Lee Kuan Yew: Dictator or Idealist?

Various articles have been written following the death of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, last Monday morning (23 March). The articles, especially those of foreign publications like The Guardian, The Economist, and CNN were critical of Lee’s reign and did not have wholly kind words regarding his passing.

Believers in the ideals of Western liberty and democracy will be shocked at the state of affairs in Asia, and its gross violations of human rights. Human Rights Watch is one such organisation stationed in Asia, regularly condemning Asian countries, including Singapore, for their lack of human rights.

Singaporeans make the easy mistake of believing that all Westerners subscribe to liberal ideals. However, conservatives exist in all Western countries. These people are the ones who wish that their own country will be more like ours; that they focus more on the economy instead of what they see as frivolous issues like freedom of speech.

Rather than measure Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy solely by his success, can we also seek to understand why he is equally loved and hated?

The Liberal’s POV



In an article by Sahana Singh on the Washington Post, she explains why liberal Westerners would balk at what is seen as being repressive and limiting to their freedom — just by looking at the numbers and laws we have here.

Many point to the price Singapore’s citizens and residents pay for achieving that security. The government imposes strict laws with steep fines and punishments for even minor transgressions: Breaching the ban on selling gum can fetch a fine north of $70,000. Vandalizing property can lead to caning. These kinds of sentences may be an affront to American ideals, but in Singapore, like many Asian countries, ensuring the greater good is paramount to self-determination. Americans, it should be noted, also pay a price for the premium they put on individual liberties.

In an earlier article, she also explains the merits of America:

When I was young, I believed that Americans unfairly stereotyped India, but in fact, I had unfairly stereotyped Americans. I had criticized them for not knowing my culture, when I was equally ignorant about theirs. The truth is, the United States is not a land of arrogant xenophobes. It’s also not a utopia of freedom and wealth. Like all nations, it harbors a complicated culture, with many layers of good and bad.

And the same can be applied to how Americans and the British look at Singapore — from the outside, looking in, seeing only the bad and clouded judgments about a different culture. Even foreigners living in Singapore, tend to have a different outlook from the locals.

The argument of democracy and economic success

Many Westerners will then point out that other Asian countries, like Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan, have more open forms of democracy, and are also economically successful!

First off, there tends to be a generalisation when it comes to Asia. East Asia is different from South Asia, which is different from South East Asia, with their own pros and cons.

This may have been something that The Guardian failed to note in their obituary of Lee Kuan Yew:

He did not create modern Singapore’s prosperity. The city state thrived naturally in a region of economic growth and rapid development of world trade.

By ‘region of economic growth’ does the writer mean South East Asia, or Asia at large? There may actually be a significant difference. South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong were three of four Asian Tigers, the last one being Singapore, the only South East Asian Tiger.



Statistics have shown that Singapore’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew much more rapidly than its neighbours in South East Asia. If the region itself was one of ‘economic growth’, would they not have risen to the levels of the other Asian Tigers as well?

Therefore, we cannot lump Asia’s economic growth into being the result of everyone growing together. Individual countries grew, while others struggled, mainly due to corruption and leaders using power for their own gain. They struggled economically thanks also to various civil wars, and mismanagement of resources.

Notably, China did not experience the sort of economic growth that the other Asian Tigers did, and only recently became an economic superpower via loosening of government restrictions.

Singapore became highly rated for economic freedom, in part through being one of the first to encourage foreign investors.

Political stability — good or bad?

Political upheavals are commonplace in other countries, where no party can seek the full consensus of the people. In attempts to quell chaos over dissatisfaction with the government, military coups occur in countries close to us, like Thailand and Myanmar.

Meanwhile in Singapore, there has been no unethical seizure of power, no attempts at consolidating Lee Kuan Yew’s power indefinitely, no rampant corruption; all of which have plagued other, even more democratic countries in Asia.

Even countries now rooted in democracy like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea had their own issues to deal with. Until the 80’s, South Korea was ruled by a dictator in Park Chung-Hee, who passed a constitution (the Yushin constitution) which would allow him to rule South Korea indefinitely, until his assassination in 1979. He also oversaw South Korea’s “economical miracle”, and he, like Lee Kuan Yew, is remembered fondly by the countries’ respective Pioneer Generations.

Similarly, Chiang Kai-shek of the Kuomintang led a single-party dictatorship believing that democracy can be taught through the means of military conquest and political tutelage. Opposition parties were literally not allowed in Taiwan, although independents were given the opportunity to run for office there.

Singapore, meanwhile, has a form of democracy in which people can vote for their leaders, but has had a one-party rule for 50 years. Is that a measure of not being democratic, or of citizens being in support of the government? The truth may be somewhere in between.

What LKY didn’t do well



Economic success presents countries with problems, whether they are liberal democracies or not. Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP kept staying in power for a variety of reasons, and getting rid of his opposition through lawsuits is a tactic the West and several opposition parties frown upon.

What we can argue about is the process of elections in Singapore. Walkovers happened on a regular basis; the Group Representation Constituency system has been accused by opposition parties of consolidating the PAP’s majority rather than its intended purpose of ensuring minority representation; several political opponents happened to be sued; and of course there were Operation Coldstore and Operation Spectrum, the former getting rid of all the Barisan Socialis members who had seats in Parliament.

It became clear that Lee Kuan Yew did not have any opposition who could truly stand up to him and the PAP, with few exceptions like Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang, and J.B. Jeyaretnam. David Marshall, ex-Chief Minister of Singapore and Workers’ Party member, was noted for his differing views from Lee Kuan Yew. Regardless, they worked together in some capacity and the ex-Chief Minister admired what the PAP team had achieved in Singapore.

This meant relative stability in the political sphere, while Lee was in charge.

Critics will point to the lack of opposition over the years of Lee’s rule as worrying. Indeed, without a check and balance on the ruling government, they will be able to implement any law they please, without regard for the people. Sometimes this has been done — various controversies over the years were a result of there not being any substantial form of opposition to these policies, and the marginalised had no one to speak for them in Parliament.

He did ensure freedom, for citizens. As Calvin Cheng notes in his article sent to both local and international outlets, “Freedom is being able to walk on the streets unmolested in the wee hours in the morning”. Crime is relatively low. People feel safe walking around at night.

However, when elections come around, the story is markedly different.

There was a lot of alleged fear-mongering among the older generation in how they should vote. Let’s not forget that while democracy was preached, the media was used heavily in influencing the minds of citizens, without an alternative view shown. Lee Kuan Yew admitted as much in his time, by claiming that the media should represent the government’s ideas and mindset.

What he was good at



One who has tasted the freedom that comes with success — a beneficiary of the Government’s policies, in other words — would have mourned at the loss of the leader who gave them the opportunity to succeed.

LKY always espoused meritocracy, regardless of race or religion. He may have been accused of being a Chinese sympathiser protecting the rights of the Chinese majority and one who squashed the rights of minorities, but these are accusations levied by often-hostile neighbours like Malaysia and Indonesia, who sought to ensure the rights of Muslims were met.

Race politics have not been allowed in Parliament since independence. Racial harmony and social cohesion were encouraged above all else, especially after the racial riots in the 1960s. While this was seen as destroying traditions, we can credit him for being able to speak at least two languages, one of which is the lingua franca internationally. English literacy was seen as important in dealing with Western investors, and his foresight was a huge part in securing economic success.

As for gender rights, there were the Stop At Two and Graduate Mothers schemes fiascoes, and that really put a dent on the PAP’s meritocratic ideology by insinuating being too smart would lead to women not getting married.

While Lee relaxed his stance later on, he was still generally opposed to women getting married too late as there would be higher risks of pregnancy complications when they are older.

Practical as that line of thinking was, such ideas would cause an uproar in more liberal societies. And that was the key to most of his policies: they were practical and important at the time. A fully liberal democracy may not have worked as well back then. Opposition to him was a hindrance to the great plan. This gave rise to claims that he was a dictator and unwilling to tolerate anyone who opposed him. Indeed, he was set on his ways, yet willing to change when he saw the need.

Lee also did not believe in ideas like satire as he needed to command the respect of his people. As such, he maintained a presence which would scare most off. However, one look at his relationship with his wife and you’d understand that his presence is meant only for being a leader and not a husband; Madam Kwa Geok Choo was possibly the only one Lee ever saw as being equal to him in stature.

The alleged claims of fear-mongering



At many points during Lee Kuan Yew’s political career, he reminded Singapore about who they “should” vote for. Because the ruling party was the government, various threats could be made, implicitly or otherwise. Lift upgrading programmes in opposition wards like Hougang could be delayed indefinitely on the grounds that the people in opposing wards do not support the ruling party a.k.a. the government. It is possible that many votes would have gone in another direction had such threats not been made.

The PAP also made claims about what they could take away should they lose control of Parliament — pretty much everything that Singapore has.

Regardless, Lee’s Tanjong Pagar constituency has never lost an election, and his leadership there played a huge part in that.

While effectively coercing voters was, and still is frowned upon, in the process of implementing the vision he wanted to see in Singapore, it worked. Was it Machiavellian (placing practicality over morality, especially in a political sense) to manipulate and set fear in voters through the media? Probably.

An example of LKY endorsing Machiavellian values can be found in the following quote:

Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.

Does the end justify the means?

A portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli

Accusations are still being made over Singapore lacking basic human rights and of Lee Kuan Yew being a despot and a first-class dictator. But Calvin Cheng argues that most Singaporeans don’t need the sort of human rights that the West espouses, because Singapore is considered one of the safest places in the world to live by foreigners, and Singaporeans think the same. Singapore is also considered an ideal place to raise a child, despite the flaws of the education system.

Truth be told, chewing gum is not exactly a necessity like water is.

Here’s the trade-off for this freedom: most Singaporeans believe that if they do not commit a crime, they are free to do whatever they want. This has led to a considerable amount of people reciting the law for every issue that crops up.

As a result, Singaporeans have become sticklers for rules and particularly verbally violent against those who break the law, but will not lay a finger on offenders themselves. Which is a good thing, mind you.

Human rights abuses like detention without trial, caning, and the death penalty have their roots in needing to be strict in order to deter others. Those who commit crimes deserve to be punished severely, even if the methods may seem archaic. These ‘abuses’ have proven to keep Singapore orderly.

However, there is also a stigma attached to Singaporeans; we’re seen as being too obedient, unwilling to speak up, and lacking in creativity.

Probably the most famous line uttered by a Westerner in relation to Singapore is William Gibson’s “Disneyland with the death penalty”. Such an accusation might sound disparaging, but is actually a compliment if you think about how organised and free of corruption Singapore is, notes Quartz writer Donald Morrison.

That is not to say that the Government is really spotless, but if there is a stain, it is decidedly smaller than that of many other countries’.

One man’s vision may not correlate with another’s, and just because Lee Kuan Yew did a lot for Singapore does not mean that we cannot disagree with him. As Singapore continues to move forward in the 21st century, more vocal critics have appeared.

Critics have the right to speak and disagree with Lee’s policies, as long as they do so in a tactful manner; that is how a country moves forward. Making attacks or statements which cannot be conclusively proven will only get one into trouble.

We cannot begrudge them for doing so; Lee Kuan Yew’s vision is not the one true path, and just because individuals voice out so does not mean that they are any less a beneficiary of the PAP’s policies, or being ungrateful ingrates.

Even opposition politicians who made it into Parliament respect LKY for his ability despite having differing views. These are the politicians who witnessed him first-hand in action, and you’d think that their words of respect hold more weight than a writer who’s never been to Singapore. Similarly, these opposition politicians should be respected for believing in their own vision in the face of one that works.




A notable number of Singaporeans have taken to calling Lee Kuan Yew the “Father” of Singapore.

Like a real father, for better or for worse, he did what was best for his children. It may also explain some of his more controlling behaviour — he saw us all as his children who needed to be set on a specific path in order to bring Singapore out of third-world status.

The path which Lee Kuan Yew led Singaporean on was arguably the shortest in becoming a developed country. Now that we have reached that status, honouring and thanking him is not out of the question.

Customs dictate that no disparaging remarks be made about Lee Kuan Yew during the mourning period. Not everyone was mourning, and whoever decided to speak out were harassed with death threats and insults against their family, along with everything in between.

For why Singaporeans reacted with death threats to dissenters, gratefulness may be the key word; without the bad, the good could not have been achieved. Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy consisted of both good and bad, and that is the Hard Truth which Singaporeans should keep in mind. Not just the good, not just the bad.

But it is time to move on and think about how to further improve Singapore. The younger generation is already beginning to do this. To best honour the man, we should move forward, not under the shadow of his legacy, but by making Singapore even better than he did in 50 years.

Singapore was his concern and the time has come to make that our concern as well now, and not leave everything to the government.

No matter where you stand regarding Lee Kuan Yew, understand that he did what he did because he felt he had to. His frugality despite his power is a testament to this. This is not whitewashing, but the most objective conclusion anyone can raise.

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Featured image via Lee Kuan Yew Looking At Things
With references from The Guardian, The EconomistCNN, Quartz, Business Insider