This is the Lee Kuan Yew that Singaporeans have come to know. Confident. Unerring. Sharp. Superhuman.
But this is not the Lee Kuan Yew I saw.
The man I confronted in court regurgitated his lines, was lost for words, and sought refuge in his counsel depending on the question I asked.
Of course, he was his usual belligerent self and seemed like he was looking for a good intellectual joust. But he was nothing like the sharped-tongue sage that many, including me, were persuaded by the media to believe -- the one they call Minister Mentor.
My first glimpse of the Lee's ordinariness came at the beginning of my cross-examination when I asked him why he insisted on testifying through lunchtime and why he refused to tell the court the "important matter" that he had to attend to that afternoon. It was a straightfoward question that required only a simple answer.
But the Minister Mentor was tongue-tied despite ample opportunity for him to recover. Looking at Mr Lee from where I stood, I could see that his mouth was agape. But while he attempted to speak, no words came forth. After several agonising seconds, his counsel had to come to his rescue.
Was age catching up and slowing the MM down? No, in the middle of that exchange Mr Lee let out one of his laughs, not the kind evoked from jollity but the sort laced with contrived cynicism meant for covering up embarrassment. This demonstrated a mind that was still clear but not the superlative one that his propagandists would have us believe.
MM Lee was also unremarkable in his ability to think on his feet. I discovered this during the exchange where he mentioned foreign organisations lauding his achievements, organisations such as PERC (Political and Economic Risk Consultancy) and Transparency International-Malaysia. Incidentally, one of PERC's chief, Bruce Gale, now works for the Straits Times as Senior Writer.
When I listed out at least ten other organisations that criticised his undemocratic ways, Mr Lee countered that the organisations I had named were "liberal organisations" whereas those he cited were rating agencies concerned about "where investors put their money in."
Such argument could easily be pulled apart by a secondary school student. The dichotomy was simplistic as it was false. The practice of liberal democracy and the ability to attract investments are not mutually exclusive. If they were India would not be one of the biggest magnets for investments, and neither would democracies like Ireland, Chile, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Mr Lee seemed unable to grasp the fact that Singapore is a country and as a country, its people don't just robotically seek investments. There are such things as happiness that stem from being able to participate in the country's decision-making process and, as an extension, feeling a sense of rootedness to society. Is it any wonder that Singaporeans are one of the gloomiest and most stressed-out peoples in Asia?
When confronted with these observations, Mr Lee could only regurgitate that without his system, there could not be the prosperity that Singapore was enjoying.
Patriotism? Who cares
Yes, prosperity. But for whom? When I persisted and pointed out that even if Singaporeans were as well off as Mr Lee wanted to believe and, as a consequence, as happy and contented, why did a survey conducted in 2007 show that 50 percent of young Singaporeans wanted to leave the haven given a chance and a shocking 37 percent indicated that they were not patriotic to the country.
Mr Lee responded that he was "not moved one way or the other other." The final test, he pointed out, was whether these people were leaving permanently.
He had apparently forgotten that just a few months ago, he had admitted in an interview that the brain drain in Singapore was a "pretty serious" problem because many of our top talent were going overseas and not coming back.
When I made it plain to him that talented Singaporeans were leaving on a permanent basis, and one of the reasons for their leaving was that they were disenchanted with his system, the MM couldn't engage further. He changed the subject and asked me to quickly discharge myself from bankruptcy so that I could campaign in an election against the PAP.
Mr Lee's response was troubling. The finding that nearly 40 percent of our youth did not feel loyalty to the country ought to raise a monumental alarm across the government. (How are our National Servicemen going to defend a country that they are not patriotic to?) Yet, Mr Lee indicated that he didn't quite care. What has this country become when the government is keener on attracting investments than the patriotism of its citizens?
From London de-classified
One way to duck a question is to change the subject. The other is to take refuge behind counsel.
When I asked the MM about the declassified memos and letters from London regarding his role in the incarceration of his political opponents, in particular Mr Lim Chin Siong, and his manoeuvring to keep Lim from challenging for the prime ministership, Mr Lee uncharacteristically chose to remain silent, preferring to let his lawyer plead the irrelevance of my question.
I had expected a robust defence of his so-called fight with the so-called communists in the left-wing of the PAP, his pet topic. But despite my stressing that this went to the issue of his integrity, Mr Lee shied away. No matter how hard I pressed, the MM remained silent.
Contrast these: Mr Lee had volunteered the award by Transparency International-Malaysia to bolster his claim of his unblemished integrity. But when confronted with the question of his treatment of Mr Lim Chin Siong he was stone-cold silent.
Oh yes, there was also the PM
The courtroom confrontation with Mr Lee was not the only subject. There was also his son, the PM. The fact that Lee Jr's performance was so completely overshadowed speaks volumes of the his leadership.
For all of his bluster Mr Lee Kuan Yew, at least, ventured his own thoughts and his own philosophy. Hsien Loong was altogether different. He kept his eye firmly on his lawyer and relied heavily on counsel's objections to avoid any engagement (see here). His crossing swords with Siok Chin also exposed his limitations in a toe-to-toe debate.
At one point, Mr Davinder Singh even said that he was the one to make the decisions in the courtroom leaving his client - the country's top decision-maker no less - looking limp and unable to hold his own. Maybe the Minister Mentor position is not so redundant after all.
I take pains to point out these tribunal encounters not to denigrate Mr Lee Kuan Yew. I make them so that Singaporeans are disabused of the image that Lee's propaganda machine has made him out to be, the image of a God-like figure to be held in fearful awe and never questioned.
Nations run into trouble when the people allow their politicians to be cast in such reverential light. Autocrats work to ensure that they are cast in a mystical portrait -- larger-than-life and beyond reproach. We must undo what has happened in Singapore. Mr Lee Kuan Yew is most certainly not the person that the media paints him to be.
For our own sakes and for the sake of our nation, we must see that he is one with all the foibles and weaknesses of any other man. For that he must be held accountable just like any other man. (28 June 2009)