A new documentary by Al Jazeera English examines the life and legend of Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew.
The almost 25-minute-long report, The House that Lee Built – People and Power highlights the great achievements Singapore has made, largely due to Lee Kuan Yew, one of the founders of the People’s Action Party (PAP), tracing his life and his various legacies from his early years through to his death in March 2015 at the age of 91.
The documentary looks at the astronomical growth the city-state achieved as a result of Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership, which saw Singapore transform from a developing Southeast Asia country to one of the most developed countries in the world, in less than one generation.
However, the prosperity that Singaporeans enjoy today did not come without cost. The Lee Kuan Yew regime was often criticised for limiting the freedom of speech and suppressing political opposition.
Today Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy is under the microscope as Singaporeans seek greater democracy, while a bitter and public family feud, along with a lack of clear succession for when his son, current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong steps down “soon after the next general election” scheduled for January 2021, is beginning to cause a ripple through a society where regulation and procedure is de rigueur.
You Need Fear, to Get Things Done
The House that Lee Built examines the various legacies that being the nation’s prime minister for 31 years has left, not the least of which is a growing feeling that the Lee family and the PAP have come to regard the seat of power as their right.
Among those interviewed include Tan Cheng Bock, a former presidential candidate, who pays a back-handed compliment to the former pm, saying “Lee Kuan Yew once said you need fear, to get things done”.
According to historian Them Ping Thin, “the PAP does not have the confidence that it can actually win a free and fair election”
Also interviewed is Lee Kuan Yew’s grandson, Lee Shengwu, who speaks about the family spat over the future of Lee Kuan Yew’s family home.
Lee Kuan Yew had repeatedly said he wanted it demolished after his death. Lee Hsien Loong, his siblings say, is doing every thing that he can to preserve the residence, and has abused his executive power with the aim to “milk Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy for their own political purpose” in order to promote the political career of his son, Li Hongyi.
Leaving Lee Kuan Yew’s Legacy Behind
For Singapore, really quite scandalous stuff, and a rare glimpse into the private life of the man whose $1.66 million salary this year is more than the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
“I worry that in the years to come the government won’t have the courage to step away from relying on his [Lee Kuan Yew] legacy” says Lee Shengwu, an economist at Harvard University in Massachusetts, USA.
Also falling under the spotlight in The House that Lee Built is the restrictive personal freedoms that Singaporeans are subject to compared with countries of equal levels of development, resulting in being ranked a lowly 151 out of 180 countries for press freedom by Reporters Without Borders, and being classified as a flawed democracy by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).
According to opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, the “Singapore system is still very autocratic, people are still very fearful”, referring to the past when 21 Singaporean activists were arrested, with some being detained without trail for many years, accused of being part of a Marxist plot to overthrow the government.
The House that Lee Built provides a rare glimpse into the Singapore political system and the powers at play. Not unsurprisingly, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declined to be interviewed for the documentary, as too did the opposition Workers Party (WP).
As for the city-state’s founding fathers’ grandson, living in self-imposed exile, he says he believes the country “would be better off if there was a robust presence of the opposition in parliament”.
Feature video Al Jazeera English
- Singapore: The House That Lee Built (Al Jazeera)
- I don’t know what will cause Lee Kuan Yew more grief – what happened to our family or the state of the Singapore institution: Li Shengwu (The Independent Singapore)
- PAP And Singapore’s Contracting Political Space (AEC News Today)
- 2017: A year of missteps and mismanagement for Lee Hsien Loong (AEC News Today)