The passing of Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew or Harry Lee, today marks an end to an era in ASEAN when nations were built on the remains of white colonialism. In 2015 these nations with the exception of Timor Leste have been built. What is needed is to strengthen these nations, preferably in a democratic orientation. Timor Leste still needs a lot of assistance economically and in its political institutions but is on the right way.
It is inaccurate to say that Singapore was a creation of Mr Lee. It was a creation of the imperialist British, just like its neighbour Malaysia. Mr Harry Lee, Cambridge educated barrister with a law double honours, eventually became the island’s first Prime Minister when it achieved self government in Britain’s Commonwealth in 1959. But Singapore was too small to be a viable nation state, and so had to join a Federated Malaysia. The new Malaysian state had been born with racial questions and tensions. How will Singapore’s predominantly Straits Chinese live with a Malaysia whose survival will be guaranteed by granting the Malays ascendancy?
The answer would tearfully come in 1965 when the Tunku and his Parliament in Kuala Lumpur voted to expel Singapore from the Federation. As a tearful Lee would say later on, this is the only case where independence was forced on a people who were unwilling to have it.
Singapore had to go on as an independent state without a hinterland. This whole process had to be skillfully and diplomatically navigated by Lee’s government since Malaysian troops were still in Singapore and Singapore had no army. Lee could not afford to warmonger and a modus vivendi had to be sought with Malaysia through a series of agreements. This modus was also for Malaysia’s benefit since both nations needed to ensure racial harmony or risk fragmentation. Singapore was one big British military base and while for a time the British provided the security umbrella, they eventually withdrew in 1969. Singapore had to build an armed forces from scratch and for this sought Israeli expertise. Singapore faced threats from Indonesia and Malaysia. Israeli involvement did not amuse Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.
Singapore therefore was born in a siege mentality. It had to prove it was viable to be a nation which meant that it had to ensure racial harmony. And there would be no better man for this than Harry Lee. Furthermore Mr Lee also had to ensure class harmony and being pragmatic enough, he used socialist approaches to do so. Lee’s Peoples Action Party at the start allied with the Marxists but after gaining power in parliament, jailed them. Since the new independent state had to be viable, there had to be curbs on free speech and association.
PAP has ruled Singapore since 1959. It was pragmatically socialist with a meritocratic ideology. This socialism we can say was built on meritocracy. But rather ironically, while it assumes everyone is equal, this creates a new system of classes and creates a new inequality. Lee’s remarks about the Filipino elite should be contextualized in Lee’s meritocratic pragmatism in a Confucian context. The Filipino elite is there only on pretended privilege and should be kicked out but for Lee this is via meritocratic processes.
Nonetheless, Lee’s ideology is what built Singapore and what made Singapore viable as an OECD economy. It is a nation that adheres to rule of law, transparent and corruption free. But the question of Singapore’s viability as a nation state once again comes up to fore, with a recent race riot that shocked me (a frequent visitor to the city state) and many Singaporeans. Other factors that are very worrisome is decreasing competitiveness and a growing anti immigrant sentiment. Younger Singaporeans, many of whom have studied or worked in liberal democracies, are demanding more latitude for freedoms the liberal West takes for granted. There are signs that BG Lee’s (Harry Lee’s son) government has loosened up with some of the restrictions but more freedom of the press remains to be seen.
With Lee’s passing, Singapore will be on the way to be a mature nation. The siege mentality will be of historical interest and PAP which has benefited from the workings of a responsible Westminister form of government will have to choose which from the Liberal democratic tradition is compatible with Singaporean society.
Filipinos who admire Lee have reasons to do so. Many of them are from the affluent middle and upper classes but if they want a Philippines run by someone like Harry Lee, a few inconvenient freedoms have to be dispensed with for the moment. Some redistribution is needed and remember this has socialist flavour. The State has to decide if they can buy cars or if they merit a condominium unit. Everyone has to study in a state school and all have a chance in doing so. However not everyone can merit to attend university. Higher education should be merited. Academic freedom is presumed to be limited by the state’s priorities. I do know this for a fact from my Singaporean colleagues. Private schools are complementary and are strictly regulated by the State in order to maintain standards and professionalism. No CHED style deregulation here! But the trade off is attractive, a National University that is world class with fast Internet connection everywhere, a working and dependable MRT, the most modern military in ASEAN and litter free streets. And best of all, there is practically no petty crime. Big crimes are dealt with harshly always in accordance with Singapore law. Singapore despite a reputation with the liberal West as a “repressive” state is no police state. Nobody gets extrajudicially punished or killed in Singapore. Singapore will never be able to accept disciplinarian local executives idolized by the PH urban middle classes unless they act according to the law!
The question is are they willing to trade their pretended privileges for what Mr Lee’s meritocracy requires?
I agree with Mr Lee, discipline is necessary especially for a small town. When that town becomes a nation, it is still the same fact!