Lee’s Legacy: the challenge of interpretation

With tribute pouring in from all across the globe, there is no doubting the greatness of the late Mr Lee. Reading the array of obituaries, tributes, and the occasional inappropriate gloating rant, however, I can’t help but feel both optimism and dread. It seems that the squabbling over the inheritance of the deceased has begun. The death of a lesser magnate might have prompted disputes over his estate, but the legacy that Mr Lee leaves behind, that is so much in doubt, is more powerful than mere wealth: the task we have before us it is the disposition not of lucre but of the symbolic power of his name and the values he championed.

In the days to come, I’m pretty sure that just about everyone is going to suggest that we ought to do this or that because it’s what Lee would have wanted, or because it’s in line with the values he stood for, and so on and so forth. Follow the law because Lee believed in the rule of law. Work hard because Lee believed in diligence. Don’t question the government he worked so hard to build. Maintain Confucian values. The heteronormative nuclear family is the basic unit of society. The Lee Kuan Yew name is going to be the next Raffles brand: attached to everything as a promise of quality. Overwhelmed by emotion and sentiment (in a a very un-LKY-way), Singaporeans will no doubt be ready to shed tears and spend money on anything branded as a tribute or memorial to the great man, and I will be very surprised if the late Mr Lee does not feature very prominently in the upcoming General Elections. Just because he’s dead doesn’t mean he’s stopped winning votes for the PAP, after all.

I mean no disrespect. Quite the opposite. Can there be greater disrespect than using the name of a dead man to get people to do things that you wanted them to do anyway? We need to think very carefully about what sort of values and causes we will accept as worthy and legitimate claimants to Lee’s legacy, whose invocation of his name we will consider legitimate; we also need to have the courage and discretion to point out those instances where these invocations are either not legitimate or not relevant. Some cherry-picking is also in order: Mr Lee was a complicated and driven man (who first championed, and then some would say betrayed, the trade unionists) who led a long life, and we have to decide which  of his examples and his deeds are worth emulating and preserving, and which need to be laid to rest in the mausoleum of history. I hope that Singapore and her people will continue to preserve and propagate the very best of Mr Lee’s ideals and examples, but I fear that too many of his flaws will be glossed-over in the lionisation process that has already begun, and that his name will be used to justify attitudes and actions against the public interest.

My Fears


I suspect that the late Mr Lee’s ideas about equality differed quite greatly from our post-2008, post-Occupy ideas. These days, when we speak of equality, we’re talking about income redistribution on much grander scale: many now advocate taxing the rich and reducing the privileges of wealth as a means of flattening the curve. The word “elite” is pejorative in Singapore, carrying much stronger connotations of arrogance, greed, selfishness, and detachment from ‘real life’, than connotations of competence or accomplishment, and yet I don’t think Mr Lee would ever have considered elitism a bad thing. He promoted the idea of Singaporeans as ‘human resources’, selling our labour to wealthy multinationals in order to attract investment and infrastructure-development. I doubt he would have lost much sleep over the idea that the foreign CEOs and stakeholders in the firms profiting from Singapore’s labour earned disproportionately more than the people of Singapore did: as long as the Singaporean labourer was employed and trained, where previously he had been unemployed and uneducated, Lee’s mission was done. Social mobility was accomplished on a scale from destitute to stable, not across the vast spectrum of class markers we see now.

When the late Mr Lee spoke of equality, I think he was referring to equality on a grander, social scale: he wanted Singaporeans to enjoy the same control over their own destiny that the sovereign colonial nations did, he wanted Singaporeans to enjoy equal standards of safety and care. The equal rights that mattered the most to him at the time were of race, extraction, and ethnicity: the Singaporean, of any extraction, should be able to hold their heads up just as high as a Briton or American. He was not beyond his own form of racial prejudice, having made such statements as “had the mix in Singapore been different, had it been 75% Indians, 15% Malays and the rest Chinese, it (the Singaporean paradigm) would not have worked”, and frequently advising women to temper their ambitions with the need to embrace their ‘traditional role’ as “mothers, the creators and protectors of the next generation”.

These days, Singapore’s sovereign status is firmer (although I would hesitate to call it ironclad). The Singaporean today, who has grown up without the colonial leash, has little conception of how discrimination would have stung his forebears. When he speaks of equality, he is speaking of equal access not just to the basic social goods of security and of fairness, but also of equal opportunity, social mobility, and access to wealth and the fruits of wealth. He no longer considers himself oppressed by colonial masters or foreign overlords: he may instead regard himself as being exploited by his own countrymen, when entrenched wealth and systemic unfairness prevents access to a better life for those unable to pay their way to the top. The current awareness in society of how wealth determines our access to healthcare and education, and how this access in the long-run affects opportunity and social mobility, is proof of that. Lee Kuan Yew wanted Singapore to control its own destiny; today, Singaporeans are still struggling to completely master their own fate, although their foes are not colonialists but landlords and financiers. They are kept down not by colonial apartheid but by the vast disparity of wealth, by rising costs of living, and of the fear that they will remain wage-slaves, ever dependent upon their paymasters, unable to properly own the property they lease from the government at a ruinous rate or to retire in peace.

The Singaporean also perceives a broader spectrum of prejudice against which he struggles. Even if he or she is not the subject of a colonial power, discrimination may still dog them due to their race, gender, or some other component of their fundamental identity. The syncretisation of Chinese values and language with the broader system of public administration and national values may have led to the rise of a “Chinese privilege”, compounded by the influx of newly-moneyed émigrés from mainland China: even ceremonial discrimination, such as the injunction against the playing of music during Thaipusam without any corresponding ban on similar ‘cultural disturbances’, such as the lion-dance performances that proliferate around the Lunar New Year, may serve as tinder for the fires of future resentment. A new conservatism promoted by the various religious communities in the face of secular attitudes may lead to the ossification of attitudes regarding the institution of the family: I fear that even in the face of changing socioeconomic realities, we may remain too dogmatically-attached to definitions of family, gender, and relationships that foster needless suffering.

When we remember Mr Lee as a champion for equality, we also need to remember that the arenas in which the battle for equality is fought can change, and that on one day we may find ourselves oppressed underdogs, when on the next we find ourselves the architects of the oppression of others.


Like many celebrities, Mr Lee had a complicated relationship with the media. He delivered command performances on television and over the radio. He wielded the sharp edge of the press against his opponents and blunted it when he found it turned against him. He declared himself “not attracted to novels”, and built an image of himself as a hard-headed pragmatist, a man of action rather than contemplation — which I cannot help but wonder was pure showmanship rather than sincere. Certainly, his lifelong passion for his wife and his relentless self-sacrifice in his complete sublimation of himself into his public role do not seem representative of an unsentimental man.

Nonetheless, under Mr Lee’s reign, the media and the arts seem to have been delegated the role of social engineering tool and the circuses of panem et circenses. At complete odds with the pro-democracy stance of his opposition days, once in power, the late Mr Lee stifled political dissent. The only edifice more impressive than the institutions Singapore uses to control media and art is the panopticon that every Singaporean builds for themselves between their ears: the state doesn’t need to hire secret police (even though it does), because it has a volunteer informer lurking behind the eyes of every Singaporean. We don’t arrest errant thinkers these days because we’ve gotten far too good at arresting errant thoughts. This has led to a state I consider regrettable, and while I am in no position to argue with the late Mr Lee of the past whether or not such measures were necessary then, I can certainly see no argument as to why they should be necessary now.

Now more than ever, we need boldness in Singaporeans. We need entrepreneurs, researchers, and I would argue most of all we need public thinkers, intellectuals practicing their craft in the public eye without fear of recrimination or destitution at the hands of a publicly-funded defamation-suit. We need to be much, much less parochial in our mindset and our media, and Singaporeans need to acclimatised to the harshness of human opinion. Attempts to shove the arts community into a crowd-sourced straitjacket in the form of MDA’s proposed self-regulatory framework, and other such attempts to stifle and stymie expression, have no place in a modern and developed society. Complaints about the ‘vocal minority’ of online pundits and barely-literate forumites who dogmatically reject everything PAP are missing the point: people are flocking to express their views under the deceptively-porous umbrella of Internet anonymity because nobody wants to be the tall poppy that gets cut down.

When no reasonable options remain for expressing public sentiment, then the only people expressing themselves in public are going to be unreasonable. The concern that if we liberalise media controls we’ll get an infestation of Roy Ngerngs and Chee Soon Juans is groundless. When you have to be crazy to challenge the government apparatus, then by default all challengers will at least appear pretty nutty.

When we remember the late Mr Lee’s legacy, I fear that his example in stifling opposition and dissent will become powerful tools in the hands of a reactionary establishment.


The late Mr Lee had an uncanny knack for getting his way: he was famously charismatic, a powerful persuader, and an even more formidable political strategist. Perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately, he used those gifts to forge a hierarchical system that would bestow legitimacy and authority upon his less-persuasive cadres, enabling them to wield their intellect through the apparatus of the government even if they lacked the personal gravitas to wield it in person. While this may have been necessary in the chaos of the early years of our independence to beat a truculent, barely-educated population into line, I’m not sure that the continuation of this system is in the public interest. The government of Singapore is effective and efficient in the way that a steam locomotive is effective and efficient: when the rails are laid down, and the people at the front build up a good head full of steam, we can go places. But locomotives are hardly known for their agility and their ability to turn tight corners, and if we are to continue to be able to make good policies in an age of rapid change, we will need to emphasise adroitness, not just on a political level but a national one.

I suspect we need to become simultaneously more and less reliant on our government to be able to meet this new demand for quickness and agility. My opinion on how better retirement sufficiency and healthcare would make people more independent and outgoing are already known, and I won’t repeat myself here; suffice to say that I think people should be able to rely on their governments to provide them a minimal standard of living not dependent on their income.

We should also consider becoming less reliant on authority in general. Civil society has picked up in the last decade or so, with VWOs and NGOs spearheading important initiatives like campaigning for legislation protecting the rights of foreign domestic workers. Crowdsourcing and social media have provided fantastic options for civil society to organise itself free of government intervention, and these initiatives have been largely positive (I remember some folks organising themselves to distribute N95 masks to foreign workers during the last major haze affair; bravo Singapore!). Vileness in the form of Lawrence-Khong-flavoured hypocrisy and intolerance remains, for now, a lesser concern, with equality-centred NGOs organising themselves in a constructive and civil way.

The late Mr Lee was however not such a big fan of ‘people power’, especially once he was no longer the underdog but the authority. He dismantled the power of the trade unions when he fought the communists, and I don’t know if today’s NTUC is equal to the task of representing the disaffected and the exploited, especially when historically membership in the NTUC and PAP upper echelons has been fluid and often co-extant. Does Lim Swee Say, a Cabinet Minister and PAP MP, and also Secretary of the NTUC, not feel any conflict of interest? Hmm. The strikes and disturbances organised by workers in the transport sector seem to indicate that Singapore’s vaunted tripartite government-union-employer structure does have cracks, especially when it can be very hard, even on a clear day, to see the horizon separating government from union from employer.

I think a more active civil society is all to the good, but I don’t know if the government is ready to accept members of the public as equals instead of supplicants. So far the post-2011 General Election record has been largely positive: cheaper housing, better healthcare access and retirement sufficiency, curbs on immigration and an attempt to wean Singaporeans off the sweet teat of cheap foreign labour. Let’s see if they can hold the course. I fear that Mr Lee’s legacy of trade-union-crushing and general intolerance of opposition and alternative opinions may be used to reinforce our current inflexible and conservative nature, but on most fronts, I’ve become cautiously optimistic over the last five years or so.

My Hopes


The late Mr Lee was a firm believer in the power of markets and the importance of industry. What his government couldn’t do at the outset, he relied upon the power of foreign investment and multinational trade to do for him, and during our most dynamic and formative years, the training of a first world workforce was in the hands of foreign partners. While this enabled us to grow explosively when the money came rolling in, I wonder if it didn’t also stunt our growth in some areas. While our population is now much more highly-educated, we are still being criticised for lacking drive and entrepreneurship, and many people would rather invest in acquiring non-productive assets (fixed deposits, insurance, land and real estate) than in developing businesses that actually yield meaningful consumption and which create jobs. Anecdotes from former students (who are now in university) suggest that even students of Business at the local universities would much rather clinch high-paying jobs at established firms than start their own, and Singaporeans seem to aspire to be irreplaceable employees rather than energetic bosses.

Singaporeans don’t like starting businesses. They don’t like working overseas. They don’t like learning new languages, or any languages at all — I’ve met my share of supposedly ‘bilingual’ Singaporeans who think two halves are as good as two wholes, and who would not be recognised as native speakers of either of their professed tongues! We resent being asked to move out of our comfort zones — to be asked to do so is to be condescending and snobbish, is to convey a sense of self-righteousness and superiority. We complain about other people coming over to steal our jobs but are too fearful to consider going overseas and taking the jobs of others.

But the late Mr Lee would never have settled for faintheartedness. He even referred to the work of government as “entrepreneurship on a national scale”. There is a need for investment. There is an unavoidable and real risk. There is a necessity to venture, to explore the unfamiliar, to venture outside the comfort zone. I think we’re a bit too reliant on the government to take those risks and cushion those blows for us, and that doesn’t bode well for the future.

As follows my last point on inflexibility, we can’t really expect the government to continue exploring and opening up every possible pathway for us. When parents see their children suffering from a lack of opportunity, they complain that the education system isn’t providing enough pathways: how many of them would take employers to task for the same problem? How many of them would put their money where their mouths are and start ventures with and for their children, and hire the under-utilised children of others?

The metaphor of the iron rice bowl (referring to a job that provides security beyond question) has become so entrenched that we forget that it is a metaphor. It is an imaginary construct, and might as well be a metaphor for the impossible. Parents who wish for their children to enjoy iron rice bowls might as well consider setting up unicorn farms for them where they can work.

The only way to ensure that people remain employed is to give them the wherewithal and the motivation to employ themselves and others. The market can meet the needs of the people in a manner much more quickly and precisely than the government can. The late Mr Lee is widely-regarded as a genius for his foresight in exploiting the surge of globalisation that enabled Singapore to tap on talent and funds from all around the world; I hope that we remember this moving forward, that the late Mr Lee never thought himself too good to seek for help overseas and look for overseas opportunities for Singaporean expansion. He never claimed to be able to do anything, and Singapore’s modern success have more to do with his adeptness in making the dream and vision of a prosperous Singapore an international vision, desired by the British, the Americans, and in later years the regional powers of Asia, rather than spinning gold out of loud patriotism and straw.

I hope we will leave behind some of our parochial thinking, our fearfulness, and our provincialism moving forward. Singapore provides its people with abundant opportunities to learn the skills needed to make their mark both locally and abroad, and many of our current problems stem from our fear of failure and the unforgiving lack of social support for those who do, which prevent us from making full use of those opportunities. If the government, as

I have mentioned above, begins to extend the social safety net to provide a buffer for potential adventurers, then we owe it to ourselves to stop thinking of Singapore as being vulnerable to globalisation, and start considering it as an ideal launchpad for exploiting it.


The late Mr Lee was fond of using this term, both to identify its abundance and sufficiency in himself and his vision, and to find failure in those who didn’t meet his standard of boldness. Ironically, the late Mr Lee’s boldness seems to have dampened that of others, like the banyan tree that provides generous shade but prevents the sprouting of anything green under its leaves. While his passing should be mourned, perhaps this 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence should also be a milestone, especially for the generations of young Singaporeans who have grown up under the shadow of the majestic boughs Lee tended.

While I respected the late Mr Lee greatly, it is undeniable that part of his legacy involves not merely admiration, but outright fear. He was frequently described, especially by the foreign press, as a Machiavellian figure content to rule by fear if not love, and he himself did much to foster that opinion, decrying the need for public support and consulting public opinion, and once insisting that “polling as a method of government… shows a certain weakness of mind”. And perhaps such attitudes were appropriate to the time, when political rallies involved violence and cudgels as much as rhetoric. But are they still relevant?

As the Old Guard passes, so should the politics of hatchet and knuckle-dusters give way to a more polite and more tolerant form of discourse, and a more participative attitude towards civil society. As affluence grows and our permissible margins of difference grow, so should our tolerance of alternative opinions, attitudes, and lifestyles.

I hope that, as the ominous shadow of smear-politicking and libel-suits gives way to the nourishing shade of light-touch oversight and greater tolerance for difference, my generation of Singaporeans will discover our own brand of gumption. I hope we remember the late Mr Lee as much as a destroyer of obsolete and unjust institutions as a builder of better ones, and that we will not hesitate to stand by our own beliefs the way he did. To many in Singapore adopting an adversarial attitude is a form of taboo, asking questioning a shibboleth that separates the ‘true’ Singaporean from some upstart banana foreigner-loving type. My own experience in the civil service suggests that loyalty and compliance are weighted too heavily as compared to innovation and creativity: I hope that this gives way to a greater respect for autonomy and a greater respect for the independently-minded among us.


Singapore is our own home too. No matter how much noise we make and no matter what kind of radical changes we propose, the fact that we’re planting our feet on Singapore soil and pushing for change instead of merely relocating suggests that we feel deeply a stake in the future of the nation and wish to contribute. Until better channels exist for feedback and for reform, let us not be too harsh on dissidents and revolutionaries, who provide the impetus for change and ultimately the first push we need to make lasting and meaningful progress. With a more well-educated population, the marketplace of ideas has fertile ground for new schools of thought to emerge: we need to start eschewing the heavy hand of banning discourse and the use of libel-suit politics, in favour of the light hand of persuasion, public engagement. Instead of attempting to regulate the Internet, old-timers like Yaacob Ibrahim would be much better spent building a new agora rather than trying to promote the new Panopticon of a code of conduct.

Reform and growth always require adjustment and discomfort, and as rapidly as Singapore grows, that discomfort has to become a fact of life. We must become inured to it, resilient to the demands that tolerance places on us. We must not let the sacred cows of yesteryear become the old skins in which we distil the new wine of tomorrow: just as demolition is an essential part of continued redevelopment of land, so is iconoclasm an essential part of continued political growth, as sacred cows make their way to the sacrificial altar of progress. When CPF, when HDB, when racial politics grow obsolete, when language-learning becomes decoupled from ethnicity and ethnicity becomes decoupled from paternity, these things can and should be questioned in public without fear of reprisal.

I think a great step forward in aid of reform would be some kind of Freedom of Information Act. Too much about our political systems and processes, as well as government administration, is opaque and inaccessible to the layman. We don’t know whether our political representatives have alternative income streams which might represent conflicts of interest; we don’t know how electoral boundaries are drawn, we don’t know how it comes to be that the relatives and associates of highly-placed officials win critical appointments, and so on. Professor Tommy Koh has been advocating for a Singaporean ombudsman for some time: that’s a great idea too, a public official whose sole duty is oversight and incorruptibility. The late Mr Lee made much of the cleanliness of his government, but surely the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it: what’s the point of a claim of incorruptibility if the means of testing that are not available?

I hope that information becomes more available, and discourse becomes less heavily-stigmatised; I hope for a milder tenor for local politics and a step back from mud-slinging and smears; I hope for a society that is more tolerant of reformist pressure and more forward-looking in its reform plans.

I wrote all this and am making it all public because I think that the general public will ultimately become arbiters and executors of the late Mr Lee’s legacy and estate, in the sense of how we allow his name and his prestige to be used.

We must remember that the late Mr Lee’s greatest gift to Singapore is not a policy nor even a set of principles, but rather the solid foundation of a well-developed society we enjoy today. To build a dogma of his policies and principles (prejudices and all), instead of continuing his life’s work of building a better, more equal, more tolerant Singapore, would be to honour his memory but squander his legacy.

No father who plants trees for his children would want those children to freeze for want of firewood when those trees become too precious to cut down. So it is with the legacy of the late, great Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The online community is now seething with everyone’s opinions on how best to remember the late Mr Lee: “keep your head down and carry on” seems to be the consensus, which is disappointing.

If the late Mr Lee would never have lightly borne injustice, if he would never have kept his head down, if he would never have rested complacent on his laurels, if he would never have allowed his beloved Singapore to be satisfied with adequacy when perfection and abundance where within reach… then how can we call ourselves worthy successors, if we do not express the same indomitability, energy, and fearlessness? Our national anthem isn’t “Just maintain, Singapore”, but “Onwards!”

In the great man’s memory, keep fighting!