Will China also move into the 'post-LKY era'?

Among all of Singapore’s leaders, one name is most closely associated with Singapore: Lee Kuan Yew, or simply LKY. Five years after his passing, has Singapore moved on from his style of strong leadership and what will other countries who are keen to follow the country’s same developmental trajectory do in shaping their political systems?
Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the People's Action Party's annual conference at the Victoria Memorial Hall, 26 June 1955. (SPH)
Mr Lee Kuan Yew speaking at the People's Action Party's annual conference at the Victoria Memorial Hall, 26 June 1955. (SPH)

Five years ago, in a speech to the nation on the day that Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew passed away, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “For many Singaporeans and indeed others, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.” Indeed, it is not too much to call part of Singapore’s history “the LKY era”. However, there is little consensus on when the post-LKY era began.

There are three time periods that commentators allude to. First, in 1990, when Mr Lee stepped down as prime minister. Second, after the 2011 General Election, when Mr Lee and former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong both announced their stepping down from the Cabinet. Third, when Mr Lee passed on in 2015.

People thought Mr Lee’s passing would finally end the debate on the post-LKY era, and end the LKY era in all senses of the term. But this has not happened.

The discussion on where to draw the line, in fact, refers to how much authority and real influence Mr Lee had on Singapore’s affairs after he stepped down as prime minister. Assessments are of course based on Singapore’s political realities, but also reflect various viewpoints on whether Mr Lee should have continued to exert the full political influence he still had after 1990, or even after 2011.

Sunflowers is a work of Van Gogh, no matter who owns it

People thought Mr Lee’s passing would finally end the debate on the post-LKY era, and end the LKY era in all senses of the term. But this has not happened. Since the day Mr Lee passed on, even as most global media have labelled Singapore as entering the post-LKY era, different views remain. Some people are more inclined to call it the time of “a Singapore without LKY”.

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Former United States President Bill Clinton paying his respects to the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew at Parliament House, 28 March 2015. (SPH)

Some academics feel that Singapore moved into the post-LKY era long before he passed, and Mr Lee’s legacy was to make a system out of his ideas. In their view, it is this system that has guided Singapore’s long-term stability and prosperity, so there is no need to worry about Singapore’s future without Mr Lee. Even if one day the opposition comes to power, this system is unlikely to be abolished. And while there is an attempt to emphasise that it is not Mr Lee but the system that is driving Singapore forward, in fact, it highlights Mr Lee’s long-term influence on Singapore, and reduces the LKY era and post-LKY era to mere labels. As long as Singapore sticks to Mr Lee’s systemised ideas, the LKY era is not really gone with his passing, except perhaps in the literal sense.

China’s intellectuals continue to focus too much on China’s leaders, and attribute everything about the country’s governance to these leaders.

The views above portray Singapore as a product of Mr Lee’s political beliefs, and Mr Lee’s political and systemic legacy as the basis of how Singapore works. That is, Singapore is LKY’s Singapore, even if the “copyright” is transferred, just as Sunflowers is a work of Van Gogh, no matter who owns it.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore

Whether one likes him or not, one cannot deny that his incomparable contributions to Singapore have brought Singapore from a third world country to a world-class metropolis in a single generation. Many attribute the creation of modern Singapore all to Mr Lee, even if they admit that he did not work alone.

In China, this view is based on the truth of Mr Lee’s outstanding contribution to creating Singapore’s miraculous growth, and also because lionising a great person is what China tends to do as it continues to attach excessive significance to its patriarchal tradition. Such a political culture is deeply rooted in the rise and fall and change of China’s dynasties, and has not been buried by modernisation. China’s intellectuals continue to focus too much on China’s leaders, and attribute everything about the country’s governance to these leaders. Their own unhappiness with the current political situation does not stop them from placing their trust in these people with power, hoping that change will come. 

For many people, not just in China but in other Asian countries, Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore are inseparable. Ton Nu Thi Ninh, former Vietnamese Ambassador to the European Union, noted in the Giants of Asia series by Tom Plate that “if two names could be indissociable, these would be LKY and Singapore, and LKY and Singapore”. This tendency to perceive the individual and the country as one is generally regarded as implicit in the political culture of China and Asia, but when it comes to Lee Kuan Yew, even the West buys into it.

As Ian Buruma wrote for The New York Review in his 1999 article, “The Man Who Would be King”: “Not a Singapore story, but the Singapore story: it is a bit grandiose to identify one’s life story with that of one’s country, but in Lee Kuan Yew’s case perhaps not entirely unjustified. Singapore existed as a place before Lee, but the Singapore we know today was shaped to a remarkable extent in his image.”

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in the foreword to the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World: “As to the ancient argument — whether individuals shape events or are their register — there can be no doubt about the answer with regard to Lee Kuan Yew, a man of unmatched intelligence and judgement.”

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A picture taken off TV showing Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (left) discussing world economic problems with former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt (centre) and former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (right) in Japan, 27 April 1983. (SPH)

Lee Kuan Yew beyond Singapore

People are naturally interested in how much Lee Kuan Yew defined modern Singapore. Yet in fact, for many people, Mr Lee’s reputation far exceeds Singapore’s. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is quoted in Tom Plate's Giants of Asia series saying that Mr Lee is a “big frog in a small pond”. Kissinger also wrote in his book White House Years: “One of the asymmetries of history is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries.” He was referring to Austria’s chancellor Bruno Kreisky, but named Lee Kuan Yew as another example.

The Grand Master's Insights was published in 2012. The term "grand master" accurately brings out Mr Lee’s international status. The Chinese title of the book published in Taiwan — Go Ask Lee Kuan Yew: A Prime Minister’s Thoughts on China, the US and the World (《去问李光耀:一代总理对中国、美国和全世界的深思》) — is also ingenious. By including the phrase “Go Ask Lee Kuan Yew”, it gives a vivid image of Mr Lee’s masterful ability to resolve any difficult question. But who exactly “asked” Mr Lee for his views?

Mr Lee’s followers were many, and the most important people who consulted him were obviously top policymakers — the deciders of domestic and even world politics. Mr Lee was their frequent guest, and despite Western countries finding fault with Mr Lee’s governance model, they, like leaders in China and other Asian countries, flocked to him.

It is not just in China or Asia that people think of some political leaders as gods.

As the Washington Post said in a 2015 article of Mr Lee’s deeds, such as his actions against opposition leaders and international media: “None of this prevented several generations of U.S. and European leaders from seeking Mr Lee’s counsel and offering glowing praise for his wisdom.” Every US president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama listened to this wise man of Asia, especially on topics relating to Asia and China. Kissinger wrote in The Grand Master's Insights: "Lee has made himself an indispensable friend of the United States, not primarily by the power he represents, but by the excellence of his thinking… Lee’s analyses shed light on the most important challenge that the United States confronts over the long term: how to build a fundamental and organic relationship with Asia, including China. There is nobody who can teach us more about the nature and the scope of this effort than Lee Kuan Yew."

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Lee Kuan Yew (centre) with US President Richard Nixon (left), at the White House in Washington, May 1969. Also in the picture is Professor E.S. Monteiro, Singapore's ambassador to Washington. (SPH)

And when it comes to China, Mr Lee’s insights on China-related issues had value in two ways. First, his comments reflected his own position and Singapore’s position on China, as well as China’s international image. These comments influenced and changed what China knew of itself, and its views of the world. Second, the views on China that Mr Lee disseminated to the international community also influenced and changed the world’s views on China, which in turn affected world affairs.

Different political routes, different approaches to Covid-19?

It is not just in China or Asia that people think of some political leaders as gods. The West has also idolised some all-powerful heroes. But with the establishment of democracy in the West, such all-powerful heroes who lead countries through force of will have been replaced by politicians who operate within a system. For instance, the US president has ultimate authority, but he is not a one-of-a-kind god, but an ordinary person who can be replaced. Strongman politics and hero-worship have continued to thrive in Asia’s modern history mainly because of two reasons: how this region has developed, and the political-cultural tradition in Asia.

"...men must have the power to effect change and hence authority must be concentrated in some determinate individuals or group of men." - Samuel P. Huntington

First, how Asia has developed. While there are differences between Asian countries in terms of the formation of modern democracies or nation-states, overall there is one thing in common ⁠— long-term, unresolved flux and uncertainty, which makes it difficult to predict how long this unfinished and unstable state will continue in Asia. Samuel P. Huntington wrote (Note 1), “Modernisation requires authority for change. Fundamental changes in society and politics come from the purposeful actions of men. Hence authority must reside in men, not in unchanging law. In addition, men must have the power to effect change and hence authority must be concentrated in some determinate individuals or group of men."

This helps explain Asia’s desire for strongman rule in modern history. A transition period need not necessarily be chaotic and disorderly. Amid Asia’s constant change in modernisation, the right to pursue an ideal, constant order is more convincing than any guidelines or rules, and people are more willing to buy into this idea. As the Chinese saying goes: “Heroes rise in chaotic times (乱世出英雄).” Asia’s formative history produced heroes such as Mao Zedong of China, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and Suharto of Indonesia.

Huntington also wrote (Note 2): “The honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave. In some circumstances, authoritarianism may do well in the short term, but experience clearly shows that only democracy produces good government over the long haul.”

But while Lee completed Singapore’s transformation, many Asian countries are still in their development stage, and the LKY era is still seen as a model for these countries.

Singapore is modernising and maturing as an advanced economy, and Lee’s heroic aura is gradually fading. In particular, while the younger generation of Singaporeans respects Lee as a founding father, their vision of democracy and freedom is something that the Lee Kuan Yew-style of strong, pragmatic rule cannot offer. They have grown up in a time of globalisation, and their value systems are fundamentally different from their parents and grandparents. The LKY era will pass in Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew was considered by some to be the last strongman in Asia. “The passing of Lee Kuan Yew, brings to a close the formative history of Singapore,” wrote Professor Joseph Chinyong Liow of the National Technological University of Singapore (Note 3). But while Lee completed Singapore’s transformation, many Asian countries are still in their development stage, and the LKY era is still seen as a model for these countries.

In a way, this explains the different approaches of China and Singapore in handling the Covid-19 outbreak. While China was having success implementing its grand campaign against the virus, many netizens in China and new Chinese immigrants in Singapore found it hard to understand the Singapore government’s “guidance”, which meant more power and responsibility being vested in the people, as opposed to “orders”.

LKY deng xiaoping
Lee Kuan Yew with China's Deng Xiaoping in the Great Hall of the People, 17 September 1988. (SPH)

However, China’s current status as a developing country does not fully explain the relationship between its government and people. This brings us to the second factor: China’s political culture.

Will China also follow this track and move into the “post-LKY era”? Or will it continue, reform, and improve on its thousands of years of political culture and prove that the world is diverse?

This point has always been controversial. Speaking at the Create 21 Asahi Forum in Tokyo in 1992, Mr Lee said: “The US Congress has threatened the withdrawal of MFN [most favoured nation status] unless China observes democracy and human rights… Can the habits and values of Chinese governance of over 4,000 years be changed overnight by resolutions of the US Congress? I believe change will come to China. But it will be an internally generated process of evolution.”

But some people also feel that “culture” is an excuse rather than a reason. In his 1994 article “Is Culture Destiny? The Myth of Asia's Anti-Democratic Values” in Foreign Affairs magazine, former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung wrote that the biggest obstacle to establishing democracy and strengthening human rights was “not its cultural heritage but the resistance of authoritarian rulers and their apologists”. 

A developed Asia country like Japan is still seen as a product of the West, but the appearance of the Four Asian Tigers got people to believe that Asia’s own sociocultural traditions and political experience could give rise to an effective growth model, without transplanting the Western model. But no matter how Singapore’s growth model is defined, it is moving away from an earlier style that some think of as strongman politics. Will China also follow this track and move into the “post-LKY era”? Or will it continue, reform, and improve on its thousands of years of political culture and prove that the world is diverse? Let us wait and see.

Notes:

1. Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (1968)

2. Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy for the Long Haul”, Journal of Democracy (1996)

3. Joseph Chinyong Liow, “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Dream”, RSIS Commentary (2015)

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