The death of the island nation’s ‘founding father’ on 23 March at the age of 91 brought the expected paroxysm of public mourning. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans lined the meandering 10-mile route of the funeral procession from early morning, despite torrential rain (his son Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, said the ‘heavens opened and cried for him’).
The government said that in the days after his death about 1.5 million people around the country paid tributeto Lee, who founded the still-ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954, and led the country to independence from British colonial rule in 1963 (and then from a federation with Malaysia in 1965). He steered the tiny country from a tropical backwater with no natural resources to one of the richest countries in the world, with a GDP per capita of $55,000—ninth in the world, according to the World Bank, putting it above the US. There were eulogies from world leaders such as Barack Obama, whose statement called Lee a ‘visionary’ and ‘true giant of history’, and the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, who called him ‘a lion among leaders’.
Yet there were voices from the fringes pointing out what Singapore had lost in its transformation into a economic role model. The writer Catherine Lim, a critic of the PAP, said Singaporeans had ‘much respect and trust, though scant affection’ for him. (Lee responded: ‘If you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac.’) Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch told Deutsche Welle that Lee’s ‘tremendous role in Singapore’s economic development … came at a significant cost for human rights’. The veteran journalist A Kadir Jasin wrote in his obituary: ‘Lee left behind many admirers but very few friends. Some of his friends during the independence struggle walked away from him while others were purged. Many spent years in jail.’
Lee—and Singapore, for were the two not synonymous?—was known for vaguely comical edicts such as the ban on imports of chewing gum (though it was actually his successor as prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, who made a doctor’s prescription necessary to buy gum legally) and mandatory flushing of public toilets. ‘We decide what is right,’ Lee said in 1987. ‘Never mind what the people think.’
Such openly expressed patrician views are hardly limited to Singapore but the authoritarian, if not totalitarian, nature of the country’s laws are egregious for a democracy. They extend to the right for police to enforce random drug tests on non-Singaporeans and locals alike, two-year prison sentences for gay sex (oral sex was only decriminalised for heterosexuals in 2007), a ban on walking around your home naked (a man was fined S$2,600 (US$2,000) for this in 2009), and a possible three-year sentence and S$10,000 fine for using a neighbour’s wireless network (a boy was jailed for nine months for this in 2006).
This more sinister side to Singapore was displayed, appropriately enough, just after Lee died, when a 16-year-old boy, Amos Yee, was arrested and charged over a disparaging video the teenager posted about a leader who said of himself in 1998: ‘Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right: if nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.’ For publishing a crude but childish caricature of Lee and Margaret Thatcher, plus remarks about Jesus, a boy faces three years in prison and a S$20,000 fine.
Yee was charged under the Protection from Harassment Act. More often the government has used the draconian Internal Security Act to suppress dissent. This colonial-era law descends from emergency powers introduced to combat the guerrilla war of the Malaya ‘Emergency‘ from 1948-60. The communist bogeyman was invoked repeatedly to crush opponents of Lee. Operation Spectrum in 1987, for instance, saw the government detain 16 people over a supposed Marxist conspiracy involving members of that bastion of revolution, the Catholic church. There were forced confessions on television, their lawyers were themselves arrested, and Amnesty International declared the detainees to be ‘prisoners of conscience’. After they were eventually released and complained of torture, they were re-arrested and only freed when they retracted their accusations against the authorities. Respected media outlets, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, were suppressed for reporting on the bogus conspiracy.
Said Zahari, a journalist, was one of more than 100 left-wing opposition figures and trade unionists rounded up in 1963 by the British colonial authorities (aided by Lee). He was detained without trial for 17 years. Another veteran opponent of Lee, the tenacious JB Jeyaretnam, was hounded for trying to create a parliamentary opposition to the PAP hegemony. Jailed, sued by the government and disbarred from practising the law, Lee portrayed a principled democratic socialist as a dangerous subversive.
Writing in the Financial Times, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek calls Lee the creator of authoritarian capitalism, which he believes will shape this century as capitalism and democracy influenced the last (at least in theory): ‘Market-based economics has no problem accommodating local religions, cultures or traditions. It is easily reconciled with the primacy of an authoritarian state.’
For Lee, though educated as an elite lawyer at Cambridge and London’s Middle Temple, the law was subservient to the state, not above it. He said in 1986: ‘We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.’ As well as ignoring the principle of habeas corpus, this distrust of his own people also led to him abolishing the jury system in 1969. In his Memoirs he explained: ‘I had no faith in a system that allowed the superstition, ignorance, biases and prejudices of seven jurymen to determine guilt or innocence.’
Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 after 31 years but continued to wield ultimate power by handing the premiership to his chosen successor, Goh, and remaining ‘minister mentor’ until 2011. In 2004 Lee’s son became prime minister, ensuring that the family had ruled for 56 years continuously.
As Human Rights Watch’s Robertson said in Time: ‘Singapore still is, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state where political opponents are targeted and contrary views muzzled—and that too is a part of Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy.’
There is a bitter irony that criticisms Lee made of the colonial government of David Marshall in a 1956 speech could have been of his own regime: ‘Repression, sir, is a habit that grows,’ he said. ‘The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course with constant repetition you get more and more brazen in the attack.
‘All you have to do is to dissolve organisations and societies, and banish and detain the key political workers in these societies. Then miraculously everything is tranquil on the surface. Then an intimidated press and the government-controlled radio together can regularly sing your praises, and slowly and steadily the people are made to forget the evil things that have already been done, or if these things are referred to again they’re conveniently distorted and distorted with impunity, because there will be no opposition to contradict.
As one Singaporean wrote in the Guardian as she explained her mixed feelings about Lee’s death, the flipside of his paternalism was an enforced infantilism for citizens: ‘We are only now, 50 years after independence, beginning to emerge from the political passivity a ‘father knows best’ government urged us into.’