Amnesty International to current leaders: Ask the same hard questions Lee Kuan Yew asked

open or closed society

23 March 2015, 11:13 UTC

On the passing on Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Research Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said:

“Our thoughts and sympathies go out to the family of Lee Kuan Yew and others who mourn his passing.”

“Lee Kuan Yew more than anyone else built modern Singapore, and his legacy will be unrivalled economic progress and development. There is, however, a dark side to what he leaves behind – too often, basic freedoms and human rights were sacrificed to ensure economic growth. Restrictions on freedom of expression and the silencing of criticism is still part of the daily reality for Singaporeans.”

“Lee Kuan Yew’s passing, just a few months short of Singapore’s 50th anniversary of independence, happens just as the country enters a new era. We urge the next generation of leaders to ensure that this is marked by genuine respect for human rights.”

Amnesty International urges the next generation of Singaporean leaders to ask the same hard questions Lee Kuan Yew 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? I am talking of the principle of the open society, the open debate, ideas, not intimidation, persuasion not coercion…”

Amnesty International


Lee Kuan Yew’s quote before independence now as loud as thunder

Lee Kuan Yew

“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?

I am talking of the principle of the open society, the open debate, ideas, not intimidation, persuasion not coercion…”

-Lee Kuan Yew (1964), a few months before independence

United in removing the PAP?

lee kuan yew 2

So now, stay united and live Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy?

Even in hospital, he polarised the nation. Now in death, the more there are different narratives of the man.

But as I have also always mentioned, the old PAP is now in WP and SDP. So if you want to live up to those standards, you should know who to vote for.

So yes, stay united. And don’t let Lee Kuan Yew (old PAP)’s legacy down.

Albert Tay

No man like him: Because they wouldn’t allow it

lee kuan yew

Lee Hsien Loong says there would not be ‘another Lee Kuan Yew’. But partly because he would not allow it.

He would not allow someone who was a lawyer who fights for unions (real ones, not NTUC).

He would not allow someone who fought with the government of the day while fighting for independence.

Basically, Lee Kuan Yew made it impossible for another Lee Kuan Yew to appear. Lee Kuan Yew made himself unique to and in Singapore. But he is not unique in the world. Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Lenin and Mao Zedong all did the exact same thing.

Albert Tay

Be thankful to whom? Only LKY, who himself had espoused democracy?

Lee Kuan Yew democracy free press

Lee Kuan Yew’s words while he was Opposition leader in 1955.

The current rhetoric of the pappies seems to be: that Singapore thrived as a nation because of Mr Lee, who brought us from ‘nothing’ to being a first world country. And that, had we softened our approach in those trying years, we wouldn’t have been where we are now.

Basically, it means: “If not for strongman Lee Kuan Yew, we wouldn’t be here with what we have today.”

Some usually-Oppositional figures even chip in: “It may be difficult to like everything LKY did, but if not for him, we wouldn’t have had our education we have today.”

Some pappies, now, would not hesitate to add: “The West talks about democracy and freedom, but we have proven that economic success need not, and in fact, does not come with democracy, but our own brand of ‘governance’.”

But how about looking at it the other way: If not for the West, we might not even be the entrepot trading hub we once – vibrantly – were. If not for the West, we might not even be speaking English. If not for the West, we might not even have facebook because the PAP govt would not need to give shits about any freedom of expression at all, if the only superpowers and economic powerhouses in the world were Fascists like China.

Be grateful. Be thankful. For what you have today. Yes, other than Lee Kuan Yew, whom one cannot discount (someone who won by one vote to Lim Chin Siong in the sec-gen election, whom he later imprisoned), so many other people to thank for what we have today.

Why be so single-minded and narrow-minded, and worse, discredit the entire system of democracy, just because of the current ‘great economy (but with citizens who don’t dare to fall sick)’. After all, Lee hails himself as an upholder of democracy, didn’t he?

Albert Tay

My thoughts on Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore’s future

By Roy Ngerng

I was asked about my thoughts on Lee Kuan Yew’s “legacy”. This was my response.

Lee Kuan Yew is respected by many Singaporeans, for what he has contributed to Singapore’s growth though I need to add that much of the development of Singapore in the early years has to also be attributed to a team of people, who have unfortunately been forgotten for their contributions. It might be more meaningful to talk of the contributions of them as a group – Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye, S. Rajaratnam etc – so that we can have a good sense of how Singapore’s success should be seen in perspective.

On the same note, Singapore’s economic development in the first 20 years of independence, from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s was actually on the right track, where wages were increasing, income inequality was decreasing and interest rates on the pension funds were increasing. In short, people’s lives were getting better. In the first 20 years of Singapore, the Singapore Model was working well because there was “balance”, where wages and the living standards were rising in tandem with growth.

However, from the mid-1980s, the new policies became decidedly less favourable towards Singaporeans, where the government reduced health subsidies and where public housing and education prices escalated by even several times over. From the mid-1990s, real wages for the low-income workers started stagnating and for the middle-income, this has been happening for the past 10 years. And some Singaporeans are today beginning to feel that Singapore is seeing a reversal of our fortunes in the last five to 10 years.

lky, poor

Rightfully or not, in the mid-1980s, when Lee Kuan Yew removed the “Old Guard” or first-generation leaders who has helped to build Singapore in the first 20 years and replaced it with the second-generation of leaders who were too eager to please, it caused the system to go out of balance, where we have reached a point today where wages are too low, prices are too high and where Singaporeans cannot save enough to retire, and poverty is estimated to have risen to even 30%.

As such, Lee Kuan Yew had a good team of people in place in the first 20 years of Singapore who worked with him to build Singapore but his team thereafter, from the 1980s, did not perhaps have the foresight and ethical beliefs as the “Old Guard” had, and because of that, the system could not be well-maintained.

As a result, this has contributed to the belief that the current PAP leaders are in the business of politics for money, also because they earn the highest salaries among politicians in the world, as well as because they have pegged their salaries to the richest in Singapore, who also earn the highest salaries among the developed countries.

Thus if you ask me, Lee Kuan Yew could have a much favourable legacy but his selection of people after the first-generation leaders, as well as their obedience in an effort not to offend him have resulted in a system which became lopsided, as they were too eager to get into his good books. Thus Lee Kuan Yew’s formidability and wrath became a double-edged sword. Some Singaporeans believe that Lee Kuan Yew’s dictatorial leadership in the earlier years of independence was necessary as it helped to fasten Singapore’s development but it is also this fear that has even stuck into the highest levels of governance that has caused an unquestioning principle towards his way of working which has also caused the policies to become skewed. At least the “Old Guards”dared to challenge him and maintain that stability and balance for Singapore.

I would say that Lee Kuan Yew’s temperament was a characteristic that moulded Singapore’s initial growth but it was also because of this unforgiving trait that has institutionalised fear into the system which has become an unhealthy impediment for the growth, and more importantly, sustainability of Singapore.

Thus moving forward, what does this mean for Singapore? I think Singapore has to go back to the basics. First, over the last 10 to 20 years (or even 30 years), policies that have been created have moved away from caring for the people. When the People’s Action Party (PAP) removed “equality” from their constitution and replaced it with “self-reliance” in 1982, that was when their policies became more selfish, if I may add. In a way, Lee Kuan Yew was instrumental to this as he was still the Secretary-General of the PAP when the constitution was changed and he was also the prime minister who retired the “Old Guards” in the 1980s and brought in the second-generation leaders who created the imbalanced policies.

What we need to do at this point is to undo some of these policies and their effects and to bring balance back to Singapore. Thus we need to increase wages to bring it parity, so that income inequality and poverty can be reduced. The government also needs to increase health and education subsidies so that all of Singaporeans can be uplifted, and not just the select few in the elites. Also, pension returns need to be returned to the people and transparently managed, so that Singaporeans will be protected for their retirement. In that sense, we have to remove or reduce a lot of the complications that have bogged down our system and which are making the system less efficient. We need to streamline the system and start making it more focused towards the people, and to protect the people.

In short, the government has to stop pursing a business/profit-motive and to start taking care of the people. The PAP over the past 30 years have steered away from the objective of governance – for the protection of the people, and so, either the PAP has to regain a sense of ethical responsibility or Singaporeans have to do what is right to for themselves and to vote in a new government that will take care of and protect them. I think the latter is a more viable alternative, seeing how the PAP has become rigid and entrenched in its ways and is resistant to change.

Singapore cannot continue on the current modus operandi that the PAP has taken for the past 30 years. We either have to go back to where Singapore was in the first 20 years, in terms of the balance that was attained, or to allow a renewal, where Singaporeans are engaged and empowered to make decisions for the country and partake in the country’s growth. The very reason why the first-generation leaders wanted to focus on educating the population was precisely because a more educated populace will be able to help the country grow.

The current development of Singapore is not sustainable if we continue on a model of self-inflicted price escalation and artificially-depressed wages where the growing inequality can tear the social fabric apart. We need to focus on bringing our country back to balance.

As such, is it to follow Lee Kuan Yew’s approach or is it to create a new approach? It really depends on which era and which team you are talking about. Where Lee Kuan Yew had a good team in the first-generation leaders, Singapore was progressing nicely. Where he later transited into a second-generation (and then third-generation) leaders who lack the gumption and who became submissive and less ethical in their approach, it has instead thwarted Singapore’s development path.

So, is it to follow Lee Kuan Yew’s approach or not? I would say it is about putting in a team which has the heart for Singapore and Singaporeans, as well as the other inhabitants on this island, and which have the foresight and belief to start re-investing back in Singaporeans, for our health and education, and retirement for the elderly, so that with the right commitment to the people, we can bring our country back on track. Where a dictatorial leadership might work in the earlier years of consolidation and growth, a more equitable and collaborative governance is needed now where the PAP does not monopolise or hold onto power stridently, but where governance becomes a shared and decentralised responsibility and distilled among the people.

Only with unity and equality, and justice and fairness, can we see Singapore move towards a brighter possibility, and this also requires Singaporeans to let go of the fear that the idea of Lee Kuan Yew has created, and to be willing to restart our engagement with our country.

Leadership, longevity and ‘letting go’

From left to right: Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mao Zedong, Mahathir Mohammed, and Lee Kuan Yew

From left to right: Chiang Kai-shek, Chiang Ching-kuo, Mao Zedong, Dr Mahathir Mohamad, and Lee Kuan Yew

After Chiang Kai-shek’s death in Taiwan, after many years of dictatorial rule, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, opened up the political arena. And for the first time after that, the KMT lost, resulting in the multi-party vibrant democracy Taiwan enjoys today. And for that, Chiang junior is remembered. While his father, although strongly critiqued by many in Taiwan for his brutal ways, died early enough to not extend the wrath too far, and so is still respected, really, as the man who stood for the Republic of China, at a time of fallout with the PRC.

Mao Zedong of the PRC was also luckily short-lived, comparatively. Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad, just across the causeway and taken to be LKY’s ‘counterpart’, also retired much earlier than Lee, not just from Premiership, but also gracefully from all political appointments. He may receive brickbats, but compared to Lee, he was able and willing to “let go”. Today he stands tall as a critic of the current BN govt, and his daughter a vocal liberal.

I would have admired and respected Lee Kuan Yew much more if he had been more like these other leaders. As you can see, I am not asking for perfection. I am just vouching for gentlemanliness, courtesy and a soulful spirit.

Albert Tay