Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Did Mr Lee Kuan Yew create a Singapore in his own image?

From cleaning up dirty rivers and city grounds, to reforming the language environment, Lee Kuan Yew nagged and cajoled a nation into improving its social habits. He even tried to tell them whom to marry.

Lee Kuan Yew was a chain-smoker until 1957, puffing away two packs a day. Then he lost his voice in the middle of campaigning for a City Council election and could not thank voters. He quit cold turkey, suffering withdrawal symptoms for a fortnight.

By the 1960s, he was allergic to tobacco smoke. So smoking was banned in his office and the Cabinet room.

In the 1970s, an anti-smoking campaign banned cigarette advertising in Singapore. Progressively, there was less and less public space for smokers to have their puff.

Question: Did Mr Lee create a Singapore in his own image? Did he socially engineer and shape the behaviour of a nation according to his fastidious preferences?

It is impossible to tease out where a leader's preferences begin, and where a country's values end. The prerogative of a leader after all is to shape an organisation, a country, according to his will.

Mr Lee was notoriously fussy about order and cleanliness. Not surprisingly, Singapore is known the world over for both even today. He believed a tidy city bespoke an orderly government, a people with good social habits, and pride in their surroundings.

In November 1959, leading a mass drive to clean up the city, he said: "This is one of the hallmarks of civilisation. One can be rich and filthy or poor and clean. Cleanliness and tidiness are indications of the level of tidiness of a people. We must improve on our standard as one of the cleanest cities in Asia."

He took a personal interest in cleaning and greening the city state. He was the eyes and ears of the Public Works Department, the National Parks Division, the anti-mosquito unit, the Public Utilities Board.

He noticed when hawkers boarded up drains they had no business covering; when a street-seller rigged up power lines and put up an illicit fridge on a roundabout. He told the story of how an empty patch at Novena housed first a Chinese shrine, a makeshift tent days later, then a fence and eventually a hut. He disapproved, sent a note and got things rectified.

He hit the roof one day in late 1964 when he looked out of his City Hall office across the Padang and saw some cows grazing on the Esplanade. He called a meeting of senior officers, including permanent secretaries, and gave them a shellacking.

The riots that July, he said, had led to some disorder, but it was high time officials got their act together. "The city looks more slovenly. There is more litter, more dirt, more cows wandering around circuses, more stray dogs, more flies, more mosquitoes… People take advantage of a slackening of the administrative grip on the situation," he said.

Urging the officers to get things back to normal, he said: "It is necessary for people's morale. You know in the army, they polish their buttons, they polish their shoes, they paint the steps. It gives men that little astringent to keep them bucked up, and not get slovenly and soft."

But there were also prosaic reasons for the massive cleaning up. As he recounted in his memoirs in 2000, "one compelling reason to have a clean Singapore is our need to collect as much as possible of our rainfall of 95 inches a year". The waterways and drainage system had to be cleaned up so the rainwater run-offs can be collected.

The other reason was political: so people would feel good about their living environment and have a greater sense of belonging. He thought it would have been politically disastrous for an elected government to do as the British did, and keep nice green expatriate areas while leaving other public spaces to deteriorate.

Cleaning up was just the beginning. He was adamant about changing the social habits of an entire people so they would learn social graces, care for their surroundings, and not litter, spit, deface or destroy the spruced-up new look.

In a crowded, urban city, he believed that good habits like courtesy and queueing lubricated daily life.

He wanted Singaporeans to learn the habits of productive workers quickly: to be punctual, work hard, not slacken, and take ownership of their tasks.

In her 1971 book about the People's Action Party, Singapore: The Politics Of Survival, 1965-1967, former diplomat and political scientist Chan Heng Chee wrote: "The most striking feature of PAP thinking after Separation... is the party's unshaken belief that the survival of Singapore will depend on the willingness and ability of the Singapore citizen to adopt a new set of attitudes, a new set of values, and new set of perspectives: in short, on the creation of a new man."

Mr Lee and his government created a New Man - and Woman and Child - through mass campaigns, legislation where needed, carrots and sticks, and unrelenting nagging.

The Keep Singapore Clean campaign, which began as a drive to get civil servants to help clean up public areas in 1959, was rebranded as a national campaign in 1968 and continues today as the Clean and Green campaign.

One long-running campaign from 1970 to at least 1974 was against men keeping long hair, to dissuade people from adopting a decadent Western hippie lifestyle.

Government service counter staff were told to ignore long-haired citizens and serve them last. Long-haired postal workers faced the sack.

That campaign may strike today's observer as quaint at best or paternalistic at worst. But, in fact, the revulsion against hippies - a countercultural movement originating in the United States that came to be associated with free sex, the use of drugs, brightly coloured clothes and long hair - was not confined to Singapore.

A Time magazine article on July 7, 1967 described hippies in America as "dangerously deluded dropouts, candidates for a very sound spanking and a cram course in civics - if only they would return home to receive either".

Mr Lee favoured a different kind of ethos. He wanted Singaporeans to be rugged, disciplined, clean-living and hardworking. So the tirade against decadent hippies went on for years.

Meanwhile, the Use Your Hands campaign from 1976 got students, parents, teachers, principals and civil servants back to school on weekends to scrub classrooms, clean windows and weed gardens - to cultivate respect for the dignity of manual labour.

Many people, two tongues

LANGUAGE was another battlefront in the move to create a New Man. Singapore was a polyglot, with Chinese people who spoke Mandarin as well as Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka and other dialects. Indians could speak Tamil, Hindi, Malayalam or Punjabi. Malay was the official language and the lingua franca between races. English was the language of bureaucracy. Then there was the local patois, broken English, which would later be dubbed Singlish.

Mr Lee set out with one firm goal: to make English the common language in schools and in Singapore. This would link Singapore with the world and, as a neutral language among the races, ease communication and depoliticise language policy.

He also believed each community should retain its language, since language is the way culture and values are transmitted. Children learnt Mandarin, Tamil or Malay as a second language in school. The bilingual policy - English-medium instruction, with language lessons in one's mother tongue - remains today.

The biggest social engineering experiment of all was the long-running Speak Mandarin Campaign which began in 1979 and continues today. It started out as a way to get Chinese Singaporeans to drop dialects and switch to Mandarin.

His rationale was simple: "The brain is like the computer. It has so many megabytes and that's the maximum you can hold in your mind - words, phrases, grammatical rules. If we had not had the Mandarin campaign, today the teaching of Mandarin in schools would have failed and Singaporeans would be speaking adulterated Hokkien... Because we have seven or eight major dialects, it's not possible to keep them all."

The media was a major partner in the change. Channel 8, a Chinese-language television channel, banned dialect advertising in 1978 and phased out all dialect programming in 1981. Popular Cantonese Hong Kong drama serials were dubbed in Mandarin, and Singapore began making its own Mandarin drama serials and TV entertainment shows.

Changing a language environment is no mean feat. Those who made a living from dialect, like newscasters and storytellers, remained unhappy for years. An entire generation of elderly dialect speakers who were unable to pick up Mandarin was alienated.

Families were divided: When parents spoke to their children in Mandarin or English, the little ones could no longer understand the dialect-speaking grandparents.

There was much grumbling and yet the country did shift its speech habits. When the Speak Mandarin Campaign began in 1979, Mr Lee envisaged that in five years, Chinese students would forsake dialect for Mandarin and Mandarin would become the common language in coffee shops, hawker centres and shops.

He was not far wrong: A survey in 1989 showed that pupils from dialect-speaking homes dropped from 64.4 per cent in 1980 to 7.2 per cent. Hawkers who used Mandarin rose from 1.2 per cent in 1979 to 21.9 per cent.

Meddling with genes

THE 1980s saw Mr Lee moving into what some regarded as a more disturbing trend of social engineering as he tried to influence personal decisions on marriage and having babies.

The 1980 Census had shown that many better-educated women were not marrying early, and those who did marry were having fewer children than less educated ones.

The falling fertility rate among educated women was the direct result of the Government's all-too-successful birth control policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which made sterilisation and induced abortion widely available. Total fertility rate was 4.62 in 1965. By 1980, it was 1.74. In 2012, it was 1.29.

In 1983, Mr Lee said in his annual National Day Rally speech that "whilst we have brought down the birth rate, we have reduced it most unequally. The better-educated the woman is, the less children she has".

Launching what became known as the Great Marriage Debate, he said: "If we continue to reproduce ourselves in this lopsided way, we will be unable to maintain our present standards. Standards of competence will decline. For how can we avoid lowering performance when, for every two graduates... in 25 years' time, there will be one graduate, and for every two uneducated workers, there will be three?"

His views were translated into policy. Matchmaking services were started. The Social Development Unit began quietly in 1984 to organise activities for single graduates in the civil service, statutory boards and government-owned companies. It came to public attention only in March 1985 in response to a parliamentary question.

In 1984, the Graduate Mothers' Scheme gave children of graduate mothers priority admission to schools. Women who were better-educated - defined as those with at least five O-level passes - could also get generous tax benefits if they had children, with tax breaks of 5, 10 and 15 per cent of earned income respectively for the first, second and third child.

All these policies were to encourage better-educated married women to have more children.

Other women, however, were paid to Stop At Two or even at one. Women below 30 who agreed to sterilisation after the first or second child could get a cash grant of $10,000 - provided both the parents did not have any O-level passes, and earned less than $1,500 a month together. If she went on to have another child, she would have to repay the $10,000 cash grant with 10 per cent compound interest a year.

The policies sprang from Mr Lee's belief that intelligence is an inheritable trait.

Then Foreign Minister S. Dhanabalan recalls that a few Cabinet ministers, including himself, had non-graduate wives and were "not enthusiastic" about Mr Lee's belief in the causal link from graduate mothers to bright children - although he concedes that the probability is high.

"He was quite fixated. He felt very strongly that if you want society as a whole to progress, you must allow the best and the brightest to play a leading role," he said.

Retired newspaper editor Cheong Yip Seng said that Mr Lee, with his loyalty to logic over emotion, could not countenance the public uproar that greeted the policy.

"The angriest were the graduate women themselves. He could not understand it," recalled Mr Cheong, who was editor-in-chief of Singapore Press Holdings' English and Malay Newspapers Division.

The scheme to give children of graduate mothers priority in school admission was reversed in 1985. Some of the measures to discourage less-educated women from having babies were gradually rolled back as well.

But Mr Lee never wavered in his eugenistic beliefs. Even in the twilight of his life, he told journalists as recounted in the book Hard Truths published in 2011: "When the graduate man does not want to marry a graduate woman, I tell him, he's a fool, stupid. You marry a non-graduate, you're going to have problems, some children bright, some not bright. You'll be tearing your hair out."

He believed that just as selective breeding produced prize-winning offspring traits in hunting dogs and cattle, so pairing a very smart man with a very smart woman significantly raised the odds of breeding very smart children.

"Not that all the children of gardeners or labourers are duds. Occasionally, two grey horses produce a white horse, but very few. If you have two white horses, the chances are you breed white horses.

"It's seldom spoken publicly because those who are not white horses say, 'You're degrading me.' But it's a fact of life. You get a good mare, you don't want a dud stallion to breed with your good mare. You get a poor foal."

His eugenics and procreation policies cast a long shadow on policies in Singapore.

"You see the elitism in us today. The way parents push their kids to the top schools. The way we look down on the plumber, the electrician," said former Nominated MP and civil society activist Braema Mathi. "That has created real divisions."

Critics may see Mr Lee's efforts at social engineering as instruments of control, believing his policies were meant to impose order and produce obedient citizens to be led by a small leadership bred from an intellectual elite.

But there is another less sinister way to interpret those attempts: He simply wanted to improve Singapore by changing the social habits of its people.

He was someone who saw human nature as mutable and capable of improvement.

He might have believed in genes as destiny - but destiny to him was not immutable. He saw culture as a determining factor explaining why some societies declined and others thrived.

As he said in the 1998 book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas: "Genes cannot be created, right? Unless you start tinkering with it, as they may be able to do one day. But the culture you can tinker with. It's slow to change, but it can be changed - by experience - otherwise human beings will not survive. If a certain habit does not help survival, well, you must quickly unlearn that habit."

He believed that the descendants of coolies and peasants who made up Singapore could unlearn bad habits, and could be cajoled, trained and nagged into higher levels of achievement than might have been expected from those of such mundane stock.

As he put it in his memoir From Third World To First, published in 2000 when he was 77: "We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts to persuade our people to change their ways.

"We did not measure up as a cultivated, civilised society and were not ashamed to set about trying to become one in the shortest time possible. First we educated and exhorted our people. After we had persuaded and won over a majority, we legislated to punish the wilful minority.

"It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live in. If this is a 'nanny state', I am proud to have fostered one."

muihoong@sph.com.sg

rchang@sph.com.sg