During this time of mass sympathising, I think it is important to keep certain things in perspective.
SEPARATING MYTHS FROM REALITY
1. Both Sides of the Historical Narrative
I’ll preface this with a recent comment I saw on Facebook:
“Dear friends, it is important for all of us to hear all sides of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy. #LKY has done many things right but history will record both sides of the narratives.”
(– Hani Mohamed, founder/CEO of Alertist)
I downloaded The Straits Times’ special 24-page edition to mark the life of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I have also read several local as well as foreign publications praising LKY’s reign, chiefly for leading the country from a “third world” state to one of economic prosperity.
I noticed one comment on a Politico article which brings some objectivity into remembering LKY’s legacy (comment edited for grammar):
“The worst and inhumane DISRESPECT for anyone who has passed away, is to simply laud only the good things, without noting also the bad things in their lives, and framing all of these in a proper context fitting for this person as a HUMAN BEING, however larger-than-life this person may be. History is for Objective Balance!”
(– Jonathan Li)
It comes as no surprise that a lot of the details from the darker side of Singapore’s history have been left out of the eulogies for LKY. For instance, in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, T.J.S. George writes that “only the PAP possessed weapons with which to fight battles for the people’s minds.” LKY’s techniques in the early 1960s were described as then chairman of the Barisan as “Legal fixing.” (Perhaps that is where PM Lee Hsien Loong got the term “fixing the opposition” from.)
In that same book, LKY is described as applying “the free employment of authoritarian methods to eliminate all opposition,” because in his mind, no one else in Singapore “could be right.” What he achieved was a “one-man party and a one-party state.”
His old comrade-in-arms, Lim Chin Siong, was denied trial or right of appeal and sent to Changi jail for seven years, of which some time was spent in solitary confinement. Political insiders in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur claimed that “Lim was fed drugs which induced depression and self-destructive tendencies” (also mentioned in an Amnesty Report and a political detainee’s account). Let us also not forget Dr. Chia Thye Poh, detained for 32 years and left with poor health, Former Solicitor General Francis Seow, Former Magistrate JB Jeyaretnam, Tang Liang Hong, Tan Wah Piow, Chee Soon Juan, Teo Soh Lung, Dr. Poh Soo Kai, Dr. Lim Hock Siew, and countless others who were repeatedly imprisoned and/or bankrupted for being perceived as a real threat to the PAP’s hold on power.
Even with this knowledge, I found myself semi-enthralled by the halo effect certain mainstream media outlets have granted LKY, by portraying him in a saviour-of-Singapore, saint-like manner.
The thing that snapped me out of my enthrallment were presentations about LKY’s loving and caring side as a father and husband. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a model father and husband, I find it outrageous that this type of portrayal spares no thought for the political detainees/exiles — who had been LKY’s fellow Singaporean citizens — whose entire lives and ties with their family and homeland were majorly disrupted because of one man’s ruthless beliefs and access to state apparatus.
LKY supporters justify his actions by saying that everything he did was for Singapore’s survival, to take it from a “third world to first world country.” He was also a shrewd, clever and pragmatic politician who had to (by his own words) do what was correct. T.J.S. George adds that LKY “seemed convinced from the outset that anyone who opposed him was an enemy of Singapore,” so in that sense, it can be viewed that LKY was “protecting the country” from people he viewed as enemies.
2. For Whose Survival?
LKY may have viewed himself as The Right Man for the job, but that doesn’t mean it was fair to 1) use the law to incarcerate and intimidate opponents because he could, and 2) that it’s correct to explain away such actions as “simply something that had to be done” to ensure the future “success” of Singapore. How can it be guaranteed that any of these political opponents would have been political failures, when none of them were given a chance to prove their mettle and implement their own vision?
Some people might say that concepts like democracy, human rights, and fair play, are too “idealistic” for the arena of politics. Real life just doesn’t work that way, so we, the people, have to just live with it.
The more I study LKY’s (and by extension, the PAP’s) behaviour and actions, the more it seems like certain things were implemented to ensure “the PAP’s survival.” Would a government who truly cares about its citizens have such an aggressive foreign talent policy?
Kenneth Paul Tan, the vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, said:
“It cannot be just the government leading the way forward. The people have to be as much a part of this, so a new social contract can be forged which can be legitimate to all.”
If one reads between the lines, one could even infer that the current social contract is not “legitimate to all.”
The Straits Times is widely known by discerning Singaporeans as a government mouthpiece.
Presenting a one-sided view of history is dangerous, because if we have knowledge of some of LKY’s past actions and choose to justify those cruel actions as “necessary,” what type of effect does this kind of outlook and behaviour have on the rest of The Cabinet and Government of Singapore, and further down the line, on the mass populace?
It brings to mind Chris Ho’s recent post about the shameless brazenness of the government and how this is creating a more aggressive, callous society at the ground level.
It also brings to mind Alfian Sa’at’s recent poem, on “the other side of the news” that isn’t reported during this time of national mourning.
It breeds an outlook that is desensitised and inhumane — never mind if your fellowmen are suffering, never mind if they are poor, never mind if they can’t seem to get their act together and get ahead in life financially. It’s their fault, life is nothing but a rat race, and “economic prosperity” justifies everything at the end of the day.
It’s up to each of us to decide what matters most at the end of the day, whether “the end justifies all means” is the right type of outlook to take, and whether a lack of compassion in the name of power and economic success are values we aspire to uphold.
Speaking of “economic success,” we should also ask ourselves who chiefly benefits from this much-lauded national prosperity.
3. Separating Myths from Reality
Propaganda can be defined as:
Information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.
We elect governments officials whom we are made to believe can be trusted in being capable, “incorruptible,” and of integrity to handle the country’s affairs.
No one in their right mind would elect an elite force to spread lies, half-truths, and/or mismanage funds while enriching themselves and their families. It is up to each of us to make a collective, sustained effort to counter propaganda, so that government accountability is not reduced to a piece of fiction or a romantic pipe-dream.
I hope discerning individuals will be able to see through some of these myths that have been built up and propagated over decades, not because we want to “attack” a person or be “haters,” but because of the importance of being able to separate myths from reality.
We owe it to ourselves and future generations to have an accurate version of history, which provides us with a real connection to a reliable, honest past. If we don’t ask tough questions, we risk being brainwashed by state-supervised mainstream media propaganda. Furthermore, we risk being left in a permanently comatose and brain-DEAD state, from decades of propaganda which tells us what is the right story to accept — never mind if it’s really real or not.
Knowledge and awareness aid a society in moving forward. Learning from past errors or wrong-doings prevents the same things from happening again in future or being indefinitely prolonged.
How else could we ever be sure we are progressing in the right direction, if we can’t even tell if we’re standing on a secure enough foundation?