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Lee Kuan Yew:Lessons from a Strongman

2015/3/24 — 21:54

資料圖片:李光耀 @ Facebook

資料圖片:李光耀 @ Facebook

After it was pronounced that Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, passed away on March 23 at the age of 91, Lee’s son and current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated in a televised address: “To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”

The development of the city-state over the last fifty years was so entwined with the man himself that one could hardly be discussed without mentioning the other. The reason for this is because Lee Kuan Yew created Singapore after his own image. Adamant that American-style democracy would not work in Asian nations, Lee promoted “Asian values” that emphasised economic achievement and social stability over constitutional freedoms – such as freedom of assembly, speech, and the press – that are generally part and parcel of Western democracies.

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Lee once stated that the phrase “law and order” had it backwards; order should come before the law. So on one hand, Lee and his People’s Action Party (PAP) – synonymous with the Singaporean government as it has won every election since 1959 – kept the streets clean and safe, and made Singapore a transparent, competitive, and attractive place to do business.

Yet on the other, Lee’s overbearing reach would sometimes lead to excessively paternalistic laws such as regulating the sale of chewing gum, doling out harsh corporal punishments for menial crimes (such as caning for spraying graffiti), and refusing to legalize homosexual acts despite his personal acceptance of homosexuality.

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He saved the harshest punishments for his political opponents. Even before Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, Lee and his government had used the Internal Security Act (ISA), a draconian law from British colonial times, to silence his critics and opponents. Under the ISA, more than one hundred anti-government activists were detained in Operation Coldstore in 1963. After this, strikes and other forms of protests became increasingly rare, and key opposition leader Chia Thye Poh was detained without charge or trial from 1966 to 1988. Lee was also notorious for bringing defamation suits against his critics – both national and foreign news organizations such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal – to silence them or drive them to bankruptcy, by which his political opponents would be prohibited by law from running for office.

Naturally, Lee’s success in establishing a robust economy while keeping the population under control strongly appealed to other one-party states, notably China. Ever since Deng Xiaoping abandoned orthodox Maoism in the 1970s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has looked to Singapore’s model of “managed democracy” as one China should aspire towards. In Hong Kong, many residents admire Singapore’s ability to maintain consistent economic growth, its clean governance culture and relatively cheap public housing for citizens.

However, Singapore’s prosperity is an exception, not the rule, to one-party governance; it is extremely unlikely that the Singaporean experience could be replicated in either other illiberal democracies (China) or liberal autocracies (Hong Kong) by importing Singapore’s economic and political policies wholesale.  There are three reasons for this.

First, Singapore is a tiny city-state with a population of 5.5 million, one even smaller than Hong Kong’s. Maintaining cohesion is far easier when your state is not the size of China.

Second, Singapore’s cohesion is reinforced by the turbulent circumstances of its birth. Lee himself never forgot that Singapore is a tiny Chinese-majority city surrounded by much larger Muslim states and, even after Singapore became a first-world country, he made sure his citizens did not either.

The third and most important reason for Singapore’s extraordinary experience is Lee himself. He was a talented statesman who built a brand new nation from the ground up, largely without having to work within pre-existing political confines that would have restrained his power. Also important is that he was actually a capable politician who delivered on his promises and improved the standard of living for his citizens year after year.

While China and Hong Kong’s current leadership may find the idea of a wealthy, submissive population controlled by a small elite a highly attractive one, Lee’s governance formula may not survive even in Singapore itself. In Singapore, Hong Kong and China, voters are no longer content merely with economic growth or “stability” at the expense of hampering fundamental rights under state control. There has been mounting dissatisfaction in Singapore over the lack of personal and political freedoms as well as rising income inequality. This was reflected in the 2011 general elections in which PAP won only 60% of the vote, its lowest share of votes ever; and the 2013 Little India riot, which sparked debates about overcrowding, ethnic tensions, and the country’s heavy reliance on imported labour.  As with China and Hong Kong, Singapore’s government is feeling the pressure from a younger generation accustomed to free expression. In 2013, Lee Hsien Loong admitted that with a different generation comes “a different society, and politics will be different.”

While there are certainly lessons for contemporary leaders to take away from Lee Kuan Yew – such as his adamant stance against corruption and sharp political judgment – his desire to shape and restrain all aspects of civil society and highly intolerant attitude towards his critics and opponents are not some of them. Given the rising discontent in Singaporean society, it would be wise for Hong Kong and Beijing leadership to learn to achieve the former but not the latter.

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