In the shadow of strongmen

Lee Kuan Yew governed for 31 years, Mahathir 22. Both former leaders continue to play roles in politics, despite stepping down from office. Given their prominence, it is understandable that elements of their style of leadership have become deeply ingrained into the public consciousness. The most evident of these is fear.

Bridget Welsh, New Mandala

In the last few years, both Malaysia and Singapore have been undergoing political liberalisation, evident from the increasing parliamentary representation of the opposition and more open political discussion. Yet, with this opening, the challenges the two neighbours face in liberalising are becoming clearer. One of the main obstacles involves dealing with the legacies of Lee Kuan Yew and Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, as their imprint on politics continues to overshadow current transformations. How do the legacies of the two strongmen constrain contemporary political change?

Lee Kuan Yew and Mahathir Mohamad were successful leaders, delivering economic progress and giving their countries international prominence. However, views of these leaders remain divided, with some lauding them as political strongmen who delivered development and stability and others highlighting their excesses. This debate will continue, and likely intensify over time. Still, few dispute the fact that the two leaders profoundly shaped the countries they led. In order to understand contemporary politics in both countries, we need to look beyond these leaders as individuals or their tenures and appreciate how the strongmen continue to shape the two societies.

The Strongmen Psyche

Lee Kuan Yew governed for 31 years, Mahathir 22. Both former leaders continue to play roles in politics, despite stepping down from office. Given their prominence, it is understandable that elements of their style of leadership have become deeply ingrained into the public consciousness. The most evident of these is fear. Fear is defined as an emotion induced by perceived threats and is part-and-parcel of the political landscape of strongman rule. It is not just about the fear caused by the use of the state apparatus through draconian laws for arbitrary arrest or the penalties for breaching the boundaries of what is deemed as unspeakable, it is also the routinisation of warnings and demonisation of the other.

For decades Malaysians and Singaporeans were encouraged to conform to set patterns of political behavior – to not question their leaders and follow. They were expected to fall in line, as the system was deemed the best for them. They were warned repeatedly to behave. Red lines – ubiquitously known as OB (out-of-bounds) markers in Singapore – were clearly drawn – not to criticise leaders, not to discuss ‘sensitive’ issues, or not to express alternative views openly. The end result was possible penalties, which ranged from outright arrest to quiet marginalisation. The actual number of arrests was low relative to other regimes, but such instances took on symbolic importance, especially given the relatively low populations of both countries. While fear has sharply dissipated in the post-strongman eras, it still permeates political life, especially among the generations that lived though these periods.

Fear of the state is just part of the story. During the strongman era, fear was used to buttress power. Threats from outside were a constant refrain. In Malaysia, these threats came from enemies in the form of George Soros, Jews or unknown forces of instability that could not be controlled. The threats also came from within. Mahathir was perhaps the most explicit on this in his book Malay Dilemma, which used sharp ethnic divisions as a source of internal instability. The push for Malay unity was used to fend off the other. In Singapore, the ethnic rubric was one of multiculturalism, but memories of the turbulent ethnic tensions of the 1950s and 1960s remained. Events such as 1969 in Malaysia or 1964 in Singapore continued as part of the political discourse, and still do today. There is unease, anxiety and concern about a return to the ethnic turbulence of the past that meshes with the subtle and sometimes not so subtle dimensions of fear.

Political liberalisation in both countries is constrained by fear and the baggage it brings. A key element of this baggage is mistrust. On an interpersonal level, race relations in both countries are strong – and this is despite a number of high profile and controversial racial comments that have recently received public attention, notably in Singapore. Yet, deep-down the niggling uncertainties of the ‘other’ so prominent in the strongman era remain.

Strongman Control Mode

This strongman legacy is not just about fear – it is also about control. The focus on a specific order was a feature of the strongman eras. The structure of this order varied in both societies, but the pattern of establishing the order was the same – it was to be defined by those in power. Space for alternative conceptualisations was minimised, as leaders set out the course for the country to follow. In many of these decisions, there was wisdom, while in others, less so. But the mode of engagement was the same – the ‘government – a.k.a. leader – knows best’.

The strongman eras in Singapore and Malaysia’s placed the state in a dominant position as the driver of society. In the economic realm, the state was to be the agent of change, usually in alliance with international business. This has meant that the space for domestic private business interests, especially small and medium-sized businesses, as an alternative engine of growth has been minimised. For multiple decades, public spending, allocations and priorities were set by those in power.  This provided a powerful economic base for the control of society.

Dominance over the economic levers of power reinforced the strongmen’s position politically. To challenge political power under strongman rule had the potential to undermine your economic fortunes. This dynamic is deeply rooted, as challenges to the status quo are seen to both backfire on those who engage in them and come at a high price. The legacy of this pattern continues, as those who speak out face marginalisation, and in some cases, outright demonisation. The attacks are particularly harsh on those who come from within the system and are seen to betray the incumbent’s political base. The response to Anwar Ibrahim is illustrative.

Politically, the strongman mode of control was also characterised by a ‘divide and rule’ strategy of engaging opponents. As a result, civil societies in both countries are fragmented, wracked by internal suspicion. Those that were co-opted are distrusted by others who are seen as more confrontational. The strategy of division reinforced the position of the strongman leader, a feudal structure of personalised power around one man. Even today, centralised leadership is expected, with heavy burdens placed on the post-strongman leaders to perform and to ‘be strong’. Today’s leaders are constantly compared to the past. Power continues to be personalised, although in Singapore this is less about personality than persona.