My late father was one of those early PAP pioneers who went into the kampongs to see how electricity and water could be delivered to residents. To hear him talk, Singapore was a muddy place, a Tower of Babel – and poor. But the people had bright eyes. Sharp eyes. They weren’t beaten down or down cast. They just wanted someone to lead them.
For the majority, that man was Lee Kuan Yew and the first generation of PAP leaders. It always seemed odd to me how an overseas educated lawyer could have connected with the hoi polloi. Perhaps, it was because, as my mother always enthused, Lee Kuan Yew was such a handsome man when he was young. His education was a plus – the people wanted their children to be like him. These days, the people turn up their noses at scholar-leaders as out-of-touch elitist technocrats….How things have changed.
But my late father grew increasingly disenchanted with the PAP in his later years and ended up cheering the opposition at their rallies. He always found himself a spot near the front of the stage. I am not sure what caused the swing, but I think it had to do with the size of his pension. He was a retired policeman with bullet wounds on his body – and the pension was miserable. He thought he had been forgotten. But, and this he was grateful for, he was entitled to first class medical treatment. He joked that he would need to have a heart attack to enjoy them. Well, he had a few…
When Mr Goh Chok Tong took over as Prime Minister, my Dad made sure to meet him so that he could grasp his hand. He wanted to see if Mr Goh had a firm handshake. My father came home to pronounce that Mr Goh’s eyes widened, but that he had a good, strong grasp. Even so, for my father, the jury was still out. I wonder what he would have made of Mr Lee Hsien Loong, earlier known as BG Lee – or seed of Lee to those who know Malay. But he didn’t live to see the changeover.
Mr Lee, 91, is now in hospital with pneumonia. He was a man of my father’s generation, a man’s man. These are the men who didn’t mind a bare-knuckled fight in an alley. They were alpha-males, not new age sensitive guys. They were autocrats, firm in their belief that a firm hand was needed for the greater good of all. Our parents and grandparents will remember those days when they “followed’’, convinced that it was in their best interest to do so. The flip side, of course, is that they had no other choice. There was no other power base seeking their vote; the Barisan Sosialis having walked out of Parliament.
I don’t think anyone would deny that fundamental liberties were not high on the citizens’ list of priorities then. They wanted homes and jobs. Politics was reduced to being able to deliver those goods. Some people were run over as the PAP bulldozed its way to its objective, with homes and land acquired compulsorily and the Stop at Two policy enforced through warnings that your kid might not get into a good primary school (yup, even then!) and incentives for women to have their tubes tied through painful ligations. MNCs were wooed to jump start industry; there wasn’t much talk of developing our own brands then methinks. Families, familiar with the war-time chaos in the recent past and in the region, cried when their sons were called up for National Service in its early days. Singapore was “hot housed’’.
History will decide if the benefits were worth the damage. But, however revisionist history may be, it cannot ignore the universal acclaim that has been heaped on this little red dot nor the statistics that prove how far we have come.
The elder Lee has been in hospital since Feb 5. He is a lightning rod for controversy. Even members of his first Cabinet didn’t always seemed to have agreed with his policies. Succeeding generations with different priorities thought his hold was too tight, even draconian. They think he passed down those traits to successive leaders – despite the changed environment. The move from Third World to First wasn’t just economic. Education (which the elder Lee wish women didn’t have so that they would be happy producing babies!) ensured that mindsets were changed too. Yet Mr Goh Chok Tong, while insisting that he was wearing his own shoes, still followed in the elder Lee’s footsteps especially on two routes: ensuring the PAP’s total dominance in Parliament (remember lift upgrading and jumbo GRCs?) and promising more good years economically. Both were hard to achieve given the changing voter appetite and the already high economic base Singapore was operating on.
Truth to tell, I consider the younger Lee very much a reformer. He tried to reform the PAP’s anti-welfare policy and its mass production of people for the workforce. He loosened regulations for public assembly. Detractors will always say too little, too late. But the fact is, they happened. If my father was alive today, he would be a pioneer of pioneers, a centurion. I wonder what he would have thought of the Pioneer Generation Package. I think he would have said it was his due although he would be glad that my mother would have some State support. I wonder what the elder Lee thought of the policy changes over the past five years or so, especially post-2011 GE. Would he have called them populist?
The elder Lee is in hospital, hooked up to a ventilator. A lot of good wishes and plenty of unkind words are floating around the ether. I think those with only unkind things to say should shut up. There will never be a perfect politician. Even a “popular’’ politician will be unpopular with those do not like their populist policies. Already, some are wishing for the good ole firm hand of the old Lee, believing that the younger Lee is pandering to people’s peeves. They prefer the Hard Truths because they can’t make up their minds about the Hard Choices placed before them. How often have you heard people say that they wished the education system was “simpler’’, because they are lost in the maze of educational opportunities for their children. In fact, they are not even sure that they can take advantage of it because they cannot grasp the implications of a choice and if they do, lack the capital, in money or social terms.
I wonder though what the elder Lee would make of the fissures today. How an old hoary chestnut like whether Thaipusam should be a public holiday came to be resurrected as an issue. How those in HDB flats resent those in private property and those in private property resent those living in Sentosa Cove. How locals and foreigners don’t get along. And how we became a nation of individuals looking out for ourselves more than for each other. I think the grand old man would have simply ordered everyone to shut up and sit down…Like it or not, he glued everyone together.
Now, the elder Lee’s condition has taken a turn for the worse and it appears that the state machinery is gearing up for the inevitable. The man has had a good long run, a full life and whatever his detractors may say, he took us to this point in time. I don’t think, given his age, that I should wish him a speedy recovery. Rather, I wish him a good death. That he will go peacefully, surrounded by family.