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Antidote to LKY’s Hard Truths

One could have hardly missed local media coverage (which continues) of Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.

Here are two reviews about a new book which will probably not see the light of day in Singapore (and the local news media here is “too busy” promoting Hard Truths) but if anybody finds it, please do share the information here! Of course, one can still get it from across the causeway. 🙂

Book opens life not led by ‘shu’
By A. Kathirasen, New Straits Times, 23 Jan 2011

THERE are leaders who would like to be in Lee Kuan Yew’s shoes — to emulate his ability to transform his resource deficient nation into an admired, and often envied, economic powerhouse.

But there are others who might like to throw a shoe at the architect of modern Singapore. They, like Francis T. Seow, think him a tyrant. Seow lives in self-exile in the United States, fearing to return to Lee’s Singapore.

It was Lee who appointed Seow solicitor-general, but, after a falling out, Seow was arrested and detained for 72 days under the ISA.

Seow, who stood on an opposition ticket in the 1988 elections, chronicled his experience in detention in the book To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison.

Now, he has come out with another book, a figurative shoe for Lee.

Titled Confucius Confounded: The Analects of Lee Kuan Yew, the book is a compilation of the sayings of the prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990. And, no, Seow does not pretend to be balanced.

In fact, the tone is set in the forewords by former Malaysian prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Derek Gwyn Davies, a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Davies was once sued, together with the Review, by Lee.

Why Confucius Confounded? Seow says it was inspired by then first deputy prime minister Goh Chok Tong, hailing Lee as a moral man and “modern Confucius”. Seow rubbishes this epithet.

He deftly lets Lee’s words condemn the man who is now traversing the world as an elder statesman, dispensing advice and political prognoses. Seow has, in fact, made Lee hit himself with his own shoe.

As this quote, for instance, shows: “I do not believe that sane, rational leaders want to stifle criticism; but we must prepare for the possibility that not rational and not very sane leaders may ultimately come into power”, (Dec 14, 1964).

A reader who is not acquainted with the sage might be confounded by the title Confucius Confounded. A brief appendix on Confucius’ principles vis-a-vis politics and governance would help the reader better understand why Confucius would be confounded.

One suspects that Seow did it more for its alliterative value.

Seow’s message is that Lee is no enlightened sage; rather, he is a self-interested, cold politician whose statements, stand and actions are geared towards staying in power.

If Seow means to show that Lee is no Confucian because he does not follow Confucius’ central virtue of benevolence or reciprocity, he succeeds.

Once, one of Confucius’ disciples, Tzu-kung, asked: “Is there a single word which can be a guide to conduct throughout one’s life?”

Confucius replied: “It is perhaps the word shu. Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire.”

No one would want to be detained without trial or be herded to the courts or harassed or declared a bankrupt because of political differences. Lee was certainly not practising shu.

Davies, in his foreword, is more direct: “Singapore has not been ruled by Confucian benevolence but by vindictiveness.”

He adds: “The quotations paint Lee’s self-portrait, of an illogical, conceited, ruthless, vindictive and racialist leader.”

But, many aspects of Confucius’ teachings are vague and a wily politician like Lee can be expected to engage the interpretation that suits him. Or, one could simply be selective in adopting the teachings of the sage.

Seow has selected the quotes from newspaper articles, interviews and the Hansard. They provide a valuable insight into the mind of Lee.

Malaysians would be interested in knowing Lee’s thoughts on the formation of Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Umno, MCA and such. For instance, he has some nice things to say about Tunku.

To avoid the danger of taking at face value everything in a collection of quotes, one would do well to read it with the understanding that some of these words may not be in context. One should also remember that politicians are wont to change their views.

A pair of classic quotes by Lee about his suspicious, or otherwise, nature are priceless.

At a press conference on June 2, 1966, asked whether the Indonesia-Malaysia talks in Bangkok would result in the isolation of Singapore, Lee said: “I am not a suspicious man by nature.”

Talking in Helsinki on June 10, 1971 about David Rockefeller’s statement that his bank did not lend to newspapers, but had, however, granted loans to the Singapore Herald, he said: “I am quite suspicious by nature.”

Talking to ABC TV in Canberra, Australia, on March 17, 1965, Lee said: “I am not in fact Chinese. I am in fact Malaysian. I am by race Chinese. I am no more Chinese than you are an Englishman.”

To a journalist from Yazhou Zhoukan in Hong Kong on March 18, 1990, he said: “Being an ethnic Chinese is not an unmixed blessing… The plus for me as a Chinese is that I can associate myself with the only civilisation and culture in the world with an unbroken history of 4,000 years.”

In a speech to Parliament on Sept 21, 1955, Lee said: “If it is not totalitarian to arrest and detain (a man) when you cannot charge him with any offence against written law — and if that is not what we have always cried out against in Fascist states — then what is?”

On Oct 4, 1956, Lee, very presciently, said: “Repression, sir, is a habit that grows. I am told it is like making love — it is always easier the second time!

“The first time there may be pangs of conscience, a sense of guilt. But once embarked on this course, with constant repetition, you get more and more brazen in the attack.

“First the conscience is disturbed by a sense of guilt. You attack only those whom your Special Branch can definitely say are communists. They have no proof except what X told Z who told Alpha who told Beta who told the Special Branch.

“Then you attack those whom your Special Branch say are actively sympathising with and helping the communists, although they are not communists themselves.

“Then you attack those whom your Special Branch say although they are not communists or fellow travellers, yet, by their intransigent opposition to any collaboration with colonialism, they encourage the spirit of revolt and weaken constituted authority and thereby, according to the Special Branch, they are aiding the communists.

“Then, finally, since you have gone that far, you attack all those who oppose you…”

This little exchange between Lee and Fred Emery of The Times of London on Aug 13, 1965, tells of Lee’s ambition.

Emery: “Didn’t you want to be prime minister of Malaysia one day?”

Lee: “One day, perhaps, but not for a long, very long time.”

The book would be more profitably read if one were to keep in mind that some of the remarks are applicable not only to Lee, or Singapore, but to other leaders and nations as well.

Politicians everywhere, especially those who tout the concept of shu — the golden rule — in their political pontifications, may find glimpses of themselves in Lee’s views — some may even find that the shoe fits.


Judge for yourself
Review by MARTIN VENGADESAN, theStar, 20 Feb 2011

A book on Lee Kuan Yew by a dissident leaves room for the reader to form his own opinion about Singapore’s senior minister.

CONFUCIUS CONFOUNDED: The Analects of Lee Kuan Yew

By Francis T. Seow

Publisher: Berita Publishing, 334 pages

ISBN: 978-9679695663

THE founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, is a man who tends to elicit extreme reactions. While some praise his city state as an efficient modern metropolis with cosmopolitan aspirations, other decry the more authoritarian aspects of its political structure.

Former solicitor-general Francis Seow is one of the few dissidents who challenged Lee’s invincible People’s Action Party – and he paid for his beliefs, having spent more than two decades in exile, following a period of detention in Singapore.

This book attempts to portray the development of Lee’s Singapore not through a narrative or historical exposition, but, rather, through a series of quotes from the man himself.

While Seow has authored works like To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 1994) and Beyond Suspicion? The Singapore Judiciary (Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2007), this book contains very little commentary and leaves the reader to make his own judgements.

Interestingly enough, Confucius Confounded kicks off with a foreword by our own former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad. It is difficult not to smile when Mahathir criticises Lee for his intolerance to opposition and determination to hang on to power for as long as possible … one might venture that the two veteran leaders are more alike than either would care to admit.

Ironically, there is a segment in the book where Lee is full of praise (damning or otherwise) for Mahathir. “Not everyone in Malaysia has got the courage of Dr. Mahathir and also the sense of reality,” Lee once asserted.

With chapter titles such as The Battle for Merger with Malaysia, the Bench and Bar, Pride and Prejudices and Wit and Personal Wisdom, Seow traces Lee’s development as a political leader. We can see the many twists and turns that his path took as he initially forms an alliance with leftists in the PAP to take power in Singapore, and leads Singapore first into a merger with Malaysia (in 1963) and a dramatic withdrawal just two years later.

Lee’s skill as an English-educated lawyer who manipulated the working-class leaders of his own country reveals a ruthless streak that gives lie to his fantastic rhetoric about building a just and egalitarian society when speaking as a Malaysian parliamentarian. One can only wonder what Lee’s defeated foes made of Lee’s erstwhile passionate pleas for liberty once he asserted his tight control overhis island state.

(And those foes are many, forming a chain that starts with fellow PAP founders like Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan and one time Singapore President Devan Nair; Barisan Sosialis MP Chia Thye Poh, who was detained under Singapore’s Internal Security Act for 23 years, and continues with Workers Party stalwarts like Tang Liang Hong and the late Joshua Jeyaretnam, 1926-2008.)

Check out this excerpt quoting from Lee’s speeches on the role of the Opposition, made during Singapore’s brief partnership with Malaysia: “Loyalty to Malaysia is not equal … to loyalty to … the Alliance Government. A loyal Opposition does not mean a subservient Opposition. Criticism, however unwelcome, will have to be made.”

We get to see Lee’s shrewd tactical moves as well as his determination to shape his own place in history and distance himself from other paternalistic rulers of his time. That his rule was overbearing is clear from that fact that, since 1965, Singapore’s Parliament has been overwhelmingly dominated by the PAP; for many years there was no Opposition parliamentarian and the current “score” is PAP, 82; Opposition, two!

While there is no doubt that Lee was a talented politician and a brilliant man, it’s a little sad that at this point in his life, Seow is still so obsessed with him. After all, at 88, surely even the shadow Lee casts over his little corner of the world is shrinking.

Ultimately Seow’s book offers little that is new to any student of Singapore’s political history. And let’s face it: that history has been rendered increasingly tame and boring by the population’s docile acceptance of Lee’s doctrines.

While one surely has to admire the accomplishments of Lee’s Singapore (the public transport system and relatively low crime rate for starters), it is obvious that they go hand in hand with the contradictions that are, perhaps, a reflection of the man himself. For all Lee’s talk of independence when he was a young man, it is arguably the subservient and sycophantic relationship with the United States (WikiLeaks anyone?) that best sums up the path that Singapore has taken to prosperity. Confucius Confounded points out that Lee seemed to feel compelled to assert, in 1995, that, “We are not a client state of America”.

As for Seow’s book, it is not essential reading and certainly lacks cohesiveness as a historical work. But neither is it wholly without charm or purpose. It is definitely worth picking up if you’re looking for eloquent albeit somewhat passe political theatre that’s presented in palatable doses.

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