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Li Guangyao's Legacy and the Future of Singapore

Viewed 2136 times 2015-4-1 05:14 |System category:News| University, Legacy, father


Li Guangyao, the founding father of the Republic of Singapore, passed away at the age of 91.   His passing represents the passing of an era in Singapore as well as of the world.  With or without Li Guangyao, Singapore will never be the same again for many reasons.

Singapore became Singapore mostly because of the social climate of the cold war and the strategic location of Singapore.    With the rise of Communist China at the end of WWII, and the gradual retreat of British colonialism in Asia, both U.S.  and Britain needed a native agent to balance the pro-Chinese forces among the overseas Chinese population in Southeast Asian nations.   Li Guangyao, who were educated first in the colonial school set up by the British Colonial Authorities in Singapore and then in England, rose to become the best choice for the Western interests in the region,

Li Guangyao did a wonderful job for his western mentors.   Like Jiang Jieshi he worked with Singapore Communist party for Singapore’s independence, but once in power, he killed and jailed all his former communist allies.  When I was studying in Singapore in 1988, the former communist leader who was jailed as a young man was still in jail, refusing to renounce his faith in communism in his old age.   While I was in Singapore, I also met a widow of a former communist party member who was killed by Li Guangyao Government at an early age.    She had three young children at the time, two boys and one girl when her husband died.    She and her three young children were able to survive because Bank of China Singapore Branch gave her a loan at the most difficult time of her life.   Because of that loan, she and her children felt close to Chinese people from China.   She and her children invited us Chinese students to their home and took us out for dinner, and gave us many gifts.   It is a testimony to the old saying that all the love and hatred in this world have a reason behind them.

But unlike Jiang Jieshi, he was almost alien to Chinese Culture.   Like many people who grew up under British colonialism, Li Guangyao had some kind of inferiority syndrome, which he tried to overcome by looking down upon anything Chinese and behaved as British as he could.   He trashed Chinese language, and promoted English as the official language in Singapore even though 76 percent of the residents in Singapore were Chinese and spoke Chinese at home when Li Guangyao came to power.    The Chinese people who did not speak English were discriminated by the government’s employment policy and pay scale favoring the English speaking population.   The Chinese people who graduated from Chinese school, and who spoke Chinese only could not find jobs or had to accept lower pay.  The discrimination against Chinese people introduced by the British colonialists was upheld by Li Guangyao after the British colonialists left.  When I was studying in Singapore, I heard many complaints by the Chinese there who could speak mostly Chinese then.

Li Guangyao, born to Chinese parents, was one of the most anti-Chinese and anti-communist politicians in the region.   He denounced China whenever he could.   He played a crucial role in the anti-China and anti-Communist Association of Southeast Asian Nations setup in 1967 in support of American War effort in Vietnam, and American cold war in Asia.   He tried to close the Bank of China several times.   He failed on that endeavor only because of the massive support by Singaporean Chinese who lined up to deposit money in the Bank of China for days on end each time Singapore Government announced its decision to close the bank.    He closed the Nanyang University because Chinese language was the media there.    Under Li guangyao, Singapore was the last nation in the region to recognize China in 1990.  When I was studying in Singapore in 1988, there had been no diplomatic relationship between China and Singapore yet.   Carrying a copy of People Daily would be a sure cause for arrest in Singapore.   The Singapore public was generally anti-China and anti-Chinese at the time.    One time on the bus, an old man asked me if I was from China.   When I confirmed that I was from China, he began to lecture me.   He said in mixed Chinese and English that he hated Chinese people calling him “tongbao.”  “Even though we had the same skin color with the Chinese,” he said.   “But our mentality is completely different.”     To this uninvited provocation, I responded without any restraint.    I told him that it was too bad that his parents did not give him some different skin color.   Whether he liked it or not, in the eyes of the whole world, he was still Chinese despite of his different mentality.”

Because Li Guangyao and his Singapore have done a good job for the U.S. and the West, Li Guangyao and Singapore got tremendous support from the U.S. and the West.    They sold Singapore the most advanced military gadgets and guaranteed the national security and survival of Singapore.    The U.S. and many western nations invested in Singapore.    The U.S. placed its biggest overseas carrier base in Singapore, which enabled the U.S. to control the most important strait in the world: the Strait of Malacca: through which most Chinese, Indian, Japan, Korea and Indonesia overseas trade pass.   Li Guangyao calculated well that he would be able to get the most if Singapore allied with the U.S. the most powerful superpower in the world.

Under Li Guangyao, Singapore is mostly a family empire, despite all its democratic disguise.   He behaved mostly like a king, rather than a modern head of government or state.   On that account, he behaved more or less like Jiang Jieshi.   He overestimated his role for Singapore.   He thought that he was responsible for Singapore’s success, and demanded obedience from the residents.    He tried very hard to suppress any dissent in Singapore, and because he controlled most of the resources in Singapore, it was almost impossible for the opposition party to challenge him and his party.    He appointed his son Li Xianlong to be a brigade general, even though he had no military experience.     When Li Guangyao retired, he made arrangement that Li Xianlong, his son, would take over after two terms of Wu Zuodong.   

Even after retirement from the prime minister position, Li Guangyao continued to control Singapore’s government behind the scene as the senior minister of the Government.   Singapore Government requires its citizens to put away 25 percent of its salary into a retirement fund, and the employers are also required to contribute 25 percent of employees’ salary into the retirement fund.   This is a mandatary policy, and the citizens can only use the money to pay for their children’s tuition overseas, or purchase an apartment from the government.   Li Guangyao personally controlled the money.   In 1989, when I was studying in Singapore’s National University, I heard Li Guangyao was giving a speech.   At the end of the speech, somebody in the audience asked him why he needed to control the national retirement fund himself.   He answered that he wanted to manage the money because he thought that he was the wisest person to manage the money.    Someone in the audience, if he worried that no individual could manage the money wisely enough, he could set up a committee to manage the fund.   Li Guangyao answered that no committee could manage the fund better than himself.   He would be better than any committee.    In my eyes, he was simply being arbitrary.  

The western media always describe China as a dictatorship or police state.   But after living in Singapore, I realized how misguided the Western media was about dictatorships and police state.   When I first landed in Singapore, I was shocked to see that the whole airport was lined up with armed police.   Every a couple meters, there was a policeman with a machine gun.   When I left Beijing airport, I did not see any police armed with machine guns there.   As soon as we arrived we were given a list about twenty items that we could not do in Singapore.   Among them was that as guests of Singapore, we could not discuss the politics of Singapore.   Do not think that they could not find out, they will find out.    To have a gathering of more than seven people, one had to ask for permission from the government.   A person who organized a gathering of more than seven people without a government permit could lose his government built apartment.

Because there was no diplomatic recognition between China and Singapore at the time, we could only get a one week visa to go to Singapore.   Our school supposed to change our visa once we arrived.   But the school overlooked the matter.   Several of our classmates were arrested by the police when they went to take some money out of the bank.   The bank officials demanded to see their passports, and noticed their visa expired and reported to the police.   Our classmates did not realize what was happening when police arrived.   They were treated like criminals, handcuffed and thrown into prison.   It was quite an experience for our Chinese classmates who never had deal t with police like that all their lives.   They were bailed out eventually by the university authorities.

Singapore had compulsory military service requirement.    Every young person is required by law to serve in the military.   Of course, many other countries have similar laws.   I had a friend from Singapore who could not go back to Singapore to see his family anymore because he missed his military service when he came to study in the U.S.    Whenever he wanted to see his family, he had to fly to Thailand or Malaysia to meet his family there even though he was over sixty years of age now.

As Li Guangyao passed away, Singapore government would not be able to control the people like Li Guangyao did much longer.    Not only Li Xianlong did not have the skill and authority his father had, also because the social climate of the world is changing.   More and more young people would demand more freedom in their lives, and there would be more room for the opposition party to play a role in politics.   Li Xianlong and the People’s Action Party would be forced by the social climate to relax its control.    As China rises up in Asia, American would be forced to retreat.    It would be hard for Singapore to play off China and the U.S. when Li Guangyao was alive.   As Singapore’s population ages, more and more foreigners would be introduced into Singapore, and they would be playing a more and more role in Singapore’s politics.  

More importantly, as China seeks alternative trade route through Clark Canal in Thailand, and ports in Seri lank and Pakistan, the strategic importance of Singapore as a port and financial center for Asia would decline.   Singapore did not have much resources of its own.   It has been able to make a good living by serving as the middle man for the surround countries and China.   If the current trend in the world continues, the good life Singaporeans enjoyed as the result of the cold war will gradually come to an end.

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Professor of Warren Wilson College in the US.


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