A year of solid leaders

THIS has been a year of leaders. Although unlikely to be recorded in the history books, the symbolically most significant day for me was Aug 6. That was the date of the launch of One Man's View Of The World, a book by Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The venue was the Istana.

A hush fell on the room as Mr Lee entered, went up to the podium, and made a short speech. Then, on his way out, he stopped as he passed some of his political colleagues from the early years of the People's Action Party (PAP). He lingered in front of them, unwilling to go, a dazzling smile his gift to them in old age, both theirs and his.

Mr Lee is accustomed to silence when he speaks. But this hush was different. It was born not out of fear but out of awe.

Fear would have been the default reaction when he enjoyed almost unchallenged power in Singapore. Now, what makes him iconic is his dignity in old age, his larger-than- life presence on a national scene from which he is receding physically although he created it, more than anyone else, with single- handed, steely-minded zeal. His ability to outlive his times in the minds of his people has earned him a place much higher than fear. It is respect.

In his book, Mr Lee says he is not certain Singapore will be around in 100 years. What he is certain of is that if the country gets a "dumb" government, "we are done for". "This country will sink into nothingness."

Not everyone is convinced. Many think the myth of Singapore's exceptionalism is an old party trick to scare people into voting for the PAP. Hence I once remarked, at a dinner, that it might be best for Singapore to enter a period of bad governance so that Singaporeans could decide what good governance is, and adjust their political beliefs and expectations accordingly. A foreign diplomat stopped eating and looked at me. "Be careful of what you ask for," he said. "Beware of people revering bad governance."

Reassuringly, good governance was the theme of a conference on Mr Lee's legacy organised on Sept 16, his 90th birthday, by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The mood was neither hagiographic nor elegiac.

Discussions touching on the key aspects of his legacy - efficiency, integrity, meritocracy, multiracialism, and the rule of law - looked beyond the man to Singapore in the years ahead. The main concern was not how long Singapore would last, but how well it could last while it did.

Nothing could pay Mr Lee greater respect than to believe in the permanence of his defining ideas.

Chin Peng: Man of conviction

RESPECT is won not only by winners but also by losers. Perhaps the greatest loser in contemporary South-east Asian history is Chin Peng, the leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).

Chin Peng, whose real name was Ong Boon Hua, was born in Setiawan in Perak. He died in exile in Bangkok on Sept 16, aged 88.

His death was not an impersonal moment for me, for I had met him. That was in October 2004 during his visit to Singapore on a speaking engagement. The occasion was a dinner hosted in his honour by the husband-and-wife team of Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, co-authors of his memoirs, Alias Chin Peng: My Side Of History.

Dusk fell on the colonial-era bungalows in Seletar as guests awaited the arrival of the man who helped inaugurate the end of both Japanese and British imperialism. Then he walked in, slowly but surely, and took his place among the guests. He was the very picture of joviality, but deeply reflective as well.

His wit was as sharp as his political beliefs. Chin Peng was asked whether it is true that, when mischievous children in Malaya refused to go to sleep, their mothers would say "Chin Peng is coming", and they would shut their eyes promptly. He replied: "Not all children."

Who did not? "The children of communists did not," he said without missing an ideological beat. Obviously, the infant communists had no reason to fear him. They were on his side of history! Whatever the fate of his ideas, Chin Peng will be remembered for the force of his convictions and the integrity with which he held on to them.

Penang Deputy Chief Minister P. Ramasamy, whose father knew Chin Peng's father, marked the passing of "this legend" by saying that the British would have delayed granting independence to Malaya in 1957 without MCP on their backs. He compared its role to that of the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, whose assault on the colonial status quo helped India win independence in 1947. Chin Peng failed to organise a communist revolution, but he remains a "left-wing nationalist", Professor Ramasamy wrote in the Indian journal, Economic and Political Weekly.

Chin Peng's insights were trenchant. When I asked him at the dinner how small Asian countries should react to the rise of China and India, he said: "Beware of great-power chauvinism." Stopping for a sip of water, he added impishly: "But that should not be a problem. After all, you've grown accustomed to American imperialism, have you not?"

Obama: Repairing America

I HAVE not. It is difficult to portray US President Barack Obama as an imperialist. It is important for the world to have men like him in charge of countries that are critical to its economic and strategic well- being. By contrast, humans are at the mercy of fate when global leaders allow financial institutions to almost bring down the economy, start wars they cannot or will not end, and leave it to hapless successors to come to terms with reality.

President Obama's radicalism is evident in his overtures to Iran on a nuclear deal, announced in November. If the agreement holds, it will count as a foreign policy triumph equivalent in importance to his attempt to repair the US polity where it has hurt most - in lack of access to universal health-care insurance.

That is the area in which President Obama is likely to leave a deep imprint on the life of his country. His refusal to give in to political blackmail over his health-care programme, even though this precipitated a two-week partial government shutdown in October, was both conscientious and courageous. This was American leadership at its best in the year of leaders.

Mandela: Fighting apartheid

AND world leadership at its best - that was Nelson Mandela. He has been feted as the first black president of South Africa who set his country on the road to racial reconciliation and won the Nobel Peace Prize. This is true, of course, but he will loom large in the global political imagination as the embodiment of the struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid racialised everything about South Africa, from its history and economy to power and sexuality. By existing in one country, apartheid polluted the very idea of being human everywhere.

Mr Mandela dealt a blow to international racism by striking out against its most egregious form at home. That his convictions led him to the presidency is incidental to the course of history. That he had fought apartheid whether or not it led him anywhere is his true legacy.

Mr Mandela's resistance to apartheid could not have succeeded without the fraternal struggle of Africans - black, coloured and white - that fed into the grand anti-colonial calling of the African National Congress, the party of national liberation. It could not have succeeded without the sustained moral force of the international movement against apartheid.

Mr Mandela graced the earth for 95 years. His ideas will live forever.


The writer is a former Straits Times journalist.

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