1998 / 10月
Tsung-mau Hsu /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by David Mayer
In mid-September, Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew published The Singapore Story. These personal memoirs have provoked strong reactions throughout society.
Says Lee, "If you're going to write something like this, you have to write the truth, otherwise there's no point in writing anything at all." In this book, the former prime minister gives a detailed account of his own life as well as the birth of the Republic of Singapore. This volume (the first of two) begins with the British colonial period and continues through the Japanese occupation, the rioting that occurred during Singapore's brief union with Malaysia, and finally, Singapore's independence. Lee provides an extremely candid account of the events as he experienced them.
Sinorama has retained the services of Tsung-mao Hsu, Senior Commentator for the China Times, to review Lee's memoirs. In a second article, Sinorama provides excerpts of remarks made by Lee during press conferences and television interviews.
The second volume of these memoirs, which is scheduled for publication next September, deals with Singapore's struggle to rise from poverty to affluence. Many readers may well look forward with particular interest to Lee's account, also to come in the second volume, of Singapore's role as an intermediary between China and Taiwan. Sinorama will publish a detailed report on the second volume after it comes out.
Without a doubt, even as you sit reading Sinorama, many people will be eagerly poring over The Singapore Story (published in Taiwan as Memoirs of Lee Kwan Yew). Some will be ardent admirers of the former prime minister. Others will be detractors. Still others will be historians more interested in research than in passing judgment on the man. All of these readers, however, will have one thing in common-they'll be hoping to pick up fresh new bits of information about this historical figure.
Those fresh bits of information would fall into two categories-those which shed light on the course of historical events, and those connected with Lee's personal life.
There is considerable overlap between the two, of course, since Lee is the Republic of Singapore's founding father. Many of the anecdotes and feelings of the private man help us understand the impact of personalities upon historical events. In this sense, it is primarily the second type of information that we learn for the first time in these memoirs. The book includes a lot of intimate detail which recreates the nitty-gritty flavor of the times. Much of it might seem at first glance to border on the trivial, but it is precisely this detail which lends the memoirs their impact and offers the reader something new.
Of special interest are the years between 1954, when Lee first took to the political arena by founding the People's Action Party (PAP), and 1965, when Singapore declared its independence from Malaysia. It was a time of high drama for Singapore in both its domestic and foreign affairs. These were complex years, when changes of lasting import occurred almost overnight. In dealing with this period, however, Lee Kwan Yew reveals nothing we did not already know about the behind-the-scenes politics of that time. The reason for this paucity of new information is quite simple. Take, for example, the breakup of Singapore and Malaysia. On 9 August 1965, Lee Kwan Yew and Tunku Abdul Rahman shocked the people of their respective nations by announcing, separately and simultaneously, that Singapore and Malaysia had officially become two separate states as of that very day. The split was an especially bruising affair for Lee Kwan Yew, because it was he who had championed the "Malaysian Malaysia" line, and it was under this banner that many had rallied to his support. Who among his supporters would not have felt betrayed when Lee abandoned the Federation without even consulting them first? It was not enough for Lee just to feel bad about his country's secession; to regain the trust and support of the people of Singapore, he had a need and a responsibility to let others know exactly what had happened.
From that day in August 1965 when Singapore split from Malaysia, Lee Kwan Yew and his regime worked to ensure the survival of Singapore as a nation. Part of that effort included a continuous campaign to tell the citizens of Singapore the details of a number of historical incidents, so that they would know how their nation had come to be established. In other words, Singapore had a vital emotional need for its founder to lay bare the facts of history. Singapore needed this historical narrative in the same way every society has always needed its myths, for in this narrative, Singaporean society was to find its identity and sense of mythological origin. At the same time, there was never a time when hostile forces did not pose a challenge to Lee. It was incumbent upon him to use his revelations about history as a means of fighting back.
The inside story
Lee could hardly have told us much of anything new in his memoirs, for he had already devoted a tremendous effort during 30 years in office to the task of recounting the events that preceded the founding of the republic. Furthermore, Singapore has been deeply influenced by its long years under British rule. The Singaporean government maintains copious records concerning all its domestic and foreign affairs. Political statements over the years have drawn upon a large body of diplomatic documents, parliamentary reports, private letters, and government proclamations. As a result, descriptions of events in public life have always been well documented. There are two areas, however, in which Lee does bring new facts to light. Firstly, to bolster his assertion that the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) instigated the race riots of 1964 in Singapore, Lee quotes extensively from US, British, and Australian diplomatic documents, for which the 30-year limit on confidentiality has expired in recent years. Secondly, he describes threats made by UMNO leaders against Singapore in the run-up to the split between Singapore and Malaysia. This episode is still an extremely sensitive issue for both governments. Even though Lee is recounting something which happened over three decades ago, it can still very easily generate ethnic tension and lead immediately to diplomatic conflict.
The PAP regime has always maintained that the firebrand UMNO leader Syed Jaafar Albar instigated the 1964 riots so that the federal government in Kuala Lumpur could declare a state of martial law that would allow it to move in and take over the administration of Singapore. This is what the Singaporean government has always told its people, but in doing so, it has kept something of a low profile in order to avoid provoking a backlash from the Malaysian government. In the last two years, however, the Singaporean government has grown more strident on this issue in order to generate a heightened sense of crisis. In his memoirs, Lee Kwan Yew does not just repeat the stock accusations of the past. To back up charges of foul play on the part of UMNO extremists, Lee quotes for the first time from reports prepared by the embassies of the United States and Britain. Coming from a leader of Lee Kwan Yew's political stature, the detailed descriptions of past grievances and the rehashing of the charge that UMNO stirred up racial trouble will be sure to elicit a vehement response from the Malaysia's UMNO leadership. Lee Kwan Yew knows perfectly well that he is stirring up a hornet's nest.
Telling it like it is
In addition to political events, Lee's memoirs are a good read for what they reveal of his personal life. It has, after all, been a remarkable life. What were the major influences upon Lee's thinking and personality in his formative years? Japan invaded Singapore in early 1942 and ruled the island for three years and eight months. This time of war and hardship coincided with the budding of Lee's political consciousness. He has occasionally recounted anecdotes in the past, but only in passing. In these memoirs, however, he recalls at length the wartime memories of his youth. One time a Japanese soldier slapped him in the face. On another occasion he was forced to his knees and kicked. And he was fortunate not to have been a victim of the Great Purge. In 1994 and 1995, the question of whether Japan should take on a greater military role in Asia stirred intense controversy in many Asian countries. At that time, Lee Kwan Yew stated in no uncertain terms to American and Japanese news media that he was opposed to a stronger overseas role for the Japanese military. In stating his opposition, he told of his own terrifying experiences during the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and even spoke of a dark side to Japanese culture. Such statements did not go over well with important Japanese political figures, many of whom had harsh words for Lee. Japan's wartime excesses, however, have always been a source of contention between Japan and its East Asian neighbors. Singapore is not the only country at odds with Japan on this score.
In these memoirs, Lee does not mince words in his characterization of the Japanese troops. Still, it cannot be denied that he speaks the truth. Lee writes, "The people of my generation have seen Japanese troops as they really are. We can never forget the callous attitude towards death that they displayed during the war. They were strange-looking. Their legs were very short, and some were even bow-legged, yet they wore tall leather boots up to their knees. When they walked, they would drag their heels, so that they sounded as if they were wearing slippers when they passed by. At first, I just thought they looked silly. After a few months, however, I didn't think they were silly at all. These were no clowns. They were outstanding fighters. Although they used Western-style military uniforms and weaponry, they were physically different from the Europeans. As fighters, they left nothing to be desired. Their fierceness in battle erased the initial impressions that I and my friends had had of them. We had thought that those short little people would just scuttle around like little toy soldiers. After watching them at close range, however, I can guarantee that they are among the most outstanding fighters anywhere in the world. However, they were every bit as vicious and cruel toward the enemy as the Huns had once been. Genghis Khan and his nomadic hordes were not any worse than the Japanese. As for the debate about whether it was necessary to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that it was the right thing to do. If they hadn't dropped the atomic bombs, several hundred thousand ordinary people in Singapore in Malaysia would have died, and fighting on the Japanese mainland would have killed millions."
Against a greater military role for Japan
Lee's understanding of the nature of authority was molded during the Japanese occupation of Singapore. Then, during his post-war stay in England, an incipient political philosophy began to take shape. At the core of this philosophy were two key elements: (1) opposition to colonialism, and (2) the democratic socialism espoused by Britain's Labour Party.
His years in England were filled with happiness and excitement, partly because of his enthusiasm for life in general, and partly because it was a time of momentous historical change. The end of World War II was followed by the collapse of the traditional colonial empires. New intellectual currents, new political forces, and new hopes and dreams were coming to the fore. Everything was changing at vertiginous speed. It was a time of great possibilities. It was a world where a hero could make his mark.
Lee met with frequent racism in England, and became strongly anti-British, but he was also disgusted with the skullduggery and dictatorial ways of the Communist Party. He gravitated toward a moderate anti-colonialism and non-communist socialism. Nevertheless, when he himself came to power and developed an understanding of political and economic realities, he quickly dropped the social welfare policies of the Labour Party, which he came to regard as excessively idealistic. Instead, he opted for more pragmatic policies. He writes, "I was young and full of idealism. I had no idea what a heavy burden of responsibility the government had to bear. The worst thing about that type of egalitarian system is that everyone is principally interested in how to maximize their share of society's common resources, not in how they can help to build up those resources." This conclusion led Lee, an adherent of Fabianism, to adopt a pragmatic line once he became country's prime minister. It is an approach he has never abandoned.
Taking a pragmatic line
It would probably be accurate to say that the Japanese occupation of Singapore and Lee's stay in England formed his basic political philosophy, while he acted upon and revised this philosophy in the course of later dealings with various international forces, communism, and racist political upheaval. Lee's memoirs also contain little vignettes that he has never mentioned before. One of the more surprising things in the book is his unvarnished description of corruption among the top leadership of the UMNO-led Alliance. He recalls, for example, how Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tan Siew Sin (the leader of the Malaysian Chinese Association) attempted to buy off the top leaders of the PAP with bribes, and how they tried to control Lee and others by arranging private dinners with attractive call girls.
Tunku Abdul Rahman is held in high esteem in Malaysia as the country's founder, but now that he is dead and gone, unable to defend himself, Lee's reminiscences constitute a severe blow to his reputation. The reaction of the Malaysian government is sure to be severe, for it must preserve the Tunku's good name.
As Lee states in his preface, these memoirs do not constitute a formal study of history. They are, however, a first-hand source. Unlike a scholarly tome, they ripple with the surging passions of a time still remembered, and still connected to the present. Indeed, the publication of these memoirs is itself another chapter in an ongoing saga.
Title: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew
Length: 748 pages
Publisher: Singapore, Times Publishing, Ltd. Taiwan, World Publishing Co.
A number of dignitaries, including Lee Kuan Yew's old friends Hau Pei-tsun and Chao Yao-tung, were in attendance at the Taiwan book-release party for Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew.