March 26th, 2015

happy girl

To Speak Truth to Power

I must be one of the five people who have zero intention of going to Parliament House to pay respects or following the funeral procession on Sunday. The interesting thing is that I attended J B Jeyaretnam's funeral when he passed away in 2008; and yet, I feel absolutely no inclination to attend LKY's. Quite apart from how I'm not particularly prone to hysterical feelings of patriotism - quite frankly, I think they are beneath me - I attended JBJ's funeral out of a sense of indignation and sadness that he was ruined by the ruling party (in other words, LKY). It was also somewhat relevant that I met him in Orchard many years ago when he was selling his book, and he autographed it for me. The image of him - a frail old man that one would have mistaken for some sort of lunatic if one didn't recognise him - stuck in my mind; subsequently, I was spurred by law school's introducing me to LKY's draconian ways and I started reading more about what happened to him.

On the other hand, LKY lived a full life and he'd had many things to be proud of in his lifetime. He has practically the entire nation mourning for him. I'd never met him. During my formative years, when I was mature enough to engage in critical thinking, LKY took on the role of the villain who suppressed free speech and thwarted genuine democracy, and JBJ was the hero in this (admittedly simplistic) narrative. To a not insignificant extent, this remains somewhat true. I may not be as idealistic as I once was, but I still have a soft spot for the underdog; I still feel anger and indignation and outrage in the face of injustice in whatever form, to whatever degree, to whatever extent. In a warped way, JBJ was fortunate that his political ambition never quite came to fruition and so he was never in a position where he could make disastrous decisions or simply say or do the wrong thing. He never had the chance to erode his image of the underdog that fought against an excessively powerful government, who doggedly stood up for his convictions and stood by them. That he went straight back into politics after his bankruptcy was discharged said a lot about the man. In my mind, therefore, JBJ was the archetypal freedom fighter, the rebel with a cause; he was a man certain of the veracity of his convictions and the strength of his principles, and I admired him deeply for it.

I recognise as an intellectual matter the various contributions that LKY made to Singapore. I know all the good he has done for this country. At the same time, thanks to him, I am not stupid and neither do I subscribe to wilful blindness: I know all the nasty things he did, the lives he ruined, and his legacy lies as much in Singapore's success as it does in Singapore's lack of a competent civil society; a critical populace; an adequately inquisitive and independent media; and, simply put, the lack of political freedom. Some may say that in the balancing act between stability and freedom, something has got to give, and this is simply how Singapore chooses to strike the balance. This, to me, is a flawed argument. It is premised on the uninterrogated assumption that less freedom means greater stability or security, that there is a necessary inverse relatonship between the two. Freedom itself is not inimical to stability, and a government that withholds political freedom from its citizens to prevent instability surely must view its people as quite stupid. LKY might have been justified in the 50s and 60s in restricting political freedom, but whatever justifications existed then do not exist anymore because he transformed Singapore into a first-world country, with first-world education. Surely its people (at least in part) are more than equipped to exercise political freedom.

Facebook is exploding with such mass hysteria that I am honestly really annoyed by the lack of nuance (and sometimes absolutely nauseating sycophantic crap) in some of these LKY tributes. Still, I recognise that his passing is a recent thing and I am willing to overlook, inter alia, ten million articles about him, and more egregiously, stupid selfies of people queuing at the Padang and stupid pictures of the messages they left him at various memorial sites. What I am really angry about, however, is the number of people trying to silence those that dare breathe a bad word about LKY on the pretext that this is not the right time. There is it again, an uninterrogated assumption...actually, make that two: first, that there is ever a 'right' time to grieve for a public figure; and second, that grieving for a public figure is the same as grieving for a private individual. I fear the future of this nation when so many people are drinking the Kool-Aid without considering that the latter point is something that reasonable people can have reasonable disagreements about. As much as one is entitled to the opinion that now is not the time to bring up the negative aspects of LKY's legacy, someone else may deem it perfectly fine to do that - and it is a perfectly reasonable position to take. Glenn Greenwald wrote a very insightful piece on this subject and it is worth a read: Christopher Hitchens and the protocol for public figure deaths . I found the part about Reagan's death especially illuminating, given that I was under the impression that he was this massively popular president when in fact, his approval ratings were average. I found especially interesting that the media whitewashed reporting of his presidency in the first week of his death, and look at what a huge impact that made. Since Singapore doesn't have a free press by any stretch of the imagination, I cannot help but fear that it's going to be LKY the Messiah from now on. Please prove me wrong.

The truth is that LKY's legacy is tainted by the repressive things that he did (this is only not a truth if one thinks that there is nothing wrong at all for locking up a person without trial for 25 years, that it is okay to sue your political opponents for defamation, etc.) and the ideal thing to do is to confront them as a nation. However, this is Singapore. I am not deluded. All I can hope for is that the ugly sides of his legacy do not remain white washed after his funeral on Sunday. In the meantime, I will take this moment to also remember JBJ, the only politician (Singaporean or otherwise; I don't care for politicians much) that I've ever truly admired, lest he be forgotten.