It seems almost like Singapore has come to a standstill with the passing of the Nation’s very first Prime Minister. Many Singaporeans are still processing Lee Kwan Yew’s (LKY’s) death, reflecting on who he was and what he did for our country. Many are wondering, “What next?”
This is a watershed in the political climate of Singapore, as LKY has long championed a specific and rather controversial way of running the country. LKY has become iconic to the point that his name has become to many, synonymous with the idea of a modern and developed Singapore. However, I think the control of media in Singapore has a very large part to play in the disproportionate extent to which he looms in our minds and our conversations, regardless of how we view him, whether or not we see him as a good, bad or merely mediocre leader.
Let’s not kid ourselves, LKY’s heavy-handed and authoritarian rule doesn’t come close to that of Kim Jong-il, Hugo Chavez or many other despots, clearly he was a lot smarter than most of them and did enough to maintain international legitimacy and garner the respect of many people from all walks of life, unlike those other despots who have undeniably plundered their own countries to the ground.
However, and this is a big ‘however,’ there are some striking parallels in terms of how they have all influenced the thinking of their nations’ people through media: ever since LKY came into power, mainstream media became very tightly controlled and has been reduced to little more than the PAP government’s mouthpiece. It very obviously remains so, even up till now; this culture of repression and indoctrination has had extensive repercussions on not just Singapore’s mainstream press and media, but also on the country’s local universities, schools and to a lesser but still critical extent, the internet. There is significant self-censorship amongst academics and among Singaporeans on social media. There is plenty of intellectual dishonesty going around, both amongst people for LKY and to a more limited extent, amongst those against him. LKY did an excellent job of silencing dissent and breeding a spirit of intellectual laziness among the masses while he held the reins, his successors have well-continued this trend.
The biggest contradiction is that Singapore is a first world country and also a ‘democracy,’ but in terms of political discourse and maturity, this is so very far from the case, as is evidenced by the shaming of people who would speak negatively of LKY in his passing. Much of the negative ‘press,’ however has come about as a response to the onslaught of blind adulation and gushing sentimentality that we the ‘nay-sayers’ have had to deal with on a continual basis whether on social media or on mainstream news sources. Yes, I don’t mind admitting that some of us ‘nay-sayers’ have not been entirely faultless: The Real Singapore has had some issues with journalistic quality and integrity and has become less credible in the eyes of many Singaporeans for understandable reasons. However, that does not change the fact that there are very many stark realities reminding us that LKY’s legacy was not all good or even mostly good. Even those amongst us who have been more nuanced and fair-handed in our assessment of LKY and his legacy have been deemed ‘inappropriate’ and ‘insensitive’ for pointing this out at this time.
However I think at a rare time of reflection and introspection like this in Singapore, it is even more important that the truth is spoken and that inconvenient truths are not glossed over or easily dismissed: the economic prosperity that this country has enjoyed has been turning on it’s own head for years as the climate of repression and blind pursuit of material success are poor foundations on which to build a nation. As Singaporeans, no matter how divided we are about LKY, let us at least be united in acknowledging real and pressing issues. If Singapore is to progress as a nation and weather the storms ahead, we need to boldly face the truth and deal with it instead being like the proverbial ostrich, who stuck its head in the sand.
Now we have serious problems of a huge Gini coefficient, overcrowding, ironically coupled with the lowest birth rate in the world, unaffordable cost of living (most expensive city in the world for two years running), a weak business class in Singapore, an economy that is overly dependent on foreign capital and foreign labor, almost no checks and balances in political and judicial laws, an entire class of leadership that seems to value money much more than service to their nation and finally (the icing on the cake), a whole host of Singaporeans who have been sold on the idea that you need to ‘buy’ talent in order to run a country.
That’s not to say that Singapore isn’t still a really nice place to live: it has lovely tree-lined streets and avenues, is considered relatively ‘safe’ compared to most countries, has good infrastructure and mostly affordable health-care, delicious and cheap meals at food-courts, an international award-winning airport with 3 going on 4 terminals, fresh-air, striking bureaucratic efficiency, shining malls and clean streets and low-corruption etc. Singapore has really done well for itself. As a Singaporean who has been living abroad for the last 5 years, I will be the first person to say that Singapore is really quite a comfortable and easy place to live in if you can afford it, or if you are a beneficiary of the system, and/ or if you’re willing and able to shut your eyes to real issues of social-justice and human-rights that exist in our country.
Let our nation weep and grieve for her first (and longest-reigning) PM’s passing, but hopefully we will be able to recognize that Singapore, for good or for bad, was not built solely on LKY’s back but also on the tired and bent backs of the unsung heroes, like that wizened old hunched-back Aunty that’s is still clearing plates at the Ion food court in Orchard Road today or that extremely underpaid and overworked and sleep-deprived Bangladeshi worker who helped to build your HDB flat.