Did Mr Lee create a Singapore in his own image?

Did Mr Lee create a Singapore in his own image?
NOV 23, 1959 (above): Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (centre) leading a mass drive to spring-clean the city for the National Loyalty Week in December.

From cleaning up dirty rivers and city grounds, to reforming the language environment, Lee Kuan Yew nagged and cajoled a nation into improving its social habits. He even tried to tell them whom to marry.

Lee Kuan Yew was a chain-smoker until 1957, puffing away two packs a day. Then he lost his voice in the middle of campaigning for a City Council election and could not thank voters. He quit cold turkey, suffering withdrawal symptoms for a fortnight.

By the 1960s, he was allergic to tobacco smoke. So smoking was banned in his office and the Cabinet room.

In the 1970s, an anti-smoking campaign banned cigarette advertising in Singapore. Progressively, there was less and less public space for smokers to have their puff.

Question: Did Mr Lee create a Singapore in his own image? Did he socially engineer and shape the behaviour of a nation according to his fastidious preferences?

It is impossible to tease out where a leader's preferences begin, and where a country's values end. The prerogative of a leader after all is to shape an organisation, a country, according to his will.

Mr Lee was notoriously fussy about order and cleanliness. Not surprisingly, Singapore is known the world over for both even today. He believed a tidy city bespoke an orderly government, a people with good social habits, and pride in their surroundings.

In November 1959, leading a mass drive to clean up the city, he said: "This is one of the hallmarks of civilisation. One can be rich and filthy or poor and clean. Cleanliness and tidiness are indications of the level of tidiness of a people. We must improve on our standard as one of the cleanest cities in Asia."

He took a personal interest in cleaning and greening the city state. He was the eyes and ears of the Public Works Department, the National Parks Division, the anti-mosquito unit, the Public Utilities Board.

He noticed when hawkers boarded up drains they had no business covering; when a street-seller rigged up power lines and put up an illicit fridge on a roundabout. He told the story of how an empty patch at Novena housed first a Chinese shrine, a makeshift tent days later, then a fence and eventually a hut. He disapproved, sent a note and got things rectified.

He hit the roof one day in late 1964 when he looked out of his City Hall office across the Padang and saw some cows grazing on the Esplanade. He called a meeting of senior officers, including permanent secretaries, and gave them a shellacking.

The riots that July, he said, had led to some disorder, but it was high time officials got their act together. "The city looks more slovenly. There is more litter, more dirt, more cows wandering around circuses, more stray dogs, more flies, more mosquitoes… People take advantage of a slackening of the administrative grip on the situation," he said.

Urging the officers to get things back to normal, he said: "It is necessary for people's morale. You know in the army, they polish their buttons, they polish their shoes, they paint the steps. It gives men that little astringent to keep them bucked up, and not get slovenly and soft."

But there were also prosaic reasons for the massive cleaning up. As he recounted in his memoirs in 2000, "one compelling reason to have a clean Singapore is our need to collect as much as possible of our rainfall of 95 inches a year". The waterways and drainage system had to be cleaned up so the rainwater run-offs can be collected.

The other reason was political: so people would feel good about their living environment and have a greater sense of belonging. He thought it would have been politically disastrous for an elected government to do as the British did, and keep nice green expatriate areas while leaving other public spaces to deteriorate.

Cleaning up was just the beginning. He was adamant about changing the social habits of an entire people so they would learn social graces, care for their surroundings, and not litter, spit, deface or destroy the spruced-up new look.

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