It is a measure of Lee Kuan Yew’s stature that he has, to use W.H. Auden’s phrase for Sigmund Freud, become a whole climate of opinion. The achievements are easy to list. Here was a leader who transformed a tiny resource-starved patch of land that was wrecked by race riots into a nation — a prosperous and relatively meritocratic economic powerhouse with a sense of order and purpose. He gave Singapore an unusual degree of civic identity, which allowed it to navigate the triple challenges of multiculturalism, transition to modernity and the treacherous shoals of international politics. Singapore, unlike many other regimes, became a sort of model that many wanted to emulate. It has punched far above its weight. The criticisms are also easy to articulate. Lee was no democrat or defender of liberty. He was impatient with democratic checks and balances, exuberance and unruliness. He often displayed a clever ruthlessness that would have done Machiavelli proud.
For all its economic dynamism and strong civic commitment, Singapore feels like an economic Sparta to many. It has the completeness of a state that has probably eschewed the complexity of human nature. Some, like The Economist, wonder what Lee would have done had fate dealt him a bigger power to lead. But equally, there is the quip, probably apocryphal, attributed to Deng Xiaoping, that Lee would have made a capable mayor of a Chinese city. What one makes of him depends partly on what one makes of the Singapore experience. But also partly on what one makes of the modern democratic experience.
Like all leaders, Lee had an unusual sense of authenticity and purpose. He created that rare thing: a sense of public purpose in the state. Singapore is famous for its economic liberalism. But behind that was the recognition that a competent economy requires a deeply competent state. Unlike our reformers, for whom reform means delegitimising the state, Lee thought that the state needed to establish its authority through sheer achievement. But what makes him an inescapable figure is not just the important achievement of creating modern Singapore. The reason he draws so much attention is that he represents, in many ways, modernity’s unfulfilled subconscious, something that both attracts and repels at the same time.
The elements of this subconscious of modernity are plenty. Lee is often derided for creating a muscular, punitive state: harassing political opponents out of existence, equipped with strong penal traditions and a disciplinarian culture. But in a way, even the most advanced democracies have not escaped the tension between democracy and a strong state. And faced with challenges, many have opted for the latter. In an age where democracies have total surveillance, detention without trial, mass incarceration systems as in the United States, an inability to control civil society violence and deep regulation of public protest, Lee’s repression often benefits by comparison. The West loved to hate him, not because he was repressive, but because he managed to create an attractive version of soft authoritarianism. He stood his ground and, in doing so, questioned the very hypocrisy at the heart of so many established democracies.
The second element of this modernity is this: it requires lowering expectations from politics. The modern democratic project was premised on the idea that if we take controversial subjects like religion off the political agenda, we could create peaceful societies. We will disagree on redemption and all such grand claims, but we could probably agree on more mundane earthly matters like keeping the peace, security and economic wellbeing. In a sense, Singapore was a kind of radicalisation of that model. You could keep the peace by concentrating on some basic ingredients of prosperity — focus on bread and eschew the circus. Of course, just like keeping religion out of politics involves constantly policing the boundaries of what is permissible, keeping controversy and division out of the political arena also required constant policing. It is easy to say, let us focus on basic instrumental goods like prosperity. But it is harder to admit that producing a culture that believes that about itself, that is pragmatic in this sense, also requires a wholescale cultural transformation. That is exactly what Lee grasped and produced.
The third feature of modernity that he radicalised was an instrumentalism about culture itself. He used to be described as an Englishman; then he became the stand-in for Confucian values. He was probably neither. Lee was ruthlessly functional and instrumental in the elements of culture he appropriated. If English could give Singapore a common lingua franca and open it to the world, so be it. If Confucian discipline was a good brand to sell, bring it on. If Indian unruliness could be re-coded as a sign of inventiveness, why not? All of Asia has undergone a deep transition to modernity. But it is hard to think of many places that have both appropriated cultures and denuded them of any deep historical significance. More than a harbinger of Asian values, Lee was a quintessential postmodern figure. Culture was an instrument to be used, not a weight to be carried. It is perhaps not an accident that Singapore is one of the few places in Asia that is still not burdened, at least in self-conception, by the weight of its historical past. It is also perhaps not an accident that this very virtue strikes many as its weakness. The lack of historical resentment, unusual in Asia, has made it pragmatically open. On the other hand, it also projects a sense of culture that has too few layers that can be articulated, even if the individual biographies are interesting.
Lee, opinionated, clever, insightful, frank and deeply pragmatic, was a significant figure because he had the power of an idea behind him. That idea holds a mirror to modern civilisation. At one level, a polity that is pragmatic, eschews historical depth, focuses on material wellbeing and individual physical security, is driven by an acute knowledge of a modern economy and keeps out debilitating dissent is a deeply attractive one. For societies burdened by too much history, too much otherworldly stuff, physical insecurity, a tendency to dissolve economics into metaphysics, and where the line between dissent and sheer rancour is never clear, such a vision is indeed attractive. Lee’s greatest achievement was to make such a vision workable and attractive. But how much of that vision will still remain attractive will depend on how Singapore endures its next, and more deepening, round of political challenges.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.