Amid the tributes, some brickbats and questions

Amid the tributes, some brickbats and questions
PAP POWER: Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his ministers at a rally in Anson for the by-elections in 1961.

While many political leaders and commentators around the world have lavished praise on Mr Lee Kuan Yew and his record, there have also been voices of criticism and some have raised questions whether the island he built up has outgrown its founder's methods of running the country.

There are also questions on how Singapore's politics will play out in the years ahead, and how orderly its political succession will be.

While hailing the economic transformation that Mr Lee and his team had wrought, several commentators also labelled Singapore an autocratic state, charging that the people's freedoms had had been curbed in the name of progress.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International urged the next generation of leaders to ensure that their era is marked by what it called genuine respect for human rights and ask the same hard questions Mr Lee himself spoke of in 1964, a few months before Singapore's independence.

"Is this an open, or is this a closed, society? Is it a society where men can preach ideas - novel, unorthodox, heresies, to established churches and established governments - where there is a constant contest for men's hearts and minds on the basis of what is right, of what is just, of what is in the national interests, or is it a closed society where the mass media - the newspapers, the journals, publications, TV, radio… are fed with a constant drone of sycophantic support for a particular orthodox political philosophy?..." Amnesty said, quoting from Mr Lee's speech of the time.

In the most trenchant criticism of Mr Lee, Politico magazine ran a feature called The Curse of Lee Kuan Yew. The article, written by Mr Ben Judah, author of a book on Russian President Vladimir Putin, called Mr Lee "a myth, a global idea - an intellectual cult built around the idea that not all autocrats are bad".

Noting that Mr Putin and former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili are admirers of Mr Lee, it added that since the early 2000s, "the cult of Lee Kuan Yew has been an unmitigated disaster in Eastern Europe, where the example set by Singapore's unapologetic autocrat has helped to rehabilitate and legitimise authoritarianism".

Thanks to the "myth of Singapore", Kremlin elites came to believe - for the first time since the 1980s - that there could be a third way between Western liberal democracy, especially following the path of the European Union, and despotic authoritarian rule, Mr Judah said.

The Guardian of London noted that the last parliamentary elections marked the People's Action Party's (PAP) worst performance, even as it got 60 per cent of the vote and all but six of the 87 seats. The Government responded by changing its tone and expanding programmes to help the less well-off. Even so, the gulf between rich and poor remained vast and had fed discontent, along with living costs and immigration. Controls on Internet news sites have been tightened, it noted.

"Change is overdue," said The Guardian. "A growing number of Singaporeans chafe at Lee-style paternalism and seek to assert their rights. Perhaps the country could one day be the model for a new set of Asian values: social and political liberalisation, rather than cash and control, with freedom and equality celebrated alongside stability."

The New York Times echoed the theme in an article called Singapore, The Nation That Lee Kuan Yew Built, Questions Its Direction.

It said the country's increasingly assertive and demanding electorate are calling for a new social contract, a more consultative government and participatory rule-making.

The paper said issues that were unthinkable in Mr Lee's time now cannot be dismissed so easily, including the prospect that the PAP could split into factions, "a possibility that some believe is beginning to take shape".

Mr Bill Emmott, who as former editor of The Economist had several run-ins with the Singapore Government, also pondered how post-Lee politics would evolve, particularly when it came to leadership transition.

"The issue is certainly solvable, especially given an excellent education system and high-quality institutions of all kinds. But Lee's own actions suggest that he harboured doubts."


This article was first published on March 27, 2015.
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