Lee Kuan Yew died at the age of 91 on 23 March. World leaders from Obama in the US to Najib in Malaysia and most of the pro-market media applaud him as a ‘great leader’ who has elevated Singapore to a modern state on a par with the most developed countries. They admire him basically for his three decades (1959-1990) of having absolute power that he used to assist local and international capitalists to reap economic profits. But this was achieved by widespread human rights abuse as well as an anti-working class and anti-socialist agenda.
Currently, Singapore, like other developed countries, is experiencing class polarisation with widening income inequality and rising living costs. Singapore’s economy which is export oriented is highly dependent on the health of the global economy. Its economic vulnerability was once again revealed last week when the Singapore dollar performed the worst since the 1998 Asian financial crisis. GDP growth its weakening primarily because of the slowdown in China. These are some of the symptoms caused by the vicious neo-liberal capitalism that became the foundation for the government led by Lee Kuan Yew and his party - the People’s Action Party (PAP).
Although considered modern and developed, Singapore is among the countries with records of the worst human-rights violations. Lee always identified with autocratic rule, and had some common characters with regional leaders such as Suharto in Indonesia or Mahathir in Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew with one-party domination had always manipulated autocratic power to crack down against government critics and dissidents. Lee jailed many without trial, never allowed an independent media, and suppressed freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Opposition leaders who were outspoken against the government were bankrupted by contesting in courts controlled by the government. Nepotism and cronyism are also evident in the Singapore regime. In addition to his son, Lee Hsieng Loong being the current Prime Minister of Singapore, his other children and immediate family members occupy important government or business positions in the country.
Trade unions and left destroyed
At the beginning of his political career, Lee Kuan Yew, who studied at the LSE (London School of Economics) used the left and the trade unions as a platform to increase his popularity. Chin Peng, the leader of the CPM (Communist Party of Malaya), in his autobiography ‘My Side of History’, said about Lee’s astounding electoral victory in May, 1959: “I can certainly say that most of the island’s workers sympathised with the left-wing trade unions, and members of these unions well appreciated they were under the control of the CPM. Our supporters, sympathisers and fellow travellers went on to provide Lee’s grassroots electoral support. Without them he would never have achieved his stunning 43-seat victory in the 51 constituencies up for decision at the May 30 polls”.
The CPM, which had been trapped in Maoist and Stalinist opportunist ideas, used the idea of a popular front (association with liberal or progressive capitalist organisations or individuals) and the ‘two stages’ theory – a struggle for democratic rights first, and after accomplishing this, then struggle for the socialist transformation - to manoeuvre in Singaporean politics. Finally, their mistaken approach was utilised by Lee Kuan Yew to take power and promote the agenda of capitalism in Singapore.
In 1963, confident in the consolidation of his power base, Lee prompted the attack on the CPM by launching ‘Operation Cold Store’ which saw a combined force of local and Malayan police conducting an island-wide round-up of alleged communist activists. When the left-wing Singapore Association of Trade Unions (SATU) led a general strike against the government, the pro-communist trade union organisation was banned and many of its leaders were arrested. ‘Operation Cold Store’ crushed the CPM underground network throughout the island.
Those events demonstrate that the incorrect political direction and methods of the CPM, in not taking an independent working class road, had been capitalised on by the reactionary leaders such as Lee Kuan Yew and by the PAP to wage a vicious attack on working class, left activists and trade unionists.
After ‘Operation Cold Store’, the labour movement in Singapore was massively incorporated under the state’s control to fulfil the needs of the ruling class. The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) was founded in 1961 to oppose SATU. Since 1980, the main NTUC leader has always been offered a minister-without-portfolio in a PAP cabinet to keep them under the control of government.
At present, the NTUC is no more than a ‘puppet’ of the state and the steadily declining union memberships since the late 1970s illustrates its complete ineffectiveness and its bias against workers. Also, cheap migrant workers from Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines and other countries, make up more than 30% of the total workforce and face a variety of discrimination.
Lee Kuan Yew described himself as a socialist in the 1950s and proclaimed that the victory of the revolution in China was a great achievement for the country and its people. He said at that time, “I have always thought that a Socialist is one who believes that state planning and control would bring about the greatest benefit to the community as a whole”. But the man who led Singapore for decades used state control and planning for opposite ends instead of benefiting the workers and boosting their democratic rights - to heighten the capitalists’ profits by suppressing workers’ rights. As prime minister he opportunistically emulated the approach of the bureaucrats in China (under Mao and then Deng) in suppressing the workers’ democracy and trade unions to heighten state capitalism in Singapore. He established a strong paternalistic state to accumulate capital and to achieve unnaturally rapid economic development.
In the early 1960s, the Ministry of Finance took stakes in a variety of local companies in sectors like manufacturing and shipbuilding. Then in 1974 the state established Temasek Holdings to incorporate and manage these stakes and companies. Temasek has stakes in more than 60 local and foreign companies. In Singapore the companies range from the largest, such as SingTel, Singapore Airlines and Singapore Power, through public icons like the Raffles Hotel and the Singapore Zoological Gardens to the betting company, Singapore Pools.
Although Singapore’s strategic location has given the country an economic importance in Southeast Asia, lack of physical resources and a small domestic market were used by the Government to adopt a pro-business, pro-foreign investment, export-oriented economic policy combined with state-directed investments. It makes the economy extremely vulnerable to regional and global financial changes. This means that Singapore cannot survive by itself, and the capitalist agenda pioneered by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore has lead to crises and conflicts when there are regional or global crises. It has also meant a variety of social problems such as the tremendous difficulty in owning a house, especially for the young generation, and a worsening wealth polarisation between the rich and poor.
An increase in seats won by the opposition parties in the last election marked the dwindling of public confidence in the PAP government and the foundations of the state built by Lee Kuan Yew, considered more favourable to the millionaires and capitalists. The undemocratic approach of the PAP and the social conditions that oppress the masses have been used by the opposition parties to gain support in the elections.
But, without the construction of a government that champions the needs and welfare of the common people of Singapore, their social and economic problems cannot be solved. A mass party based on a socialist programme must be established to fulfil the needs and rights of the common people of Singapore as a real alternative to the capitalist model of government established by Lee Kuan Yew and his party, the PAP.