Lee Kuan Yew achieved an extraordinary, and arguably unparalleled, political vision in his lifetime. Singaporeans leapt from living by third-world standards to one of the highest first world ones within the span of a single generation. However, one of his even more remarkable achievements was creating a mainstream Singaporean identity that is multiracial and multicultural – an astounding feat in Asia where countries teeter from being xenophobic to culturally chauvinistic to communally and religiously intolerant.
Even envisaging such an identity in the post-Second World War era was astonishing. As former colonies found themselves scrambling to build independent nations and national identities, the balance tilted toward either an overt or subtle emphasis on cultural and religious characteristics. Singapore’s natural partners – Malaysia and Indonesia – under Tunku Abdul Rahman and Sukarno respectively, both opted for a firm stamp of religious, populist anti-western identities for their countries.
Descended from Chinese, Malay and Indonesian immigrants, Lee Kuan Yew, however, maintained a strongly independent approach to religion and culture. He was a self-proclaimed agnostic, and unlike most of his contemporaneous leaders did not offer even a perfunctory nod towards any native dress, symbols or grand past – no Chinese suit, no cap and no rallying cry to return to romantic rural hinterlands.
In 1949 when Lee Kuan Yew returned from England to Singapore, only 20 per cent of Singapore’s population spoke English. Within the next half century Singapore became, and remains, the most English literate place in Asia. Unlike Hong Kong it wasn’t a sullen following of colonial orders but something Singapore adopted heartily as its own.
Lee Kuan Yew himself grew up speaking only English. He started to learn Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay only at the age of 32 – after joining active politics. Even though English remained his first language he felt that it was very important to speak one’s native tongue and ensured his own children learnt Mandarin from an early age. The importance he laid on this is clear in that he wrote two books about his own journey to learning Mandarin. Singapore recognises Mandarin and Tamil as national languages along with English; their national anthem – Majulah Singapura (Onward Singapore) is in three translations.
By the age of 32, before setting-up his political party – the People’s Action Party (PAP) – Lee Kuan Yew had stacked up a mean assortment of work and life experiences.
While Singapore was under Japanese occupation, he worked as a clerk in a textile company, then he worked with the Japanese themselves, in their propaganda department, transcribing radio reports. To make extra money he floated an enterprise with his friend to manufacture stationery glue. After World War II he went to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University and attained brilliant grades at law. While in England, he also got a taste of political campaigning with a Labour Party friend, David Widdicombe. On his return to Singapore in 1949, he carved a niche for himself working with trade and students unions.
In addition, he escaped the brutal Sook Ching massacre of 1942 by a whisker. Chinese, and later Malay men, between the ages of 18 and 50 years had been rounded up in different parts of Singapore and executed by the Japanese to “kill off” any potential resistance to their occupation. The official number of dead is disputed between 40,000 and 90, 000.
In 1959 when he initiated the PAP, Lee Kuan Yew was a hard-nosed pragmatist who wanted an independent identity for Singaporeans. He won over the non-English speaking 80 per cent of Chinese, Malay and Tamil descent by making a forceful appeal, not to their real or imagined racial or cultural identities, but exhorted them to his vision of a shared future – of a safe, secure, “air-conditioned” nation for all.
Within two decades the scene, as it still is in today’s Delhi – of cows swishing down roads, tropical disease epidemics, slums, unemployment and communal tensions – had changed and Singapore had been transformed into a country rivalled only by the most advanced cities in the world.
And this was Plan B.
Lee Kuan Yew’s Plan A of a union between Singapore and Malaysia had been rudely trampled upon by Malaysia’s equally ambitious Tunku Abdul Rahman who was uneasy with PAP’s popularity, Singapore’s Chinese majority and Lee Kuan Yew’s wily acumen. He ensured the ejection of Singapore and PAP out of Malaysia in 1965. It took Lee Kuan Yew only a few weeks to re-orient his vision to lead one of the smallest states in the world.
In consultation with an array of nationalists and experts, Singapore was envisioned as a service and tourism hub. Singapore went on to build not just a top-class port and airport, shining and towering commercial buildings, but took to investing about one-fifth of its budget – one of the highest in the world – on education, which helped build an enviable pool of a skilled and efficient work-force.
Unwilling to repeat the bloody race riots in Singapore between the Malay and Chinese in 1964, Lee Kuan Yew’s government implemented an Ethnic Integration Policy in all housing projects that would prevent ghetto-isation or having a single community dominated neighbourhoods.
Much has been discussed and disparaged about Lee Kuan Yew’s dictatorial methods: eugenics – offering incentives to educated women to have children; sexism in the national service; homosexuality still being illegal, muffling the press, among others. All of which are commonly prevalent among all democratic and communist countries in Asia. So maybe Lee Kuan Yew couldn’t create a utopia, but he did create a stable, tropical oasis – a colossal achievement by human standards. And the Singaporeans don’t seem to be complaining – in the sense of running away: comfortably ensconced in Singapore they are just one of three Asian countries who can get a US visa on arrival.
In 2013 the Singapore government had shared its proposal of throwing open their doors to a few million immigrants by 2030. It set off a raging national debate on Singaporean identity, immigration and assimilation. One of the most common refrains from Singaporeans of various origins was, ‘I don’t know who exactly is a Singaporean, but I know I am one.’
This will need to be examined and defined more clearly now with the passing away of their Creator.