A few days after kicking Singapore out of the federation in 1965, Malaysia’s leader Tunku Abdul Rahman had a news conference to discuss the traumatic political divorce.
The avuncular aristocrat was typically chirpy as he compared the Singapore bust-up to a failed affair of the heart. ‘You meet a pretty girl, fall in love, woo her, even marry the girl’, said the Tunku.
But if it doesn’t work, well, divorce the girl. ‘Or poison the girl. Poison the girl!’ laughed Malaysia’s Prime Minister.
The tape of that 1965 news conference sat in the archive of the ABC’s Singapore Bureau. As the ABC’s Southeast Asia correspondent I used the Tunku audio in a program I made for Radio Australia in 1990—the year Singapore turned 25 and Lee Kuan Yew stepped down after 25 years as Prime Minister.
The point was easily made. Singapore hadn’t been poisoned; indeed Singapore’s defence policy is to make itself a ‘poison prawn.’ As one of LKY’s Foreign Ministers observed, Singapore wants to be at the table, not on the menu.
Success was what amazed that tough old pessimist, LKY. Empires, he had seen, can crumple quickly—the Brits and the Japanese taught him that lesson in vivid, personal ways during WWII. Even the mightiest power can lose wars—he was astounded at Vietnam. And important countries can be capricious and dangerous, as Sukarno often showed. All that fits the pessimist, realist mindset. It was Singapore’s success that surprised because it didn’t follow the Hobbesian script.
Lee never relaxed. He stepped down as leader in 1990 but stayed in Cabinet and stayed as the power monitoring the power. In 1990, the agonising choice between beloved country and beloved son was made in favour of the beloved country. The beloved son had to wait a further 14 years before he became the third prime minister of the beloved country.
I was back in Singapore last week as ‘Asia’s miracle city state’ prepared to celebrate the 50th birthday of the unplanned, ramshackle moment of creation on 9 August 1965—the short marriage to the Malaysia federation had exploded and LKY was in tears. As is almost proper, there are striking moments of symmetry in LKY’s personal history and that of his nation. Three of note:
1) Lee had his 40th birthday on the day Singapore became part of Malaysia in 1963 for the poisonous experiment at federation
2) Lee stepped down as PM in 1990 on Singapore’s 25th birthday
3) Lee died in 2015 in the year of Singapore’s 50th birthday
At the National Day festivities next Sunday, there’ll be an empty chair on stage for LKY. The symbolism of that empty chair can be worked in all sorts of ways. The surge in emotion since Lee died in March means the departed leader is again a potent political force, while some of his negatives have gone to the grave with him. The grizzled taxi drivers are being much nicer about the old man. Young Singaporeans seem to remember a stern but helpful uncle rather than a martinet.
With the previous elections in 2006 and 2011, the schedule says the next poll is due in 2016. But with new electoral boundaries just announced, the People’s Action Party (PAP) is positioning to hold the election this year to cash in on the ‘LKY dividend.’ In death, Lee offers one more service to the PAP.
As Rachel Chang wrote in the Straits Times, the PAP has purged itself of some of LKY’s knuckleduster habits to make itself more palatable to modern Singapore:
‘There would be no LKY electoral dividend if the PAP had cleaved to the axioms he forged instead of being ready to remake itself for a new generation. The ways in which the ruling party has evolved can allow a new generation to appreciate Mr Lee’s legacy from a place that’s largely freer of his imperfections. Despite all this, Mr Lee’s impact on the vote even in death—which is likely to be as influential as it was in life—should give the ruling party pause. The “LKY dividend” is likely to pay off only in this coming general election. But the great man’s shadow will loom over many to come.’
LKY said the job of a Prime Minister is to galvanise and inspire. No doubt about Lee’s ability, in life, to galvanise. As Singapore looks out from its 50th birthday, the question now about the dead leader is what inspiration he can offer to his country’s future.