Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew turned 83 yesterday. Many happy returns of the day.
I wouldn’t have known it was his birthday unless it was mentioned in a Straits Times report yesterday outlining his vision of the future. I hardly watch TV but saw nothing about his birthday on the local news channel, Channel NewsAsia’s website. That’s not his style.
While his influence is everywhere, there’s no personality cult — no ubiquitous images, billboards and posters carrying his sayings — such as those that grew up around Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro and many other communist and Third World leaders. MM Lee, as he is called today, the architect of modern Singapore, is too urbane for that. He prefers influence to idolatry.
Instead of birthday felicitations, what the media reported was his vision of Singapore 40 years from now. Singapore must preserve its system of government, he said. Of course, he would say that, having built it up himself, a system where he still wields authority as a minister in a Cabinet headed by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. And it has certainly brought prosperity and law and order.
Does that make him a conservative? I don’t know. In Singapore, political debate is not conducted in terms of conservatives, liberals, democrats, left, right or centre. The focus is simply on what’s good for Singapore, whether a particular policy or legislation will benefit Singaporeans and how to prosper in a global economy.
The International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings now being held in Singapore, bringing together leaders from around the world, are the kind of events where MM Lee excels. He can speak to the grassroots but is equally at home rubbing shoulders with brainy high-flyers like former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard’s ex-president Lawrence Summers, who held a public dialogue with him two days ago, where MM Lee outlined his vision of Singapore.
What was interesting was how the local media reported the event. Of course, it was the top story in The Straits Times and featured prominently in the freesheet Today.
The difference lay in their coverage of what Prof Summers, still a Harvard professor, had to say.
The Straits Times simply reported his notions of good government. It did not report he also welcomed dissidence. That was mentioned in Today.
"He pointed out that dissidence, which often comes with creativity, is a positive driving force in every sphere of society, from arts to business. His hope was that ‘the Government in Singapore, over the next half-a-century, will come from more than one competent stream of political leadership.’ "
I was amused that Prof Summers’ positive take on dissidence was reported in Today, published by a business conglomerate headed by the Prime Minister’s wife, but not in The Straits Times.