Monday, December 20, 2010

Lee Kuan Yew's occidental illusion

17 December 2010, Malaysiakini
By Josh Hong

While Lee Kuan Yew's stunningly frank, if blunt, remarks about regional leaders and politicians may have ruffled some diplomatic feathers, they provide an immensely interesting glimpse into the mind of the octogenarian autocrat nonetheless.

In his opinion, the Thais are 'corrupt' and Laos is an 'outpost' for China that faithfully feeds Beijing with the content of Asean meetings. Meanwhile, Burma's junta leaders are 'stupid and dense', and Cambodia's political system is too personalised around Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Naturally, the loudest ruckus that these personal views have caused in Malaysia is over Lee's concerns that the country is in a 'confused and dangerous state' thanks to its incompetent leaders, and that Anwar Ibrahim had walked into a trap that rendered him being charged with sodomy.

I agree all the supposedly confidential messages that are now made available by WikiLeaks cannot be taken as gospel truth; neither do they necessarily reflect the official position of a given government.

NONEStill, we are talking about Singapore where everything that Lee (left) says goes. It is because of this widely shared perception that George Yeo, the Foreign Affairs Minister, has issued a statement in an attempt to contain potential damage to the improving bilateral ties.

Being the founding father of the modern republic who continues to serve as Minister Mentor, Lee's words can never be dissociated from those of the Singapore government, a fact that Lee himself readily acknowledges.

Granted, in just one generation, Lee built the resource-starved island into a prosperous nation with a capacious mind, strong character, iron will and absolute prudence, and does deserve credit for it. But his ruthless pragmatism and unquestioned belief in Machiavellianism will forever taint his otherwise remarkable achievements.

Question over squeaky clean reputation

Singapore's records on transparency and efficiency make it the only star pupil in South-East Asia, but it does not mean that the authorities have not in one way or another been involved with the corrupt regimes in the region.

In early 2006, mass demonstrations started to emerge in Bangkok against the then-Thaksin Shinawatra government.

thailand bangkok protest 021208 02One provocative banner read: Welcome to Thailand - The Second Branch of Singapore, while the local media mercilessly lambasted Prime Minister Thaksin for having turned the country into 'a colony of Singapore' by selling his family-owned Shin Corp to Temasek Holdings for a whopping 73.3 billion Baht without paying any taxes.

Lee described that engagement with the ruling generals in Rangoon was akin to 'talking to dead people'. However, Benedict Rogers writes in the book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant of intricate economic and financial links between the junta and the PAP government, while Seelan Palay reports on the staggering similarities between the two countries in terms of political modus operandi.

It seems that Lee would not mind some 'joss papers' even though he may secretly detest the not-so-bright generals.

And a personalised political system in Cambodia? That is indisputable for sure, but isn't the same thing can be said of the dynastic politics in Singapore?

Now, let's turn to Malaysia. Lee's dim views of the leadership here are well-known, especially when it comes to the issues of race politics and meritocracy. Unfortunately, I happen to share his observations of our government leaders as being incompetent.

Just look at our substandard tertiary education, the heavily devalued ringgit against the Singapore dollar since the 1980s, the deteriorating public transport system, and the increasingly corrupt - openly corrupt I would say - public service.

Nose in air prophecy gets hit

Then again, Lee has been rather shrewd not to say a word about the independence of the judiciary for obvious reasons.

But the Minister Mentor, having done much over the years to stifle public dissent in the island, is also never known for having high regards for anti-establishment elements in neighbouring countries.

When Mahathir Mohamad sacked Anwar as deputy prime minister that precipitated the biggest street protests ever in Kuala Lumpur, Lee predicted it to die down within weeks.

reformasi 1998 270808 01He was plain wrong here as the reformasi movement persisted right into the new millennium and became a remote cause for the March 2008 political tsunami. A significant segment of Malaysian society - if not all - was awakened to the destructive nature of authoritarian and arbitrary rule in the long run, and decided to do something about it.

Prior to that, President Suharto had been toppled in a violent political upheaval, sending the region into some sort of turmoil. Watching intensive political struggles unfold from across the causeway, Lee was no doubt fearful of a domino effect that could eventually reach Singapore.

Despite the unfettered cronyism, nepotism and corruption bred under Suharto, Lee considered his continued rule a source of stability. When Suharto died in 2008, he lamented that the strongman's contributions to a stable Asean that had made Singapore's prosperity possible remained unacknowledged.

He is too elitist and aloof to have in mind the political prisoners and the poor masses in Indonesia, and conveniently forgot Suharto's conscious effort to stigmatise the Chinese community, which was instrumental in giving rise to the shocking anti-Chinese riots in May 1998.

Finally, Lee got it wrong again when he thought if PAS leaders would ditch their kopiah and traditional Islamic dress and put on a western suit - just like Mahathir and himself - they could easily win over the Chinese.

Little did he realise - until they met last year - that Nik Aziz Nik Mat is popular with the non-Malays not because of any western outlook, but his sense of fairness, humility and equanimity as opposed to profanely corrupt and racist Umno politicians, his Islamic clothing notwithstanding.

I do have profound reservations about the idea of an Islamic state, but Lee's failure to understand the enigmatic politics of Islam exposes his West-anschauung, ie. a west-centric worldview that had thrown him into a fervent pursuit of progress and modernity, looking up to the West as being intrinsically and essentially rational, developed, progressive and civilised. (To be fair, Mahathir suffers from the same Occidentalist illusion too, only to a lesser extent.)

And who did Lee share all the unpalatable comments about his neighbours with? The Americans and Australians of course.

To him, these are his real friends indeed although he may love the money and business opportunities offered by the thugs next door.

JOSH HONG studied politics at London Metropolitan University and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. A keen watcher of domestic and international politics, he longs for a day when Malaysians will learn and master the art of self-mockery, and enjoy life to the full in spite of politicians.