Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What does Lee Kuan Yew's legacy mean for China?

Lee Kuan Yew (or Li Guang Yao in Mandarin), Singapore's founding father.

These last few days, the Chinese government and media have been falling over themselves to praise the legacy of the recently deceased Singaporean statesman, Lee Kuan Yew.

I don’t find this at all surprising. For one thing, Lee Kuan Yew (who like most Singaporeans is of Chinese descent himself) had cultivated excellent ties with China ever since Deng Xiaoping took power. But more than that, the Singapore he created looks a bit like a dream version of the country which the Beijing elite would like China to become: a society which is prosperous, efficient, respected and at the same time governed with authoritarian and paternal methods which allow for no real dissent.

Lee Kuan Yew is rightly revered for his many achievements. At the same time, he always made it clear that he did not believe in liberal democracy and in allowing dissent to flourish. Here are a few quotes by the father of modern Singapore, which the Guardian dug out the other day: “If you are a troublemaker... it’s our job to politically destroy you... 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.” “You take a poll of any people. What is it they want? The right to write an editorial as you like? They want homes, medicine, jobs, schools.” Spoken like a true China Daily editorial.

The Singapore Lee created was one where opposition politicians would more often than not find themselves jailed, exiled, or ruined through expensive libel suits which the compliant courts would endorse. And his legacy isn’t dead. The modern and civilized city-state continues to be ruled with authoritarian methods, although things are changing. There is still no separation of powers, the press is muzzled, and dissent is only barely tolerated. 

Elections are held, but the PAP (People’s Action Party) Lee created has yet to lose one. 
Singapore was ranked 150th for freedom of the press in 2014. The legal system is also harsh. The death penalty is still in the books not only for murder, but even for drug dealing, and Singapore is one of the countries with the highest number of executions relative to population. Caning is still used as a punishment for a variety of minor crimes, as two German graffiti artists recently discovered (and we are talking about a kind of caning which can leave scars for life).

One might find it slightly ironic that Beijing should be lavishing such praise on a man who was a convinced anti-communist. During his rule, the communist party (which had quite a following in Singapore) was outlawed and harshly repressed. Another one of Lee's quotes is: ““We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”

But of course none of this would bother those currently in power in Beijing, who have long abandoned any true interest in communist ideology in favour of a belief in stability, economic growth and authoritarianism justified by vague references to traditional Chinese values. In other words, exactly what Lee Kuan Yew advocated (except that he would make reference to “Asian values” rather than specifically Chinese ones, perhaps so as not alienate Indian and Malay Singaporeans). Unsurprisingly, Chinese officials have often been sent on study tours to Singapore, and its model held up as an example.

I would certainly not wish to diminish Lee Kuan Yew’s accomplishments. Under his watch, Singapore went from being a remote colonial outpost to one of the richest societies on earth, well known for its modernity, efficiency and cleanliness. After Singapore separated from Malaysia, he also managed to build a system in which racial tensions between the Chinese and the Malay were contained. Lee Kuan Yew always felt that the end justified the means, and looking at modern Singapore, it is hard not to agree with him to some extent.

At the same time, what worked in Singapore is not going to work in Mainland China. Singapore is a city with 5.5 million people, and the government was clever to turn it into an international financial hub before the rest of Asia was well developed. But what can be done with a city can’t be done with a landmass with 1.4 billion people. 

It is true that paternalistic authoritarianism and harsh laws have turned Singapore into an eminently clean, efficient and safe city. It is also true that Singapore’s government is well known to be honest and incorrupt. However, anyone who lives in China can testify that decades of authoritarian rule based on a rather similar ideology have not really had the same effect there. Corruption remains endemic and systemic, efficiency and safety have only been achieved in some areas of life, and as for cleanliness the less said the better.

It must also be considered that while Singapore is largely a Chinese society, when it achieved independence the elite was British-educated and had a Western outlook in many areas. Lee Kuan Yew (known to friends as Harry Lee) was a case in point. When he took power, 70% of Singaporeans spoke a Chinese dialect at home. However Lee himself had grown up in an affluent household where only English was spoken, had been schooled entirely in English and then went to Cambridge University. He only began to learn Chinese at age 32 (ironically, in 1979 he began a successful campaign to get Singaporeans to speak Mandarin instead of other Chinese dialects/languages). 

The truth is that the legacy of rule of law and civic sense left by the British, a small population of immigrants and an economy based on financial services all make for a recipe which cannot be emulated in China. Better models on which to base China's political system, in my opinion, could be provided by places like South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. But those are models which Beijing's bureaucrats are less likely to find attractive.


Daniel Kevlar said...

Took the words out of my mouth, comrade.


justrecently said...

But more than that, the Singapore he created looks a bit like a dream version of the country which the Beijing elite would like China to become: a society which is prosperous, efficient, respected and at the same time governed with authoritarian and paternal methods which allow for no real dissent.

That's true. But it seems that he saw China a long way from that goal, according to this source (which sounded familiar to me when I read it - I think it is basically a correct reflection of what Lee said at the time:

... Lee abruptly shifted gears. He said that the older generation of Chinese understood the Confucian values of modesty and humility, but he feared the new generation did not. He criticized destruction of Japanese property and facilities in response to the recent visit of Japanese Premier Koizumi to Yasukuni Shrine. He complained that masses of Chinese Internet users had insulted his son, then Singapore’s deputy prime minister, for visiting Taiwan, referring to “Big China” and “Little Singapore.” He said these actions sent a profoundly disturbing message to China’s neighbors.

As for his views and Singapore's political system, I believe his son and successor will be facing big challenges, soon. The Singapore model stood on the feet of this great late man.