The interview with Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew in the January edition of National Geographic is a pretty soft piece of journalism that takes a few perfunctory swipes at the Lee Kuan Yew/Singapore Story while buying into its key myths in a rather unquestioning fashion.
For example, the author of the piece, Mark Jacobson, states that few living leaders have “dominated their homeland’s national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has”. That’s true but partly down to the fact that LKY and his supporters have controlled the historical narrative in Singapore using the education system and restrictions on free speech, in much the same way as Suharto did in Indonesia (more of which in an upcoming post).
Jacobson does talk about repression in Singapore but doesn’t really seem to understand how it has been used to subvert the historical record.
Given that the author seems totally enamoured by his encounter with the great leader, it is perhaps unsurprising that he has not opted for a deeper examination. Cloyingly, Jacobson describes LKY as looking “like a flint-eyed Asian Clint Eastwood circa Gran Torino”, while suggesting that telling a Singaporean you’re off to interview LKY is like informing “a resident of the Emerald City that you’re late for an appointment with the Wizard of Oz”. Time to reach for the sick bag.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the interview is LKY’s restatement of his Social Darwinistic views.
“I have always thought that humanity was animal-like,” he says. “The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I’m not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined.”
Warm words to inspire a nation, don’t you think?
Later, he bemoans the lazy Singaporeans who complain that the influx of cheap foreign labour is driving down wages. If Singaporeans are falling behind, he explains, it is because “the spurs are not stuck into the hide”.
There are not many countries in the world where people would persistently vote into power a leader who thinks they are all worthless ants but then there are not many governments that manage to combine relatively soft repression with impressive economic growth.
The following short film by Singaporean director Martyn See is a revealing portrayal of some of the ants responsible for the “Lee Kuan Yew miracle”. These layabouts clearly need LKY to give them a kick up the arse. Singapore’s censors have deemed that this is hardcore stuff, only for those over 16, as it contains depictions of poverty and destitution in Singapore, some of which may be real: