The great Lee Kuan Yew we never knew

The great Lee Kuan Yew we never knew

The page has turned, and everyone wishes to read about Lee Kuan Yew. But the great mind isn’t that easy to decipher, so we pick and choose and believe that we know the recipe for success that the late Singaporean ruler — brilliant, dogged, direct, merciless — practised in his nation-building cauldron to such a spectacular outcome.

On Monday Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha expressed his condolences over Lee, and added in his typically avuncular jabber: “He had been ill for a long time and I had wished for his recovery. Hard-working people often die young. I’m not sure if I will live as long as he did.”

Of course, living to 91, as LKY did, wasn’t “dying young”, but we’re used to the prime ministerial logic by now. Hard-working Lee certainly was, and I’m sure our PM believes he is, too, which was why he waxed his speech with that undertone. Lee in his 70s and 80s was still a lively presence, and an aura emanated from him throughout his life because of the fact that he was more feared and respected than loved. Gen Prayut in his early 60s is probably loved and feared, but respected? The recipe Gen Prayut works with is more complicated and involves more than just hard work and fear-mongering. The Thai ingenue still has a lot of catching up to do.

Evidently, Thaksin Shinawatra wanted to copy Lee, and not just the hard-working part. When in power, the ex-PM practised a brand of liberal economic policies and unabashedly pursued them for hardcore, almost greed-inspired growth that would expand the middle class and shore up rural cash flow. That contrasted with his conservative governing style that relied on arrogance, bullying, CEO bravado, and a blithe disregard for his enemies. He sued his opponents, like Lee sometimes did, and he tried to control the press through string-pulling and intimidation, subtle or not, again much like Lee. The two men met and talked often, in Bangkok as well as in Singapore.

But Thaksin’s recipe was still more complex than that, and the Thai narrative in the 1990s was so much different from the post-WWII Singaporean one. Lee was trying to build the nation up from post-colonial ashes, against all odds, when he came to power in the late 1950s; Thaksin was shaking up the status quo and in effect fragmenting the nation. Lee was operating in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get environment, whereas Thaksin, buoyed by his ego, didn’t realise that what he saw wasn’t always what he would get in fog-shrouded Thailand. Lee was smart and brash; Thaksin wanted to be brash and smart.

The most intriguing part is that some Thaksin haters often evoke Singapore as their model, and by doing so don’t realise that they’re championing the ideal of their arch-devil. Part of that goes to show the complexity of Lee’s leadership and personality, which leads to picking and choosing, and part of that shows the ignorance and hypocrisy of those who want to exploit his name.

During the anti-Yingluck protests of 2013-2104, one of the discourses was that an election wasn’t necessary if someone at the top can do the job — an allusion to the benefit of a handpicked prime minister. Protesters said that individual rights are negligible, too, when the goal is to ensure the greater good of society (an excuse in favour of military rule), and that the Singapore-style soft authoritarianism could bless Thailand with a forest of skyscrapers and tree-lined streets. As if it was so simple. The supreme irony, however, is that such discourse is exactly what Thaksin wanted to pull off before he was kicked out of the scene.

So, the Lee Kuan Yew model becomes the unifying imagined goal of our players from all sides, without them wanting to acknowledge it. The glitch is that they all only glimpse bits and pieces of it and seem oblivious to the passage of history: Thailand today is not the post-colonial, multi-racial mosquito swamp that Singapore once was. Gen Prayut’s dream of “soft authoritarianism” — guns ready though fingers not on the trigger, not yet — is so antiquated at a time when dictatorial swagger is an endangered species. The sacrifice of individual liberties (and we’re talking about more than just abstaining from gum-chewing) for the good of the nation is an excuse that hardly sticks at a time of human rights proliferation, while technology allows more room for individual thought.

Most of all, Lee was a civilian whose rule was always above the military. That’s probably the first and last lesson our military leader should learn from the man, otherwise we’ll still have to crane our neck to admire the distant skyscrapers down at the edge of the Malayan Peninsula, wondering to ourselves what went wrong. 

Kong Rithdee is Deputy Life Editor, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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