Singapore icon who wanted to be feared, yet was loved

Singaporeans gather along the street as a military gun carriage conveying the coffin of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew passes by in Singapore, March 29, 2015. (Photo : Xinhua)

Singaporeans gather along the street as a military gun carriage conveying the coffin of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew passes by in Singapore, March 29, 2015. (Photo : Xinhua)

Within and without the island-state, his name has been synonymous with Singapore. His demise touched hearts and triggered a seldom-witnessed catharsis as Singaporeans felt the profound loss of their national icon. The spontaneous overflow of emotions for the late elder statesman, whose paternalistic dominance spanning over 30 years was beginning to feel condescending to young Singaporeans, pointed to Lee’s enduring popular legacy.

In a word, people at large felt a void, many a deep personal loss, and the end of an era of sure-touch, no-nonsense rule that he embodied. Political pundits see this mass response as an X factor in the next general elections that must be held before the government’s five-year tenure ends in 2016.

As the first Prime Minister who held the destiny of the nation in his hands for an entire generation, few citizens could imagine life without him. The first inkling that this could change came in early March when the entire island was abuzz with talk about the frail and aging Lee in hospital. As rumors swirled, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement that the senior statesman was under intensive care for pneumonia.

In June 25, 2008, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew greets a guest as he arrives for the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize on the sidelines of the Singapore International Water Week in Singapore. (Photo : AP)

In June 25, 2008, Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew greets a guest as he arrives for the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize on the sidelines of the Singapore International Water Week in Singapore. (Photo : AP)

When the next bulletin disclosed that the ailing veteran politician was on ventilator support, the truth began to sink in, that Singapore might be losing its revered leader.

Then something extraordinary happened. People began to show up at the Singapore General Hospital, as if they wanted to be by the side of the former Minister Mentor in his hour of crisis. They brought bouquets and get-well cards, many wishing that he would recover and take part in national celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence – the island became a free nation on 9 August 1965.

A subsequent statement by the Prime Minister’s Office of Lee’s deteriorating condition prepared the people for the worst to come. On 23 March, Lee passed away, aged 91, plunging the whole country into mourning.

As his body lay in state at Parliament House, thousands upon thousands of citizens queued up to pay their last respects. Thousands more lined the streets to send him off on his last journey, sobbing in the rain and calling out “Lee Kuan Yew, Lee Kuan Yew” as his cortege made its way through the city to the crematorium. Remarkable display of affection, indeed, for a man who once said he would rather be feared than loved, a la Machiavelli,

“If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”

Why the tsunami of emotions?
The outpouring displayed genuine grief and a sense of gratitude, underscoring a deep bonding with the nation’s Founding Father and an acknowledgement that what Singaporeans are today is in large part due to his abiding vision and fearless pragmatism to turn the country into a First World nation, and that too within a single generation.

It was in dire adversity that the bonding was forged. In 1965, Singapore was booted out of Malaysia after an uncompromising wrangling over racial equality. Its impact on Singapore and its people was traumatic. “Imagine being thrown out of the house and feeling like an orphan with no family,” said an analyst. Cut off from the Malayan economic hinterland, Lee turned an independent Singapore’s focus to the West and rest of Asia for survival. This was classic Sun Tzu strategy:

“Know the terrain, know the weather and your victory will be complete.”

A defiant Lee cried: “The world does not owe us a living” and carried the people in an epic-like struggle for economic survival.

The rest is history. This historical rapport or what Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu termed ‘moral leadership’, surfaced anew during the seven days of national mourning when many Singaporeans, young and old, spoke openly and with emotion about the good life they enjoy in their tree-bedecked land, thanks to Lee Kuan Yew. They were inspired by the Remembering Lee Kuan Yew broadcasts by the state radio and television as well as the reams of tributes in the pro-establishment newspapers. Vintage Lee, the orator was coming alive in speeches and film footage, demonstrating the power of the media in winning hearts and minds.

In the euphoria, even some of the fiercest critics of his political repressions were won over. A common sentiment goes like this:

“He did it for the good of Singapore; I could forgive him.”

The end justifies the means, so to speak. This has to do with the tactics used by Lee to sideline and vanquish his erstwhile leftist allies through detention without trial.

The no-holds-barred in-fighting for supremacy in the lead-up to Singapore’s independence bears comparison with the Three Kingdom’s warfare scenario in China in which Liu Bei of Shu Han state was pitted against Cao Cao of Wei and Sun Quan of Wu.

Tactics of trickery and deception such as those used by Zhuge Liang, military adviser to Liu Bei, to win battles were regarded as virtues of generals. No doubt as a combative politician, Lee Kuan Yew was familiar with such a military tradition. Such was Zhuge Liang’s reputation as a military genius that a popular saying has it that he is to be feared dead or alive. On his deathbed, he left instructions to his lieutenants to hold off any open mourning as the enemies in the Wei camp would be watching.

Instead, they were to put up a life-size cut-off of Zhuge Liang on a chariot and moved out ahead of the Shu army. That trick worked and the Wei troops fled, thinking their arch-enemy was still alive.

“Zhuge Liang’s last trick of cheating death itself is one of the finest evocations in Chinese literature of the power of fame, and of a great name, to outlive death and even to turn the tide of war,” says John E. Wills, Jr. in Mountain of Fame. Lee Kuan Yew’s deathbed scenario goes this way:

“And even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I’ll get up!”

Openly mourned, the resurgence of the Lee ethos and spirit following his passing has made Opposition parties reconsider any plans they might have of contesting the constituency of Tanjong Pagar he had represented since 1955. As for the governing PAP, it could count on reaping the dividend of the late leader’s born-again fame.

Life-and-death struggle for supremacy pits Lee against nemesis Lim
he governing PAP, it could count on reaping the dividend of the late leader’s born-again fame.

Plunging into the nationalistic struggle in the 1950s to oust the British authorities, returned political activist Lee Kuan Yew, with a double first in law from Cambridge and Fabian leanings, made calculated moves. He aligned himself, strategically, with the Chinese-educated left-wing forces leading the charge and played legal counsel to trade unions that were the shock troops in the fight for independence.

Of the former, Lee had said in his book The Battle for Merger:

“We, the English-educated revolutionaries, went in trying to tap this oil-field of political resources, and soon found our pipelines crossing those of the Communist Party. We were late-comers trying to tap the same oil-fields. We were considered by the Communists as poaching in their exclusive territory.”

In Feb. 18, 1972, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shakes hands with Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, as she arrived in Singapore during her tour of the Far East. (Photo : AP)

In Feb. 18, 1972, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew shakes hands with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, as she arrived in Singapore during her tour of the Far East. (Photo : AP)

The freshly-minted lawyer soon emerged a serious contender for power vis-à-vis popular trade unionist Lim Chin Siong, who was calling the shots on the ground. Capitalizing on one another’s strength was the name of the game. Lee’s high-profile court victories for several public sector unions saw his personal reputation and popularity soar to rival Lim’s heft with workers and Chinese school students. In the common cause of ending colonial rule, however, Lee and Lim came together to form the People’s Action Party (PAP). But Lee drew the battle lines. A shade of Sun Tzu here:

“Know your enemy, know yourself and your victory will not be threatened.”

The PAP Secretary General articulated the party’s goal as “independent, democratic, non-communist socialist Malaya” to differentiate himself from Lim whom he portrayed as pro-communist. The latter was quick to deny the charge, affirming:

“Let me make it clear once and for all that I am not a Communist or a Communist front-man or, for that matter, anybody’s front man.”

Indeed, Lee once described Lim as a potential Prime Minister of Singapore. According to David Marshall, Singapore’s First Chief Minister from 1955 to 1956, Lee had praised his nemesis as “the finest Chinese orator in Singapore and he will be our next Prime Minister!”

But Lee was determined to stop Lim from getting that honor. Their tussle culminated in a parting of ways as Lim set up the Barisan Sosialis (the now-defunct political party) to vie with the PAP in deciding Singapore’s destiny.

With his mass following, Lim began to gain the upper hand. However, Lee’s painting Lim as a Communist open-front leader raised British and Federation of Malaya’s fears of a potential communist regime in Singapore.

In 1962, the Internal Security Council acted to nip the perceived threat in the bud. Lim and his lieutenants were rounded up in a security sweep codenamed ‘Operation Coldstore’, and detained without trial. The coup de grace avoided the Lee-Lim battle royal.

With their leadership decapitated, the Barisan Sosiali was outwitted in the merger referendum when its call for blank votes mustered only 25 per cent support. In contrast, with a 71 per cent endorsement for the PAP’s plan for Singapore’s merger with Malaya, Lee emerged as the eventual victor.

Against the odds, the iron-willed political warrior had outwitted and outmaneuvered his formidable leftist foes – a feat of mounting the tiger and subduing it.

Singapore Lee Kuan Yew

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