Lee Kuan Yew: remembering an authoritarian leader
Today, when one thinks of Singapore, a powerful little hub in the middle of Asia springs to mind. A place full of business potential and economically thriving, but it has not always been that way. Arguably one of the greatest economic success stories of the twentieth century, Singapore and its success owes a lot to the cunning mind of Lee Kuan Yew, who recently died at the age of 91.
His official control over the country as prime minister might have ended in 1990 when he retired from duty, but he remained in the public eye and continued to help shape government policies until his death.
Acquiring the role of prime minister in 1959 and setting up the People’s Action Party (PAP), Lee set about to build a new Singapore. This meant creating a new sense of political stability and social order, especially amongst the country’s peoples. With a big mix of cultures, from the ethnic-Chinese majority to the sizeable Malay and Indian minorities, Singapore experienced race riots during the 1960s.
In order to bring about harmony amongst Singapore’s diaspora, measures to punish and control were put in place, these included quotas in public housing enforcing integration, placing heavy restrictions on inflammatory speech, and handing out harsh penalties for anyone caught breaking the law. These included corporal and capital punishment.
The introduction of such policies has been like an ethical double-edged sword. Though a level of peace and order was restored to what would have been considered a very hostile place to live, at the same time, the rights and liberties of civilians living in Singapore was taken away, resembling life under a dictatorship. Lee’s crackdown on dissent has led to a disappearance of strikes and other forms of political or social protest, to the point of near non-existence. Additionally, like many authoritarian countries, some social acts still remain illegal, such as partaking in homosexual acts.
Politically, Lee’s PAP has, and continues, to have a grip on governmental power. He devised the political system around the Westminster model, inherited from Britain, but in order to make it more applicable to Singapore, and to himself, modified policies with the idea of preventing any form of a serious opposition party. Constituencies were designed to magnify the distortions of a first-past-the-post system. In the past, Lee was widely known to be fond of using defamation suits to defend his party’s reputation, subsequently this also meant taming the output of the mainstream press.
Lee’s legacy will always be found in the country he steered to success, the stability and peace he governed and in building Singapore’s pride. Nevertheless, his legacy will never overshadow the harsh tactics he used to stop anyone from making sure he achieved his Singaporean goal.
Amaliah Sara Marmon-Halm