Ong Kar Jin

A young Malaysian attempts to take on the grievances and woes of democracy,politics, the people, and the nation in his own tiny, smelly way.


“To many Singaporeans, and indeed others too, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.”

Lee Kuan Yew has passed away. Thousands of tributes, praise, and heartfelt condolences are pouring in from all over the globe. There is no doubting that Lee Kuan Yew was a giant of Southeast Asia, its greatest statesman, and the father of a nation. As his son and current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in his announcement, Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore.

We would do well not to whitewash the deeds of the man. As much good as he brought, Mr. Lee also maintained an iron grip on power that has lingering consequences for Singapore today. Just as Steve Jobs’ infamous temper and egoism was part and parcel of his brilliance, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian bent is inseparable from his visionary character. To deny or forget these dark spots, is to worship an ideal, and to diminish the achievements of a man. A remarkable, incredible man, but a man with all the faults that come with being human nonetheless.

Lee Kuan Yew himself said as much in an interview:

“I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things.”

In 1963, Lee Kuan Yew collaborated with British and Malayan forces to engineer Operation Coldstore. In the pre-dawn raid, dozens of leftist opposition figures, union members, and student activists were arrested and detained without trial just months before general elections. In 1962, the British High Commissioner had presciently reported to London:

“I must warn you that Lee Kuan Yew is quite clearly attracted by the prospect of wiping out his main political opposition before the next Singapore elections.”

Dr. Poh Soo Kai, detained for 11 years without trial under Operation Coldstore, tells his account here.

Operation Coldstore is not an incident in isolation. In 1987, Operation Spectrum was launched with trumped-up charges of a Marxist conspiracy, and once again the political opposition of Singapore was crippled and many of its leaders put behind bars. In a joint statement, the victims relayed accounts of how they were tortured:

“Most of us were hit hard in the face, some of us for not less than 50 times, while others were assaulted on other parts of the body, during the first three days of interrogation.”

“We were threatened with arrests, assault and battery of our spouses, loved ones and friends. We were threatened with INDEFINITE detention without trial. Chia Thye Poh, who is still in detention after twenty years, was cited as an example. We were told that no one could help us unless we “cooperated” with the ISD (Internal Security Department).”

“…we were subjected to harsh and intensive interrogation, deprived of sleep and rest, some of us for as long as 70 hours inside freezing cold rooms.”

One of the victims, Tan Wah Piow, in exile since 1976, described Lee as a man whose “sole concern was to be feared by his countrymen.” Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew himself famously said:

“Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right.”

The plight of other political exiles has recently come under the limelight with the documentary To Singapore With Love. The documentary, currently banned in Singapore, follows the lives of 6 former activists who fled political persecution in the 1960s.

Make no mistake, Lee Kuan Yew was a great man blessed with stunning intelligence, burning ambition, and incredible foresight. Singapore would not be what it is today without the man. But as with so many great men of history, what made him brilliant also made him dangerous, proud, and capable of destroying lives in the pursuit of the “greater good”.

Lee Kuan Yew did indeed embody Singapore. He embodied its best and its worst: its efficiency and its ruthlessness, its pragmatism and harsh realpolitik, its dogged determination and disregard for democracy.

To remember Lee Kuan Yew as such is not to diminish his accomplishments, but to recognize the constant struggle between the angels and demons of our nature, and how we must ever be wary while walking the tightrope of life. I shall honor him as a man, not a god.

Article was first published on DurianDemocracy‘s website