Hong Kong’s Sorrow

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 Stan-SingaporesSorrowpage 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.)


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15 Responses to Hong Kong’s Sorrow

  1. PCC says:

    “Hong Kong’s media are lauding Lee Kuan Yew as a symbol or proxy for the authoritarianism Beijing would like to impose on us.”
    Yes, minus the competence.

  2. Maugrim says:

    As a city, Singapore has developed in ways HK can only dream of. Worse still, to visit Singire is to see how stagnant HK has become. Lee cared for and worked to ‘better’ Singapore. Which HK leaders work to make HK a ‘better’ place for its residents ?

  3. Chris Maden says:

    Lee’s legacy to the world are a state that is essentially a gated community on a large scale, and “Asian Values.”

    Asia encompasses half the world’s population, with values that include everything from Islam (Iran, Central Asia) to Tibetan polyandry to Japanese Shintoism to animist Dayaks (there are a few left) to wherever. It’s true that the 1.3 billion Han Chinese who live in China, plus some Koreans probably (believe themselves to) embrace Confucianism, but that leaves 2 billion+ inside and outside China who don’t. So “Asian Values” is at best ignorant – which Lee was not – possibly patronizing, and at worst racism dressed up in PC clothing.

    I suspect the latter. A friend of mine taught football to Indian kids who are shoved, along with other non-Chinese, into housing estates / ghettos on Singapore’s periphery. They had no prospects. One kid offered my friend a prostitute and a bottle of black market whisky by way of thanks. The kid was 11 years old and a regular user of both.

    Nah. Lee was a bigoted, spiteful old git. I hope that, without him, Singapore can move on. As to the Hong Kong press’s coverage of him, Lee sucked right up to the PRC, so what else could they print. Certainly not my little eulogy.

  4. cccrrrgh says:

    What happened to Alex Lo?? This mouth-frothing is relatively new – the last couple of years, I’d say. He used to be quite an enjoyable read.

  5. Scotty Dotty says:

    Given Singapore’s pristine state when it was handed over, plus the double-whammy of self-inflicted clusterfucks in it’s Muslim and Catholic neighbours, Hemlock’s line is surely the spot on obituary: “If you can’t pull that off without intimidating academics and writers, that’s a bit pathetic.”

  6. Cassowary says:

    OK, for the sake of argument, let’s take it as a given that Lee Kuan Yew was a genius who made authoritarianism work in one city-state with a population of 5 million.


    As the scientists say, is it replicable? How many other wealthy, efficient, hygienic, uncorrupt authoritarian countries are there in the world? Name them. I’m waiting. Bueller? Bueller?

    If it takes a one-in-a-million genius to make Lee Kuan Yew’s system of government work, then he has produced the statecraft equivalent of a dog that performs calculus. A really robust system of government is one that can function passably well even when run by idiots.

  7. Mjrelje says:

    If I had a strategically located sovereign state with British infrastructure handed to me at the advent of the jet-age, I reckon I too could raise GDP from 1bn in 1960 to $300bn by today. Imagine if London was made a sovereign in the ’60s with no hinterland costs/responsibilities. Also for LKY himself, the whole “Asian Values” that he coined was based on nepotism, cartels and corruption around the region and almost gave legitimacy to it. That remains a legacy of LKY. Then the classic call to be “more derring-do” in order to be ‘cool’ I think, and thus totally losing the possibility anyway. He was the architect of ‘Disneyland with the Death Penalty’ for most critics and a society that would rather have high-tea than sex – hence the world’s lowest birth rate. My only surprise was that when interviewed he didn’t often protude an enormous tongue to wipe his unblinking eyes, reptile style.

  8. David says:

    “Confucian values” seem to be in vogue only in authoritarian countries, ie. China and Singapore, and also in Korea. It is certainly not fashionable in Taiwan.

  9. Mjrelje says:

    Yep, Confusion values — sell your grandmother and chuck your baby out with the bath water.

  10. Cassowary says:

    Off topic: Interesting interview with Joshua Wong, who provides a fairly astute evaluation of the sorry state of the pan-democratic camp. Pretty good for an 18 year-old. He spells out why the pan-dems are so useless at pointing out how the cartels are ripping everyone off. They won’t touch “economic justice” with a 10 foot pole because they think the average voter is still a welfare-queen-blaming hyperconservative real estate market worshipping Li Ka Shing fanboy who’ll recoil at the merest mention of “standard working hours” or “pensions”. So they bang on endlessly about abstract rights and legal principles and let the tycoons monopolize the conversation about how the city should be run.


  11. PCC says:

    @ Cassowary

    Thanks for the link to the Joshua Wong interview. He’s a thoughtful and impressive person. It’s no wonder that the Leung administration is wary of dealing with him.

  12. gweiloeye says:

    Cassowary, ‘Interview’ is a bit of a loose word here as the item is a submission. no mention of who ‘interviewed’ Joshua, or who at least wrote the questions. Not the hard hitting journalism i expect from something called ‘New Left Review’./sarc/

  13. NIMBY says:

    China never needed LKY as an excuse. CKS and Taiwan were good enough. LKY’s real gift was giving Western leaders/oligarchy a perfect PR storm of Asian Values competing with the thin veneer of clean & modern concrete. The public was stupid enough to fall for it, not realizing Singapore’s wealth was founded on the missery of the masses in it’s neighborhood.

    Now we can see Bush/Clinton duopoly fronting for ALEC, the Asian dream which is really selling Nepotism, Cronyism, and Welfare-State for Corporations and the 0.1% as a solution to the world’s problems. It’s a competitive race to the bottom, right up to the end of the human species.

  14. Cassowary says:

    Funnily enough, Western China scholars and Chinese reformists themselves used to blame China being an economic backwater on Confucian values. Excessive respect for authority led to stagnation, they said. A good rule of thumb is that if the same thing is used to explain totally opposite phenomena, then it’s bullshit.

  15. NIMBY says:


    “The cult of Lee Kuan Yew has poisoned Eastern Europe, but we should remember that it is also a global phenomenon. Brilliant Western intellectuals, CEOs and leaders created this cult over many years at Davos and other conferences and summits of the global power elite, thus fueling the authoritarian temptation in Eastern Europe.”

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