Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Lee Kuan Yew, a fighter for the world’s better instincts

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger pays tribute to the late Lee Kuan Yew, whose leadership not only made a nation where there was none, but also acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe

Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distil order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonisation, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been – indeed where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from US$500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly US$55,000 today.

In a generation, Singapore became an international financial centre, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favoured site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving – and inspirational – to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order.

A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable US contribution to the defence and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam war. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether president Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” – not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But US leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the US there could be no stability.

Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current US constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

Henry A. Kissinger was US secretary of state from 1973 to 1977. Copyright: 2015 Tribune Content Agency


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Under Lee Kuan Yew, the press was only as free as it needed to be to serve Singapore

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Cheong Yip Seng

Cheong Yip Seng tells how Lee Kuan Yew, who saw the press as subordinate to the nation’s needs, made sure that only he and his government could set the agenda for Singapore

One November evening in 1999, Lee Kuan Yew telephoned: He was troubled by a new information phenomenon, which was threatening to overwhelm the traditional media industry. In America, the markets were rapidly coming to the conclusion that there was no future in print newspapers, whose eyeballs were migrating to cyberspace.

How would this information revolution impact the Singapore media? He was anxious to find a response that would enable the mainstream media to keep its eyeballs. He wanted us at Singapore Press Holdings to think about the way forward.

For him, the media was one of three institutions in Singapore he told an aide he needed to control in order to govern effectively. The other two were the Treasury and the armed forces.

His relations with the media had been rocky at the start of his political career. While he was in the opposition, not everyone in the press had sympathy for his political goals. The Malaysian Malay media, which could then circulate in Singapore, was hostile.

My first editor-in-chief, Leslie Hoffman, had a furious row with him over press freedom that blazed across the front pages of The Straits Times, and went all the way to the International Press Institute (IPI) annual assembly in 1959 in Berlin.

Once in office, Lee set out to change the rules of the game: he and his government, not the press, would set the agenda for the country. They wanted command of the national narrative.

What did he want of the press in Singapore? He put it best in 1971 when he went to another IPI conference following another bitter confrontation with the Singapore media: “The mass media can help to present Singapore’s problems simply and clearly, and then explain how if they support certain programmes and policies, these problems can be solved.

“More important, we want the mass media to reinforce, not undermine, the cultural values and social attitudes being inculcated in our schools and universities … The freedom of the press must be subordinated to the integrity of Singapore and the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

He wanted the press to help him if it thought his policies deserved support. The operative word was “if”. He did not want blind support. A sycophantic press would be worthless to him, he would tell us on more than one occasion. It would have no credibility. In truth, most of his policies made sense.

The list is long. Robust multinational corporation-led growth wiped out double-digit unemployment, widespread in the early years following independence. Affordable public housing was easily available, made possible by large-scale land acquisition at below-market rates and use of the Central Provident Fund. An overhaul of the education system reduced once unacceptably high drop-out rates in schools so everyone could realise his full potential. Tough laws were introduced to ensure safety in the streets. Good housekeeping by never living beyond our means meant a debt-free state, crucial for a sound economy.

These and many more. That might well be, but the pitfalls for us were many even though he and our editors shared broadly similar goals: we both wanted what was best for a young nation and we believed in a credible press at the same time.

For example, land acquisition unsettled many thousands of people who had to be forcibly moved. How do we report this massive exercise without reflecting the angst as well? Or, in the case of education, we could not avoid reporting the very adverse reactions to streaming and bilingualism. But in the process, we opened ourselves up to strong suspicions that we were undermining those initiatives.

Lee did not believe a Western-style media was in Singapore’s best interest. He wanted a media like the BBC, whose objectivity he valued. He was impressed with the Japanese press. He believed its agenda was driven by what would best serve Japanese interests.

We went to Japan to find out more. But they are a different society in so many different ways. They operated press clubs in every ministry and journalists at the clubs work at the ministry every day in a largely symbiotic relationship. It would not be workable here.

How did he translate into practice his vision of the kind of journalism he wanted? I can only answer for the time I was at The Straits Times, from 1963 to 2006. Put simply, in the early years, he used the hard line, with what he called knuckledusters, to press his point of view, whenever he was dissatisfied with the way we covered the challenges Singapore faced.

He believed that Singaporeans had deeply embedded Asian values they should not dilute without serious consequences. Hence, he went all out to protect the strength of the family unit. So, coverage of lifestyles that could weaken the family was a constant bone of contention. It proved tricky for the newsroom, so exposed were we to Western cultural influences and fads.

He always reminded us how the world worked. He would send us articles he had read or shared with editors his experiences over the occasional lunch or dinner. They were mostly about developments elsewhere that had an impact on Singapore.

He was always looking over the horizon, studying what trends would affect us and what new strategies were needed to either take advantage of them or minimise their adverse effects.

His goal was to educate his people and one way was through the mass media. The purpose was simple: unless Singaporeans understood the realities of having to live off a small, resource-poor tropical island in an ever-changing world, they would not understand, and hopefully support, his tough policies.

Over time, one reality he had to accept was this: as Singapore developed, he had to abandon his knuckleduster ways; they were ill-suited to a more educated electorate wanting more political space.

Closing down newspapers and detaining journalists, actions that traumatised us in our newsrooms in the early 1970s, were no longer options.

In his closing years as prime minister, he took a more sophisticated and persuasive approach, stepping up his contact with the media to explain the issues in person, to convince and to cajole.

On our part, we continued to press the need for more space and diversity of opinions in our pages, or lose credibility. We had to respond to the changing needs of the public who wanted out-of-bounds, or OB, markers for national discourse moved.

It was always a fine balancing act, how to professionally serve our readers without appearing to undermine policy. Regular run-ins with the government were thus par for the course.

Cheong Yip Seng is a former editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings’ English and Malay Newspapers Division. He is an editorial adviser for SCMP Publishers. This is an edited extract from his book, OB Markers

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Laissez-faire Hong Kong could do with some leadership steel from a Lee Kuan Yew

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Mak Kwok Wah

Mak Kwok Wah says a look at the leadership style of the late Lee Kuan Yew might throw light on the extent of government intervention needed to solve livelihood problems in laissez-faire Hong Kong

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, has revived much attention in Hong Kong about the way the city state has been governed, in the hope that it may shed some light on our own future.

Lee is highly regarded as a distinguished statesman who led a small territory with few natural resources – like Hong Kong – to become a first world nation. Former US presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush called him a “remarkable leader and statesman” and “one of the brightest and most effective world leaders” respectively.

Some critics attributed his success to the efficiency and authority attained by his government through an authoritarian regime. If we measure his governance against the “core values” we often talk about in Hong Kong – that is, democracy, freedom and the rule of law – the negative comment may well be true. Paternalism does not go down well with a democratic government, nor does it embrace freedoms. The harsh punishment for some minor offences and the frequent use of libel suits against adversaries speak volumes about his “rule by law”.

Irrespective of all these, Singapore has gone from strength to strength. It regularly tops global indices of competitiveness and places second in a list of the world’s freest economies. Its per capita gross domestic product has long passed that of Hong Kong’s and its housing policy is the envy of those in Hong Kong who have been hard-pressed by rocketing property prices.

The difference in the way Hong Kong and Singapore are governed boils down to one basic factor: the degree of government intervention. When China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong, the special administrative region had to operate on its own and the people began to have their say in how the place should be run. They had more room to manoeuvre in making known their views and demands.

The so-called positive non-intervention approach inherited from the colonial government could no longer respond to the aspirations of the community. At the least, the basic “safety net” provided by social welfare services could not satisfy the needs of the people any more, and they were able to voice their demands through more representatives in the Legislative Council.

After the transition, the first chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, was preoccupied with the need to transform a public machinery filled with bureaucrats into a ministerial government. With the rise of the democratic camp, Tung was put on the defence by attacks from the pro-democracy parties and a free media, not to mention the other challenges he faced, including the Asian financial turmoil and the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic.

Having served for decades in a colonial government, Tung’s successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, was a diehard follower of positive non-interventionism. He had a strong belief in market forces and developed the extreme policy of allowing developers to choose land for auction, a policy that lasted several years, and left Hong Kong people to fend for themselves in many regards.

Now that Leung Chun-ying has taken over, he apparently wants to move Hong Kong away from its laissez-faire approach to development. He has called a halt to providing maternity services for mainland mothers, limited the quantity of infant formula powder that can be taken across the border and reserved land for property for local residents. It is difficult to argue that he does not have local interests at heart when formulating policies involving Hong Kong and the mainland.

The growth of democracy is a compelling factor in the governance of Hong Kong. Since 1997, the number of seats in Legco’s geographical constituencies has risen from 20 to 35. In addition, five seats are now directly elected in the district council functional constituency. Once the democratic process has taken root, there can be no U-turn, though the pace of development is open to argument.

The opening up of the government makes it impossible for Hong Kong to borrow in full the “father knows best” style from Singapore. Yet, it is equally impossible for the government not to intervene, especially on livelihood issues.

Take housing as an example. About 84 per cent of Singaporeans are housed in government flats, while the corresponding figure in Hong Kong is only about 46 per cent. The need to raise the percentage is clear to all. New buildings would certainly offend some interest groups. For example, they might obstruct the views of some tenants or the community may have to give up some green-belt areas.

These problems are not unique to Hong Kong; they are also faced by Singapore. Why those in Singapore have managed to solve the problems and we have failed is worth some thought by all.

Hong Kong has been in a stalemate for quite some time, be it politically or economically. While we treasure the democracy and freedoms we now enjoy, we need the steadfastness of a Lee Kuan Yew to break the gridlock in accordance with public aspirations. The current government has been tasked to strike a fine balance between Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore and laissez-faire Hong Kong.

Mak Kwok Wah is a former assistant director in the Government Information Services

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The real Lee Kuan Yew will be left to future generations to uncover

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Tom Plate

Tom Plate says the work of truly understanding the political genius of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew will have to be left to future generations, who in time will have a more panoramic view

My differences of opinion with Lee Kuan Yew (which included views about the future role of China’s Community Party and other matters) included one about the character of his political genius. For that, as any fair-minded observer of the founding father of bustling modern Singapore knew, was what he was.

But what was its nature?

Lee and his followers, which much of the time included most of the people of Singapore, showed the world that economic self-improvement had to have public policies grounded in best-practice pragmatisms rather than in ideological schematics. It also required hard-working citizens sharing the vision to get off the ground. Whether your political system was argumentative-parliamentarian, messy-democracy or shut-up authoritarian, the people had to be brought along and had to believe in the leader’s way of moving forward if they were to give it their best.

“LKY” (as he used to sign his private notes) convinced people that his way – hard work, scientific public policy, political-party monopoly, clean government, and media as an ally, not a smarty-pants second-guesser – would work if given a chance. And it did. In his own phraseology, Singapore went from third world to first in almost a generation’s time, never stopping for a rest, much less to entertain a second guess or tolerate second-guessers.

I once offered Lee the formulation of the late Isaiah Berlin, the great Oxford don who imagined political genius in the manner of Tolstoy. The great ones were either “hedgehogs” (one giant idea brainiacs) or “foxes” (a million clever approaches). Their political sense was either multifaceted (the ultra-alert fox who knew a thousand ways to survive) or focused on a single survival move. The wartime Winston Churchill with his many tricks was a fox; Albert Einstein, who could barely cross a street without help, was the hedgehog with his one world-changing idea.

LKY, only grudgingly accepting my Berlin-Tolstoy dichotomy, insisted he was a fox, not a hedgehog: “You may call me a ‘utilitarian’ or whatever. I am interested in what works.”

He had a strong argument. Really good and sophisticated governance requires a map of multiple routes to the future, not to mention mature management of the present. Critics belittled the result as a “nanny state”, but not every nanny was as competent and diligent as this one. Little Singapore’s journey also needed a team of like-minded colleagues and a talented people, with a Confucian culture that could tolerate exceptionally strong and singular leadership.

So I accepted his demurrer and had to face facts; Einstein, after all, had worked more or less alone, not with a cabinet full of ministers and dozens of problems pressing daily. Besides, who would know him better than himself? Perhaps only his late wife Kwa Geok Choo understood what was behind that iconic public face that at one hour could be so gruff and cold and intimidating, and two hours later so charming and gracious and reasonable.

I told him I marvelled at how well Singaporeans understood him, but he shook his head and snapped back: “They think they know me, but they only know the public me.”

My sense is that, for all his writings and interviews, he was right about that. So we await the some future longish biography that gets to the real bones-and-flesh man behind the public figure. For the interim version, I tried – probing him with questions about his sons, including the current well-performing prime minister; his daughter, the brilliant medical professional; and of course his late wife. And that did let in some light. But when once asked whether there was anyone alive who was like him, he answered without apology: “I do not know of any person who is most like me.”

About that – again – he may well have been right. If so, that helps make my case for awarding him hedgehog honours despite everything. Let us note that in one conversation, he summoned up the notable figure Jean Monnet, whom history reveres for his prophetic vision of European unity, by way of a common market and European Union. For this one singular contribution, Monnet gets marked as a political hedgehog. So how is the Lee Kuan Yew a modern Monnet, as I suspect history will say?

We will require more time to helicopter upwards for the illuminating panoramic view. But in my mind, with each year in power, he grew into a composite figure, a dual icon of sorts where a modern-day Plato (glowing with the vision of an ideal city state run solely by the virtuous) fused with a modern-day Machiavelli (calculating strategies to keep the “soft-headed” utopian vision from getting its head chopped off).

To govern in these fraught times, I am afraid to say it, but you need to be both. The political hedgehog in effect must have two sides to his political being. As Machiavelli insisted, it was best if the leader was both feared and loved. Because Lee Kuan Yew had it all, he became a political giant of his time. Personally, over the decades, I met no one most like him.

I wish his surviving family and relatives the very best, and thank him for all the time he offered me – and for all the wisdom and insights he gave me that I hope will never leave me.

Tom Plate is the author of Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew in the Giants of Asia book series. His next book is The Fine Art of the Interview. He is the Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles

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Singapore will survive Lee Kuan Yew’s death, but will it still thrive?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

Sun Xi

Sun Xi outlines the challenges Singapore faces to maintain its prosperity

An iconic statesman has left us. Lee Kuan Yew will sadly miss Singapore’s golden jubilee independence celebrations this year.

For most Chinese, Lee was famous for advising Deng Xiaoping on China’s reform and opening up, which was why I chose to study in the public policy school under his name.

Lee, described as a big man on a small stage by some, including Henry Kissinger, has been widely recognised as one of the most influential political figures in Asia and beyond. His achievements were truly remarkable, transforming Singapore into a Garden City from “a disgrace to a civilised community with one of the world’s worst slums”, and an important international trade and financial hub, with one of the least corrupt and most efficient governments on earth.

So, will Singapore continue to survive and thrive without Lee? In the short term, it will be nearly impossible for Singapore to slide into chaos.

First, Singapore has successfully built up a civil society firmly based on the rule of law, where people are used to pursue rights or voice complaints in legal ways rather than resorting to violence. Second, Singapore has, in fact, been running smoothly in the post-Lee-Kuan-Yew era for a while, since Lee’s resignation as the minister mentor in 2011. Last, his death is not a shock to most Singaporeans, who have been mentally ready for such sad news for a while, considering his age and worsening health in recent years.

It’s likely that the political power in Singapore will be reallocated and rebalanced between local parties and even among those implicit factions within the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP).

However, the PAP will probably continue to remain in power in the next general election, to be held at the latest by January 2017.

If the election takes place this year, the PAP may even improve on its victory margin, benefiting from the “sympathy effect” of Lee’s death.

In the long run, however, Singapore faces several challenges to maintain its social stability and prosperity. The first is how to objectively and comprehensively review Lee?

Every Singaporean will have his or her own judgments on Lee’s contributions and faults. So it may be wise to allow or even facilitate public discourse so as to maximise the general consensus and avoid social divisions, especially in the new media age.

Second, how to generate more Lee Kuan Yews and avoid “bad emperors”? Professor Francis Fukuyama considers Lee “a good emperor”, but questions whether Singapore can ensure a continuous supply of such leaders. Singapore has done very well in state-building and instituting the rule of law, but it needs to move towards a democratic and accountable government.

It is a pressing but risky task for Singapore to develop a better political system, which will not only ensure more effective checks and balances, but also prevent dysfunctional governance.

Third, how to keep a balance and survive between major powers? So far, the “Little Red Dot” has smartly managed its “balancing strategy” to survive in the space between its neighbours and major powers, largely because of Lee’s visionary mastery of global politics and his personal and influential relationship with both Beijing and Washington.

Therefore, it is questionable whether Singapore without Lee can continue to enjoy its enviable role as an honest broker by declining to choose sides, especially given the escalating Sino-US strategic competition in Southeast Asia.

The demise of Lee will not be the end of Singapore. Nevertheless, he had his own fears, stating: “Will Singapore be around in 100 years? I am not so sure…” Then, without him, whither Singapore?

Sun Xi, a Chinese alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is a senior investment analyst and independent commentary writer based in Singapore