We’re still living in Lee Kuan Yew’s World

A couple days ago, we replied, with a series of tweets, to an ST forum letter that suggested making Lee Kuan Yew’s Hard Truths a part of the curricula of junior colleges, polytechnics, and universities in Singapore. We said:

We agree. Nothing radicalised us more than reading LKY and discovering firsthand his megalomania, eugenics, and racism. The problem is that, if made part of the curriculum, it will certainly be taught like the bible in Sunday school. Let’s take a quick look at Hard Truths…

Some choice quotes: “People get educated, the bright ones rise, they marry equally well-educated spouses. The result is their children are smarter than those who are gardeners.”

LKY on Muslims: “I think we were progressing very nicely until the surge of Islam came. And if you asked me for my observations, the other communities have easier integration […] than Muslims. […] I would say, today, we can integrate all religions and races except Islam.”

He did get one thing right, though: “I’ve lived long enough to know that you may be idealised in life and reviled after you’re dead.”

The thread proved popular, though far from viral, with several hundred people retweeting, commenting, and liking the posts. Clearly, many other people shared our perspective on Lee Kuan Yew’s eugenics and racism. We naturally assumed that people would also be aware of the fact that Lee Kuan Yew’s ideology has been and still is reflected in the functioning of our institutions. We are sure many are convinced of this, but, evidently, some of our compatriots have managed to separate Lee Kuan Yew’s more odious ideas from his role in statecraft and policy-making.

One such individual (we are not sharing their tweet to spare them the embarrassment) wrote:

As much as many asking PAP to stop milking on LKY success, stop milking on LKY “weakness-firsthand megalomaniac, eugenics and racism.” LKY and his team built Singapore. Have some respect over the founding father of the nation! Don’t slap your own face by insulting our founders!

Someone who has drunk too much of the LKY-PAP kool-aid

Apart from our confusion as to what “weakness-firsthand” means, we were also troubled by the notion that we were slapping our own faces by “insulting our founders.” First of all, of course, Singapore existed long before Lee Kuan Yew was born. He is no more our founding father than Stamford Raffles, no matter how much the PAP seeks to rewrite history so that it either begins in 1819 (with the setting up of a British trading post) or in 1954 (with the founding of the PAP). More importantly, the comment implies that Lee Kuan Yew’s megalomania, eugenics, and racism can be separated from the trajectory of Singapore in the twentieth and, even, twenty-first century.

As historian Michael Barr writes, “Lee’s racial beliefs prove not to be an aberration or idiosyncrasy in his thinking, but the consummation of his world view and his political thought.” Indeed, so much of our social, economic, and political life is, at least in part, a result of Lee Kuan Yew’s own deeply held beliefs on genetics and race. The evidence is so overwhelming that if we were to attempt to chart every single aspect of Singaporean society that has been deeply influenced by Lee’s racial ideology, this would cease to be a blog post and instead become a multi-volume treatise. So let’s just focus on a few points.

Consider Singapore’s emphasis on maintaining an overwhelming Chinese majority in Singapore. In his 1989 National Day Rally, Lee Kuan Yew declared that, due to the natural cultural differences between the races, it is necessary to maintain a Chinese majority in Singapore because, if not, “there will be a shift in the economy, both the economic performance and the political backdrop which makes that economic performance possible.” Lee Kuan Yew deeply believed in colonial racial hierachies that divided up various “races” by their natural tendencies. Within such a framework, the Chinese were hard workers and intelligent and the rest of us, well… let’s just say we’d have made Singapore yet another post-colonial backwater.

If in contemporary Singapore, as Michael Barr demonstrates, “there can be little doubt that there is an unofficial pro-Chinese bias,” it is fundamentally because our so-called founding fathers consciously designed this country to function in this particular way. So when we criticise Lee Kuan Yew for his eugenics and racism, it is not just for the sake of it.

We criticise his racial ideology because, despite the economic successes of the first generation of the PAP (until the failure of Singapore’s “second industrial revolution”), it is deeply entrenched in our social, political, and economic institutions. Moreover, this racial ideology has seeped into our minds, colonizing our minds a second time over. Is there any difference to an Indian or a Malay in this country whether it is a Singaporean government or a British administration that tells them that they are inferior beings? What about the son or daughter of a gardener?

There is a reason why Dr Gopal Baratham’s novel A Candle or the Sun, set in Singapore, so deeply resembles either Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World. Our so-called founding fathers simply believed that some people are more equal than others, that some people are born to be intellectuals, professionals, and leaders and others are born to be labourers, cleaners, and gardeners. More importantly, they drew on the entire weight of repressive and ideological state apparatuses to institutionalize their inegalitarian, racist, classist, and eugenic beliefs. Why do we continue to criticize Lee Kuan Yew? Because we are still living in Lee Kuan Yew’s world.

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