Let’s acknowledge Lee Kuan Yew’s full legacy – the warts along with the achievements
The overriding desire to “not speak ill of the dead” has very lasting consequences in the event of the passing of a figure as prominent, public, and influential as Lee.
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I have never seen such a queue. It snaked from where I was by Parliament House across the river, through the Central Business District and right round again. People stood in line under the blazing sun, in the stifling heat… for hours. An ultimate tribute to a man who carried more significance in the collective Singaporean consciousness than anyone else, dead or alive.
The national mourning period is in full swing now, and it’s clear that many people are genuinely upset. For them, the loss of Lee Kuan Yew is a personal one, almost like the loss of a family member. Some even say that they have lost a father.
Having seen these people pay tribute to Lee Kuan Yew at Singapore General Hospital in the early hours of the morning, lining the roads to catch a glimpse of the passing cortege and queuing for hours under the blazing sun, it’s difficult to dismiss their reactions as the result of uncritical adulation or state propaganda. Their grief is real, and I respect that.
Yet there are others for whom grief is not the predominant feeling, and we should respect that too. Lee Kuan Yew has, for a long time, been a controversial figure. For those fortunate enough to have never been the focus of his wrath, life can generally be said to be good, with many benefits reaped. But many of those who did get on his bad side have paid a heavy price. If we want to remember the man as he was, it is important that we remember that.
In the aftermath of Lee’s death, we’re all asked to show respect and consideration for his family. But the line between “showing respect” and “whitewashing” is often blurred. For some, the mere suggestion that Lee Kuan Yew might not have been a flawless leader – or that Singapore might not have sunk into the ocean without him – is a failure to show respect for the man and his legacy.
The overriding desire to “not speak ill of the dead” – and to attempt to ensure that no one else does, either – can have very lasting consequences in the event of the passing of a figure as prominent, public, and influential as Lee. His policies had real impact, and not all of it was good. To flood these things out with adulation and praise serves neither history nor our understanding of our nation. A week of relentless whitewashing can be enough to shift the narrative.
Many plaudits were heaped upon Lee during a special parliamentary session on Thursday. Some were deserved, while others appeared to fudge the contributions of others, making it seem as if Lee had done a whole multitude of things off his own back without any support or advice.
Lee’s contributions to women’s advancement
Take one example: Minister of State Sim Ann credited Lee with having a major positive impact on women. “Mr Lee’s basic attitude towards women was one of respect, and set the tone for gender equality in society,” she said (based on the English translation of her speech she published). She also appeared to imply that Singaporean women had Lee to thank for the Women’s Charter that gives them right to property, and offers some protection from family violence.
This was news to many who have worked on issues of gender equality in Singapore.
Yes, education for girls became more accessible under the early PAP government, and Singaporean women today are able to attain high levels of education and join the workforce. Yet all this did not come out of a desire for gender equality, but more out of a need for economic growth. Educated, working women were good for Singapore – as long as they also produced enough babies to sustain the population (and the economy). When they didn’t, the tone became much less equal.
“Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers. … You just can’t be doing a full-time heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children”. – Lee Kuan Yew, 1983
Lee also held some pretty eugenicist views about how better-educated couples would produce superior children to those of less-educated (and often lower-income) couples. Women often bore the brunt of these policies, too; when lower-income families were offered financial incentives to undergo voluntary sterilisation, it was often the woman who went for the procedure.
Three years ago I was talking to some journalists, analysing these figures [birth rates according to education level of parents, as well as performance of children according to parents’ education] for them, trying to break it gradually across.
And she said to me, “But, Prime Minister, if a man wants to marry me for my genes I don’t want to marry him.”
And I thought to myself, “What a silly ass of a girl.” – Lee Kuan Yew, “Keeping our bearings in midst of rapid changes”, The Straits Times, 1986
The Women’s Charter was also not solely the work of Lee Kuan Yew. Women activists in Singapore, notably the Singapore Council of Women, had been pushing for more protection for women even before the PAP came to power. The party adopted the issue, partly as a way to court women voters, but also because of strong lobbying within the party from the Women’s League, led by Chan Choy Siong. When they won power, they honoured their election promises by passing the Women’s Charter, a bill introduced in the Legislative Assembly by Kenneth Michael Bryne, the Minister of Labour and Law.
While it is to the PAP’s credit that they supported the women activists and introduced protection for women, to give all the kudos to Lee is to gloss over the contributions made by many others, skewing the history and development of a significant milestone of the women’s movement in Singapore.
I write this not out of a desire to diminish Lee or his legacy, but because it’s important that we acknowledge his full legacy – that we see the warts along with the achievements, and the people he led, worked with and depended upon. It’s important that, as we remember him, we erase neither the uncomfortable bits nor the efforts of others.
I don’t think acknowledging that Lee had help, or that some of his policies were problematic, diminishes his contributions and impact to Singapore. After over five decades of prominence in Singapore, Lee ultimately had nothing left to prove to anyone. His legacy can, and should, speak for itself without any hagiography from us.
At the end of the day, it is only through acknowledging the full picture that we can really take stock of the impact one great man had on Singapore, and decide how to move forward.
Top photo here.