Lee Kuan Yew was one of the influential State makers of the 20th Century. A case could be made that he conceived and brought about a prosperous and peaceful future for Singapore.
I became interested in the culture of Singapore some years ago, after taking part in the celebrations of its national day. After three decades in power, Lee Kuan Yew had handed over control of the State he had helped create. In the process he was showing dynastic aspirations.
It was being rumoured at the time, correctly as it turned out, that Prime Minister Goh, who succeeded him, was a transition figure who was to be replaced by Lee’s son. Informally we were also given to believe that Lee would remain the power behind his son’s actions.
Tickets for a celebration
It had been hard to get tickets for the celebrations at the old National Stadium in Kalang Leisure Park, close the Changi airport close to where the new and impressive modern sports stadium was later built.
Our tickets had came from a Singaporean friend who had seen enough ceremonies to make them less valued for him. Well worth seeing it all for the first few times, he reassured us.
We reached the stadium by subway, another of Singapore’s marvels. Allegedly, it was maintained in those days in pristine condition through President Lee’s regime of corporal punishment handed out to any litter-making individual. Westerners tended to admire the results, if not the means of achieving them.
I had preconceived beliefs that we were going to observe a demonstration of State orchestrated loyalty. What happened was enough to unsettle such assumptions. To be sure there was the orchestration. Everyone was issued with a goodie bag, complete with a national flag to wave, an a small torch with coloured tissue paper over the business end,
There were the obligatory displays of military music, and marching discipline. Jet fighters roared low over the stadium, trailing slipstreams in the national colours. We tried to join in the passionate singing of the national anthem. Later, as night fell, the torches helped produce an equally impressive light-show in the national colours.
What was unexpected was a warmth and mood of enjoyment throughout the lengthy event which seemed spontaneous and genuine. This was not evidence of a State operating under dictatorial edict.
At the time, the charismatic President had already become a mythic figure, a State-maker in the mold of Nelson Mandela. Much later, Lee attributed the role of ‘China’s Mandela’ to Xi Jinping, a judgement not shared by Time magazine.
Today, the appreciation of Lee’s period as all-powerful State maker is more balanced internally. His contribution towards the creation of the modern hi-tech, highly educated little country is recognized. But opposing views can be expressed publicly.