Taking notes 45: Singapore radical: Lee Kuan Yew


by Sanjay Perera

Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world. — Ulysses, Tennyson

The first premier and most prominent leader of Independent Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), passed away at the age of 91. Much has been said about this controversial man in his lifetime, much more will follow now that he has gone. The city-state mourns the loss of a leader who was a curious mix of strongman and state gardener — he was instrumental in giving Singapore a clean and green image.

People went to pay LKY their last respects by the thousands during the official period of mourning. Notwithstanding, there has been rank criticism of him by some in the social media including begrudging tributes laced with strained sincerity by those who clashed with him and his successors in the public arena. However, the unprecedented numbers that turned up to walk past LKY’s bier at Parliament House, braved the rain to send him off on the day of his funeral, and who cried in public and displayed acts of kindness to one another during this period should give those still angry with him even at this moment, much pause.

Like the country he helped nurture, fought and struggled for, LKY is a paradox. Just as he was unapologetically severe with his opponents, trenchant in his comments, a disciplinarian and incorruptible, he was also concerned about ailing trees in public spaces. Those who worked with him and saw him up close were aware of this duality: a man of iron will and temperament who was also not above shedding tears in public. He was a highly rational individual, yet emotional and intensely passionate about his country. But he also had a dedicated and able team of other men that boosted Singapore’s economic growth, infrastructure and international stature while preventing it from turning into yet another concrete jungle.


[Credit: Photobucket]

LKY was a radical politician in that he would try to hit at the source of the problem and brought out ideas to address it; and sometimes he bulldozed policies through based on that no matter how much discomfort these would cause because he believed it had to be done. He was never a populist.

A family friend of ours who passed away a few years ago, an Englishman (who worked in Singapore for years), once said something that many who are honest enough say of the country today; that when he stood and looked at the country’s skyline and realized that the place was once only a trading post for the British in the colonial era, he finally understood that so much of the progress was made possible by the vision and strong-arm tactics of LKY.[1]

Looking back, and giving the country’s achievements serious thought, Singapore’s success was the unlikeliest of things. There were formidable stumbling blocks to progress and national resilience. Singapore was forced out of the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 and thereby thrown into the mid-stream of history to suddenly become an Independent state; the place could have easily capitulated to internal turmoil in what were tumultuous times.

Indeed, LKY may not have been the traditional insurgent revolutionary or rebel, but he was also a radical for doing something that may not quite have anything to compare with in recent history. At a time, in Asia, when various big players were fighting proxy wars soon after WWII (which subsequently transmuted into the Cold War): LKY and his team made Singapore work. They made things happen the right way in the heat of political and racial unrest by forging at the root of Singapore’s being a social consciousness, an understanding, that political stability and ethnic and religious harmony were necessary but not adequate conditions for survival. The state also needed good relations with neigbours and a realisation by its populace that it could never afford to take things for granted. And most people got the message.

Till recent times, LKY’s message was that Singapore could never rest on its laurels because it had arrived on the world stage. It is arguable as to how much of that message is substantively understood and extant in the minds of the younger generation.


What many in the country may not always be aware of is that in the uncertain days following Singapore’s Independence, global big players were keen to carve-up Southeast Asia further through spreading their influence and power over others, and still having access to resources via corporations, as they had done in overtly colonial times; but this time it was called global diplomacy and international finance, trade and business. The going for the region continued to be tough. Many other states which gained Independence — and had a proper history, a unifying language and tradition, and a host of natural resources to fall back on — succumbed to internal politicking, corruption and a socio-economic strategy that seemed almost designed to keep people impoverished materially and intellectually. Many of them are still largely third world countries or a variation thereof.

Through turbulent times internationally and regionally, with the Vietnam war and soon after the killing fields of Cambodia raging in the north, LKY and his team kept Singapore safe. Somehow, they helped pull the country through, made it a success, and created an internal stability and harmony that defied expectations. However, like all materially successful things, this too came with a price-tag. For as the state modernized rapidly, became richer, the populace better educated and well-travelled — the tentacles of capitalism finally laid its grip in a manner that is difficult to deny. Today as a result of globalisation there is a need for locals to compete harder with others within the country; one key reason for this is the lower (or more ‘competitive’) salaries non-locals or some immigrants are willing to accept.

Singapore is not free of economic challenges, but it must be noted that the situation elsewhere as in Europe and the US, is dire. This is where the radical nature of LKY and his team’s struggle for success comes into full relief. That as a state Singapore is still managing and doing its best to sustain itself is testament to the efforts of a past generation of Singaporeans and visionary leadership. The foundation laid by LKY is solid.

lky_Sana Gallery

[Credit: Sana Gallery]

The first generation leaders managed to jump-start Singapore with Independence forced onto it through bold and unpopular initiatives that bootstrapped the country into first world status. In doing so, there was a force-feeding of state capitalism that the Bolsheviks would have envied.

Lenin famously lamented the lack of a capitalist stage in the Soviet Union and having to try and create this phase artificially in order to be aligned to the socialist ideas of Marx and Engels. Moreover, without this phase of state capitalism, there would not be the kind of wealth creation that could facilitate a country’s economic evolution into a socialist society.

What Lenin and his Bolsheviks failed to do, Singapore achieved with its state capitalism. Contrary to what critics and others may say, this achievement is fundamentally correct if the country was to ever be in a position to then transform itself into an advanced socialist economy. This complex development was complicated, however, by LKY’s much publicised run-ins with the communists of his era and other so-called Marxists in the 1980s.

But it is one of the ironies of history or, as those from the left would say, a dialectical progression of things that sees a Singapore that is right-of-centre with its successful state capitalism starting to look left today. Some may just call it destiny. As history progresses the country is reconnecting with the socialist aspects of its past. In the early days LKY’s political party worked with those from the left, though he and his cadres were cognizant of the inevitable break that would follow with the socialists. This must be understood as not so much an ideological clash but rather a rupture symptomatic of the proxy conflicts between western capitalist states and so-called Communist ones like China and the USSR: with fledgling states like Singapore trying to stay afloat in the middle. Singapore was going to be aligned with the west without having to replicate its style of politics.

However, the wheel has come full circle historically: Singapore is currently in a unique position to move gently to the left and it is starting this journey with recent national budget announcements such as providing a basic income for the poorest elderly folk who are part of the pioneer generation. In this, the country is also finally going through an act of political and socio-economic re-balancing needed for the times.

lky_Lance Lee

[Credit: Lance Lee]

But, due to Singapore’s historical precedents and complicated relationship with political communism it is unlikely that the country will move far left. The right strategy is to take the historical dialectic a step further and make a push upwards into the social consciousness of collective responsibility. Singapore is indeed on the threshold of this.

As Marx, Engels and Lenin would agree, all this is happening in the context of Singapore having to confront the ineluctable ills of international capitalism. But this situation is also complex for other reasons. For a challenge facing the country is that people do not fully understand that the difficulties of today are principally due to a failing capitalist paradigm rather than governance per se. This has resulted in challenges to the Establishment by some who are inadvertently, or otherwise, also fighting for the failing capitalist agenda as they rail against Singapore’s state capitalism. The people doing so are not simply internal critics but populists and would-be political adventurers who are exploiting the economic difficulties of our times.

This is where the crossroad Singapore is at starts to get problematic in a potentially dangerous manner: the country is at that point similar to when Lenin passed away and his legacy was thwarted by others. As Trotsky pointed out in exile that towards the end of Lenin’s life (he was debilitated by strokes) and with his demise those who sought to divert the state into a direction away from the strengths envisioned for it by its leader came out of the woodwork in full force. In Singapore’s context these are the false prophets of capitalist ‘Democracy,’ particularly the much touted and collapsing western brand of it.


Singapore has its fair share of epigones of capitalist ‘Democracy’ who are trying to manipulate public opinion through various means by exploiting the income gap in the country between the ultra-rich and everyone else – this is through carefully staged public protests and spread of verbal violence through the social media. That the income gap must be addressed is not news and attempts are being made to rectify it but those who are trying to oust LKY’s political party that has governed Singapore for 50 years are more aligned to free market fundamentalism than they let on.

What the epigones of capitalist ‘Democracy’ fail to grasp but what people acknowledge, albeit not always consciously, is that the state capitalism of LKY and his men is one of the radical initiatives that allowed Singapore the opportunity to grow and strengthen itself without being open to the vagaries of economic sabotage that big corporate players and capitalist power-brokers have been unleashing throughout the world. However, this begs the issue as to whether the epigones who are vying for political power have not already been recruited to represent the interests of other capitalist players who want in on the action of Singapore’s state capitalism.

Predictably, the epigones in Singapore who speak up for capitalist ‘Democracy’ desire a move away from strong leadership. They favour a fractured political system that promotes anodyne leadership and populism. They further claim to promote small businesses by trying to ‘liberalise’ things in the manner of opening everything up to market forces, the selfsame forces that are allowing for the hiring of cheaper alternative labour rather than locals. Unfortunately, the epigones and their most vocal supporters who market themselves as ‘truth-tellers’ and stalwarts of ‘freedom’ seek to push the country away from its state capitalism via dismantling government linked enterprises so as to effectively place them in the hands of private corporations.

Meanwhile, smaller businesses will struggle as they cannot afford high-cost labour for the capitalist beast tends to siphon away profits to those at the top of the pyramid. While to some this struggle may result in the hiring of cost-effective labour, to many it also precipitates a context favourable towards employing others who simply proffer themselves at lower wages. Another challenge is to get local firms to expand abroad and this perhaps could be done via Singapore leveraging on the clout of its state capitalism.


[Credit: Mai Hui Dung]

While Singaporeans who suffer from unemployment deserve empathy like those anywhere else in the world, the supporters of the epigones of capitalist ‘Democracy’ have started to champion some of their ‘freedom fighters’ even those with established records of dishonesty and have dishonour carved into their DNA: these are charlatans who are doing their best to inveigle their way into government. There are also those in parliament who declaim in favour of capitalist ‘Democracy’ from the pulpits while lamenting the poor in the country, but who have publicly implied that they do not have to answer queries in parliament and are therefore above accountability. This may only be the beginning of potential political problems in future.

Moreover, it must also be admitted that a fallout of the LKY-era is that meritocracy was taken as academic success and was falsely equated to critical thought, tremendous capabilities and intellectual strength. But these days, one other problem facing Singapore is a distinct lack of public intellectuals or thinkers, or for want of a better term — an intelligentsia. The situation is not helped by the race to the bottom in public discourse where untrammelled trolling and online hate are often mistaken for intelligence: that is, such instances of public discourse on national or political matters give the idea to the young that constructive engagement and the way to discuss differing views need not be through being firm but polite or even responsible in speech: instead sinking into rants is more often than not the example set as the way of speaking up for the highest interests of all.

Yet, in the past week the numbers that turned up from all walks of life, across all ages, bemoaning the loss of LKY who himself was never a supporter of western-style democracy, and certainly a critic of the hypocrisy of the western media, show that basically the state capitalist radicalism and the demand for political stability by LKY and his men have not gone unappreciated. The challenge is to navigate safely to the next phase of an advanced socialist way of life or rather that of genuine collective responsibility.


Perhaps the respect and recognition given to LKY and the nostalgia for a time of strong and clear leadership may make Singapore citizens more discerning when casting ballots in the next general election.

But this sense of nostalgia is a double-edged sword. While the epigones of capitalist ‘Democracy’ may hope to ride upon perceived internal dissatisfaction over increased foreigners in the island-state seen as pining for a time when the country was perhaps less open to foreigners settling there, they should be aware that all is not as it seems. The tangible sense of loss over LKY’s passing should remind those keen on capturing power in Singapore that even as the votes in favour of them may increase, paradoxically, there may be sizeable numbers of the population who may very well provide resistance to them from the ground in a manner atypical of Singaporeans; for the epigones may yet be perceived as also being potential dismantlers of his legacy.

And if this scenario comes to pass: the western media — hardly ever admired by LKY — will have a field day.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield. — Ulysses, Tennyson

End note:

[1] Someone who worked with LKY informed me today in a note: “Eleven years ago, I sailed on a boat with Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Lim Kim San. As we entered Marina Bay and saw the wonderful city skyline, I asked Mr Lee how it made him feel. His prosaic answer – ‘A hardworking and disciplined people built this.’”


The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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