By SEAH CHIANG NEE
AFTER two years of depressing news, people in Singapore have at last some blessings to count, and perhaps feel a little proud of being Singaporeans. They came as the economy improved to allow the government to rule out another recession, and the global tribute paid to minister mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s achievements in the past 50 years.
Lee’s acclaim by the United States and the 10 Asean (Association of Southeast Nations) countries has raised Singapore’s morale and standing at a time when both are badly needed in the wake of its worst recession.
It is ironic, though.
The foreign recognition comes at a time when the minister mentor is losing popularity among young Singaporeans who have a different set of values and little recollection of what he did in the past.
However, Singapore’s founding father has shown he still retains the world’s admiration for his role in the contemporary history of Singapore and the region.
He was accorded the first lifetime achievement award in Washington last month by the US-Asean Business Council – with tributes from the current US and two former presidents at the ceremony.
President Barack Obama, who met him at the Oval Office, said Lee was “one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries… somebody who helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle”.
Among a list of high-powered figures who were present were Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who said: “All of us who have worked with him have benefited from his wisdom, his insight and his dedication.”
Henry Kissinger said: “I’ve known him for 40 years. I would say I’ve not learned as much from anybody as I have from Kuan Yew.”
His “lifetime award” has also raised questions about whether this was his last hurrah, and if the 86-year-old leader intends to seek another five more years in office.
“It is always risky to predict an imminent Lee retirement. He has a habit of proving it wrong,” a local reporter said. “However at 86, he is visibly slower. How long can he go on?”
The international buzz is adding to the national debate about what possible impacts his eventual exit will have on Singapore. Although he has distanced himself from the day-to-day running of the country, Lee is widely believed to hold significant influence over the republic.
The general feeling is that the country will continue to move ahead without Lee, but replacing his vast experience and his global stature is virtually impossible.
For years he shaped a foreign policy on China and the US that enabled Singapore to avoid being crushed by their conflicting interests, but also served as a bridge between them.
At times, it hit a sensitive nerve as it did recently when he urged the US to deepen its “indispensable” role in Asia as a counterweight to China’s emerging power.
“The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance,” Lee said.
Within hours, it drew strong reactions from thousands of Chinese bloggers, some accusing Lee of being used by the US to undermine China. One described Lee as “a political animal… (who) relies on China to develop his country’s economy, but is ushering wolves to deal with China”.
Another was reported to have said: “Just because he has achieved some success in Singapore, he dares to play the guiding light that shows US the way.”
Ironically, American liberals have accused Lee of more or less the same thing – setting Singapore up as an example for China on how it can have a predominant one-party democracy.
Lee’s successes abroad and the “feel good” factor for Singaporeans, especially the older people, were reflected by a blogger who said: “Without Lee Kuan Yew, we Singaporeans would not be respected especially when travelling overseas. People associate Singapore with him, that’s for sure.”
After a long 50 years, the ruling People’s Action Party is feeling the heat from a new generation of demanding, tech-savvy voters who frequently disagree with its policies.
Aggravating the strains is the hardship brought about by the global crisis. Much of the blame is levelled, fairly or unfairly, at Lee’s influence.
Lee recently said the evolving mindsets of the young and their response to the world’s changes will alter Singapore’s political landscape in future “and not because I won’t be around.”
* Seah Chiang Nee is a former Singapore newspaper editor and now writes a weekly column for The Star in Malaysia.