Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Death of Singapore's 'enlightened dictator' leaves questions of legacy

Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday morning at the age of 91.

A statement from the Singaporean government announced it was deeply grieved that Mr Lee “passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3:18 am.”

The tiny Southeast Asian nation will reportedly hold a seven-day mourning period, rather than an expected 30 or 60 day period, as serious questions are raised regarding the future of Mr Lee’s political party, the People’s Action Party (PAP).

As the first prime minister of Singapore, Mr Lee transformed the island nation from a strategic but severely underdeveloped swampland to one of the most efficient and respected port cities on the planet.

Mr Lee was educated at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and retained an “Anglophone” worldview long into his tenure as leader of Singapore.

He served as prime minister from 1959 at the age of 35, after Singapore gained full self-government from the British, until 1990 when he stepped down.

His death marks the end of the original cadre of first generation leaders of the nation-state.

Mr Lee’s health had deteriorated over the last three or four years, but the former prime minister’s mental acuity only diminished in the last 12 months.

As a result, the founder was respected enough by the succeeding leaders to be consulted by the Singapore government long into his 80s. He was considered a “minister” and “mentor” to the second and third generations in power.

However, according to the Straits Times, which strategic analyst Paul Buchanan terms a “mouthpiece for the PAP”, the paper has unexpectedly, but perhaps wisely, referred to the former prime minister as “Mr Lee” in its reporting of the man’s death.

“They were no longer referring to him in the fawning tones of yesteryear when they used to include minister, mentor, founder of the nation in his title. This suggests the paper is trying to diminish him in terms of sending a message that Singapore can survive this event,” he says.

This decision to humanise Mr Lee, rather than treat his personality as integral to the continuance of the nation-state, is part of a decision to reassure Singapore’s citizens that the republic will continue regardless of whether the founder is alive.

But questions often arise after such a central and seminal leader dies. To what extent will the vision of the Singaporean state continue, if at all? While the state may endure, how much control over the country the PAP might now have has been unclear for some time.

Mr Buchanan, who lived in Singapore for a number of years, says the PAP could experience infighting and power-jostling for succession as the politics takes on a new dynamic with Mr Lee’s death.

“It’ll be up to this third generation to prove whether they can meet the standards that Mr Lee set for himself and everyone around him.

“Mr Lee was an enlightened despot. He was elitist and authoritarian at his core, but he had a vision for his society and he knew to capitalise on two things. One was the strategic location of Singapore as a major chokepoint and the second was the invitation for foreign capital investment,” Mr Buchanan says.

Mr Lee will likely be remembered as one of the better dictators in Asia due to his uniquely benign but still authoritarian leadership which considered the basic needs of Singaporean citizens as primary.

The past two generations laid in place an institutional apparatus – not just in terms of the political succession and pseudo-democratic governance, but economic as well – to protect Singapore’s security created by Mr Lee.

But its security has already begun to shake. Singapore has experienced significant unrest amongst its immigrant population over the last few years, coming to a riotous head in 2013 as uncharacteristic violence gripped the country.

Those tensions, after being somewhat tempered by authoritarian measures and band-aid policies, will continue plaguing the current administration as the country develops a significant ethnic diversity.

Essentially, the dynamics of public life are substantially different in the modern era than it was during Mr Lee’s rule.

“So long as Mr Lee’s successors continue to maintain the same securities for the broad base of the population, they could continue to rule for the next 50 years,” Mr Buchanan says.

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