Letter from America: Remembering Lee Kuan Yew, Malcolm X, and Selma, Alabama
By David Fedo
The passing in March of Singapore's founder and long-time iconic leader, Lee Kuan Yew, at the age of 91, came at the beginning of an unusually crowded news week in the United States.
For one thing, millions of American basketball fans were crammed into arenas or glued to their TV sets to watch the end-of-the-season tournament to see if the University of Kentucky would go undefeated and capture the national collegiate championship. (Wisconsin unexpectedly defeated Kentucky in the semi-finals.) In Washington, DC, President Obama and the Republicans in Congress were still at odds over immigration, Obamacare, and almost everything else, including the President's nomination for a new Attorney General. The spat spilled out almost daily and at times has been ugly.
Global turbulence also took precedence over the death, in a hospital, of Mr Lee. There was the tragic loss of life in the German plane crash in the French Alps, and the raging violence in the mosques and streets of Yemen, some of it likely instigated by ISIS, which seems each week more and more emboldened in the Middle East and elsewhere. Then there was that ongoing and mean-spirited tussle between President Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Netanyahu over whether Netanyahu, whose party surprisingly dominated the recent Israeli election, really believed, or did not believe, that a two-state solution was the answer to the fractious conflict between Palestine and Israel. The tortuous negotiations between Iran and the US (and other participants) over the former's nuclear aspirations was another matter of serious and public disagreement between the two countries.
Thus, after a brutal winter of weather that brought record snowfalls and frigid temperatures to much of the nation, most Americans, who in the best of circumstances pay little attention to Singapore, had barely noticed that Mr Lee, called by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, "one of the great success stories" of modern times, had slipped away quietly after a lengthy illness.
President Obama trotted out the formal pleasantries: Mr Lee was "a true giant of history," he said in an official statement, who was "hugely important in helping me formulate our policy of re-balancing to the Asia Pacific." The President, who met Mr Lee on a brief visit to Singapore in 2009, hailed him as a "visionary man".
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger called Mr Lee (in The Washington Post) "a great man" and wrote that "He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership."
In a lengthy obituary in the March 22 New York Times, Seth Mydans elaborated on some of these points: "Late into his life he remained the dominant personality and driving force in what he called a First World oasis in a Third World region. The nation reflected the man: efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking and pragmatic… His leadership was sometimes criticised for suppressing freedom, but the formula succeeded. Singapore became an international business and financial centre admired for its efficiency and low level of corruption."
Stephen Wright's summary in the March 24 issue of The Boston Globe was somewhat more cautious, asserting that Mr Lee "brought prosperity to Singapore with an authoritarian system designed to outlast him, but that legacy may be ill-suited for the 21st-century challenges facing the tropical city-state." He continued: "To give his government a free hand to fashion a new society, Lee systematically crushed dissent, muzzled the press, and imprisoned political opponents. A social compact of authoritarian government in exchange for a guarantee of prosperity has endured for two generations." But today's Singapore, Mr Wright alleged, is a country challenged by income inequality, with depressed wages caused by "large-scale immigration" and elderly Singaporeans among its victims.
Eight years ago, in a 2007 interview published in The New York Times, Mr Lee famously said that Singapore was a country that was "not supposed to exist and cannot exist." And yet here it is, vibrant and intact, both admired and envied, despite the scars of his political party, the People's Action Party (PAP), from the 2011 elections, and despite the concerns and criticisms of many, including former "detainees".
Sadly, Americans know very little of this history. Most are aware that Singapore is not part of China, allowing that it might possibly be located somewhere else in South-east Asia. Beyond that, it's a distant and dim cloud.
I happened to live and work for five years in Singapore, from 2007 to 2012, and came to believe that Mr Lee's gutsy vision in 1965 of what Singapore could become, despite his sometimes draconian practices, mostly worked. Unlike the current government of the US, where a good man as President Obama seemingly cannot prod a bad Republican majority in Congress to act responsibly, Mr Lee, despite his gruffness, made things happen. The Singapore government functioned as a government should, clearly in part due to the force of Mr Lee's personality.
I discovered while in Singapore that the best way to understand the inner self and even contradictions of Mr Lee was to read his two-volume memoirs. They are strikingly candid and revealing. The first, published in 1998, was titled The Singapore Story, and covered Mr Lee's childhood up to Singapore's independence on August 9, 1965. His main premise: "I thought our people should understand how vulnerable Singapore was and is, the dangers that beset us, and how we nearly did not make it." He also claimed that "I had not intended to write my memoirs," and then went on to fill 680 pages with meticulous detail.
In his second volume, From Third World to First: Singapore and the Asian Economic Boom, published in 2000 and running to over 700 pages, Mr Lee wrote that "I concluded an island city-state in South-east Asia could not be ordinary if it was to survive." He elaborated: "We had to make extraordinary efforts to become a tightly knit, rugged and adaptable people who could do things better and cheaper than our neighbours, because they wanted to bypass us and render obsolete our role as the entrepot and middle man for the trade of the region. We had to be different."
Back home with friends in Boston, whenever Singapore comes up in conversation, I refer to some of the key Singaporean differences as follow:
Either Mr Lee led or his policies paved the way for many of the above, with the general support of most Singaporeans.
Of course, not everyone in Singapore was an admirer of Mr Lee or his tactics. He could be harsh and relentless to those considered to be his enemies. For some, "free speech" is still not an unquestioned right in the country. The influx of foreign workers into Singapore, especially in recent years, has clearly had an impact on the job market for Singaporeans. As all natives know, Singapore is not an inexpensive city-state.
But given the current political morass in the US, most Americans who may have visited Singapore and who are knowledgeable about its practices remain admirers of the country and of Lee Kuan Yew, the man who – more than any other since Singapore's founder Thomas Stamford Raffles – shaped it. Mr Lee's legacy is there for everyone to witness. To call him "the George Washington of Singapore", as some Americans have, is not too far a stretch. President Washington, for all of the many virtues of the historic Father of America, wasn't perfect either.
This past February and March, many Americans took notice of the 50th anniversaries of two dramatic events in the sometimes bloody and violent saga of what is commonly called, in the US, the Civil Rights Movement.
The first, in February 1965, was the assassination of Malcolm X, the fiery preacher and evangelist for a group called the Nation of Islam, often referred to as the Black Muslims. The charismatic Malcolm X – born in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1925 as Malcolm Little, who led a tumultuous early life which included prison time in Boston – had been primarily responsible for the phenomenal growth of the Muslim organisation in the 1950s and 1960s, even surpassing in popularity the outreach of the titular leader, Elijah Poole Muhammad, to the thousands of its followers around the country. Malcolm X was only 39 years old when he was gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City by three assailants, all of whom were likely members of the Nation of Islam. (There remains to this day some ambiguity about who exactly ordered the assassination and who carried it out.) Malcolm's posthumous memoir, The Autobiography of Malcom X, co-written with Alex Haley, remains one of the bestselling non-fiction books in the US.
The Nation of Islam was founded in the 1930s in Detroit and vowed "to improve the spiritual, mental, social and economic condition of African Americans in the US and all of humanity." But Malcolm X's first years as a spokesperson for the organisation were clear: Black Americans, he insisted, needed to separate themselves completely from the "collective white devils". White America, he preached, would never fully accept African Americans as equals. And thus in certain circumstances, he insisted, violence was an acceptable alternative to the non-violent strategies of Dr Martin Luther King.
It was only later that, for a variety of reasons, Malcolm X broke with Elijah Muhammad and, after returning from an eye-opening trip to Mecca, he founded his own organisation, and seemed to have tempered his beliefs about White America. It turned out to be a fateful decision.
Malcolm X and Dr Martin Luther King were activists, but opposite in their activism. As the world knows, King said non-violence was the only ethical and practical path to the attainment of full civil rights for all Americans, whatever the colour or creed. On March 7, 1965, he and his colleagues, and some 600 others, marched across Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to Montgomery, the capital city of Alabama, "to demand an end," as The Boston Globe put it, "to discrimination against black voters and all such victims of segregation." The day became known as Bloody Sunday, because in an episode with reverberations that can be felt even today, Alabama state troopers and police savagely beat the marchers with batons and sprayed them with tear gas. It was horrific.
President Obama spoke eloquently at the commemoration march:
It was a moving occasion, with plenty of tears. But recent episodes of violence in the US, including the death of a young black man at the hands of a policeman in Ferguson, Missouri, show all too clearly – and sadly – that the battle for civil rights is not yet over.QLRS Vol. 14 No. 2 Apr 2015