chapter  7
15 Pages

Sweeping change in East Asia: political leaders and the experience of violence

Over the years, Lee Kuan Yew has insisted upon social discipline amongst Singaporeans, often casting the matter most directly in terms of the vulnerability of the small island within the wider potentially hostile Malay world of Southeast Asia,1 and thereafter, more recently, and more prosaically, the territory’s exposure to the putatively chill winds of the wider world of global commerce.2 Lee has also unpacked these anxieties, real or imagined, in generational terms, suggesting that whilst his own generation can remember and appreciate the struggles of the early days of Singapore, today’s younger citizens have only had the experience of living in a prosperous, rapidly developing city. This group have been tagged ‘post-65ers’, born after independence, those who have benefi ted most clearly from the country’s success. 3 It is a familiar anxiety; 4 the old leader recalls the struggles of his youth and casts doubt on the abilities of the comparatively easy living young to take up the burden. It also expresses a familiar complaint;5 the old recall their hard work and note that the next generation will reap the benefi t. However, in this case, there is a readily identifi able basis for the anxiety and complaints, even if they are fi nally inappropriate (younger generations cannot relive the lives of their elders) and unwarranted (talent runs down the generations), because Lee and his generation did live through a period of violent change. For some twenty-fi ve years, from the start of the Pacifi c War through to 1965 when Singapore attained its unexpected independence, the territory was repeatedly swept up in violence: the Imperial Japanese invasion, the returning armies of Britain, civil insurrection, inter-ethnic violence and all the tensions and confusions of pro-independence movements within the local population. Lee was eighteen years old at the start of this sequence of events; 6 he was immersed in them and was repeatedly obliged to respond to the urgent practical demands of sweeping change.7