3/29/2015
Under the shadow of Mr. Lee

Judging from the news coverage early on Monday morning, you would think that Lee Kuan Yew made quite an impact on the world. He has, to an extent. In reality, though, it's not that evident to anyone who lives outside of Singapore.

If you do go to Singapore, you wouldn't even notice much of it. Sure, on the surface, you'll see a city-state that works. You'll get your baggage quickly. You'll ride a cab passing smoothly through expressways and avenues. You'll take a comfortable train system. Sure, there'll be stories of how a lot of things are not allowed, how a lot of things are fined and how a lot of things have strict limits, but there'll also be stories of how great it is to live there, how easy it is to do things, how you have everything within reach.

The Singapore you see - progressive, efficient; it just works - is all attributed to Lee Kuan Yew, the country's first prime minister. He led the country from 1959, when the then British colony gained autonomy. He pushed for a merger with Malaysia, seeing it as a way to finally end British rule. He got what he wanted in 1963, but a tense relationship between his government and the central government in Kuala Lumpur - mostly revolving around the latter's worries of increasing political involvement from the Chinese in the former - culminated in Singapore being expelled from the union in 1965.

Suddenly, Singapore, an island of merely 700 square kilometers, is independent. Lee is the prime minister of an independent country. It was now up to him to lead a country - a country that wasn't quite prepared to go at it alone, with little to no natural resources and an entangled reliance on the country that just kicked it out - through the fraught political situation in South East Asia in the 1960s.

Fifty years later - twenty-five with him as prime minister, and the next twenty-one as Senior Minister and Minister Mentor - Singapore has risen to one of the world's leading economic powers, a center for finance and trade, an emerging creative pillar the region, and, well, a quirky creature. It's a country where you feel free to do whatever you want, but underneath it all, things are not as free as it seems. The interests of the country, as determined by the state, is prioritized over the individual's; in the country's early years, political opponents were suppressed (through libel cases that bankrupted them) and media output was controlled.

Singaporeans, recognized as the country's only resources, were heavily invested in, with policies promoting improvement of their way of life - socialized housing, an efficient transport system - accompanied by a rigorous education system. You could argue Lee went too far in this matter, though, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Stop at Two campaign encouraged families to limit themselves to two children, to not be a burden to the country's limited resources. Such population policies sank the birth rate to such a low that his successors had to offer incentives to citizens to have babies.

The government also successfully latched on to rising industries at the time, from oil refining to electronics, keeping the country competitive. This was also helped by a successful fight against corruption, putting the pay of public servants at par with the private sector's. Now, Singapore is widely seen as a good place to do business in, with efficient processes and a competitive environment making it a favorable location. So, yes, you go there - and I say this as an outsider - and you feel like you can do anything. And you don't even get a lot of reminders of who's responsible for such progress. You'll be hard pressed to see a politician's name, more so Lee's name, in billboards and public structures and the like. Perhaps the only time would be today, during the funeral procession, the final farewell to Singapore's founding father.

Wouldn't it be brilliant if things were like this back home?

I couldn't find a video online, but I remember seeing a campaign ad back in 2004. "Kailangan ng kamay na bakal para umunlad ang Pilipinas," it went, before showing the faces of Thaksin Shinawatra, then prime minister of Thailand, and Lee Kuan Yew - two countries that rose from the depths and become strong economic powers. The final face was that of a presidential candidate: Ping Lacson's.

Lacson, of course, had a no-nonsense image. As a former chief of the Philippine National Police, he was known for clamping down on corrupt policemen and crime. As a senator, he was known for his frank views on political issues. However, he was also dogged with allegations of impropriety, notably his hand in the killing of members of the Kuratong Baleleng crime group in 1995, and the abduction and murder of PR executive Salvador Dacer. Up to now, his reputation lies between two extremes: that of a politician who has the country's interests at heart, and of a ruthless individual who would take any step to accomplish his goals.

The Philippines has a general apprehension towards the concept of an "iron fist" leading it. There is, of course, Ferdinand Marcos, a man whose legacy also lies between two extremes. He is a man who brought the Philippines to the future, whose projects shaped the country into what it is today. He is also a man who enriched himself considerably, and stepped on civil liberties to legitimize efforts towards that goal. That first experience seems to have scarred the country deeply, and since then, the concept of upholding democracy has been bandied about by our leader, to varying degrees of success.

We arguably live in a free country. Unlike Singapore, we have a free press, and save for extrarodinary instances, political protests have been allowed. Despite this obvious commitment to democracy, however, the Philippines remains a clusterfuck of the what was and the what could've been. Public services are barely functioning. Public servants are more intent on serving themselves. Almost thirty years after democracy was regained during the first EDSA revolution in 1986, there's a sense that we have let ourselves down, that we have squandered an opportunity for lasting, wide-spreading, and positive change for the country. This is accompanied by a yearning for that one leader who can truly lead the way and put us in our rightful spot in the world. This sentiment resurfaced on Monday morning, when the news of Lee Kuan Yew's passing filtered down our timelines and television sets.

The Prime Minister is deeply grieved to announce the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding Prime Minister of Singapore. Mr. Lee passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital today at 3:18 am. He was 91.

Back on top of our heads, everything that Lee has done for Singapore. Sure, he did not do it single-handedly, but as the country's leader, he was the public face of the upheaval the city-state saw, from its forced independence in 1965, to where it is today, almost fifty years later. Anyone who's been to Singapore will say that, yes, Singapore is a successful country, and the Philippines should be like it, too.

But the way Singapore got to this point is partially at odds with the values we embrace, or supposedly embrace. We value democracy. We value the freedoms we regained at EDSA. We value the right to speak out, the right to contribute to the democratic process - but this has led, in most instances, to too many people stalling any change that would disrupt the norm, general or specific. Just look at the many voices piling on top of each other, for or against the continuation of the peace process in Mindanao after the tragedy at Mamasapano in January. Many questions remain raised, and while some breakthroughs have been made, there has been little to no movement. Revelations lead to denials, and denials lead to rebuttals.

At the same time, the virtue of deference to authority, of trusting your leaders to do the right thing, does not quite come naturally to us either. I don't know if it's down to recent political mistrust, or the result of our heritage and colonial history, but the Philippines has prized the individual over the group. While familial ties are strong, the ability to make it on your own is rewarded. If what's dictated from up top does not appeal, one's own way is the logical next step. Singapore developed the way it did due to the singular vision of Lee Kuan Yew. His citizens understood the stakes and accepted this vision. This would not happen in the Philippines, not after how Marcos did it when he had a chance.

Still, we do recognize that we need a leader who will put the country's interests ahead of his own. We do recognize that we need a leader with a vision. We do recognize - and we have heard this many times before, especially in the last few years - that we need a leader with political will.

There's a never-ending argument on whether we've had leaders that possess such qualities. Marcos had the vision but put his interests ahead of everything else. Cory Aquino put the country first, but did not quite know what to do. The resulting hesitation has bled towards her successors: Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo, and her son Noynoy, who was elected president with the promise that he will stamp out corruption and change the culture of a cynical country towards the optimistic - but has proven largely ineffectual at it.

There's also a never-ending argument on who could've been the best leader for the country, if those who actually took the position turned out to be paralyzed by the realities they faced. Was Raul Roco the leader we didn't know we needed? Jesse Robredo? Fernando Poe Jr.? Ninoy Aquino?

We all do agree that, yes, we need such a leader. And we all do agree, somehow, that yes, it can be done. Preferably in our lifetime, yes, but perhaps more so for our children and their children. If Singapore did it, why can't we?

Until we answer that question, we will all continue to live under the shadow of Mr. Lee.

And your responses...

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