Lee Kuan Yew: A life on a magnified scale

As Singapore’s closest neighbour, Malaysia shares an umbilical relationship with the city-state that Lee Kuan Yew turned into a global financial powerhouse that has earned its place in the first rank of nations.

Lee’s passing at 91 in the early hours of Monday marks the closing of an extraordinary life that impacted generations of people not only in his country, but literally across the world.

The story of Lee’s stellar achievements as the founding father of modern Singapore, as well as the progenitor of some rather bizarre controversies, surely makes for a very interesting telling.

Yet the tiny nation at the southern tip of the Malay peninsula faced a precarious future indeed when it was expelled from the federation in 1965 on the back of racial tensions and dangerous political wrangling. But what a legacy Lee has bequeathed.

In very many ways, Malaysians can look on the Singapore that Lee created as the country that it could have been, had the dice fallen differently in the early history of our modern nations.

Lee was ardent in his belief that the two territories belonged together and had tried strenuously to work out a compromise with Malaysia’s first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman when the rift became irreparable. But the combustible relations between the federal and Singapore governments – marked by race riots and vicious communal politicking – meant that there had to be a parting of ways to defuse an explosive situation.

A key difficulty was that the federal government’s affirmative action policy in favour of the economically disadvantaged Malay majority and other indigenous groups was in direct conflict with the meritocracy agenda espoused by Lee’s People’s Action Party, which had adopted the “Malaysian Malaysia” slogan as its battle cry, championing equality for all citizens.

Lee’s irrepressible advocacy of equal rights in all spheres of national life, combined with Singapore’s economic clout as a strategic hub for intercontinental trade was obviously too disruptive to the dominance of Umno, the lynchpin party in the federal government. Something had to give.

At the press conference where he announced the formal separation, Lee was too choked to speak, telling the media that "Every time we look back on this moment when we signed this agreement … it will be a moment of anguish... You see, the whole of my adult life ... (weeps) … I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories. You know that we, as a people are connected by geography, economics, by ties of kinship..."

Even five decades later, there is a ring of truth in these words that has not faded either with the passage of time or the different outcomes in our economic, demographic and political development.

While Singapore was dependent on Malaysia even for essentials like its water supply and market produce, the peninsula depended on Singapore’s efficient port to ship its voluminous output as the largest producer of rubber and tin to the world’s markets. But the two lands enriched each other in countless other ways – through commerce, culture, finance, labour and much more.

Undoubtedly, Singapore’s adverse birth had multiplied Lee’s resolve to demonstrate the triumph of entrepreneurship, discipline and perseverance over the slings and arrows of fortune.

Uncompromising in the pursuit of his dreams, Lee has been described variously as visionary, autocratic and even totalitarian. Without a doubt, he had dictated the direction of Singapore’s evolution in virtually all spheres of life – from its business reputation to the quality of its administration to the etiquette of its people, even down to the Singapore brand of romance and family planning.

No matter what the epitaphs, the results speak for themselves.

When Lee became Prime Minister in 1959, Singapore’s per capita income was about US$400 per annum. Today, it is around US$60,900 (RM223,180), weighing in as the sixth richest nation. Not bad at all for a resource-poor speck of real estate measuring about 716 sq km.

Much as that statistic says, it is just one of a long list of accomplishments that brims with superlatives. No doubt the credit for shaping the destiny of this island nation of 5.5 million belongs mostly to the indomitable Lee, who would have seen the 50thyear of its phenomenal growth story as an independent nation this August.

By 1985, Singapore had overtaken Rotterdam as the world’s busiest port, and is now third by volume of container shipment. This year, Singapore is slated to dethrone Switzerland as the world’s top centre for managing international funds. Among its global brands, Singapore Airlines stands out as a symbol of its fixation with competitiveness, as evidenced by its enviable record for winning awards, along with its much-decorated Changi Airport. In education, two of its universities are ranked among the top 100 in the world, with the National University of Singapore in a heady 24th place.

Lee brooked no dissent in executing his grand plan of transforming Singapore from a swampy, chaotic free port into the western-style urbanised utopia it is today. Looming large over the nation, he argued for a leadership style that can "convince the majority of people that tough reforms are worth taking, that decide a country’s development and progress," as a review of Lee’s philosophy notes.

This paternalistic approach was evident every step of the way during the three decades he spent as prime minister, giving up the post in 1990 as the then-longest serving premier in the world. For two more decades, he continued to hold sway over the nation, first as Senior Minister in his successor Goh Chok Tong’s cabinet, and then as “Minister Mentor” when his son Lee Hsien Loong took over in 2004. The senior Lee started to withdraw from public life when his wife Kwa Geok Choo died in October 2010.

Believing that the tiny nation had to instil discipline and a spirit of common purpose in its people, Singapore made it compulsory for all male youth to enrol for a two-year stint in National Service as the best way to quickly build up its defence force without burdening the country’s budget.

With land in short supply, its compulsory acquisition in the national interest came to be expected by landowners as the authorities rolled out their plans to make Singapore attractive, organised and efficient for both foreign investors and its own people.

To keep increasingly affluent Singaporeans from choking the streets with traffic, prohibitive taxes were imposed to vehicle ownership, making the nation the most expensive place in the world to own a car.

For every challenge from managing the pressure on housing to upskilling the workforce to instilling civic-consciousness, Lee’s no-nonsense stamp was evident in the absolutist solutions that were presented, like commandments, to the population.

There was a hiccup or two, however, in Lee’s clockwork universe.

Lee’s critics found out the hard way that dissent was not an option, but was to be silenced by punitive lawsuits, like the implacable oppositionist J. B. Jeyaretnam and a number of journalists, or hounded till they capitulate. Among those at the receiving end was a former ally and president of the republic, C. V. Devan Nair, whom Lee accused of alcoholism, which he denied, dying in self-exile in North America.

For this track record, Singapore has languished in the world ranking for press freedom, and has come under critical scrutiny on the human rights front. More unsettling perhaps is its reputation for being the unhappiest place on earth, according to a recent Gallup poll. Indeed, health professionals have flagged the dangerous levels of stress reported by Singaporeans, warning the nation of the threat this poses to the country’s future prospects.

Relations with Malaysia were frequently on edge, especially when Lee’s trademark acerbic style was matched by that of his equally hard-nosed counterpart Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia’s fourth and longest-serving prime minister of 22 years.

The negotiations between the two countries on issues like Malaysia’s water supply contracts with Singapore and the plans to develop Malaysia’s railway reserve land in Singapore reflected every bit of their personality differences as much as they mirrored their approaches to international relations.

While the Mahathir administration tried to swing back in its favour the concessionary rates at which the Tunku priced Johor’s water supply to Singapore, Lee’s team took an accountant’s view of the whole situation, measuring each micro-unit in the equation. As a result, the mood between the neighbours was often ugly.

In typical Singapore fashion, the nation was to leverage on its vulnerability in water supply to invest in water treatment and conservation technology. Today, this is an export industry for the resilient nation, spurred no doubt by the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize.

Oddly, perhaps, Lee and Dr Mahathir shared some common ideas about governance in Third World countries, civic rights and a disdain for the vaunted personal freedoms cherished by western democracies. While in office, at least, they were both unabashed about suppressing democratic rights in the name of the common good, calling on the concept of “Asian values” in defence of their common ‘father knows best’ approach.

Like Dr Mahathir, Lee relished dispensing advice to western audiences on how to run their societies, and was certainly sought after for his views on global affairs, development and sundry challenges of the day.

When Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawai took over from Dr Mahathir as prime minister, the thaw in bilateral ties was evident almost immediately as Abdullah and Goh started on a new page over a bit of golf diplomacy. Under Abdullah’s watch, the idea of a southern development corridor that would absorb land-hungry Singapore’s pent-up demand for expansion and provide a springboard for the next stage of Malaysia’s economic growth gained formal shape with the launching of Iskandar Malaysia. Also emergent was the idea of a high speed rail link between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur as a key step towards the integration of the two economies.

These developments resonate with Lee’s emotional words at the announcement of Singapore’s exit from Malaysia, and could bring closure to the untimely blow that cut its two peoples apart in 1965.

As Singapore, Malaysia and the world bid farewell to a giant among world leaders, it is left to the next generation to draw its lessons from the life that he lived on a magnified scale. – March 24, 2015.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.