Having already gone to press when Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew died yesterday morning, Hong Kong newspapers belatedly go into obituary mode. The Standard devotes its front page to Turkish Airlines, which puts its apparently unlimited advertising budget to curiously inane uses – today inviting us to email from 33,000 feet just to show we can. At the top right, a small but mournful box refers to ‘Singapore’s sorrow’.
The rest of the local press clearly see Lee’s passing as Hong Kong’s sorrow as well, giving the old guy the black-border-and-flowers treatment previously reserved for Sir Edward Youde, the Tiananmen students and Deng Xiaoping (and few natives bar, maybe, Szeto Wah or Anita Mui). Does Lee qualify for such an exalted send-off from Asia’s other city-state/little dragon/entrepot?
Hong Kong and Singapore proudly rejoice in their common cultural and historical lineage, don’t they? No, of course, they don’t. You would have thought two British-founded Chinese-inhabited ports specializing in sucking wealth from their backward and corrupt hinterlands would get on like family. But the emotional relationship barely ranks as sibling rivalry. Lee envied Hong Kong’s bigger financial sector, while Hongkongers wonder why they can’t have road pricing – and that’s about it.
The two places are quite different. One speaks Hokkien-glish, puts chili sauce on everything and bows to the government, while the other speaks Cantonese, fears curry and complains about everything. Even the colonial heritages are distinct: Singapore is stuck in a 1950s time-warp with hanging, flogging and censorship, while in Hong Kong it’s still cool to speak like the Queen, who has wittily or grotesquely been adopted as a symbol of resistance to Mainland influence.
So why all the adulation in the Hong Kong media for the departed Lee Kuan Yew? Because he was the visionary who single-handedly turned a snake infested swamp-slum into an advanced Squeaky Clean® mega-wealthy modern paradise on Earth, in just a month or two. Sure – but someone else’s visionary. There must be a better reason. We know there is. And we know exactly what’s coming. Still, at the risk of stating the obvious…
For the answer, we turn to the South China Morning Post’s ‘My Take’ column. To comprehend Lee Kuan Yew’s greatness, we are told, you need to hail from the ‘Confucian belt’. We then get the ‘Asian values’ argument, a pre-meme meme from the mid-1990s. Essentially, people with yellow skin enjoy being/need to be kicked around. Westerners who fuss about ‘individual incidents’ (sadistically bankrupting/jailing people who don’t agree with the stern paternal leader) can’t understand this, because their brains are wired differently owing to a lack of rote learning at an early age because they use namby-pamby phonetic alphabets and no abacuses, or something. The point is: Lee Kuan Yew was great because he showed that authoritarianism worked and doesn’t have to be corrupt and democracy is garbage, which enraged Westerners who thought they knew everything.
Even disregarding the column’s lack of subtlety, something doesn’t ring true here. Singapore’s non-corruption (like Hong Kong’s) is only remarkable by regional standards. Western Europeans and North Americans (and Japanese and South Koreans) take it for granted that you don’t have to bribe Post Office staff to hand over your mail. And rather than enrage Westerners, Lee had them, from Kissinger to the Queen, eating from his hand. His and Singapore’s success lies in not being dysfunctional like the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, etc, etc. Which deserves a pat on the head, but is hardly a civilizational achievement in a small island-city. Not that we should underestimate Lee’s genius for image-management and its role alongside bullying in creating a spirit of national pride and obedience. But really – if you can’t pull that off without intimidating academics and writers, that’s a bit pathetic.
Intimidating academics and writers… Yes, this brings us plodding to our conclusion. Hong Kong’s media are lauding Lee Kuan Yew as a symbol or proxy for the authoritarianism Beijing would like to impose on us. (Hey – I did say this would be stating the obvious.)