23 March 2015

The Apotheosis of Lee Kuan Yew II

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's unsung democrat

Singapore's first prime minister has been called a dictator, not least by William Safire and other young, educated Singaporeans over the decades. Lee was not ashamed of the term; the statesman revelled in the patrimonial image of a strongman who did what was necessary for the nation.

Recently, the declassification of the British colonial archives has resurrected, or given credibility to an old charge against Lee: a politico whose undemocratic, underhanded, and cynical plottings leading to the Merger have poisoned the foundation of Singapore.

The undeclared civil war of Singapore between the alleged communists and the PAP (or as Dr Thum Pin Tjin might say, between the Chinese socialist left and the PAP's non-communist socialists) has left enduring scars on Singapore's political landscape, so much so that PM Lee Hsien Loong recently argued that Singapore could not afford to be divided along the red state, blue state lines of the US.

Political polarisation or political accommodation?

The younger Lee’s conceptualisation of America’s Red State, Blue State problem is not unorthodox; the discovery and subsequent branding of this phenomenon occurred in 2000 to describe what looked to be a state-level ‘sticky’ voting preference in the US presidential elections. Even though the stickiness dissolves and a “Purple America” emerges once the polling data is refined on county and district level, the longevity and appeal of the Red State/Blue State discourse can be explained as a conceptual extension of earlier political realities, namely the “Solid South” of the Democratic Party and “Southern Strategy” of the Republican Party.

These political phenomena should be understood as the legacy of the American Civil War. Following the complete military and political defeat of the Confederate States (which had half the population of the Union), Reconstruction was initially proposed to disenfranchise the South[1] while reunifying the nation. If successive Republican presidents had stuck to the grand plan, the ironically-named Reconstruction project would have turned the United States of America into a nation where a quarter of the population would live and work in federally-administered or even military dictatorships.

Despite these plans, the victors of the civil war eventually accommodated the defeated South to preserve the legitimacy of their victory in a free, open, and democratic America—with all the elections that this entails. It is the necessary cultural concessions, the valourisation of the South and its agrarian values and religiosity[2] that when accreted over close to two centuries, looks like a Red State, Blue State “divide”.

In Singapore, the leftist purges conducted by the People’s Action Party from 1959 to the late 1970s were no less devastating and widespread. Pre-dawn arrests by the secret police, decades of detention without trial, televised confessions and recantations ensured the wholesale removal of several generations of political elites from the Chinese community.

Far from being the arrogant, bullying, conceited, dictatorial, egotistical folk-devil of popular imagination, Lee did not suspend democracy, impose martial law, and transform Singapore into a dictatorship. Unlike Latin America, Singaporeans were not kidnapped by paramilitaries and disappeared forever. Unlike Taiwan's White Terror, Singaporeans were not executed for treason. Lee's methods, however infamous, were not internationally infamous, and kept Singapore's place within the British Commonwealth.

Elections went on as normal, and that meant the PAP had to pay a heavy price to ensure its continued successes at the electoral box. Like Lincoln’s successors, the PAP had no choice upon winning its war against the Chinese political elites on the left but to politically accommodate Chinese voters in Singapore, then numbering over 70% of its population. As the purges against Singapore’s Chinese political elites continued, the PAP had to make an increasing number of cultural and social concessions to Singapore’s Chinese—in effect, to valourise “Chineseness”—in order to maintain their electoral competitiveness.
1The Radical Republicans had demanded a loyalty oath that would have disbarred the majority of state electorates and their representatives, while the moderate Lincoln would have accepted a 10% electorate plan that would render the ‘new’ Southern states undemocratic minority-run pro-Republican regimes. Under Johnson, the South was broken into 5 military districts.

2In popular narratives, every winning presidential campaign needs a Southern candidate, the metonym for America is not New York or DC but small town America (which is why Superman, defender of the American Way, is a farmboy), The Hunger Games is an allegory for the tyranny of Reconstruction, Gone with the Wind is the highest grossing film adjusted for inflation, etc.

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