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Jakarta Post

Lee'€™s '€˜rule by virtue'€™

  • The Jakarta Post

    The Jakarta Post

Singapore   /   Fri, March 27, 2015   /  11:28 am

The passing of Singapore'€™s founding father and elder statesman should give us pause, and a chance to reflect on the historic opportunities that we Filipinos have lost, as well as the enduring virtues that we have kept.

Lee Kuan Yew died early last Monday, and was immediately hailed by US President Barack Obama as '€œa visionary who led his country from '€¦ independence '€¦ to becoming one of the most prosperous countries in the world.'€ Indeed, in his island-nation, Lee carved out what he called '€œa First World oasis in a Third World region'€ and trained his citizens to act '€œmore like First World citizens, not like Third World citizens spitting and littering all over the place.'€ He took pride in his haven of meritocracy amid a sea of mediocrity. There'€™s no need for Filipinos to feel alluded to because true to form, Lee actually said as much in so many words, and sometimes even while visiting the Philippines (though with more restraint and diplomacy).

There are many Filipinos who, when asked about how to solve the ills of our nation, would say that we should find a Filipino Lee Kuan Yew, a benevolent dictator who would govern for the good of all, and who can combine free-market economics with one-party rule. But these same Filipinos should also ask themselves: When we do find our own Lee Kuan Yew, will we let him govern the way Lee did? Would we even elect him to public office in the first place?

The New York Times described Singapore the nation as embodying the strengths of Lee the man: '€œefficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking, pragmatic'€. Many Filipinos crave the efficient and valorize the incorrupt. But would we elect the unsentimental, when we so value people skills? Lee has even confessed in his memoirs that often he had to rely on his wife'€™s sixth sense to judge people'€™s characters. Don'€™t we constrain inventive and forward-looking government officials because they are too daring, and prefer the stodgy bureaucrats who cross their '€œt'€™s'€ and dot their '€œi'€™s'€ but don'€™t produce results? And don'€™t we define pragmatic as willing to compromise and cut corners, and not ask, as Lee did, whether it was for the general good?

Lee used the so-called '€œAsian values'€ argument each time he was criticised by the West for his repressive policies, especially his curtailment of free speech and his use of the law and the courts to punish his enemies with libel convictions, as in the case of the late oppositionist J.B. Jeyaretnam, whom Lee drove to bankruptcy and was consequently disbarred as a lawyer. Through all these, Lee was unapologetic: '€œI had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.'€

In a regional human rights gathering, a Singaporean expert echoed that logic: '€œSome countries have the right to housing, but their people live in slums. We have houses.'€ Make that '€œhigh-rise apartments'€ to be more precise, but you get the point.

But the '€œAsian values'€ argument thrived for as long as the Asian tiger economies flourished, and waned with the Asian financial crisis. It drew its power from the fact that Lee delivered results and, indeed, Singapore, without a common ethnicity, no common native language, and so bereft of natural resources that it has to import its drinking water from Malaysia, has prospered. It can now match the wealth of the North Atlantic democracies, Europe and Japan.

But the decreasing parliamentary dominance of Lee'€™s party, the People'€™s Action Party, reminds us, too, that when you trade off freedom for bread, or rights for rice, it comes at a price. They have the vibrancy of a free market. We have the vibrancy of the free marketplace of ideas, a rambunctious, even licentious, press now enhanced by popular access to social media and new technologies. The nanny state has lulled the natives into what Singaporeans themselves caricature as '€œkiasu,'€ a fear of losing that induces a tendency to play it safe, and it has so dulled indigenous creativity that a local study showed that its leading entrepreneurs were either dropouts of their local schools or graduates of foreign studies.

Filipinos take pride in the '€œrule of law'€ which has led to a government-by-stalemate that has yielded sorry results. Perhaps we should look at Lee Kuan Yew'€™s '€œrule by virtue,'€ where the law is but an instrument for social engineering and the courts defer to decisions by the wise for the benefit of the majority. When we do find our own Lee Kuan Yew, let us remember to give him or her enough room to let virtue reign. (***)


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