them: “Critics mock Singapore for being like North Korea or as “Disneyland with the death penalty”, as William Gibson described it in 1993.[5]” (It must be noted here that 32 states in the US still have the Death Penalty, including California, where Disneyland Park is located.[6]) Even its supposedly positive elements – “[p]rosperous, orderly, clean, efficient” – end up reinforcing this North Korean image. The overall piece has painted a Singapore empty of its people, coloured in only by the most controversial aspects of its (British-inherited) laws and social quirks.

Unlike The Economist article, which found redeeming features in LKY, Counterpunch’s “The Idiosyncratic Autocrat” criticizes both the Old Man and Singapore, with more emphasis on the former. Kampmark’s piece is a scathing obituary; for him, LKY is an “idiosyncratic racist”, a “humourless strongman”, and “could hardly be said to be modern” as judged by the intellectual trends which he supposedly adhered to. The article elaborates on LKY’s racial ideas, use of defamation suits against opposition politicians, and like The Economist, cautions against others following its model.

‘Modernity’ and ‘humour’ are held up as standards to judge one by. Racial theories which were once mainstream now reek of genocidal historical baggage, and understandably trigger political-correctness sensibilities. For Singaporeans ambivalent towards the man, such as myself, I have to empirically agree with the points raised here – indeed, LKY is out-of-step (“medieval” in Kampmark’s words) with his racial views of the world, and if you don’t like his humour, you don’t like his humour. Whether these are sufficient and justifiable rubrics to assess him by, however, is a consideration that perhaps few would bother with. What incentive would a dweller within an Anglo-American universe have to empathize with an unorthodox outlier?

Singapore’s economic “miracle” is also dismissed early on as overused and overplayed – “You never hear the end of it.” The lives it might have changed are not contemplated. Like The Economist, this article cites “considerable social cost” as the price for Singapore’s transmogrification into the “modern equivalent of a thriving graffiti-free Venetian city state”. Like The Economist, this article notes the lack of political opposition, though not in terms of strikes and protest but in terms of a “submissive [press]” and a “permanently emasculat[ed]… [opposition]”. Like The Economist, the 1993 article “Disneyland with the Death Penalty” is cited – indeed, this has become canonical Anglo-American literature on the island city-state – but unlike The Economist, this article mentioned the 1994 caning of Michael P. Fay for being a “[p]ractitione[r] of graffiti”.

It is probably important to note here that Michael P. Fay vandalized cars – that is, private property belonging to other private individuals. Dubbing this act as “graffiti” imbues it with far more anarchist romanticism than is perhaps warranted. Further, I have already mentioned previously of burgeoning online activity in Singapore and the resurgence of the Opposition following the 2011 General Elections – of course, this “resurgence”, while significant in the Singaporean political context, is laughable using any other society’s standards. But why should we use any other society’s standards? Why should we, in particular, use standards that an Anglo-American public would be comfortable with?

Within a so-called left-wing press, what are the deeds that merit approval? Are these the only choices available to an underdeveloped non-West: scathing condemnations (if one pulls off an “economic miracle” using ‘unorthodox’ means), plain exploitation (if one succumbs to IMF or WB schemes for development) or just global neglect (if one just languishes away as economically unimportant and culturally uninteresting)?

As a part of the privileged generation of Singaporeans, I benefited from an education that enabled me to access this world of Anglo-American public discourse, and I enjoy a modicum of material well-being that allows me the leisure to indulge in ‘lefty’ causes. Yet, it is disappointing to find that in this idiosyncratic universe of Anglo-American media, so-called ideological poles end up converging in their egocentric censure of foreign societies.

Instead of dwelling on an abstract and impersonal “Singapore”, or on an evaluation of LKY, let me offer a different view of his death – through the reactions of the people.

LKY’s Death

I, and many in my generation, have been ambivalent towards LKY ever since we were old enough to form a cogent political opinion. What shocked us most about his death was what it unleashed within us: a spontaneous wave of eulogization and emotion across our island city-state of 5.4 million. We have gone mad, I thought. What happened to all that criticism that burgeoned in the aftermath of the 2011 elections? The memes that abounded of LKY and his son, the current Prime Minister? The ‘new normal’ that pundits kept talking about?

Throngs of people waited in lines for over 10 hours to pay their respects. The elderly stood in separate, priority lines for up to 4 hours. Over the course of a week, 1.2 million people turned up at island-wide community memorial sites and at the Parliament House, where his body lay in state. On the day of the State Funeral, about 100,000 people stood, in the rain, along a 9-mile route that LKY’s funeral cortege took, chanting out loud, “Lee Kuan Yew”. A perfect caricature of a society under the thrall of a charismatic leader.

Except that, for anyone who has ever lived in Singapore, you would know that we have never chanted his name en masse while the man was alive – in fact, among his many idiosyncracies, LKY hated personality cults. It was only in Death that those lining the streets – and again, not everyone— were able to completely embrace their founding leader.

While LKY was alive, most collective ruminations on the past occurred either in state-organized National Day Parades or in schools using state-designed textbooks. These overused cliches and transparently propagandistic songs (e.g., “Count on me, Singapore”/ “Stand Up for Singapore”) would be repeated ad nauseum, and jaded many.

But LKY’s death is the first time we were forced to confront our past collectively and outside of any institutional framework. Suddenly, we remembered he was mortal. Granted, state and social media abounded in cliches, but this time they were clumsy articulations of what many recognize as a genuine, overwhelming grief – not an irrational one, but rather, one informed by an experience of the past.

This past was a reality of not having enough to eat, of living in wooden houses on stilts. This was my father’s childhood, and being the youngest, he was responsible for clearing the faeces in the communal outhouse. Everyone from that generation has similar stories. Everyone from my generation has grown up listening to these stories.

Now, unhinged from any state-directed framework, we remembered this past was real, even if we still disagreed on the legacy of the man.

Shocked into memory, many – but not all – Singaporeans have temporarily conceded that LKY was right about some things: that democracy may not be a suitable formula for a developmental state–LKY once quipped, “If you want to be popular, you will misgovern”; that constructed nationalism can be justifiable to ward off racially-based communalism; that running a small state like an entrepreneurial start-up can work; that having a son succeed office may not indicate corruption. The presence of dignitaries like Narendra Modi, Shinzo Abe, Joko Widodo, Tony Abbott, Henry Kissinger, and Bill Clinton at LKY’s state funeral frustrated those of us with opinions on Israel and the BJP, but signalled to most Singaporeans that at least some in the world noticed.

On the day of the state funeral, as people chanted his name in the rain back home, I watched the online broadcast alone in my room, in New Haven. During the whole week of mourning in Singapore, not one classmate or professor initiated any mention of this death to me – likely out of an innocent ignorance, because despite LKY’s efforts, Singapore remains relatively unknown at a popular level. I still get asked if we are part of China.

For writers in the idiosyncratic Anglo-American universe worried about LKY’s legacy in the world, whether “left” or “right”, don’t worry – the harsh reality is that we were never, and would probably never be, that significant.

Choon Hwee Koh is a PhD student in Middle East history at Yale.


[1] http://www.economist.com/news/asia/21646869-lee-kuan-yew-made-singapore-paragon-development-authoritarians-draw-wrong-lessons-his

[2] https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/03/23/the-idiosyncratic-autocrat/

[3] http://kentridgecommon.com

[4] http://theonlinecitizen.com; http://mrbrown.com; http://singaporedaily.net

[5] http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/1.04/gibson.html

[6] http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/states-and-without-death-penalty