7-day Period of National Mourning for Lee Kuan Yew:
On the second day of national mourning for Lee Kuan Yew, I happened to be the Singapore General Hospital when I looked past the doors near Bengawan Solo at Block 7 and saw a large pile of cards and flowers under white tentage.
It was a remarkably sad scene – amidst the expired “Get Well Soon” cards and balloons, there were messages of condolences from Singaporeans and people who identified themselves as coming from many other places around the world. Several older folk were weeping openly in their wheelchairs or were, supported by their children, bowing to images of the man.
I have no political affiliation and, like some families, have relatives who might not have benefitted from the so-called iron-fist rule, but I do respect the guy.
It was interesting to observe the re-emergence of naysayers after a day. These hostile responses all seem to riff on 3 ideas:
- woohoo, the human rights-trampling dictator is dead and cowed and fearful Singaporeans are free!
- what mourning period? How dare you curb my freedom of speech to say what I want and when I want to!
- he’s not as great as you think ok – stop all this myth-making.
Just a few cents to stop all this from rattling around in my head:
Hostile Response 1 (human rights, iron fist, dictator, defamation suits) is a little boring in that while so many wag their heads about it, I have yet to read a single commentary that has anything concrete to say:
- there are the ones with clumpy thinking – that is, they conflate all sorts of ideas without any necessary logical or causal link between them. “Lee Kuan Yew was powerful, therefore he must be rich, and all rich people obtain their ill-gotten wealth through corruption.” Well, there’s nothing to suggest he was corrupt (in fact, there’s evidence to the contrary). If he was paid well, heck, any country in the world would have cobbled together to double his salary. And if he’s saved up a tidy sum – maybe the lack of home renovation, upgrading of technological equipment, expensive cafe-hopping and restaurant-hopping, purchasing of designer goods might be a factor.
- there’s a lack of clarity in use of terminology – we young ones have grown up believing that once someone labels anything or anyone as being anti-democratic or in violation of human rights, that person is to be damned. I may not be an expert in this but having written about human rights as my final year thesis and also having helped organise an international conference on the topic, I know that human rights are never absolute and however they may be defined, those rights are always balanced against other rights within a society. A similar question might be asked about the concept of democracy. So there is a spectrum of understanding as to what constitutes human rights, whether human rights are even right, and whether democracy (whatever it is) is the best model for the government of a society.
- so there are also baseless assumptions – that iron-fisted-ness = dictatorship and dictatorships are always bad. (i) Dictators aren’t always a bad thing for a nation. I think dictators were actually appointed by Roman democracies in instances of emergencies, because have you ever tried getting anything done by committee? Just ask a group of people where they want to go for dinner or what movie they want to watch…(ii) To be ruled absolutely by an intelligent person who cares for the good of his people and is able to plan rightly for the future? Why should any one mind? (iii) According to S Dhanabalan, in the decision-making process, there was consultation and sparring and disagreement amongst the ministers, so it wasn’t an LKY dictatorship.
- what we want is meaty discussion about possible alternative solutions. LKY himself was perfectly candid about having to lock people up without trial (the Marxist Conspiracy). He explained the dangers he saw and the necessity of doing so. He sued opponents for defamation because he understood that he needed moral authority to rule and could not do so if he did not vigorously dispute what he saw to be lies and impeachments on his character. Assuming this is his thinking, we must then focus not on calling him names but figuring out what he could have done differently. If he did his best, then what can we learn from the mistakes he might have made – what would be a better way to address those concerns then and how might we be able to do so in the future?
Hostile Response 2 (don’t trample on my freedom of speech). Well, do go ahead darling, but you see, there is really a time and place for everything – it’s good manners, and it’s just the way people show their humanity and their empathy. What comes out of the mouth just demonstrates the heart of the speaker. See, for example, ex-Opposition Chiam See Tong’s condolence letter – that is an example of a man of good character.
- Also, what do you mean by free speech? To have a proper discussion about this, it might be better to understand this concept in relation to other concepts that fall under the nebulous category of human rights. There isn’t a country in the world where you have a complete right to free speech, because it must always be balanced with other people’s right to protect their reputation (from lies, slander – yes, defamation) and people’s right to live in peace (because most violence is incited by the hateful, spiteful words of others).
- Different countries would also necessarily have different boundary markers for free speech, because the racial, cultural make-up of each country is different, and there are a host of other national concerns that must be considered.
- The proper use of free speech (just like the proper use of democracy) occurs when those speaking are keen to contribute to the good of society or humanity. In this regard, Hostile Response 2 already suggests otherwise, but in any case, outside the mourning period, it would be much more helpful for everyone if we had something concrete to say when discussing these matters. That is, strawman statements may get you loads of “Likes” on Facebook but doesn’t quite support your demand that complete free speech is a necessity.
Hostile Response 3
Again, I think these are eulogies. You don’t speak ill of the dead out of compassion for the bereaved. So in eulogies, you remember the good things he has done. Yes, it is skewed, but no one is writing a definitive history; they are comforting the mourners.
And don’t worry. I’m sure the Catholic Church isn’t going to canonise him anytime soon. Nor has the “state-controlled press” attributed miracles to him, nor were there reports of thousands of crows swopping down on Singapore General Hospital. (Otherwise, you would have seen it on social media, and someone would have accused the gahmen of slacking on pest control.)
And certainly, no one is saying Lee Kuan Yew did this all on his own. He was well aware of the need for a ruling elite (yes, elite) and also middle managers who could get things done. See Transcript of Speech by the Prime Minister at a Meeting with Principals of Schools at the Victoria Theatre on 29th August 1966. And in his speech on The Search for Talent in 1982, LKY credited Goh Keng Swee and Hon Sui Sen for Singapore’s economic development (and also had things to say about foreign talent!).