Behind the no-nonsense demeanour, a heart that beat for Singapore

Behind the no-nonsense demeanour, a heart that beat for Singapore
Students in Hong Kong putting up posters protesting against Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s visit to the Chinese University of Hong Kong in December 2000.

I HAVE seen how Mr Lee Kuan Yew responded to protests. This was in Hong Kong - Dec 7, 2000. It was an episode I will never forget, as it revealed what, in the end, counted most for him.

He had gone to Hong Kong to receive his honorary doctorate in law from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

In the month leading up to the ceremony, some student activists had mounted a campaign against Mr Lee, denouncing him as a "notorious dictator", a "legal terrorist" and as being "anti-Chinese education".

They challenged the university's decision to confer on him the degree - the first foreign political leader to be given such an honour.

Their agitation was part of the thriving protest culture in Hong Kong, as if to proclaim like a loud-hailer its democratic credentials after its transition in 1997 from British rule to Beijing's control.

I was covering Mr Lee's three-day visit to Hong Kong as The Straits Times' senior political correspondent, and was struck by how little the student activists actually knew about Singapore.

It was telling that the 21-year-old student leading the campaign - the students' union president - had never been to Singapore.

Despite the controversy, Mr Lee turned up in Hong Kong out of a desire to maintain Singapore's good relations with the territory.

At the ceremony, the university gave Mr Lee a glowing tribute - he was hailed, among other things, as "one of the great statesmen of the last century in any country, and a brilliant politician, who has become a valued adviser of many governments besides that of Singapore".

The accolades seemed to roll off Mr Lee.

He wore a no-nonsense expression as he faced the 4,000 graduating students before him.

While some students withheld their applause, none turned their backs on him, as urged by their students' union.

The mood was taut. A clutch of student protesters, cordoned off at the far end of the convocation area, chanted: "Shame on Chinese U!", "Shame on Lee!"

Amid the muffled clamour, Mr Lee addressed the graduands in a matter-of-fact tone.

With his forthright manner, he held their rapt attention as he told them that the future of Hong Kong was what the people and leaders of Hong Kong made of it.

Then he stated some hard facts on Hong Kong's future which would prove prescient.

Pointing out the political chasm between Hong Kong and China, he said he believed there could be advances for Hong Kong to have a more representative and participatory government "if they can persuade the leaders in Beijing that they are willing to work within the framework of the People's Republic of China and Special Administrative Region constitutions".

He warned that failure to do so would find the Chief Executive and the people of Hong Kong locked in a "frustrating process of attrition" with Beijing.

He could well be describing the political situation in Hong Kong today, with the city in a deadlock over an electoral reform proposal by Beijing.

But, at the time in 2000, some foreign journalists were more seized with the students' protest than Mr Lee's analysis. They pressed him for his response to the protest.

Without a pause, he responded: He did not come to seek the approval of the protesters in Hong Kong. "I've been called many bad things before and I have survived them all. I have been elected in Singapore eight times in eight democratic elections by the people of Singapore."

And that was that, his final word on that subject.

Following the event, several Hong Kong newspapers called the protest against Mr Lee a failure.

As indeed it was.

High standards

THIS incident at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and his stout retort came to my mind over the last week after Mr Lee's death, as I read some commentaries in the Western press rehashing the usual criticisms of Singapore's democracy, and branding Mr Lee a dictator.

They seemed not to have put much store, if any, on the fact that Mr Lee enjoyed the support of the vast majority of Singaporeans, who are educated well enough to make their own choices on the type of government and society they wanted.

As a former political journalist who tracked Mr Lee's career in politics, and now as Member of Parliament, I know that, at the end of the day, whatever names his critics in any part of the world might call him, one fact ultimately counted for him and his case: The popular support of his people, the Singaporeans he served since Singapore became self-governing in 1959.

As their prime minister from 1959 to 1990, he had governed with the heavy knowledge that the people had entrusted their lives to him and looked to him and his team to lead them through the nation's darkest moments and into a brighter future.

Having struggled and survived so many desperate moments together to build up Singapore, he had formed a deep bond with the people as they returned him to power in each general election - despite some of his tough policies.

Their support was not handed to him on a silver platter. Every inch had to be fought for, every vote wrested from bruising political battles.

For decades, his biggest political challenge came from Chinese opponents who deployed the race/language card to appeal to the Chinese majority.

It would have been easy for Mr Lee - a Chinese prime minister - to do the same if political dominance was all that he sought.

But he and his colleagues wanted to build an equal and just society for all, regardless of race, language or religion. This took political courage.

He led, not by fiat, but through personal example - incorruptible, capable and completely committed to Singapore's interests. The people saw that, and supported him.

His idea of looking at humanity was to see in it what united the people. His guiding principle for the country's survival was to organise society such that peace and stability would prevail - essential conditions for a small, vulnerable multiracial state to compete in a harsh world - and that the best was brought out of that society.

Mr Lee, like so many of his Old Guard, had been seared by the memory of the mortal battle against the communists and communalists, and the race riots that shook Singapore in the 1960s.

He had been called many names: Anti-Malay by the Malay ultras, anti-Chinese education by the Chinese chauvinists, and a traitor to his race and country by the communists.

Using a volatile mix of innuendoes and outright condemnation, they tried to stigmatise him and whip up hatred against him, in an attempt to weaken him and sap his willpower to govern.

From such scorching experiences, he had learnt not to be intimidated by political vilification from opponents but to meet them head-on. From every such struggle, he emerged with harder calluses, but also with greater faith in the people's ability to make the right judgments.

He won every election he contested since his first in 1955, when he won the Tanjong Pagar seat in the colonial Legislative Assembly. He remained its MP till his death on March 23.

He set and demanded high standards from all, including himself. He guarded his Government's hard-won moral standing from being sullied, so that he and his team could govern effectively and improve the people's lives.

Many a time, he had observed how leaders in some Western democracies had found themselves hamstrung and unable to deliver on their promises, because their credibility had been irreparably harmed by the constant barbs and the endless political bickering.

Hard-won respect, support

THE essence of Mr Lee's convictions, acquired under fire on the political battlefield, was that for Singapore to be governed effectively, the respect that people have for its leaders must be preserved.

As he told me in an interview in 1995, once that respect is lost, "you can stumble along from day to day and pretend that it's business as usual. But nobody really takes the Government seriously".

People can take issue with his policies; just be prepared for a robust exchange. But let no one doubt the integrity of the Government and its leaders.

If anyone accused him or the other political leaders of corruption or uttered all manner of untruths to confuse the people, then get ready to be challenged or to appear in court to prove the charges.

I once asked him if he needed to take such a strong stand.

He replied: "Supposing I had been a different person and when people throw darts at me, I smile at them. Then they will take an arrow and put arsenic on the tip and strike me, and I smile back? You think today's Singapore would have come about?"

It was not the kind of answer that would please his Western liberal critics. But then he was not seeking their approval. They did not have to deal with Singapore's vulnerabilities, or live with the consequences.

The most important thing is that we the people of Singapore know: Behind the no-nonsense persona was a heart that beat for this country.

Of course, he was not perfect - he never pretended to be so. Like any leader of conviction, he had his share of critics and detractors.

Some could be found within his own trusted circles.

One of his closest Old Guard Cabinet members, the late S. Rajaratnam, a staunch advocate of a colour-blind Singapore, was viscerally opposed to the move towards community self-help groups and had great arguments with Mr Lee on it.

I myself did not always agree with Mr Lee's views. This was not a problem as complete compliance was not something he insisted on. What he did demand was intellectual honesty, moral courage and an understanding of Singapore's specialness.

Also some basic courtesy.

In Mr Lee, I saw a leader whose attitude towards his country was at once deeply affectionate and fiercely protective, ruthlessly critical and engagingly hopeful.

He was acutely aware that the political system must evolve to respond to a changing population and environment.

Anxious that Singapore would survive him, he quit office voluntarily, stepping down as prime minister in 1990 at the age of 67, while still able to lead and enjoying the people's support.

No other independence leader of the 1960s did this.

In the week after he died, at Parliament House and at the community sites, I have met tens of thousands of Singaporeans who paid tribute to him, often with tears in their eyes.

Theirs was not an unthinking emotional outpouring of grief, but a thoughtful reflection of Mr Lee's legacy and their own role in Singapore's nation-building.

One woman aged 40 told me that Mr Lee's death caused her to reflect on her own life and was a major turning point for her.

In her tribute note to Mr Lee, she wrote: "I ask myself what I can give to this country… I tell you, also myself: Only my best from now on."

By their actions, Singaporeans have made their own judgments on Mr Lee's legacy.

They have renewed their heartfelt support for the principles he upheld, and promised the best of themselves to build a better Singapore. And that was that, their final word on the subject.

stopinion@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Apr 7, 2015.
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