Together with five other panellists about two weeks ago, I was invited to a TODAY roundtable discussion on the impact and legacy of the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. With another 24-year-old gentleman we were the youngest in the group, and I premised my sharing upon arguments that any assessment of his “impact” or “legacy” has to be more balanced and nuanced. And of course, spoke as a young Singaporean. During the session, I therefore drew on a commentary written by a friend – who wrote that he “knew the myth”, but “not the legacy” – and also on my recent study trip to the Indonesian cities of Jakarta and Bandung.
The panellists I thought had great insights, especially when they drew on personal experiences. The businessmen noted the ease of doing business in Singapore compared to countries where institutions are not as strong and where graft may prevalent. The older Singaporeans spoke of the first-hand changes – in transportation and public housing, for instance – they witnessed. And those who have spent time abroad discussed recognition of “the Singapore brand”, as well as advantages we may have taken for granted. Though I would concede that we could have, and perhaps should have, spent more time on specific policy initiatives and encouraged greater contestation of perspectives during the session, talking about the blemishes of Mr. Lee’s “impact” or “legacy”.
Where were you when you heard the news of Mr Lee’s death and how did you feel? Did you expect Singaporeans to react to his passing in the way that they did?
Jin Yao: I was at home, and during that time, I was on an internship, so every morning when I woke up, I would scroll through my Twitter and Facebook feeds … (and I got the news) mainly through social media … For me, there was a sense of loss, but also a sense of closure – he was ill for some time already.
How has Mr Lee – and the changes and policies he had put in place – touched your life?
Jin Yao: My parents both are non-graduates; they came from a Chinese-speaking background and schools, didn’t have a degree, had to work in the same company over 20, 30 years, and had to go for night classes.
But through it all, having the opportunities and then making sacrifices, we’ve been able to become a middle-income family, which I’ve benefited from (and which was made possible) through the different policies economically and in terms of the education system (which Mr Lee introduced).
What impact has Mr Lee’s passing had on you?
Jin Yao: (Mr Lee’s passing) actually enriched the SG50 discussion that we had last year … What we also saw was that there was a lot more discourse and challenges to the status quo … We had questions about the past — there was this contest of different ideas and different perspectives.
People were saying, “Should we have a more balanced narrative of the Singapore Story?” There was also discussion about the future, where we go from here … The impact that (his passing) left us was that it kind of compelled us to start thinking about the future … (This has encouraged me) to continue to be active (and) engaged online … and to translate the rhetoric into action.
What are some of Mr Lee’s values that continue to hold significance today?
Jin Yao: One thing that has always defined Singaporeans is confidence. We are very confident … (and) very dogged in terms of how we approach issues. We are very confident in terms of where we are in the world, but I think sometimes this confidence has kind of morphed into a form of complacency as well, so in many instances we think that we are on a very stable footing, we are very good … but we don’t quite realise that the rest of the world is catching up quite quickly …
We need to realise that we are not always ahead of everyone … Coincidentally, I think these are the lessons that Mr Lee had in the beginning when he was taking best practices from all around the world. And if we’re going to lose that hunger and if we rest on our laurels, that’s going to be a problem for the future.
What are the enduring aspects of Mr Lee’s legacy – what will you remember him most for?
Jin Yao: Some of the more pragmatic elements of his legacy would be the strong economic and political institutions. I think that’s the result of the intolerance for corruption … that has allowed for prosperity economically (and) for geopolitical stability. When we are considering his legacy, there are always the not-so-pleasant parts of his legacy, (such as) have we developed economically at the expense of things like culture, heritage? Have we developed and promoted national stability and harmony at the expense of freedom of expression, for instance?
How would you like to see Singapore building on Mr Lee’s legacy?
Jin Yao: The present is very much about maximising opportunities. I think there are a lot of opportunities not just in Singapore, but in the region and around the world that a lot of us are not taking. We’re too comfortable, and it’s too convenient to stay in Singapore. I think sometimes some risk has to be taken … For the future, the answer would be to embrace ambiguity. I think a lot of us are very afraid of the uncertain … But to be able to embrace ambiguity, uncertainty and then taking these different opportunities are important in building on that legacy.