It would be difficult to match Boris Yeltsin, the drunkard who turned tanks on Russia’s post-Soviet democracy, for the effusions of twaddle he elicited among American policy people, pundits, scholars and correspondents. But in death as in life, Lee Kuan Yew is up there—no, down there—with the worst of the autocrats.
Singapore’s long-reigning dictator died of pneumonia at 91 last week and was buried after a state funeral Sunday. And you could set your watch by the old, faithful geyser of praise that gushed for the master-builder of Southeast Asia’s most efficient police state. It erupted more or less instantly in all the predictable quarters.
At the Council on Foreign Relations he was “the sage of Singapore.” The New York Times, in an editorial last Tuesday, had him down as “a towering figure on the global stage.” For President Obama, LKY was “a true giant of history.” Prominently in attendance in Singapore Sunday were Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger.
Lee Kuan Yew is dead, long live Lee Kuan Yew. This is the gist of it all. And this is why we should pay attention to all the bunkum. For ruling cliques in Washington and across the Western world, Lee was an exquisite example of the developing-nation leader who gets the dirty work of political repression done with the minimum of embarrassing mess. Therein lay the greatest of Lee’s several gifts—none of which was humane, in my view.
No machine-gun murders in public squares for Lee. No stadiums full of dissidents awaiting their turn to be tortured, no political prisoners thrown into the ocean from helicopters. All of Lee’s opponents kept their fingernails.
I watched Lee up close and very personal for many years, and more about this in a minute. His tactics always reminded me of the guard who beats his charges with a bag of oranges so the organs are ruined but the bruises do not show. In the custody of Lee’s goons, you stood naked in front of an air-conditioner set to max cool while they doused you with ice water all night. You spent your life eating lychee nuts on an outer island while your children grew up without you a ferryboat’s ride away.
Wait a minute, you might say. Are you comparing Lee Kuan Yew with Pinochet or the shah, with Videla and the other colonels in Argentina—with Yeltsin, indeed—and with al-Sisi in Egypt and other such people on the scene now?
Absolutely I am.
The difference between LKY and any other American-backed dictator past or present is a question merely of method and degree. “Soft authoritarianism” or “pragmatic authoritarianism,” the most common euphemisms applied to regimes such as Lee’s, are hair-splits deployed to render them acceptable to our tender sensibilities. They are all on the same dirigiste errand—the installation and maintenance of one form or another of neoliberal corporatism and the corresponding subversion of democratic process.
I make this point with a certain vigor for a simple reason. We all know Lee’s kind from the Cold War days—the Marcoses and Suhartos and Somozas. But do not drop the guard. Lee’s brand of leadership is precisely what Washington continues to look for across the non-Western world: The policy cliques want Potemkin Village democracies hospitable to American corporations, large CIA stations and, with the true golden boys, a military installation.
Who do you think Ukraine’s new leaders are? President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk are cut from the mold—the one a patently incapable candy-bar salesman and the other a water-bearer for Washington’s neoliberals. Poroshenko’s approval rating, as you have not read in the Times or any other American newspaper, now stands at roughly 30 percent and Yatsenyuk’s at 24 percent. This is because they are now well along in the process of cutting Ukrainian democracy off at its knees, as Yeltsin did during Russia’s 1993 constitutional crisis.
And as Lee did in Singapore in the decades following the island state’s independence, from Britain in 1963 and from Malaysia two years later.
Lee was a Cold War creature, let there be no question—a dependent of the domino theory. He made common cause during the pre-independence days with the Barisan Socialis, the widely supported Socialist Front, against the British. But as a closet autocrat from the first, Lee and his People’s Action Party split with the Socialists soon after he formed his first government (still under British control) in 1959.
Thereafter, Lee turned on the Barisan more ferociously than he had ever opposed the British. From those days forth, the colonial regime’s Internal Security Act—even now not repealed—was the blunt instrument Lee favored above all others.
A pause for full transparency. I was Lee’s victim twice. In 1983 he expelled me for my political coverage as bureau chief of the honorable, now-defunct Far Eastern Economic Review. In 2002, Lee’s lawyers accused me of libeling his family and sued Bloomberg News, for whom I was then writing columns.
The first case cost me a harmonious household and a relationship that was supposed to go the distance. In the second, it cost Bloomberg a $450,000 settlement, including assorted fees. Bloomberg editor Matt Winkler apologized wrongly but abjectly, scrubbed the offending column from the archive, and fired me as soon as he was confident nobody was any longer looking.
By the time I arrived in Singapore, in 1981, Lee had intimidated, coerced, blackmailed, imprisoned, co-opted or exiled all but the most quixotic of his political adversaries. I used to visit a doctor named Lee Siew Choh, a Barisan Socialis founder and a veteran of many wars with the prime minister, who kept a quiet practice next to the American embassy. From this Lee, a delightfully bemused old man, I got vitamin B shots and history lessons. Internal security goons followed me to and fro whenever I went to see him.
But the game had changed by then. The bare-knuckles battles with those opposed to an increasingly right-wing regime had given way to the Cold War social contract in effect in every one of Washington East Asian satellites. You, citizen, will get an air conditioner, a refrigerator, a television and maybe a small car and a subsidized apartment. In exchange you will forego your voice and leave all the politics to us.
“Shut up and change the channel” was my shorthand for this arrangement when visitors came. This is how the Cold War was fought in East Asia and it held for decades—utterly cynical but never any surprise in cultures of poverty.
Lee’s Singapore was an especially interesting case. Having demolished any semblance of independent labor unions, put the press on a very short leash and commandeered education to turn out graduates the way GM turns out parts, the task was psychological—how to keep an increasingly affluent elite in line when they grew restless with the bribe at the heart of it all.
The preferred instrument was a kind of totalized fear by the time I took up residence. The PAP, the ruling party then as now, thought nothing of ruining careers in business, politics or any other sphere. Nothing was infra-dig, and everyone had their stories. I knew a senior labor official who went silent when police detectives tailed him and then threatened to inform his wife of his late-night peccadilloes. He had three children and no choice.
No one since Lee’s death has written of his legacy without noting his obsessive grip on his people. It is simply not possible. But all have written of it as justified by the material advances made under Lee’s 40-odd year presence in Singapore politics—as prime minister until 1990, thereafter with titles such as senior minister and minister mentor, Confucian confections to the core.
I have never bought this line.
First, while Singapore’s material progress is beyond question, the argument that democracy and economic advances are mutually exclusive rests on paper-thin logic of the kind Lee did all he could to promote. One finds the damage wrought by this thinking more or less everywhere in Asia.
The true point here cannot be spoken plainly but must be. It is democracy and neoliberal capitalism that cancel one another out. And you cannot ask for a balder example than Singapore: Lee disemboweled political parties and democratic trade unions in large part to make Singapore attractive to foreign investors.
Second, there is the invisible violence noted above. Pervasive fear has produced a society marked by a pathology. At the risk of generality, the Singaporean character is malformed. Realizing one’s humanity with any wholeness is next to impossible. At bottom the condition is one of social psychology.
During my time there I took to calling Singapore Eastern Europe with palm trees until I concluded this may be unfair to Eastern Europeans. I did not say these things altogether unseriously and I do not now. Singapore’s tragedy is that its people allowed one man to humiliate them as deeply within themselves as Lee did. This is the hole they may have a chance to climb out of now. We will have to see.
Lee was never apologetic as to how he ruled, although the boasts sometimes seem to me to ring hollowly. “Nobody doubts that if you take me on I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in the cul-de-sac,” Lee said in a 1994 interview with the Times. “If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try.”
And then this from his two-volume memoirs later on: “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
Think about these statements. Lee was a street-fighter by his own admission—another of his raw gifts—and it was by the rules of the street that he ruled his nation. Is this what they mean when they call him a man of history and a great statesman? I take Lee at his word on this point, nobody else’s: He always came over to me as badly read and pretending otherwise, a poseur in the land of large ideas and a bully whose only principle was winning, the weaker the opponent the better.
As to his point about fear, what kind of person is it whose self-worth rests on how frightened he is able to make other people? My answer comes by way of another question. But to put the conclusion first, an unhealthy person.
A friend asked after reading the obituaries Monday, “Why did he bother with all these campaigns against chewing gum and spitting and making loud noise?” This is not the trivial matter it may seem. It has to do with a failure of self-acceptance.
In my estimation, Lee had a complicated relationship with Westerners since his childhood under British colonial rule and then his university years in Cambridge, where he earned a law degree. It was hatred and love, resentment and envy all at once—common combinations among Asians of Lee’s generation. He wanted to be proud of his Chineseness, but the only way he knew how was to make the Chinese as much like Westerners as he could.
Westerners, in turn, tended to love Lee in an interesting pattern. Powerful political leaders and business executives—presidents, foreign ministers, CEOs, senior editors at business magazines—held him in high regard. All others viewed him with more detachment for what he was. Why was this?
Having learned his lessons from the Communists active in Southeast Asia during his younger years, Lee structured the PAP as a Leninist party, led by vanguard cadres who were never identified. The powerful among foreigners appreciated this because the party got things done quickly and cleanly. The less-powerful understood the consequences of an organization’s guiding belief that the end justified any means to it.
A fitting coda to the life of LKY arrived over the weekend. One Amos Yee, a 17-year-old Singaporean, posted a YouTube video titled “Lee Kuan Yew Is Finally Dead.” In it Yee dressed down the great statesman as power-hungry, malicious, and deceptive, “a horrible person because everyone is afraid that if they say something they will get in trouble.”
Yee was reported to the police by a fellow student Saturday and by Sunday the video segment was erased and Yee was under arrest. Under Singapore’s penal code he could face three years’ imprisonment if the case goes to trial.
"Lee was a dictator but managed to fool most of the world into thinking he was democratic... by granting Singaporeans the opportunity to vote to make it seem like we have freedom of choice,” the video concluded. Well said, Amos. Be brave, and you will have an easier time looking yourself in the mirror, even if it is on an outer island.
The mounds of praise heaped atop Lee Kuan Yew now rely upon distance for their credibility. We, far away, cannot see easily into the man and the nation he shaped. Draw a little closer. As you look, recognize that this is a man and a nation the cliques in Washington wish the whole of the developing world would emulate.
Then ask yourself a couple of questions. Am I supposed to think it is well and good for people to be ruled by fear? Is Lee Kuan Yew the sum total of our aspirations for the world’s emerging societies? He is our 21st century ideal made flesh?
Not mine by a long way.