Lee Kuan Yew is about to cark it, if he hasn’t already, after his condition at Singapore General Hospital went from ‘critical’ to ‘something worse than critical but we haven’t finished setting up the memorial stage yet’. I thought for a moment they were holding him in situ, waiting to announce his death to coincide with a day of national significance—wouldn’t be the first time—until I remembered that their government is as allergic to paid public holidays as Australians at Kuta are to t-shirts and indoor voices.
That’s not to speak ill of the man himself: whatever your thoughts about de facto dynastic one-party rule, litigating critics into bankruptcy or the impossibility of procuring a pint within 10kms of Marina Bay without taking out a second mortgage, the man turned a swamp into a mega-city with the world’s third-highest per capita GDP. It takes a messianic figure to invert gospel truths, in this case by literally building his house on sand. Personally, I’m not enamoured with the sort of place fondly regarded by the likes of Dave Mustaine and considered by William Gibson to be the closest existing likeness of one of his own dystopian hellscapes, but the man’s calibre and intellect are beyond dispute—especially when considered against the standards set by our own ruling class.
Back in the late 1970s, during a long and unforgiving spell of high unemployment, stagnation and industrial unrest, Lee warned that our nation risked becoming the “poor white trash of Asia”, and even after recanting in 2007, our leaders have never failed to remind him of it. Consider this bemused editorial from the Straits Times reporting Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s 2012 visit to Canberra (’30 years later, Australian leaders still remember that “white trash” comment’). Then-PM Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were both on-hand to host the Singaporean leader—Lee’s eldest son—at an official luncheon; Gillard was still a teenager when Dr. Lee gave his prognosis, Abbott was still punching holes in student union office walls and doing culture-war scuttlebutt for Santamaria at Sydney Uni.
“Over the decades, we came rather to look forward to Lee’s regular visits, and we’ll always welcome him again. For us, they have resembled the arrival of a respected if rather forbidding uncle, come to awaken us from our indolence and insist that we be our best selves.”
“…Your father once made a rather astringent remark about Australia. This put me into a terrible state of division and uncertainty. Because at about the same time as your father had made that remark, another one of my political heroes Margaret Thatcher said of Harry Lee, that he was, quote, ‘never wrong’. I am pleased to observe that your father has since recanted on his adverse judgement of Australia, and so both Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher can both once more take their place in my personal political pantheon.”¹
I’ve listened to drunk relatives at the Christmas table with more grace than these two, but then when you draft former student unionists into the premier league, you inevitably get politicians who never resist the urge to dress up pass-agg petulance with the trappings of magnanimity. Our leaders still resent Lee, decades after the fact, despite the only politician still in parliament from the era looking like a gargoyle on death’s doorstep for the last 10 years himself.
And yet strangely, for a quote so totemic in the narrative of Australia’s victim complex, no-one can even pinpoint their exact provenance. Bob Hawke—the man who benefited the most from the late-70s recession and whose government’s reform program helped spawn an entire caste of nouveau riche spivs²—said it dated from 1980, a full year after the above advertisement. The phrase only really became a staple of reportage in 1982, after it was employed by Roderick Carnegie, then the chairman of what is now Rio Tinto, without attribution.³ When it came from a mining magnate, it was a clarion call; when it was a foreign leader, it was a beam in his own eye.
Australia doesn’t ever seem to cope well with wounded pride. Certainly every time I read one of my own countrymen referring to Lee’s words, it’s to serve them back to him on a dinner plate with the casually assured manner of the very drunk and very dumb guy holding court on a barstool. (“Yes we’re all very rich and important now…60 percent gross national debt and sub-Saharan Aboriginal life expectancies—who, me? No, not me, taxi!”) I’m already clenching my cheeks harder than Michael P. Fay in anticipation of the shitty obituaries (oshituaries?) and thinkpieces being drafted at Fairfax HQ right now,4 a couple of cursory paragraphs cribbed from Wikipedia on his domestic achievements and another occasion to celebrate just how fantastic we are these days.
1. Say Lee really is one of Abbott’s political idols, and he wasn’t just running off at the mouth here. It’s curious to wonder whether Abbott had Singapore in mind when he told Nauruan president Marcus Stephen that he sometimes thought Australia needed a “guided democracy”. Look at me, I sound like a talkback radio caller.
2. Who all, needless to say, wound up in Majorca or the clink by the time Hawke was booted out.
3. Carnegie was, inter alia, arguing for industrial relations reform to drive down the cost of labour for his mining enterprise whoaaa is anyone else getting major déjà vu right now?
4. Although, to be fair, it’ll be a nice change to read something about Asia in the SMH that’s not a conniption over Chinese nationals buying houses in suburban Sydney.