27 July 2017

The Apothesosis of Lee Kuan Yew VI

Can we remember Lee Kuan Yew without creating a cult?

A statue of Turkmenbashi, not a statue of Lee Kuan Yew

Slightly more than 2 years ago, we made an observation: Political leaders like Lee Kuan Yew do not pass on; they apotheosize. It falls to a responsible administration to ensure that his commemoration be grounded by a firm sense of proportion, empiricism, and context.

A responsible and competent administration would avoid the following undemocratic and anti-democratic fallacies and their related temptations. To wit: confusing the man for the state, thus instituting a personality cult; confusing his family for the state, thus instituting an imperial cult; and confusing the party for the state, thus instituting a party monument.

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew's values vs a remembrance of Lee Kuan Yew

Statues of the Great Leader and Dear Leader; not a statue of Lee Kuan Yew
Cabinet deliberations to overturn a private will; a quarrel within Singapore's First Family; a political party lobbying to turn its founder's home into a heritage site and monument: all these are narratives that feed into public disquiet that despite the need for some form of memorial for Singapore's founder(s), they simply distrust the process and fear that deliberations over the house on Oxley Road will end up creating either a personality cult, an imperial cult, or a party monument.

The various actors in the Oxley drama can take a leaf from Lee Kuan Yew's values. In particular, how the prime minister's cabinet in 1959 to 1963 established radical reforms that would continue on as policies right into the 1980s, but continually refined and reworked the details and execution in response to public feedback.

If the government were to act in the spirit of Lee Kuan Yew's first cabinet, it might propose to build a memorial that celebrates Singapore's values, not a certain man's values, not a certain family's values, nor a certain party's values. And we're proposing it can be done.

Celebrating Singapore as a continuous project

The Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall; not a Lee Kuan Yew memorial hall
Perhaps a fitting monument would be one of Lee Kuan Yew. Not of himself as a Great Man, but part of a tableaux with David Marshall, Lim Yew Hock, Goh Keng Swee, Rajaratnam, and Albert Winsemius.

Here, we have the recognition that Mr Lee was part of an ongoing project, that he himself stood on the shoulders of giants who fought and won battles that laid the ground for him: David Marshall, the first Jewish Chief Minister of Singapore who articulated the need for self-determination, and Lim Yew Hock, who made the necessary preparations for Singapore's self-governance. We have the recognition that Mr Lee was the will of the Cabinet, but Mr Goh was the brain, and the ideologue Rajaratnam was its heart. And above all, Winsemius was the outsider that the trio agreed to take advice from.

More fitting would be a double tableaux: the above personages in a group, paired with another consisting of Raffles, Farquhar, Crawfurd, Sultan Hussein Shah, and Temenggong Abdul Rahman. They are respectively the man with the vision, the man who made that vision real, and the man who kept the reality alive, working hand in hand with the men who saw value in that vision, gave the trio their blessing, and welcomed them even though they were outsiders.

Two sets of personages, telling the same story: that we never achieve anything alone, that a project like Singapore requires vision, will, competence, and the willingness to listen to outsiders. And that would be a monument that Singapore needs.

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