Why do you often reference Lee Kuan Yew? One person mentioned this in our recent reader survey, echoing occasional comments since Jom was founded. It’s an understandable sentiment. The mythology around one man has dominated Singapore for so long that many believe we should just move on, or even erase bits of it.
For sure, we need to resist the temptation to chart our own great man theory of history. No, Lee didn’t do it all. Everybody from Munshi Abdullah (1795-1854), the scribe to Stamford Raffles and narrator of early colonial Singapore, to Sit Kim Ping (born 1941), a biochemist whose research into metabolism in cancer cells confounded widely held global beliefs, deserve more credit for their contributions to Singapore. It often seems like they are just cosmic dust in the Galaxy of Lee.
Ironically, Lee the iconoclast would probably be horrified by how the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) continues to venerate him: seemingly eager to preserve his house, which he wanted destroyed, and now on the cusp of celebrating his 100th birth anniversary on September 16th 2023 by, among other things, minting a commemorative coin. You will soon be able to carry an image of Lee—a likeness surely more “benevolent” than “dictator”—in your purse.
Separately, even from a purely artistic and literary perspective, it can all seem a bit nauseating. The apparent obsession with Lee not only robs artists of our precious time but possibly affects our mental frameworks and understanding of Singapore in a way that limits our imaginations.
It’s unsurprising, then, that many Singaporeans, of all political stripes, would rather not hear about Lee. This school of thought suggests that we should, for example, discuss racism as it exists today, or public housing policies and the way forward, without any mention of Lee.
Yet this would be a grave mistake, one that ignores fundamental power dynamics in Singapore’s marketplace of ideas. Those who seek to downplay Lee’s actions and words play, on one level, into the hands of the PAP, and on another, the forces of global capitalism that fostered, and approved of, Lee’s post-independence vision for Singaporean society. They would rather you forget, that you not question the alternative realities of what it could mean to be Singaporean. In this, Jom is quite steadfast in our need to resist.
Since Lee died in 2015 the PAP and the establishment, including the mainstream media, have rarely engaged in any honest dialogue about his problematic legacy, including his racist beliefs and his detention without trial (and torturing) of political opponents. On the contrary, there have been concerted efforts to whitewash them.