It is a well-known fact that Mahathir Mohamad, former Malaysian prime minister who retired in 2003, had a strong dislike of Lee Kuan Yew and his attitudes. While Lee has not been as outspoken about his views of Mahathir, it’s hard to believe that the antipathy was not reciprocated. Yet, I have long argued that the two men are remarkably similar in style and temperament — yet another irony in the Singapore-Malaysia relationship.
In his latest outburst, Lee is proving once again, his similarity with his nemesis.
After Mahathir retired, he quickly went public with his dissatifaction with his successor Abdullah Badawi’s premiership. From the sidelines, Mahathir lobbed bombshell after bombshell criticising Abdullah’s policies and actions. Partly it was because Abdullah reversed several decisions made by Mahathir and tried to distance himself from the cronyism that flourished during the Mahathir years.
It was not as if Abdullah actually did much to weed out cronyism, it was more a case of adopting the language against it without much follow-up action.
Mahathir’s incessant criticism of Abdullah Badawi so damaged the latter’s public standing, it likely contributed to the drubbing that the governing coalition received in the general election of 2008, following which Abdullah felt he had to resign.
Mimicry is the sincerest form of flattery, the saying goes. And now, two months after Lee left the cabinet in a huff and a puff, he is taking the same road as Mahathir. While he is unlikely ever to make direct attacks on the current Singapore prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, for the simple reason that it’s his own son, Lee elder has begun to say things that undermine the “new look” that the younger Lee would want for his administration post-general election 2011.
Besides promising reform and renewal, Lee Hsien Loong and some of his ministers are trying to make themselves look accommodating to higher levels of democratic engagement demanded by citizens. Words like “a more consultative style” have been bandied about. His right-hand man, Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, even said at a pre-election TV forum that a strong opposition would be good for Singapore. Of course, whether Lee Hsien Loong and company are, like Abdullah, merely trying to appropriate the language of a new era without really wanting to change much, remains an open question.
But Lee elder doesn’t even want them to go that far.
Former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew has warned of the dangers of Singapore moving towards a two-party system and electing weak and ineffective governments.
The progress made by the country since independence is not cast in stone and would ‘spiral downwards’ with poor governance, he argued in a recent interview with China Central Television (CCTV).
In an implicit reference to arguments made during the May General Election, he noted that many Singaporeans now desire a ‘First World Parliament’ and a two-party system.
‘Their argument is simple. A First World country must have a First World Parliament. A First World Parliament must have a First World opposition. Then you can change dice. I think if ever we go down that road, I’ll be very sorry for Singapore,’ he said.
— Straits Times, 27 July 2011, Mr Lee warns of two-party system dangers, by Elgin Toh
There he is, warning of catastrophe again if ever anyone should think of turning their backs on his authoritarian, single-party dominant model, and said with a style expressing contempt for the views of the more pluralistic and younger Singaporeans. He had made similar statements during the general election, and popular reading is that those statements cost the People’s Action Party votes.
The more he continues to resurrect such language of crisis, the more he will hurt the PAP and Lee Hsien Loong. The already thin credibility that the present government has on the subject of reform will be shouted away by the older Lee. The hardliners within the present cabinet will be emboldened to resist reform. As it is, one can identify very few genuinely open-minded ministers; Lee Hsien Loong himself is too indecisive to provide real leadership. Lee Kuan Yew’s old-testament-style admonitions will likely wreck what little movement there might be towards a different PAP.
It would be a rich story if eventually Lee Kuan Yew does to the Lee Hsien Loong administration what Mahathir did to Abdullah’s. Two men who can’t stand each other going down the same destructive road.
It’s not even as if Lee Kuan Yew’s view is valid. Not at all. There is an assumptive error within it. He equates single-party dominance with good government and a two-party system with “poor governance”. The empirical evidence is not there. If anything, a cursory look around the world would indicate that single-party systems always fail — it’s just a matter of time.
And one could argue that signs of failure are already evident in Singapore. For example:
1. There is growing insensitivity on the part of the government to popular concerns. It took an election for the government to realise that there is much resentment over its housing, transport, healthcare, education scholarship and other policies, but even now, it is not apparent that the government is sincere about doing anything except in very limited ways. There is no way such unresponsiveness can be read as “good government”.
2. The widening income gap and the continued view on the government’s part that this is a necessary and unavoidable part of “progress” despite loud cries from the people, suggest the capture of the state by sectional interests.
3. The loss of credibility of important institutions, such as the judiciary, the mainstream media and the police, also point to the capture of the state by sectional interests.
4. The vitality of a supposedly apolitical civil service is largely gone. The civil service is, by many indications, acting either as henchmen carrying out impulsive wishes of the political master, or acting defensively to protect its own turf and deny its mistakes (e.g. by refusing to release information). The public interest is the last to be served.
However, I see a small glimmer of hope. The Straits Times relegated the Lee Kuan Yew story to the Home section where it was not even the lead story. It merely got a quarter of the second page Home. Previously, his blusterings might have gotten the newspaper’s front-page treatment. Perhaps with time, editors might learn to judge his die-hard views so predictable and un-newsworthy, they might relegate him to two-and-a-half paragraphs at the bottom of page 93, just before the Obits?