Lee Kuan Yew’s death has inevitably polarised Singapore. One camp eulogises him as the founder of modern Singapore; this group dominates the airwaves and the papers, singing his praises as long and loud as they can. Another camp points to his history of authoritarianism and Machiavellian approach to handling dissent, and criticises Lee across the Internet. The choice of media points not just to a generation divide, but an ideological split between hierarchical/conformist and egalitarian/liberal.
The fact of the matter is that Lee is neither the father of the nation nor an implacable authoritarian. He is both. The democratically-elected head of government who wielded the powers of an absolute monarch to build a country. The Asian Machiavelli who hammered his opponents and systematically disadvantaged the political opposition to usher in a brighter world. The hatchet man with virtually no tolerance for dissent or corruption, opposition or inefficiency, who built one of the most stable and prosperous states in the world. The political system he built for Singapore is fairly unique by Western standards, at once delivering prosperity while clamping down on Western notions of human rights. But it is not uniquely Singaporean: it is uniquely Lee Kuan Yew.
First, some definitions. A leader is a person who takes charge of a group, gives it direction and ensures execution of tasks. A government is the organisation that sets policy direction and is the sovereign of a country. A state is the body that supports the government through executing policy and ensuring the smooth delivery of essential goods and services.
Lee’s crowning achievement is the subordination of the government and the state to his will. By concentrating power in the hands of a very small group of individuals, with himself as the primus, Lee had the power to rapidly transform the island to match his will. By eliminating, deterring and hindering opposition to his rule, Lee removed all the obstacles in his path. Even after formally stepping down from affairs of state, the government continued this approach, steadily concentrating power in its hands and working through the organs of state to tamp down on opposition and continue Lee’s vision of Singapore.
This method of governance was no doubt highly effective. It would have been very difficult for Lee to accomplish what he did had he felt himself restrained by the niceties, procedures, contentiousness and debates that define the Western model of government.
Lee’s government reminds me of a modernised Roman dictator. A Roman dictator was an extraordinary magistrate, appointed to office, charged by the Senate to fulfil a mandate, and granted supreme authority for that purpose. As the supreme leader he was not legally liable for his actions, both during his six-month term of office and after. Lee was elected to power by the people, driven by a mandate to gain independence and turn Singapore into a viable country, then seized and exercised absolute authority over the organs of state to achieve his goals.
Roman dictators were, by definition, extraordinary people who embodied a combination of outstanding competence and exceptional civic virtue. Usually dictators were appointed to resolve a national emergency, such as foreign invasion or internal rebellion, and their terms usually lasted no longer than a year. Cincinnatus was the model dictator. He was called to the office to put down a rebellion; after a mere 15 days he defeated the rebels and resigned. He was again nominated as dictator to defeat a conspiracy against the Roman Republic; the day after the chief conspirator was killed, Cincinnatus resigned.
Our system still seeks people of outstanding competence and virtue, and at the highest levels entrusts them with absolute power. But unlike the Romans there are no term limits, and unlike modern Republics no built-in checks and balances.
Singapore’s system is also fragile: it assumes that only the most patriotic and qualified individuals will take office. While the People’s Action Party certainly does its best to recruit Singapore’s finest, the fact remains that Singapore’s government is set up to support supremely capable leaders like Lee Kuan Yew — and there will not be another Lee Kuan Yew.
When it comes to matters of government and policy, one cannot assume that the government will be perpetually benevolent. If anything, one to ask what will happen if one’s worst enemies are able to take power. When it comes to matters of state, a country cannot simply optimise a system to concentrate power in the hands of the benevolent sovereign; it must also be able to deny power to the malicious ruler.
The PAP’s model of government benefits a certain kind of person. He is someone who values prosperity and stability, who embodies traditional values of respect for the authorities and trust in the sovereign, who seeks a comfortable job and a comfortable standard of living, who does not care about policies beyond what affects him, and is interested in affairs of state only insofar as it concerns him and his loved ones, and will always support the establishment insofar as the establishment continues to support his lifestyle.
I am not that kind of person. And today, more and more people are not that kind of person. These are the artists, the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the poets, the directors, the creators, the kind of people who cannot live any other way but theirs. And currently, the system tolerates people like these at best; at worst, the state can always call upon the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the media, and high-powered law firms.
Singapore calls itself a Republic. That means power resides in the will of the people, and the people elect leaders to represent their will. Should the leaders fail, the people have every power to take it back. In Singapore, all power rests in the hands of a government that attains and retains legitimacy through the ballot box, and should a future government abuse its power there is nothing to stop it.
Lee Kuan Yew is dead. We cannot hold out for his spiritual successor and we cannot assume we will forever be blessed with leaders who are just as capable and patriotic. Systems outlive people, and Singapore needs to move away from a system predicated on being fortunate enough to always pick the right kind of people. We need to create a system that will also prevent the abuse of power and create a space where citizens who do not agree with the government of the day can continue to live as legitimate citizens without fear of a knock on their doors at midnight.
This should the final legacy of Lee Kuan Yew: the creation of a system and a country that no longer needs a man like him.