Lee Kuan Yew flatters Mahathir with mimicry

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?

35 Responses to “Lee Kuan Yew flatters Mahathir with mimicry”

  1. 1 yuen 30 July 2011 at 07:49

    you point out a number of “ideological” issues, basically the loss of the british democratic tradition turning the nation into a corporation in which the judiciary/police are the company security dept, the press is the company PR dept etc; but in addition, PAP also seems to have lost its political sharpness; it ran very poor campaigns (a small note: a friend who went to LHL’s lunch time talk in the financial district says the stage set and the sound system were both poor and most of the audience had difficulty seeing and hearing the speaker), neither the party executive nor the elder statesmen LKY and GCT helped very much in giving good campaign speeches or preventing poor candidate fieldings like Tin Pei Lin (I actually believe if she was introduced in the last batch, the reaction would not have been too bad as by then people would be bored with generals, senior civil servants, trade union leaders etc and would start to appreciate some diversity) and Charles Chong (he is older than Chen Soo Sen so Chen’s retirement could not be justified on ground of age and the loss of his personal following nearly cost PAP another SMC), the very poor repartee of individual MPs (Tin’s “I wont have baby now; I am letting nature take its course”,Lim Wee Kiat’s “if ministers are paid too little, they would be too humble to regulate high pay executives”)

    in other words, if your points say “PAP is too political”, my observation is “PAP no longer knows how to be political”

  2. 3 Anonymous 30 July 2011 at 09:24

    You didn’t notice the other irony… LKY was speaking on a programme marking the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party. All the old ISA detainees from the 1960s must be turning in their graves.

    • 4 Muralee 30 July 2011 at 11:59

      My humble opinion is that, the event was the whole point of the speech. LKY was simply trying to play to the CCP’s event and ideologies. The fact that this speech was not given prominence in the local press seems to prove this.

      Going further, I personally think LKY is much smarter than he lets on. In fact, I believe he has actually accepts (grudgingly perhaps) that a two party might be good for SG after all. This I infer from his quitting cabinet.

  3. 5 friend 30 July 2011 at 09:32

    Lee Hsien Loong also argued against a two-party system. A false dilemma is being created here, by repeatedly stating the alternative to a single-party system is a two-party system. Who’s to say a multi-party system won’t work?

  4. 6 larry 30 July 2011 at 10:58

    Just don’t hold up the two party system that’s currently in place here in the USA as the model to follow! Party ideologies seem to be more important than serving the public.

  5. 7 James 30 July 2011 at 11:01

    “Tom Gentile” is an interesting name. Lol

  6. 8 Pundit 30 July 2011 at 11:04

    This once great man – LKY, who did Singapore proud is not the man he once was. He has been put out to pasture, yet refuses to relinquish his hold on power. How he wishes he could be immortal and continue to rule Singapore forever. YB, you are right that LKY’s constant meddling will wreak havoc with LSL post-general election 2011 reforms, which is already losing much credibility – for the various reasons as pointed out by you above. Mahathir appears to have at least chosen the wiser path stepping down at the opportune moment, enjoy the adulation of his people as an elder statesman, and occasionally sniping at a couple of his colleagues which had incurred his displeasure. If LKY had been a Pharoah in ancient Egypt, he would surely have mandated that his entire cabinet ministers be buried along with him in the burial chamber, so that they can together rule again in their next life!

  7. 9 Robox 30 July 2011 at 11:17

    If a two- or multi-party system is detrimental to Singapore’s national interests, and an established and provable FACT, then the onus is on Lee Kuan Yew – and the PAP, if that is their official view – to prove that case to be so.

    Once proven CONCLUSIVELY that it would be against the national interest to have more than one party, I would be the first to throw my support behind it. And then I would support them in going on to the next logical step, which is to ban all other political parties except for the PAP.

    In fact, why don’t they do that right now since, according to their Eternal Leader, the existence of all other political parties are against the national interest?

  8. 10 Singapore is Singapore lah 30 July 2011 at 11:35

    Seriously I think a 2 party system will not work in Singapore.


    Simply because despite nearly 46 years after independence, the opposition is still far from being like the PAP in terms of unity and strength. Why this is so is another topic for another day.

    So it’s no wonder that majority voters do not vote enough opposition candidates to even deny PAP 2/3 majority, let alone become the government.

    I shuddered at the scenario where, instead of PAP, the opposition had won 93% seats in GE2011.

    In fact not just me, but I think many would too.

    So like it or not, Lee Kuan Yew is correct in what he said above, in Singapore’s context.

    • 11 Desmond 1 August 2011 at 14:49

      Really? How good are our PAP ministers now? What new plans have they been coming up with to deal with the problems Singaporeans are facing?

      Let’s face it, there are only 2 things the PAP know how to do (and do very well I might add) when there is a problem 1) throw money at it until it disappears or 2) declare a tax/fine on the problem.

      If that the crux of a good gahmen, gosh, even a 7 y.o. kid can do it! And yet we are paying millions for these people. The cream of the crop who have no new ideas except the ones stated above.

      I shudder to think how much the ministers will pay themselves in 10 years time if we have nobody in parliament to stop them… power… absolute power…

      • 12 YHL 17 August 2012 at 01:41

        Desmond, you seem to think that you are more capable than our leaders. why dont you come up with new ideas or policies and post them instead of deriding our leaders? why dont you join the opposition and make the changes you so desparately believe should be done? you are a typical opposition party member, no substance, but just wanna criticize and complain.

        u should be alive in 10 years time, thanks to PM Lee and his old guards who make singapore’s healthcare the way it is today- world class…lets see if you will shudder then? dude, if they were genuinely bad, they wouldnt get the votes, unless all singaporean are as daft as you.

  9. 13 Simon 30 July 2011 at 12:02

    It seems to be that Lee K Y has entered a new phase of his life when he does not beother to calculate possible political cost that his son,and his party might have to pay due to his careless remarks.
    As far as I remember,Lee K Y always speak with an agenda that is to ensure votes for PAP,it looks that he does not care anymore.

  10. 14 Tan Tai Wei 30 July 2011 at 12:40

    LKY went to Cambridge, but only studied law. Had he also audited, as Cambridge undergrads should, political science and philosophy of politics lectures, he would have known that

    1) even if he had, per impossible, all the answers right, he should still prepare the nation to protect itself from his becoming senile (as he now increasing seems to become), and
    2) also to protect itself from the possibility of failure of those he had put in place to succeed him (eg. Tay Chiang Wan and others, even, from his viewpoint, Devan Nair).

  11. 15 George 30 July 2011 at 13:32

    Ever the scheming Machiavellian, LKY knows when to plug and ply his gratuitous remarks. His words against a two party system cannot be but well received by the Chinese Communist Party and govt! Such an ingratiating speech would guaranteed lky’s continued welcome in Beijing!

    As for LHL, IMO the proof of the pudding would be out within 6 months of May 7. It is not difficult at all to figure whether there is indeed any sincerity and I include the oversold hype about the goodness and calibre of George Yeo. The lack of effort is all there for us to see.

    Whether, there is some internal schism and sectional conflicts within the party and cabinet, we can only imagine or speculate or read the tea leaves from what have come out in the open. LHL is very much in the mould of emperor ‘Hong Hei’ and Pu Yi. But I would give him some benefit of the doubt, even if it is motivated, as I see it, by Loong’s self-interest of not wanting to see his ‘rein’ compared to the likes of these two Chinese emperors.

    But. really, until the male ‘dowager’ (such an animal?) ‘ka pung’, the status quo of a weak, listless, directionless and headless rule can be expected.

    Nothing personal, just calling a spade a spade (sigh).

  12. 16 Singaporean 30 July 2011 at 14:36

    Mahathir did not equate UMNO with the Chinese Communist Party.

    LKY basically said PAP = CCP in not so many words.

  13. 17 Daft Singaporean 30 July 2011 at 18:39

    Regardless what, Singapore needs o have multi-party parliament system and abolish all those constitutional amendments that have been designed to perpetuate PAP rule. PAP has to be ousted as opposition in GE2016 just like the Taiwanese KMT. Then, an accountable and transparent democratic government will be running the country from that day. LKY dynasty system will be gone down in history.

  14. 18 Anonymous 174 30 July 2011 at 18:45

    From what I see, Mr Lee Kuan Yew is obsessed with power. He wants absolute power and that’s why he is against a two-party system. He doesn’t trust anyone excepts those close to him, that’s why he got his son to be PM. Likewise, PM got his wife to be CEO of Temasek Holdings. He got his PPS’s wife to be MP. Chan Chun Sing who helped in the gun carriage won their trust and got the post of acting Minister.

    This is the Asian way of running a family business, except that they are now running a country. Meritocracy has taken a backseat. Perhaps it’s time to source real talents from the opposition parties to lead our nation in the next general election.

    • 19 YHL 17 August 2012 at 01:52

      where have u been all these years dude? “time to source real talents from the opposition parties” seriously? you think they haven’t been attempting that since 1959? they are simply not of the right calibre to lead.
      look at the US, 2 major parties, fighting to win votes for their own interests but not the nations. their policies are not designed to serve people, but to win votes.
      wake up! China, with its 1 party, will surely rise, and become strong.
      no corrupt government will remain for long…PAP included. it has always been up to the opposition to overthrow PAP as the main political party, and if they are weak, do not blame the PAP.
      do you think our opposition can solve our inflation problems? our transportation/car problems? Do you think they are intellectual equals with international statesmen? they cant even articulate or present themselves credibly.

  15. 20 Anonymous 234 30 July 2011 at 18:46

    America with a two party system isn’t really very flattering example right now…

  16. 21 patrick 30 July 2011 at 21:18

    “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.”

    weasel words again, i see. by virtue of its constitutional mandate to serve its political masters of the day, a civil service is not “supposedly” or even intended to be “apolitical”. to execute the orders of ministers is exactly what a civil service in any country is supposed to do! a civil service is “neutral only” insofar as the civil servants’ personal political allegiance must not interfere with their duties, and it must switch allegiance as soon as the government changes hands, but in between elections it will unashamedly do its masters’ bidding as much as it needs to. you people will be thankful for this principle if WP ever takes power. i see that someone in particular needs a lesson in either government or intellectual honesty.

    secondly, everyone seems to miss the context of LKY’s comments. of course he needs to carry balls for the CCP when he’s in china in order to curry favours for singapore. that LKY personally believes in authoritarianism is stale news, but it certainly wasn’t some senile outright revolt directed at LHL as much as you think.

    • 22 yawningbread 31 July 2011 at 11:28

      If a minister orders his civil service officers, e.g. police and prosecutors, to find some reason to jail a opposition party leader, should the civil service comply?

      If a minister orders his civil service to shift policies to favour one ethnic group over another, should the civil service comply?

      It seems, from what you said, the answer is Yes.

      Moreover, a healthy civil service is one that comes up with proposals and new initiatives. My view of Singapore’s today is that it behaves like sheep, waiting for orders rather than putting up intelligent proposals to ministers. That’s what I mean by a loss of vitality. Just as an example, look at what is happening at HDB. It’s a one-man ministry right now – Khaw Boon Wan alone.

      • 23 Anonymous 31 July 2011 at 21:40

        Hate to disappoint you, but if you think Singapore run by PAP Ministers is bad, Singapore run by Administrative Service officers would be worse. The the perpetual recycling of tired policy arguments to justify the status quo, the elitism that pervades Singapore society, are all symptoms of Ministers who are too weak to over-rule their Mandarins.

  17. 24 Eugene 30 July 2011 at 22:09

    LKY is still rooted in the belief (or is it delusion instead) that only the PAP has the capability to govern Singapore well so he makes no apologies that the government = PAP. His rejection of a two/ multi-party system follows naturally from the ideology. The fundamental assumption is that whatever the PAP has done so far is for the good of Singapore (which in turn supposedly justifies this will continue to be so in the future). Anybody who cannot accept this is deemed to be “unconverted” and should be dealt with if deemed necessary.

  18. 25 predictability 30 July 2011 at 23:07

    Well, on the other hand, who is to say that a multiparty system would really work? The fact is that no one knows for sure. To me, the issue is not whether we should support or oppose a multiparty system, but whether we should think that it is worthwhile to take the risk to try something new. And to be willing to try something new, we must be wiling to accept failure too. In other words, if we want to play this game, we must be wiling to lose even as we naturally hope to win.

    A simple thought experiment would be: what would you be willing to give up in order to construct a multiparty system in Singapore? Your right to an affordable HDB flat? Your current job? Your education? I daresay for most fellow voters, a multiparty system is rather low priority wrt to other considerations. Unless, of course, you can show them that a multiparty system will help them achieve those other considerations. But then where would you get that evidence from, since it’s never really been tried in Singapore? And we’re back to square one again.

    Last note: I don’t think it’s ironic at all. It’s more like it’s predictable. Leaders who based their authority on charisma (in the Weberian sense) do tend to find it hard to release their hold on power. Rather than interpreting Lee’s conduct as a nod to Mahatir, I’d say that both men’s conduct show how even the strongest personalities can’t transcend the social structures they’re embedded in.

    • 26 peter mak 31 July 2011 at 15:26

      I think the issues of HDB flat affordability, the job market and the education system might be why people want a multi-party system.

    • 27 Tan Tai Wei 31 July 2011 at 19:53

      Both systems would have “risks”. The issue is which is less risky. Traditional experience and “thought experiment” say that, if not in the short, than the long run, “many heads are better than one”, given the fallibility of even the smartest and most righteousness.

      • 28 YHL 17 August 2012 at 02:01

        dude, many heads better than one does not necessarily mean multiple parties… it just means more people working on the same project, the brightest minds. you are assuming everyone in PAP has basically 1-track mind, all intellectually incompetent of having new ideas of their own.
        the opposition can win votes and popularity if only they can convince the public if their policies would benefit singapore.
        can the opposition parties solve our HDB, job and education problems? or can they do better than our current ministers? man for man, the calibre of our opposition leaders pale in comparison on paper.
        Mr Tan tai wei, would love to see your brilliant mind put to helping the opposition with constructive ideas rather than putting down PAP.
        u remind me of the US political parties, fighting to win votes by underminding the opposition or discrediting them but got nothing better to offer to serve the nation.

  19. 29 Emeritus All Sgreans incl PAPayas 30 July 2011 at 23:40

    ‘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

    We don’t even need to wait that long; we’ve been very sorry for him for 50 plus years…

  20. 30 Luck Song 31 July 2011 at 05:51

    Kuan Yew and PAP emerged in a free wheeling multi party democracy with a free press back in the late 50’s. Obviously he does not want another leader like him to emerge.

  21. 31 Mary 31 July 2011 at 07:57

    If singular party authoritarian rule was that effective, why not simply change Singapore into a monarchy, complete with a royal family and assorted distant branches?

    We already have a ruling family, complete with their political allies through political marriages.

  22. 32 Yujian 1 August 2011 at 00:02

    Which is the lesser of the two evils: –
    A 2 party System or a disguised dictatorial monarchy system where power passes to son to grandson.
    Shit, we won’t allow it. Should stop with Lee Hsien Loong, Lee Hongyi lay off.

  23. 33 Lim Bt 1 August 2011 at 09:19

    Lately LKY have been using the phrase : His reply to the number of FTs coming in is “Can/t be help” The message is : Singaporeans you can going complaining and grumble, the PAP will continue with thatever policy we think fit.

  24. 34 Insult to the true 1 August 2011 at 17:54

    Rambling of a senile old man, fighting with his inner monsters. His fear mongering is just a manifestation of his own fear of being exposed as a conniving little man who stole the glory of others. He knows that when there is a power transition, the skeletons in the cupboard will be exposed and history has proven that this is the fact with despots. In the past few years some skeletons have started to haunt him and his legacy is being questioned. 50 years is lots of skeletons and it can make you shoot your mouth off..

  25. 35 nony 2 August 2011 at 04:32

    “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.”

    I tend to agree, however, in his own words, “so you know the problem, tell us your solution” – be it for the derth of visionary PAP cadres, or for economic policies that don’t cannibalise on own social product and negate citizens’ quality of living, or simply just for keeping party heavyweights in over frillies when “one-man-one-vote starts giving erratic results”.

    Dominant ideology and cronyism preside over which solutions gets test-bedded and which gets rejected outright. I’m for LHL’s ‘consultative government’ to move in the direction of IT-enabled Direct Democracy (@eCitizens), and I’m placing my bet on a transient 2-party tussle to get there, should the government let PAP’s idiosyncrasies become a road-block.

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