|A book on Lee Kuan Yew by a dissident leaves room for the reader to form his own opinion about Singapore’s senior minister.|
February 20, 2011
Review by MARTIN VENGADESAN
The Analects of Lee Kuan Yew
By Francis T. Seow
Publisher: Berita Publishing, 334 pages
THE founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, is a man who tends to elicit extreme reactions. While some praise his city state as an efficient modern metropolis with cosmopolitan aspirations, other decry the more authoritarian aspects of its political structure.
Former solicitor-general Francis Seow is one of the few dissidents who challenged Lee’s invincible People’s Action Party – and he paid for his beliefs, having spent more than two decades in exile, following a period of detention in Singapore.
This book attempts to portray the development of Lee’s Singapore not through a narrative or historical exposition, but, rather, through a series of quotes from the man himself.
While Seow has authored works like To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1994) and Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2007), this book contains very little commentary and leaves the reader to make his own judgements.
Interestingly enough, Confucius Confounded kicks off with a foreword by our own former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It is difficult not to smile when Mahathir criticises Lee for his intolerance to opposition and determination to hang on to power for as long as possible ... one might venture that the two veteran leaders are more alike than either would care to admit.
Ironically, there is a segment in the book where Lee is full of praise (damning or otherwise) for Mahathir. “Not everyone in Malaysia has got the courage of Dr. Mahathir and also the sense of reality,” Lee once asserted.
With chapter titles such as The Battle for Merger with Malaysia, the Bench and Bar, Pride and Prejudices and Wit and Personal Wisdom, Seow traces Lee’s development as a political leader. We can see the many twists and turns that his path took as he initially forms an alliance with leftists in the PAP to take power in Singapore, and leads Singapore first into a merger with Malaysia (in 1963) and a dramatic withdrawal just two years later.
Lee’s skill as an English-educated lawyer who manipulated the working-class leaders of his own country reveals a ruthless streak that gives lie to his fantastic rhetoric about building a just and egalitarian society when speaking as a Malaysian parliamentarian. One can only wonder what Lee’s defeated foes made of Lee’s erstwhile passionate pleas for liberty once he asserted his tight control overhis island state.
(And those foes are many, forming a chain that starts with fellow PAP founders like Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and one time Singapore President Devan Nair; Barisan Sosialis MP Chia Thye Poh, who was detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for 23 years, and continues with Workers Party stalwarts like Tang Liang Hong and the late Joshua Jeyaretnam, 1926-2008.)
Check out this excerpt quoting from Lee’s speeches on the role of the Opposition, made during Singapore’s brief partnership with Malaysia: “Loyalty to Malaysia is not equal ... to loyalty to ... the Alliance Government. A loyal Opposition does not mean a subservient Opposition. Criticism, however unwelcome, will have to be made.”
We get to see Lee’s shrewd tactical moves as well as his determination to shape his own place in history and distance himself from other paternalistic rulers of his time. That his rule was overbearing is clear from that fact that, since 1965, Singapore’s Parliament has been overwhelmingly dominated by the PAP; for many years there was no Opposition parliamentarian and the current “score” is PAP, 82; Opposition, two!
While there is no doubt that Lee was a talented politician and a brilliant man, it’s a little sad that at this point in his life, Seow is still so obsessed with him. After all, at 88, surely even the shadow Lee casts over his little corner of the world is shrinking.
Ultimately Seow’s book offers little that is new to any student of Singapore’s political history. And let’s face it: that history has been rendered increasingly tame and boring by the population’s docile acceptance of Lee’s doctrines.
While one surely has to admire the accomplishments of Lee’s Singapore (the public transport system and relatively low crime rate for starters), it is obvious that they go hand in hand with the contradictions that are, perhaps, a reflection of the man himself. For all Lee’s talk of independence when he was a young man, it is arguably the subservient and sycophantic relationship with the United States (WikiLeaks anyone?) that best sums up the path that Singapore has taken to prosperity.Confucius Confounded points out that Lee seemed to feel compelled to assert, in 1995, that, “We are not a client state of America”.
As for Seow’s book, it is not essential reading and certainly lacks cohesiveness as a historical work. But neither is it wholly without charm or purpose. It is definitely worth picking up if you’re looking for eloquent albeit somewhat passe political theatre that’s presented in palatable doses.