Harry yesterday, gone today

Harry Lee Kuan Yew has passed on.

He leaves us just as Singaporeans are finally falling out of love with his People’s Action Party, as I blogged after visiting Singapore last October. It is a pretty good record for someone who started out in politics in the 1950s.

Harry’s departure severs the direct link between south-east Asia’s political elite and its colonial past. (Mahathir is still alive, but he was not a player in the colonial era.) This seems to me to be the key import of this moment. There won’t be another Harry, born into an Anglicised and privileged family, angered yet titillated by colonial power, driven to reinvent himself as a true Chinese (and struggle to learn the Chinese language that was foreign to him as a kid), then striving to find a happy medium as Singapore’s leader somewhere between Asian nationalist and American lickspittle. He opted for a combination of proto-Victorian morality re-dressed-up as Asian values, and the biggest CIA station in the region, that saw American lickspittle win comfortably.

Pragmatism is I think what defined Harry more than anything. He was a fantastic leader for Singapore. But he didn’t really give a toss about south-east Asia so long as Singapore was ok. In this sense he was a modernisation of British governors of the Crown Colony of Singapore. Smarter, more savvy, more efficient than any colonial goon, but at the end of the day nothing very different. He provided phenomenal leadership, and he led by example. But the notion he had ‘vision’ at the level of south-east Asian politics and development does not stand up for me.

So goodbye Harry. I think of you as the full-on Chinese student at Cambridge, with your motorbike and your cigarettes, determined to prove you were better than the gweilos, even if what mattered most to you all too often was their approbation. I wonder: did you used to flick your cigarette butts away on the street, such that you would have been fined in Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore? We may never know.


Here is an essay about Lee Kuan Yew by Orville Schell in The Wall Street Journal. It is not the way I would tell Harry’s story, and is something of a eulogy, but worth reading.

Another academic, Minxin Pei, has a different but still very positive take on Project Syndicate.

Much later: 

The quality outs when the dust has settled. Jerry Cohen relates encounters with Harry across the decades in this article. Note Harry’s instructions, after he gave up smoking, that no one should smoke when he attended a social gathering. Including in the United States…

This recent documentary about Singapore’s political exiles is much praised. If you can find some way to see it. I have not.

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2 Responses to “Harry yesterday, gone today”

  1. The Common Commenter Says:

    I read Asian Godfathers and understand much of the untold story of Singapore (hats off to Andy Xie as well). I must respect him though having improved the lives of millions.

    My only rub is reading comments (for example in the Financial Times) where people, many seemingly pampered expats, say LKY proved ‘PC’ things like free press, impartial judiciary, and civil rights aren’t really important. Usually these comments are given as a swipe at the US, UK, and other Western countries or those developing countries that have prioritized political rights or grwater equality over ‘economic freedom’.

    This is the danger I think, that they try to claim what worked on a small country in specific circumstances is how the norm should be and we all should want such authoritarianism. Sometimes I wonder if the PAP has more fanatic defenders abroad than at home.

  2. Justanotherchap Says:

    you made this comment in march, and the “singapore takeaway” article in oct last year. unfortunately roughly 3 months later, what you had said will happen has not happened. As someone living in Singapore, i would say the reverse had happened. Local ground sentiments has turned pro-pap somewhat. Recent research results done by non-govt research/polling companies here had indicated that PAP support had been risen steadily, and peaked during this last 3 months. Socio-economic indicators are up as well, Gini had dropped as well.

    Local media sources are saying that LKY’s death had galvanized a generation of youngsters who are previously detached from the PAP. Even my friends who work in social media research are telling me that viewership for alternative social media sites (those which are anti-pap, and had used online platforms to escape the pro-PAP mainstream media) had been falling.

    so if people are hoping that the PAP will somehow collapse during the next GE, or after the passing of LKY. They are somewhat misinformed. Any rational, unbiased local will tell you that the PAP will do too badly the next time round. Just my 2 cents worth.

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