Commentary | 25 March 2015

An unyielding foe of corruption

An unyielding foe of corruption

Milton Osborne

The Australian Financial Review

24 March 2015

An unyielding foe of corruption

Milton Osborne

The Australian Financial Review

24 March 2015

Executive Summary

'We shall not look upon his like again.' Hamlet's comment on his father rings equally true for Lee Kuan Yew, the dominant figure in Singapore's modern history. Here was a man of great talent who was renowned for his intolerance of mediocrity and views contrary to his own. And yet he oversaw the transformation of a tropical slum into a thriving city state.

Praised by global figures such as Henry Kissinger, there will always be questions as to whether Lee's political persona would have been suited to a larger stage. Certainly, he never hesitated to make his views known on issues outside of Singapore, whether on Vietnam in the 1960s, where he supported United States policy, or on Iraq, where he praised the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Lee narrowly escaped death in the savage aftermath of Japan's invasion of Singapore in 1942.

His experience of occupation was fundamental to the formation of his political views. It was a period when the reality of power and the lack of it were brutally apparent.

Graduating with a stellar Cambridge law degree after the Second World War, Lee returned to Singapore in 1950 and soon became involved in both agitation for Malayan independence from Britain and as a lawyer advocating for the increasingly radical union movement in Singapore. Lee's role representing unionists led to the mistaken view in some Western circles, including Australia, that he was a man firmly of the left, or even a full-blooded Marxist.

He was neither, but instead was a steely pragmatist ready to work with men even who he knew were communists as he pursued his goals. In doing so he attracted a core of like-minded associates; none more important than his long-time deputy, Goh Keng Swee, an LSE-trained economist.

With Goh, and other key figures such as Toh Chin Chye and Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Lee founded the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954. From the start the PAP recognised the fundamental requirement of Singapore politics was to win over the majority Chinese population which made up more than 70 per cent of Singapore's population.

Gaining power and self-government in 1959, the PAP faced two great challenges: to prevent a creeping communist takeover within Singapore and to convince the Malay-dominated government in Malaya, UMNO, that Singapore could be a worthy member of a future federal arrangement.

When key members of the communist-dominated Barisan Sosialis party were detained in 'Operation Cold Store' in 1963, shortly before Singapore achieved full independence, the first of these goals was achieved.

Seen in retrospect, and in the light of Singapore's later successful emergence as an independent state, the aim of linking its fortunes to a future Malaysian federation may seem quixotic. But that was not how matters appeared at the time.

In the mid '60s Singapore, as a small entity with a population of about 3 million, the attraction of being part of a larger state was considerable, not least from the point of view of security at a time when Indonesia led by Sukarno was increasingly belligerent. And while they did not say so openly, Lee and his PAP associates firmly believed that they had the capability to play a more effective role on a wider Malaysian stage than many Kuala Lumpur-based politicians.

Nonetheless when Singapore achieved its goal of being accepted into the newly formed Federation of Malaysia in 1963 it was despite the deep misgivings of many Malay politicians who distrusted those they saw as ethnic Chinese interlopers. The misgivings of the doubters seemed justified when Lee and his colleagues campaigned vigorously for 'a Malaysian Malaysia' - in other words a Malaysia in which Singaporeans such as Lee could hold high office at the federal level.

Lee's hopes came to a sudden end in August 1965 when the Malaysian prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, told Lee and his colleagues that Singapore must leave the federation. Lee wept as he announced this news on Singapore radio.

When I went to work in Singapore in 1975 its distinctive identity was well established. Yet the preoccupation of the international media with social order issues such as Lee's dislike of long hair on men and zero tolerance of littering distracted from the real achievements of the state.

More relevant were the questions that could be raised then, and now, about the lack of tolerance for political dissent. Lee was a firm believer in meritocracy and had little time for those who failed to meet his high standards. And he had a readiness to use preventative detention of those he judged a threat to the state.

His frequently quoted 1980 comment that Australians risked becoming "the white trash of Asia" was just one example of his harsh judgments on what he saw as incompetence, a view that may have been linked to a reported incident when a state premier called to see him. Asked by Lee for his impressions of Singapore, the premier hesitated before responding that there didn't seem to be many flies in the city.

At the time Australia was using punitive tariffs against imports of Asian clothing, textiles and footwear, which was a more plausible source of annoyance.

I had my own experience of Lee's idiosyncratic view of Australia when I made a courtesy call on him in 1976. Without any small talk his first question was to ask why there were so many "communist students" at Monash University.

He clearly found unconvincing my efforts to explain that student radicals at Monash had little similarity to the communists he had dealt with before independence.

When I suggested their passions were comparable to those found in Melbourne for VFL football teams his hand went beneath the arm of his chair to press a buzzer and I was politely escorted from his presence.

Today's Singapore, with the world's third-highest per capita GDP, stands as a testimony to Lee's skills and vision. It has constantly reinvented itself, encouraging and then moving on from highly skilled manufacturing to its present day role as a major financial centre.

It's very different now from the state I knew during the 1970s; freer in many ways, less concerned with private behaviour for example so that gay bars are part of the entertainment scene. The state is resolutely self-reliant at a time when the challenges of modernity are ever changing, although it is still not truly democratic.

In regional terms it often succeeds in playing a role within ASEAN that's disproportionate to its population size. This, too, is a reflection of Lee's determination that size should not be the basis of a state's right to have its voice heard.

Critics on the left will always find cause to denigrate Singapore for its less than fully democratic character and for its continuing attachment to capital and corporal punishment. And these are issues that give pause even to admirers of Singapore.

But critics seldom focus on a feature of Singapore's past and present that deserves the highest praise. Alone among the countries of south-east Asia its government has no tolerance for corruption. For this, as with so many other aspects of Singapore today, Lee Kuan Yew's role has been of the first importance.



Milton Osborne is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute. He was head of the Asia Branch of the Office of National Assessments 1982-93. He worked in Singapore in 1975-79.