Asia's last 'benevolent dictator' was a giant of a man

Asia's last 'benevolent dictator' was a giant of a man

There is little doubt that Singapore owes an enormous debt of gratitude to this giant of a man named Lee Kuan Yew, or Harry as he was known to his friends and family.

Although I disagree with some of the things that Lee did, this is certainly not the appropriate time to dwell on the negatives, out of respect for a man who transformed a tiny city state with negligible natural resources into one of the wealthiest nations per capita in the modern age.

Often labeled the Singapore Model, but in my view, it could justifiably be hailed as the Lee Kuan Yew Experiment, because through shear tenacity, willpower and the unwavering conviction to his cause, a man called Harry, unrelentingly sculpted Singapore in his own stern image.

But since Lee's recent passing, true to form, I have witnessed countless arguments from the "democratically challenged" in Thailand, that democracy is an overrated concept which is not conducive to economic development, stability and adherence to rule of law.

It is argued that the trade-off between civil liberties or basic freedoms for national and economic security is a price well worth paying. For the Singaporeans this may well be true. The "soft authoritarianism" employed by Lee was a product of its history, and designed by a man unique in so many ways it's hard to see the Singapore Model being successfully replicated anywhere else.

Thailand too, has its own long and complicated history and, if we look closely, our love affair with dictatorships or authoritarianism has always ended up in tears and heartache.

But let me say this. Of course in an ideal world if Thailand had to have a dictator, then it would be a benevolent dictator like Lee Kuan Yew. But we don't live in an ideal world do we? In reality, for every Lee Kuan Yew there have been twenty Stalins. For every benevolent dictator we pray for, we risk getting a suppressive, oppressive, treacherous, unaccountable, unimpeachable, malevolent dictator that might take Thailand back into the dark ages. Is this a risk worth taking? Is this really what we all want? And in a diverse and freedom loving nation like Thailand, is it really sustainable?

If there is anything that we can learn from Lee Kuan Yew's legacy it's that he was the ultimate pragmatist. Singapore has achieved wealth and prosperity because Lee decided to do away with political ideology and instead put all his efforts into achieving his goals. Thailand should do the same. But this is where I may disagree with Lee Kuan Yew.

The notion of freedom and liberty are not Western ideologies. In my humble opinion, these are universal ideals that all human beings yearn for. Yes, without prosperity and basic economic well-being there can be little freedom, and it's true, if you ask a starving man whether he wants food or the right to vote he will always choose the former. However, human beings are not mere economic units of production. A country is not one big shoe factory. And a healthy and thriving civic society cannot live on economic wealth alone. Human beings want to live with dignity, in a society where they are free to express themselves with their God-given talents and to choose for themselves how they wish to pursue their own brand of happiness.

If all societies and countries were this antiseptic then there would be no need for art, sports, culture, music, plays, tradition, the feeling of belonging and a sense of identity.

I often get asked by people: "So where is Thailand heading now?". In all honesty, I don't really know. But if I were the prime minister I would start to reconsider the direction that it is going, because imposing "victor's justice" is tantamount to sowing new seeds of discontent. It's time to lift martial law and have a free and proper discussion on what our constitution should be.

I realise the National Reform Council and the Constitution Drafting Committee distrust politicians; so do I. But many of us also distrust policies being dictated to them by faceless bodies who the people have not elected. Thailand needs to find its own balance that is suitable and conducive to our own history, traditions and psychological make up.

Finally, let me salute Lee Kuan Yew for his monumental achievements. What a life he led. Agree or disagree with him, Lee possessed the rarest and the most important of human qualities: Conviction. When asked by a pesky reporter about civil liberties, he firmly replied, "You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools."

So true, but in my view, that's not enough, they also want freedom, accountability, respect and above all, dignity.

Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University. He can be reached at Twitter: @SongkranTalk

Songkran Grachangnetara


Songkran Grachangnetara is an entrepreneur. He graduated from The London School of Economics and Columbia University.

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