The Lee Kuan Yew Complex

I’ve never been to Singapore. The closest “Singaporean experience” I can get is to visit Suzhou, a city two hours of car drive away from Shanghai. In 1994 China and Singapore signed an agreement to co-develop the Suzhou Industrial Park, a tiny area of 278 square kilometers (by Chinese standard) to be modeled on Singapore’s success with Singaporean support in both capital and expertise. It is probably pure coincidence that they picked Suzhou as the location of this experiment, wherein a young, small “Garden City” would teach an ancient Chinese city most famous for its stunningly exquisite gardens how to develop. Nowadays, if you visit the SIP and the old Suzhou city, you can vividly see the difference: the former is built out of fresh blueprints, with glittering skyscrapers, newly paved six-lane roads and well-trimmed roadside greenery; the latter is weathered, more chaotic, with congested old-town blocks still filled with traditional buildings of black roof tiles and white walls, and, of course, gardens listed as World Heritage sites. (Below, Left: old town Suzhou, Right: Suzhou Industrial Park)

Suzhou SIP

The (unintended) symbolism in the cooperation between Suzhou and Singapore: the old learning from the new, the master from the student, the cultured from the unsophisticated, is not without a bit of irony and has an intrinsic “un-Asianness” in it. Yet in some very mystic way it has become a motif in the China-Singapore relationship. Maybe the best example is Lee Kuan Yew’s now well-known exchange with Deng Xiaoping, who was twenty years older than Lee and much more experienced in political struggles. During their 1978 meeting, Lee assured Deng that he had absolute confidence in China’s ability to do a better job than Singapore. “After all”, he said, “we are only the descendants of those poor, illiterate drifters from southern China’s Canton and Fujian provinces, while you get to keep the successors of the most gifted and well-educated.” Those comments reportedly struck Deng silent. Upon his return to China, which was on the verge of ruin after a decade of Cultural Revolution, Deng called on the country to “learn from Singapore.”

This episode, together with Lee’s other encounters with “generations of the Chinese leadership”, is repeatedly referred to by Chinese commentators over the past week, when news of his death finally landed. All of a sudden, a nation is obsessed by the late former Prime Minister of Singapore, a phenomenon that has perplexed some. The Chinese public’s reaction to the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew which is disproportionate to the size of his country again illustrates that perpetual motif which I can only describe as “the Lee Kuan Yew complex”.

One component of that complex is probably just a misplaced sense of ethnic goodwill. Many people in China liberally associate the ethnic Han Chinese with China the country, no matter whether the upbringing of the former has anything to do with the latter. This sometimes leads to an uncalled-for embrace that may confuse its subjects. For example, the Chinese public greeted Gary Locke (a Chinese American) with such a high tide of enthusiasm when he was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China in 2011 that both the Chinese media and he himself need to reaffirm publicly of his allegiance to the United States. If such show of emotions is just simple derivatives of the traditional filial piety that the Chinese expect from any of their extended “families”, then a sense of betrayal can emerge if that expectation is not met.

Vocal Chinese nationalists on the internet apparently cannot let go of Lee’s record of what they consider as “de-Chinesization”. One of them even names it as Lee’s “biggest sin against the Chinese ethnicity”, for he “used the force of the state to crush the people’s identification with the Chinese culture, and turned them towards Western cultures for their identity.” Other nationalists do not hold such an ethnocentric point of view, but they do not regard highly of Lee either. For them, his opportunistic approach towards communist China speaks to his foxy nature: “On the one hand, he took advantage of the Chinese market to advance the Singaporean economy, on the other hand, he urged Western powers to contain China.” These commentators believe that at least in terms of foreign policy China has nothing to learn from Singapore, as a “tiny city state can make a profit out of the chaos, how can a major power attach itself to others?”

But Lee Kuan Yew proves to be a conundrum for the Chinese nationalists, as his authoritarian rule of Singapore provides inspirations that are otherwise hard to resist. The People’s Daily’s WeChat account, for example, describes Lee’s crusade against media freedom, especially his handling of Western media reports, with a tone of envy. In the post titled “Why does the Western press not dare to criticize Lee Kwan Yew’s Singapore,” the author maintains that China has a lot to learn from Lee’s intimidating way of handling media organizations.

Liberal-leaning Chinese netizens are more consistent with their comments about Lee. They tend to view Lee’s political legacy, especially its admiration by some Chinese leaders, with alarm and wariness. For them, Lee’s political legacy is far from set in stone as “the effectiveness of the current Singaporean system so far has been built on Lee’s authoritarian charisma, and the lack of corruption is more because of his self-restraint.” To discredit the assertion that Singapore’s success is a slap on the face of “Western values”, they circulate one of Lee’s famous quotes that “Singapore’s success is less about Confucius values but rather the result of the rule of law left by the British.” One prominent Chinese lawyer got so alarmed that he spoke allegorically of “our own Lee Kuan Yew at home.” His Weibo account was quickly rescinded after that. This looks like something that Lee Kuan Yew would have done.

So far the most balanced and nuanced account of Lee Kuan Yew’s political legacy in mainstream Chinese media is provided by Caijing Magazine. In his in-depth rundown of Lee’s career, commentator Ma Guochuan depicts Lee predominantly as a pragmatic politician not bound by any doctrines. In that, Lee found a “soul-mate” in Deng Xiaoping. And that is probably his biggest contribution to the opening up and reform of China after 1978: his pragmatism inspired and encouraged Deng to take on his ideologist rivals and ultimately take a utilitarian approach to China’s development. Ma did not turn a blind eye towards the downside of Lee’s authoritarian rule. He notes that PAP’s domination of Singapore politics is increasingly being challenged and that the new generation is getting more impatient with the slow pace of political reform. But most importantly, Ma’s account goes beyond the simplistic caricatures of the nationalists and liberals alike, and depicts Lee as having true insights about the challenges that China faces. His warning for a visiting Chinese leader that too much emphasis on patriotic values might actually undermine China’s strategic interest in maintaining a peaceful external environment and a stable internal environment sounds particularly relevant now.

The difficulty for the Chinese society to come to terms with a complicated figure like Lee Kuan Yew mirrors the same difficulty it has to make sense of China itself. For a long time, Lee’s Singapore serves as a reference point for a China that just opened its gate to the world. Deng’s pragmatic Singaporean vision is a core component of the “reform consensus” that has concentrated the country’s energy for three decades. Now that consensus is full of cracks, the energy is dissipating and the schizophrenia about Lee Kuan Yew is a sign of that. In this new round of soul-searching for renewed affirmation of its own course, China comes to the dying Lee Kuan Yew again, only with pickier eyes. Ditto to authoritarian ruthlessness. A more global cultural identity? No thanks.

The substances of Lee’s political wisdom no longer matters that much. What matters now is his stance as a staunch challenger of Western universalism and an advocate for the ill-defined “Asian values.” In his keynote speech at the annual Boao Asia Forum yesterday, President Xi paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew for his contribution to “Asia’s peace and development.” But in a speech titled “Towards a Community of Common Destiny,” the President seems to have chosen to omit the fact that Lee’s recipe for peace in Asia has never been a so-called community of shared interests (let alone common destiny). It has always been the cool-headed check-and-balance of major powers.

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