Singapore’s Lee family dispute could hold a lesson for its unquestioning citizens

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 4:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 June, 2017, 8:13pm

Many feel that the Lee family dispute is an embarrassment and bad for Singaporeans. But it may actually hold a lesson.

There is no doubt Lee Kuan Yew worked hard for Singapore’s success, famously threatening that if something were to go wrong, he would get up to set it right if on his deathbed. Perhaps the conflict among the Lee siblings can be seen as a lesson designed for Singapore by the elder Lee from beyond the grave.

For Singaporeans are to progress in this modern, ever-evolving world, they must challenge established ideas and brave new frontiers in thought and action. This can only happen if no institution is considered infallible, opinions are constantly challenged, and no one is idolised. Singaporeans are being shown that, for all the success the Lees have achieved, they are merely mortal, with good traits to follow and faults to avoid.

That Lee himself was open to criticism is clear from what those close to him had to say. Eddie Barker, a friend and fellow lawyer, spoke of being summoned by an angry Lee demanding to know why Barker had criticised his proposal so aggressively in a cabinet meeting. Barker replied, “You told us to speak openly, not to be a yes-man.” Lee’s response was to tell him to continue speaking honestly and openly. A month before Barker retired, Lee pointed to him at a cabinet meeting and said, “He’s always disagreeing with me. Why don’t you guys do it more often?”.

If Lee did not consider himself infallible and was open to criticism, perhaps Singaporeans and their institutions must learn not to be overly sensitive, and defensive when criticised.

There is much good in the Singapore system, but the reluctance to question and challenge authority is not among them. The issues raised by the younger Lee siblings and the open invitation by the eldest to be questioned in Parliament should be seen by Singaporeans as a call from Lee Kuan Yew to no longer be docile sheep awaiting instructions, but path-finding questioning explorers seeking a better course for their country.

Dr Ong Hean Teik, Penang, Malaysia