TOM PLATE WRITES – How sad is the ongoing family quarrel in otherwise brilliant Singapore?
On my first trip to Singapore, as a Los Angeles Times columnist, which featured my first interview with Lee Kuan Yew, then titled senior minister, I returned home feeling I had seen something special and had met someone special. This was in 1996. Remember: Back then the average American thought of the place as no more than a “canning and chewing gum” circus. How silly and uninformed that view was.
My fondness for Singapore was never to wane during subsequent trips and interviews, not only with LKY but also with other huge talents such as diplomat Tommy Koh, foreign minister George Yeo, global thinker Kishore Mahbubani, former PM Goh Chok Tong, newspaper editor Cheong Yip Seng (swimming against strict laws) and others. I feel gratitude for their time and mentoring even today.
Many years later, I related this to Theodore Sorensen, the iconic policy adviser for John F. Kennedy, months before he left us at the age of 82. Ever sharp until the end, Ted, a mentor in graduate school, tried playfully to curb my enthusiasm. The occasion was a 2010 party at Singapore’s UN Mission in New York for my book ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’. Chuckling, Sorensen related that after his first visit to Singapore, LKY asked for an assessment. “Minister Mentor,” Ted reportedly said (and knowing well the sharpness of his needle, I ‘m sure he did say this). “I now feel my life is complete. I have been to Utopia.”
To be sure, modern-founder Lee never remotely claimed to have created utopia in the actual – but in ambitious thrust he tried, as did so many hard-working Singaporeans he carried with him to transform a Third World backwater into a First World city-state. Yet about this we would joke – relaxed, he was very witty – with my once suggesting that if Singapore were utopia, then its citizens had to be Martians, not human beings. This remark somehow got to him, but then he smilingly acknowledged: “That’s right, we’re not Martians!”
Judging from the Lee family rift that has now just surfaced, it looks as if the Singapore elite is more earth-bound than ever suspected. From the prime minister – LKY’s son, in office since 2004 – to his thoughtful daughter, a brilliant neurologist, this near-utopia today looks creepy-swampy with back-stabbing and name-calling. On the surface the unseemly divisiveness focuses mainly over the late founder’s last will, and his wish for the modest home of his last 70 years demolished, not glorified into some Chinese Mount Rushmore (Singapore itself being the monument). I believe that this was in fact his last wish, and feel as does a former colleague and current lady resident of Hong Kong who is also a devoted Singapore-watcher: “I’m shocked. I feel sorry for LKY.”
Sure, this unseemly family falling-out is not of global import: but for those who sincerely care about the LKY legacy, as the “old man” himself certainly did, it is very sad to witness. I recall that it would be joked back in the Lion City that LKY’s power of will was so strong that, if from the grave he sensed his Singapore veering off-track, he’d reach out and knock the place back into shape. Alas, it’s too bad that option is not actually available. “So very sad,” emailed a friend from Singapore who knew “the old man” well. Emailed another, from Hong Kong: “A Shakespearean tragedy for some, but a tragi-comedy for others – and not only HK-ers.”
Modern Singapore’s global as well as regional image reached near Olympian, due not only to its economic success but also to the founder’s talents as the city-state’s public face. He was a skilled orator (though the late Nelson Mandela, in my view, retires the Gold Medal), and a serious thinker (though more in deft, concise formulation than pure origination). In some ways he could be modest: Regarding contemporary China, for instance, he’d say that, because of his historic relationship with Deng Xiaoping, his insights might be overestimated. “I visit China maybe once a year,” he said. “What do I know?” Yet some scholars, who once shunned him like a civil-rights felony, now regard him almost as if he were an Old Testament prophet.
Though sometimes wrong, of course, on the big things he had an uncanny knack for being right. Regarding the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ thesis, he was only wary of Islamicism (“… because of that Book,” he’d say, referring to overly literal adherences to tiny parts of the Koran), and his fervor for one-citizen one-vote democracy no warmer than Plato’s (it can produce “erratic results,” he’d say, a view many Americans would today accept). Though leader of such a tiny state (but more populous than Ireland or New Zealand) LKY was viewed a giant not just in Asia.
His surviving children and their inner circle need to consider whether their public quarrel behooves their founding father. Having inherited a magnificent mantle, they should be ashamed for permitting the dirty family laundry of jealousy and ego from entering the otherwise commendably clean public domain of their Singapore. Once, at the end of an exhausting day, LKY was asked whether the political system might finally ‘loosen up, as many have conjectured’, after he had ‘gone to Marx’, as is sometimes put the atheist’s option: “It is for the present and future generations of leader to modify and adjust the system….” That time has come for the present generation to do just that. If it cannot handle what has been given, they should humbly hand it off to others who might preserve it with more class.
Columnist and University Professor Tom Plate is author of ‘Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew’ (2010, 2013, 2015) in the ‘Giants of Asia’ series. His next book, which is due out soon, is titled’Yo-Yo Diplomacy: An American Columnist Tackles the Ups-and-Down in the China U.S. Relationship’. The initial version of this column appeared in the South China Morning Post, where Professor Plate is a columnist, and then the next day in the Straits Times of Singapore.