Catherine Lim recently wrote a political commentary on Lee Kuan Yew leaving the cabinet after the general elections. She declares (emphasis mine):
Singapore’s remarkable development under Lee Kuan Yew, using the hard indicators of home ownership, level of education, degree of technological advancement, extent of foreign investments, etc, has seen few parallels, making it a poster child for economic progress in the developing world. Consistently ranked among the top three in international surveys on best-performing airports, sea-ports, world’s most livable cities, best infrastructure, etc, Singapore receives the most enthusiastic accolades from foreign visitors instantly impressed by the cleanliness, orderliness and gleaming appearance of the city state.
How could such a brilliant paradigm, a model of classic realpolitik, be the cause of the GE 2011 political demise of Lee Kuan Yew? The answer: mainly because it had no place for human values. It was a model of governance where, if there had ever been a conflict of Head vs Heart, IQ vs EQ, Hardware vs Heartware, it had been resolved long ago in the defeat of presumably worthless human emotions.
This light-hearted little anecdote is meant to provide a probable reason, though in a rather circuitous manner, for MM’s ironic downfall: the material prosperity that he had given Singapore, which many world leaders could never match, was no longer enough compensation to Singaporeans for the soullessness that was beginning to show in the society . For the fear that his strongman approach had instilled in them for so long, denying them the fundamental democratic liberties of open debate, public criticism and an independent media, that are taken for granted in practising democracies, had made them mere cogs in the machinery of a vast capitalist enterprise.
Yet in 1983, the late statesman S. Rajaratnam commented in a speech in Lee Kuan Yew’s 60th birthday celebration (emphasis mine):
It is often said by less perceptive critics that Mr Lee does not care for human beings; that he measures progress in terms of factories, buildings and quantifiable wealth. None of these would have been possible had there not been a transformation in the mind and character of the Singaporean as well. People with a slave mentality and with unpacked bags could not have created the clean, prosperous and dynamic Singapore we see today.
Far more than many people realise, Mr Lee’s basic concern has been and still is first with the quality of men and only after, with machines, bricks, mortar and the Singapore dollar.
The aspect of his leadership has gone unrecognised because transformation of a people’s mental attitude and character requires a special kind of tough leadership which could be mistaken for one without human sympathies and feelings.
In short, if I correctly read the Prime Minister’s mind, his goal is not a nation of rabbits led by lions, or a nation of lions led by rabbits, or worse still, rabbits led by rabbits, but as befits the Lion City, a nation of lions led by lions. Only such a Singapore can, in a world of prowling hungry predators, be assured of a secure and honorable existence. His main concern is to create Singaporeans of quality since the numbers game is not for us. He knows full well that as with great adversity, prosperity too, if improperly enjoyed, can transform lions into fattened rabbits.
(From the book S. Rajaratnam: The Prophetic and the Political)
On one extreme end, we’ve Catherine Lim accusing LKY of being an obsessively rational leader who treats Singaporeans as economic digits. On the other end, we’ve S. Rajaratnam defending LKY’s style of leadership, that ultimately he wants Singaporeans to be characters of strength.
He has a very mixed legacy – which great and historical leader hasn’t?