TODAY is not only Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday. Today marks also the 50th anniversary of the formation of Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963. On that day, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore merged with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia.
Mr Lee turned 40 that day, as he proclaimed on the steps of the City Hall: "Singapore (as from today, the 16th day of September, 1963) shall be forever a part of the sovereign democratic and independent State of Malaysia."
It is very difficult to see this straight, but what this means is that today marks also the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence - from British colonial rule. Aug 9, 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore's independence - from Malaysia.
We celebrated Sept 16 as our national day on only two occasions - in 1963, when Malaysia was formed, and in 1964. By 1965 this independence day was superseded by another, Aug 9 - which of course comes before Sept 16, and always has.
It is within this fortuitous triangle formed by Mr Lee's birthday, the 50th anniversary of Malaysia's founding and Aug 9 that I will try to locate what I think is the signal quality of Mr Lee and his generation of leaders. I won't talk about Mr Lee's "Big Ideas" as such, as the title of this conference rather portentously puts it, but of a "Big Idea" behind the "Big Ideas" - or more accurately, the "big" sentiment, spirit, emotion, passion that runs through, like a bass line, Mr Lee's public life - and in the absence of which those big ideas would have accounted for nothing.
Those ideas were important, of course. Singapore did undoubtedly essay a number of unique ideas in development: from the early decision to welcome MNCs while the rest of the developing world kept them at arm's length to establishing a unique system of tripartism that built on the German and Japanese models; from CPF to HDB; from GIC to NParks; from the Presidential Council for Minority Rights to the system of Group Representation Constituencies (or GRCs) - the list is very long.
The image that occurs to one as we recall what went into creating this country is not that of the nanny or the housekeeper, let alone the East Asian autocrat of caricature. A more apt image might be that of the constant gardener whose careful husbandry - of resources, talent and values - was directed persistently at fitting everything to a whole.
And the statecraft involved here was more than a question of technique. Nation-building is quite different from assembling a Meccano set. The gardener cannot be distinguished from the garden. Statecraft, especially at the founding of nations, is indistinguishable from soul-craft.
One can, theoretically, produce a compendious bible on development based on Singapore's experience: How to plan industrial parks? How to house 80 per cent of your population in public housing? How to have people save for their own retirement? How to organise a formidable military force? How to plan a city, and make it liveable and green? How to combat corruption, maintain law and order, enforce the sanctity of contracts? And so on and so forth.
But would it be possible to build another Singapore elsewhere simply by applying all the "ideas", big and small, that might be contained in such a book? Would Singapore itself have become the Singapore of today if say the civil service of that time had possessed this book in 1965, but without the gardener? What was special about these gardeners - for there were more than one of them, and Mr Lee was the remarkable leader of an extraordinary team? What defines the soul that fashioned this unique state?
I think the answer can be found in the fortuitous triangle that I mentioned earlier formed by Mr Lee, Sept 16 and Aug 9.
"History," writes Churchill somewhere, "with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days."
It is very difficult to do this but we owe it on this occasion to at least try.
Most of us here have grown up with the same government almost all of our lives. We might be excused if we thought the PAP was always dominant, that Mr Lee was born fully grown and armed, as Athena was from the head of Zeus. But that is not how it happened. It took years for the PAP to establish its dominance; years for the legitimacy of the state to be confirmed as more than a legal entity.
In 1959, the PAP won the elections and formed the Government of self-governing Singapore with the support of the Communist Party of Malaya. There is no doubt whatsoever that the mass base then was with the detainees led by Lim Chin Siong. When the inevitable split between the pro-communist and the non-communist left came in 1961, the PAP was left with almost nothing: The party lost almost all its branches, and all but a rump of the unions went over to the other side.
It almost lost power altogether and hung on to it by just one seat in Parliament - or the Legislative Assembly as it was called then.
The turn really came in 1965 - July 10, 1965, to be precise. That was the day when the moral-political legitimacy of the nascent state was established. That was the day when the result of a by-election in Hong Lim, right at the centre of Chinatown, became known.
The PAP had lost the constituency twice in a row before: First, in a 1961 by-election, which Ong Eng Guan, the former mayor and minister of national development, had forced. Ong received 7,747 votes to the PAP's Jek Yuen Tong's 2,820. Second was in the 1963 GE, when Ong received about 5,000 votes and the Barisan Sosialis candidate about 2,300 - and together they got 64 per cent of the vote. The PAP candidate, Seah Mui Kok, a trade unionist, received a miserable 33 per cent of the votes.
But barely two years later, in July 1965, just a little less than a month before Separation, in a straight fight between the PAP's K.C. Lee and the Barisan's Ong Chang Sam, the PAP won with 60 per cent of the votes. How come?
Because the people understood what was at stake. Relations between the Singapore leadership and the federal government in Kuala Lumpur had broken down. There had been racial riots in Singapore in 1964, and Singapore's leaders - in particular, S. Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye - had organised a Malaysian Solidarity Convention, and had embarked on a campaign for a Malaysian Malaysia throughout the Federation.
The PAP had lost badly in the 1964 Malaysian GE, winning only one of the nine seats it contested in Peninsular Malaysia, but it seemed on the way to establishing itself as a power beyond Singapore.
Ong Eng Guan's sudden resignation from the Legislative Assembly in June 1965, Singapore's leaders at that time believed, had probably been engineered by Kuala Lumpur to test the PAP's strength. It had lost twice before in the same constituency. If it lost again, its hold on Singapore would have been doubted and the legitimacy of its Malaysian Malaysia campaign severely damaged. If the PAP had lost in Hong Lim again, that would have been used as a pretext to crush the party and forcibly change the leadership in Singapore.
Various Umno leaders had already openly called for Mr Lee's arrest. Even the Chinese compradors in the MCA had called for his arrest, with one of them urging the Tunku to "put Lee Kuan Yew away to sober him up".
Word of all this had reached British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, who records in his memoirs that he told the Tunku that if his government ordered the arrest and detention of Lee, he (the Tunku) need not attend the next Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.
Wilson writes in his memoirs: If Lee were imprisoned "there would be an accident one morning and it would be written off as suicide... Easiest thing in the world to organise".
Singapore's leaders made contingency plans. Mr Lee himself would accept arrest - as the leader of the movement, he had little choice. But others in the leadership would escape elsewhere: to Cambodia, where a Singapore government-in-exile would be established, and to London and elsewhere in the world, from where they would continue the fight.
John Drysdale reports in his book Singapore: Struggle For Success that "Dr Toh had found a 'jungle green' uniform and was preparing for the day when, rather than be arrested, he would take to the jungle as a guerilla fighter".
Fortunately, Dr Toh was saved from that fate by the PAP's victory in Hong Lim on July 10. People at the heart of Chinatown had seen Singapore's leaders, in particular Mr Lee, fight back ferociously, refusing to be cowed. Their decision to stand by Mr Lee's leadership sealed our fate. The Tunku and his senior ministers decided 10 days later that Singapore had to go. Thus Aug 9.
Ultimately, people follow leaders with fire in their bellies (to use a very old-fashioned expression). It wasn't ideas - big or small - that established the legitimacy of the state in the crucible of its founding. What established that legitimacy in the eyes of the people was the conviction that this government was on their side.
On May 27, 1965, Mr Lee addressed the Malaysian Parliament for the last time when he moved an amendment to the motion to thank the King for his Opening Address. Everyone from Singapore who was present in the Chamber that day described the event in almost identical words: You could hear a pin drop. When Mr Lee switched to Malay, you could see Umno backbenchers sit up and listen, as the front bench sank ever deeper into their seats.
A colleague of mine at PMO's Comms Group chanced upon a recording of an excerpt of this speech in the National Archives. I shall play a brief clip of it now:
There you have it: Mr Lee's and his generation's finest hour. What is that singular big idea - the big passion, emotion - behind the big ideas? Simply put: Guts, courage.
Before you can have ideas for a state, there must be a prior set of decisions: This is who we are. This is what we believe. Here is where we will make a stand.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 21, 2013
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