“I did some sharp and hard things to get things right…”

Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Goh Chok Tong have agreed to accept Dr Chee Soon Juan’s offer of S$30,000 to settle the debt owed to them. I applaud Mr Lee and Mr Goh for their acceptance of the offer. I think many people also do appreciate that they are foregoing the larger amount of S$500,000.

Many too hope that this will bring to an end the defamation suits lodged against opposition politicians. There have been many of these throughout the years and each time one was lodged, I remember being utterly saddened. So, lets hope this will truly bring an end to such things.

Mr Lee has just turned 89-years old. And history will remember him as a controversial figure who did what he thought was right, one who also ruled with an iron hand and who never bowed to those who would obstruct him or his ideas. By all account, he was one who believed in what he did and sought to implement his ideas as he saw fit.

And in these, there are occasions when his actions have been questioned.

One such occasion is 1987’s “Marxist conspiracy”. Mr Lee never said much after that period but in 2010 he said the following to the New York Times:

“I’m not saying that everything I did was right but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

In 2011, in an interview with the Straits Times, he again defended his actions.

“I did some sharp and hard things to get things right… but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all.”

One can’t help but wonder if Mr Lee was not alluding to what he had said in 1997.

“Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That’s the way I had to survive in the past.”

Age doesn’t seem to have mellowed him, even as he is no longer in Cabinet or holding the reins of power.

Politics is such that one hardly ever admits one’s wrongs. Few have been able to do so and it would be foolish to expect that politicians, especially one as consummate as Mr Lee, would breathe such words of admission or even an apology.

But it does make one wonder if Mr Lee has ever, in his most silent and personal time, considered if what he did during the “Marxist conspiracy” was right. Does he still believe it today? Taking his words of 2011 (quoted above), might he not actually have been apologetic? I have always wondered that.

“I did some sharp and hard things to get things right…”

And then almost as an afterthought – “… but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all.”

There has been few other politicians who, I would argue, is as passionate as Mr Lee. Some have dismissed this and say that he was power-crazy and an egomaniac. Perhaps in some ways he was but to dismiss his passion is to not understand the man. When you spend a good part of your entire life building something, let alone a country, you cannot do so if you do not have deep passion for it.

But does being deeply passionate excludes also being compassionate?

Those whom he had a main hand in sending to jail, branded as “Marxists” and “conspirators” have also spent a large part of their lives trying to regain their dignity, integrity, reputation and indeed their very lives themselves.

I often wonder if being a politician means you do not allow room for admitting wrongs – and having the courage to right those wrongs. A great teacher is one like Nelson Mandela. He forgave. He healed. And this is where Mr Lee has a great opportunity to do likewise – to bring closure to those whom he has wrongly accused and demolished in the most personal way.

When you speak to the ex-ISA detainees, you see that hope in their eyes – that one day they will be vindicated. And they will. My hope is that they will be here among us when that day comes. And Mr Lee could hasten the advent of that day.

It would take a big man to do so – and Mr Lee has always been seen as a wise man by not a few. Would he also be a man big enough to reach out his hand and provide healing to those he has harmed?

Each of us has only one life. We live it the way we know best. Many a time, we make mistakes. Sometimes, the consequences of such mistakes are borne by those around us. It is in these times that we should have the wisdom and the strength to do what is necessary to heal the wounds we have inflicted.

Mr Lee can do this and do this in a heartbeat.

I know there will be political and legal consequences if he did so. But if history were lessons we should learn from, it also teaches us that human beings are quick to forgive when sincere contrition is offered, when the hand of reconciliation is extended in sincerity.

It would be the sadness of all the world if Mr Lee were to shy away from doing the one thing which would leave a lasting legacy for all of us, before he eventually passes on. And this one thing is to offer an apology to those whose lives were torn apart by his actions.

If Mr Lee cared for Singapore with as much passion as he undoubtedly does, this final act of wisdom on his part would bring a necessary closure to a chapter in our nation’s dark history, and more importantly to those affected most intimately.

And this would indeed befit a man whom many in Singapore regard as its founding father.

There is nothing wrong in looking back and say, “I got that wrong.” Even for someone like Mr Lee.

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5 thoughts on ““I did some sharp and hard things to get things right…”

  1. I think of the Economist in their tribute to JBJ – “No doubt Mr Lee was the better statesman but Mr Jeyeratnam was the bigger man.”

  2. “everything I did was for a honourable purpose”? Juxtapose that against his knowledge (candid admission to the Archbishop) that the “Marxists” he willfully locked up were merely a bunch of “naive do-gooders”. Try and reconcile that.
    Passion? How about the passion of the 104(?) people he locked up in Operation Cold Store?

      1. Visa, yes. He could apologise for locking Chia Thye Poh up for 32 years. (I know Chia wasn’t one of those arrested in Operation Coldstore but his is the longest incarceration.] It is unconscionable.

  3. visakanv ,
    what do you think ? Did you not know the answer for someone intelligent like you ? What will you do if you wrong and punish someone wrongly ?

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