The honest tyrant

There has been a gap of thirty years or more in my punditry on Lee Kuan Yew. I may have mentioned him, somewhere, but I’ve been no longer in Asia, and therefore, observing his “Asian values” from a more forgetful distance. In that time my views have evolved, too: I take much less for granted. That he has died I am taking on faith, from various media sources. The story seems plausible, given the man’s age (ninety-one); but nothing written about him by journalists can be entirely trusted. This much I remember from decades ago.

It should be said that Lee was a larger historical figure than those now lionizing him have appreciated, or ever appreciated. He was inspiration and excuse for many other tyrants. I once called him, “the great doorsman,” showing them which doors to open and which doors to close, so they could allow “economic progress” to happen, without endangering their own clamp on power. I also called him, “the great tiger rider.”

He was for instance the true, if unintending author of the “economic miracle” in mainland China. It was, I believe, on his visit to Singapore, just before the ground-shifting Communist Party congress of 1978, that Deng Hsiao Ping saw a way forward for China. He already knew that capitalism gets material results, and that socialism does not. What he had not noticed, until that moment, was that the two are reasonably compatible. Lee’s authoritarian rule in Singapore had proved that it is possible for a country to get almost as rich as Hong Kong, without allowing anything like the casual civic freedom which the absent-minded British authorities in Hong Kong had always permitted.

The “Hong Kong model” wouldn’t work for Peking: not if you were a Communist and planning to retain totalitarian power. But the “Singapore model” was extremely promising. Lee had proved that a society could be micromanaged down to the chewing gum level (chewing gum dealers were fined and could be gaoled, gum “vandals” or litterers flogged on the bare buttocks with a wet rattan cane), and yet still be animated by greed. Deng had also realized that the money and technology to kick-start this enterprise could be supplied entirely by foreign investors. Indeed, the scheme would work even better in mainland China, given the potential size of her domestic market. The investors would keep coming, no matter how many had previously lost their shirts (or had their shirts impounded by Party officials). No matter how much abuse they received, they would still think, “We can’t afford not to be in China,” and go back for more punishment. (It is a little-recalled fact that most of the pioneering investors in China lost huge sums of money.)

Nor would Red China face moral qualms from modern Western businessmen, about the exploitation of slave labour through the prison-camp system, and the like. Big-league capitalists tend to be broad-minded about things like that. Perhaps Deng’s most Machiavellian observation was that the man who has risen to the top of a large Western corporation is very much like the man who has risen to a high Party station. He has no morals; his self-interest is pure. The two could understand each other. They could do business together. And only one slogan would need to be added to the Communist Party Manifesto: “It is glorious to get rich.”

Now, I have not been putting this in the most flattering way. Lee and Deng were both strangely honest men. They never really pretended to be serving some transcendent cause: God, for instance. They were just trying to make things work: we call this pragmatism. And they were sincere, I should also think, in wanting their people to eat instead of starve. Both were courageous, and both came to their views through trial and error, though from rather different backgrounds. As it is Lee who has just died, let me focus on him.


The canned obituaries, especially those in the more serious British media, will supply background I won’t bother with. Lee himself, who was a brilliant and extremely articulate man (in six languages: English, Mandarin, Hokkien, Tamil, Malay, and wartime Japanese), provided the context for them:

“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.”

Actually, the final verdict will be in Heaven, but let that pass. The “I” of Lee might also be qualified. Kwa Geok Choo was the invisible half of him. That is the name of his wife, whose background somewhat resembled Lee’s as a Cambridge-trained colonial labour lawyer. In my understanding, but also in his, he would have been nowhere without her. The two together made a secret cabinet, or diarchy. It is worth knowing that he personally attended to her through the long years of her mental and physical decline (she died in 2010); that this largely explained his final retirement from politics, when his own mind was still sharp. He said after her death that caring for her was the hardest job he ever did, and also the most rewarding. This was a ruthless man, but it does not follow that his intentions were evil.

It is also worth knowing that although an unconcealed atheist/agnostic through his many years of political power (both official and unofficial), in his later life Lee took up what he described as “Christian meditation.” He left it at that, and so will I.

He was always an honest tyrant, as he explained while repeatedly prosecuting the one lonely opposition member in the city-state’s legislature:

“If you are a troublemaker, it is our job to politically destroy you. Put it this way. As long as J.B. Jeyaretnam stands for what he stands for — a thoroughly destructive force — we will knock him. Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”

This is very easy for a man to say, when he has a bristling security force behind him. But Lee also said such things much earlier in his career, even before he eliminated trial by jury, and other little heirlooms of British Imperialism. The formative political experience of his youth was the British surrender of Singapore to the Japanese, without a proper fight, in 1942. Later, with little Singapore left to her own devices (after she was expelled from the Malaysian union, to stop Chinese-Malay race riots in 1965), he wasn’t going to show weakness of any kind. A true pessimist, he astutely observed that his modest acreage was surrounded by a cold, cruel, and ideologically aggressive world. He might need more than allies.

Left to her own devices, and without the Prussianesque nanny state that Lee imposed, Singapore would also have become quite obscenely rich. Her founder, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, had correctly selected the perfect little swamp on which to build a great entrepôt: on the main artery of the sea trade with the Far East, at its narrowest choke point. Singapore had always been prosperous. But she had also always needed the protection of the Royal Navy, which she no longer had.

Though predominantly Overseas Chinese, she was a free port, and from her beginnings a beacon to labourers and the enterprising of all races. Local ethnic tensions would thus be an issue for any governor, as they had been. These could be exploited by foreign powers and home-grown revolutionists, as they had also been. That is why Lee made his city English-speaking, and pursued many other “unifying” measures down to strict racial quotas in the provision of semi-public high-rise housing. There was always a reason, and he always knew what it was, even when he magnified a threat out of all proportion.

His pessimism could never be second-guessed, and anyway he wouldn’t allow it to be. Even the prosperity he sought, beyond that of trade, through domestic manufacture and financial services, was in his mind to the purpose of political survival, as in China — though in Singapore’s case a large part of that purpose was not to preserve, but to escape Communism, in the era of Vietnam. That, and only that, was why he became such a reliable ally of the United States. It proved a miscalculation.

The British had, incidentally, quietly won their own battle against the Communist insurgents in Malaya and Borneo, plentifully supplied through Sukarno’s Indonesia — with about one-fortieth of the resources with which the Americans defeated themselves in Vietnam. I mention it here for the one lesson Lee quickly took from it: “Don’t invite the press.” He wasn’t going to have cognitive dissonance in his wee island state.

Instead he was going to have “Asian values.” This truly meaningless phrase (Asia is a very big place) was attached to a specific shortlist of virtues which Lee inculcated in his citizens, without the slightest hint of shyness: Discipline, thrift, hard work, order, respect for authority. These resonated to some degree with inherited Confucian values, but the resemblance has always been overstated: for the truly Confucian desiderata include many other virtues, and carefully balance spiritual goods against material necessities. Lee’s set were tilted purposely against individualism, liberalism, democracy.

Unlike approximately 100 percent of my journalistic colleagues, I think these are good things to tilt against, too. But having said that, I am then compelled to become inscrutably subtle — being also, as it were, with Confucius against Hobbes. There are cultural and ultimately religious values that, under Lee, Singapore was taught to overlook, and the result is the hygienic but arid and vulgar skyscraper state he created, in which there is nothing for the wealth to buy, except more wealth. In the end that, too, is defeated by the human spirit, which cannot be contented with life in an ant colony, even if it is high-tech. Truth will out, it has been said, but also: beauty will out.

Not only Red China, but many other despotic states have lionized Lee Kuan Yew. It is interesting that, for instance, both the warring kleptocracies, in Russia and Ukraine, have cited Lee as a soi-disant revolutionary hero. Western politicians such as Obama and Cameron have also extravagantly praised him, but with no idea what they are talking about. Lee’s prescriptions were for Singapore alone; they become more monstrous the more they are enlarged.

His tears were genuine when Singapore was expelled from the Malaysian union. This is because he aspired to rule the whole thing. Had he done so, he might well have followed different prescriptions, for he was a pragmatist in the extreme. One cannot “copy” pragmatism, and to use Singapore as a model for states in much different situations can work only as an excuse for tyranny. Their statesmen would need the ingenious mind, as well as the ruthless habits of Lee, to be as successful at picking winners: for he was almost unique among twentieth century politicians in guessing where the money was next to be made, when investing state resources. Yet even at that, and discounting several farcical mistakes, he laid false claim to Singapore’s economic success, which could equally have been achieved with civic freedom. (Anarchic Hong Kong’s economy usually out-performed Singapore’s, and Hong Kong’s crime rate was not much higher, through the years when Iron Lee ruled the one, and a few bewildered British ex-pats only pretended to rule the other.)

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters — who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right.”

That was Lee Kuan Yew’s cherubically honest and sincere claim. It wasn’t true, however.