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The veneration of Lee Kuan Yew helps no one

Kirsten Han photo
Kirsten Hanon Singapore, written from Scotland
The veneration of Lee Kuan Yew helps no one
The first anniversary of Lee Kuan Yew's death has triggered another outpouring of grief and commemoration. But does the reverence we hold Lee in actually prevent us from properly understanding our history and imagining our future?

Sometimes it feels as if we've heard more about Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew since his death than when he was alive.

He is, of course, a man worth remembering, and the first anniversary of his death was always going to be an event in Singapore. A man who has featured so prominently in the ‘Singapore Story’, and who has assumed such a larger-than-life persona in most Singaporeans’ imaginations, will not easily slip from our collective consciousness.

But what does it mean for society when we're all so caught up in the veneration of Lee Kuan Yew? How can we scrutinise our history when our vision is eclipsed by one man and his narrative?

When Lee first died I wrote a personal reflection that was published in the Guardian. It was a piece that sparked anger and I was accused of being a traitor. My crime? For daring to suggest that Singapore might have done all right without Lee Kuan Yew. For having the cheek to imagine a Singapore that wasn’t tied to one man. Doubt was disrespect, questioning was ingratitude – in the eyes of some Singaporeans, there are no other paths apart from the one Lee chose for us, and any suggestion otherwise was unpatriotic.

Such a line of thinking shuts down discussion that our country so desperately needs. It stops us from seeking a fuller understanding of where Singapore has come from, and from building up new possibilities based on inclusivity and open discourse.

With the first anniversary of his death the reverence and outright worship has ramped up again. Some of the shop displays are so over-the-top one could be forgiven for mistaking them for altars at which incense should be burnt. Over on Twitter, the account @thankyewLKY automatically tweets Lee Kuan Yew quotes at you anytime you use the hashtag #LeeKuanYew. There are new books, documentary screenings, tours... even a flag eraser portrait, which none of us knew was a thing until it was involuntarily gifted to us to commemorate the man affectionately – or cynically – referred to as 'Ah Kong'.

A display at the entrance of one branch of Popular, a bookstore chain in Singapore.

To give everyone a picture of the scale of hyperbole to which the national commemoration has reached, the local press reported children paying tribute to Lee not as a man, but as a superhero:

From ‘Remembering Mr Lee and his values’, published in The Straits Times on 19 March 2016.

Children can be prone to exaggeration and vivid imaginings, but they get their ideas from somewhere. Floating about online is a video of adults teaching tiny kindergarteners to bow three times before a banner of Lee Kuan Yew. They may be too young to understand the complexities of political struggle, but we're doing them a disservice when we erase nuance in favour of hagiography. Fostering more generations of people for whom Lee Kuan Yew is a sacred concept never to be questioned will do little for our society's ability to assess our past and plan for the future.

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) has also come up with a list of guidelines for the use of Lee Kuan Yew's name and image:

From ‘Guidelines issued on use of name and image of Lee Kuan Yew’, published on Channel NewsAsia on 16 March 2016.

It is once again a prescription of how Singaporeans should remember and talk about Lee Kuan Yew and his legacy. Thou shalt not take the Big Man's name in vain.

In his memoirs, Living in a Time of Deception, Dr Poh Soo Kai wrote about Lee's duplicity in his political manoeuvrings and complicity in mass arrests that took place under Lim Yew Hock's government in the late 50s and early 60s. It's a part of Singapore's history that we would never hear in the 'official' account, yet is important nevertheless in understanding the choices that were made and the repercussions that can even be felt today as Singaporean civil society continues to struggle to grow and mature. But will such discussions – which will inevitably involve some condemnation of Lee's actions, such as Dr Poh stridently branding him a "political pimp" – be considered to breach the rule of according his name with "dignity and respect"?

Lee Kuan Yew has loomed large over Singapore and its development over the last five decades. There are many things about Singapore that we have to give him credit for (and I believe these will be outlined in the many tributes that will no doubt pour forth during this period). But he’s still a man. Elevating him to a sacred position beyond reproach or criticism would do more harm than good to Singaporean society in the long run, and that’s even before mentioning that the man himself would have hated being turned into an icon for worship.

We don't need more books about how much ice cream he ate, nor do we really need tours to gape at the sort of food he liked and where he ate them. Our children don't need picture books portraying him as the sole architect of every bit of Singapore's success, and we certainly don't need more posters and memorials to remind ourselves not to forget him. 

What we need is to be able to think critically and maturely, to remember him in the proper context, to restore to their rightful places other individuals who have made an impact on our history and society, and to strive to see both Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore as they really are.

23 March is a day for Lee’s family and loved ones to remember him and to mourn. There’s also nothing wrong with the rest of us thinking of him and his connection to our country. But we would not be honouring his memory by placing him on a pedestal and turning him into a cult figure — as far as we know, he never wanted that anyway.

A look inside the children's book 'Harry Builds a Nation', on Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore.

#hagiography, #politics, #singapore, #lee kuan yew