It is over. The 91-year-old former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away peacefully on March 23, 2015 at 3.18am.
As in life, so also in death. Mr Lee will be at the centre of attention for an entire nation and even of the world. Obituaries are being prepared, flowers are being arranged, a grand state funeral is being planned, and condolences are streaming in from state leaders we’ve never even heard of.
And once again, with one final act of defiance, the man who ruled with an iron fist has silenced his critics. No longer can they speculate about his death and no longer can they curse him with it. He is gone now and he has not a care for what his detractors think; though it is not as if he ever did.
Those who love him will mourn his passing and celebrate his life. Those who hate him will celebrate his death and curse the day he was born. Those of us who are indifferent will check Facebook, think of something witty to say, turn up empty and carry on with our lives. But somewhere deep inside, all of us will know that things will never be the same again in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew.
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) had suggested in a special report that the elder statesman’s leadership style has had a strong influence on the current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. It also suggested that “Lee Hsien Loong’s leadership will be challenged once his father is not around.”
The EIU may be right. Lee Hsien Loong may adopt a different style of leadership now that his father is no longer watching him. And there may be some infighting within the PAP now that the towering figure holding things together is gone. But all that pales in comparison to the rare opportunity that Singaporeans now have to make a break from the past.
Moving out from under the giant’s shadow
A few weeks back, I suggested that we can honour his life by moving out from under his shadow:
We will mourn his passing, and we will celebrate his life; but most importantly, I hope we will be willing to honour him by asking tough questions, making hard choices, and imagining a different Singapore.
One politician’s pragmatism has become one nation’s obsession. One statesman’s vision for prosperity has become one country’s dream for wealth. One strongman’s penchant for false dilemmas has become many people’s unthinking hatred for the PAP. These things need not be so.
Pragmatism does not have to be our guiding principle. Wealth need not be pursued at the cost of liberty or equality. And we need not give opposition parties a free pass simply because they enjoy the good fortune of not being the PAP.
Moving out from under Mr Lee’s shadow will not be easy, but there will be no better time.
Indeed, Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew can be a different, a better, place to live in.
There will be no better opportunity for Singapore to abandon its old ways of conducting politics. We can stop the counterproductive silencing of political opponents using legal means, stop suppressing the media, stop arbitrarily redrawing electoral districts, stop disadvantaging opposition town councils, stop assuming that big daddy knows best and start re-examining dogmatic beliefs.
We can, and we should, question whether secrecy is always more important than accountability, whether two-party rule will certainly lead to the kind of political gridlock we see in America, whether a strong civil society is necessarily a threat to stability, and whether paying ministers million-dollar salaries really attracts the right kind of talent.
We should hold both sides accountable for their mistakes and demand the highest standards. But we should also be willing to move on when corrections have been made and when there are more important issues at hand.
We need not let politics be polarised, neither by the diehard supporters of the ruling party nor those of the opposition. Politics is politics, but misrepresenting opponents and casting aspersions on their integrity is bad politics, and it should have no place in Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew.
We have made false gods out of the economic policies that have worked so well the past 50 years, and we have unquestioningly accepted the wisdom of the status quo. We have said to ourselves: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But it is broken, and we are broke. If the PAP won’t give up its idols, it will have to go down with them.
We’ve seen how public resentment has grown as the PAP failed to address pressing needs. Housing prices have skyrocketed and Singapore’s cost of living continues to remain one of the highest in the world. Meanwhile, incomes for all but the very rich continue to stagnate and income inequality remains high.
It’s time we questioned the status quo and time we challenged 50-year-old dictums. Will raising taxes really cause rich executives to go elsewhere? Will providing welfare benefits to the needy really erode the incentive to work? Is a prudent fiscal policy always better than a generous one? Is investing in our reserves still wiser than investing in our people? Is our education system really meritocratic or has our blind allegiance to “meritocracy” blinded us to the entrenched power inequalities in society?
Lee Kuan Yew’s passing heralds a new era. It is up to us to envision a different Singapore. Will it be Singapore Inc. 2.0 or will it be Singapore for Singaporeans? Will we continue to be cogs in a giant GDP producing machine or will we have a different, a better, Singapore — one where our welfare and our aspirations matter.
Conclusion — Lee Kuan Yew once said he would rise from his grave if his legacy, Singapore the economic miracle, was threatened. I’m confident he won’t have to. A better Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew can be the same Singapore as 1965 — one that was willing to question old dictums and change the status quo. It can also be the same Singapore as 1959 — one that had a strong civil society and a vibrant political scene. For all our sakes, I hope that Mr Lee’s passing will mark the start of a new era, of Singapore 2.0 — a nation without the worst of Mr Lee but with the best of him, a nation that is willing to make its own hard choices.