Book Review: Kuan Yew’s Grim Vision

Asia Sentinel

What will happen to Singapore when its 87-year old founding father Lee Kuan Yew dies? Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, a new 458-page book by journalists from the Straits Times based on a series of interviews with the man who led the city state for 31 years and has remained in the government since stepping down two decades ago, suggests that things could deteriorate quickly.

While Lee’s pride in Singapore’s economic and geopolitical success – flourishing despite what he describes as the envy and mortal enmity of its two larger neighbors – is overbearing, he calls the achievement as permanent as “an 80-storey building on marshland.”

To the citizens who’ve grown up reciting the idealistic, multiracial pledge of the government now headed by his son, one of Lee’s hard truths is that 45 years of nation-building haven’t succeeded and increased religiosity prevents the country’s 13 percent of Muslims from becoming fully part of the community.

“Utter rubbish,” he says when presented with a poll that found that 90 percent of Chinese Singaporeans – who account for three quarters of the population – say they would elect a non-Chinese as prime minister.

Lee defends the government’s controversial policies of incentivizing graduates to have more children and to import foreigners as being essential to address the demographic challenges imperiling Singapore’s future. From 2000 to 2009 the foreign population surged 66 percent to 1.25 million, particularly from China and India. Together with the mostly Malaysian Chinese non-citizens who have long sought opportunity in Singapore, more than a third of the island’s 5 million population don’t have voting rights.

As with all the ruling party’s policies, there is no alternative according to Lee. Asked if there is anything emotional about being Singaporean, he responds by telling of a trip to Perth and meeting a Singaporean emigrant whose son kept his Singapore citizenship as an insurance policy in case there were no jobs in Australia or climate change ravaged that country.

The Straits Times journalists politely (and indirectly) question Lee on important issues like whether paying ministers the world’s highest government salaries ($2.4 million for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, six times President Obama’s pay) might create a system of patronage and cronies, if an independent election commission and greater media freedom might raise the credibility of Singapore’s checks and balances, or if the pursuit of growth – GDP expanded by 15 percent last year – is worth the widening wealth gap between rich and poor.

Lee dismisses the idea that the current generation of Singaporeans would serve their country the way his did. With the educational advantages they’ve been bestowed, they can make more money in banking or real estate, or pack up and leave the country. This worldview is also why he rejects the suggestion that Singapore had an alternative to courting and depending on foreign companies for its economic development through manufacturing and now research and development.

For those few Singaporeans who have chosen to oppose the government and suffered for it, Lee has no apologies. “I stand by my record,” he says. When asked obliquely about the 1987 detentions without trial of a group including law society activists who had established a criminal legal aid scheme, Lee doesn’t mention the Marxist conspiracy that had been the justification then. He ‘put a stop’ to Catholics interfering in politics, he says. The recently published memoir of one of those detainees Beyond the Blue Gate by Teo Soh Lung is worth reading by those who wonder if Lee is right that younger Singaporeans don’t have the courage and determination he had.

Singapore’s one-party rule – exceeded only by North Korea, China and Cuba – is not because of what one Straits Times journalist calls the fairly pervasive perception of a climate of fear, the pro-government mainstream media and Lee’s recourse to defamation suits, the Minister Mentor says. There isn’t an opposition capable of forming a government “because the talent is not there.”

So what of the future? The PAP, says Lee, will lose power. Its leadership could split over issues of principle or personality, and its standards could drop suddenly. If it happens gradually, and Lee thinks the party’s hold is secure for the next 10 years, then an “opposition of quality” can emerge. This is important in his view, because today’s Singapore cannot survive what he calls a mediocre government. “Once you have weak people on top, the whole system goes down. It’s inevitable.”

Lee, while repeating that he is no longer in control of the government, praises Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and identifies Malaysian-born Health Minister Khaw Boon Wan as a next-generation leader of quality. Lee says he has been making fewer speeches because he wants the younger leaders to fill the gap. Since giving up the premiership, the cabinet meets over lunch without Lee before the formal meeting which Lee attends.

Singapore’s minister for Muslim affairs said after the book was published that he disagreed with Lee’s comments about Muslims not integrating into society because of their religious beliefs. Lee’s remarks should be seen as describing a “worst-case scenario,” the minister said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also responded publicly to his father’s comments on Muslims: “My own perspectives on how things are in Singapore based on my interaction with the Malay community, the mosque and religious leaders and the grassroots leaders, is not quite the same as MM’s,” he said, adding that he believed Muslim Singaporeans had made special efforts to integrate.

“You’ve made us all very depressed,” one of the Straits Times journalists volunteers a third of the way through the book. “No, I am not depressed,” Lee responds. “I am realistic.”

Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going. By Han Fook Kwang, Rachel Lin, Robin Chan, Zuraidah Ibrahim, Chua Mui Hoong, Lydia Lim, Ignatius Low. Straits Times Press, 458 pp, hardback, available in local bookstores.

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