Pro-LKY blog whitewashes his views on conscription
I recently came across this blog apparently dedicated to establishing a positive legacy for former Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew who recently stepped down from Cabinet following the worst electoral performance of the PAP since independence in 1965. In the author’s words, the purpose of the blog was to
The purpose of this blog is to educate Singaporeans (especially the generation that does not remember from whence Singapore came from) about the importance and relevance of Lee Kuan Yew as the mentor of Singapore.
Reading the entries I happen to see a post about a 1972 Q&A session which spoke of how then PM LKY rebutted a polytechnic student’s question of whether diploma holders might be exempted from conscription. Lee’s reply is quoted as follows:
Not a hope in the world: There will be no exemption for the engineering student and the army is short of mechanical engineers and mechanical engineering technicians. The first thing you must remember is that there is a basis or pre-condition for the growth and development we are making.That pre-condition is reasonable stability for the foreseeable future on which people can base their planning assumptions. Then they amortise their capital equipment over 10, 15 years.
But once you start creating privileged groups without justification for that privilege, you are planting the seeds of social unrest and riots. With riots, you will have less development and more unemployment. And then, more riots and you will go right down, hitting the bottom.
That sounds surprising to say the least. To myself, PM Lee was never known as a person who would accord every Singaporean the same treatment, and had in the past oversaw the implementation of a large-scale quasi-eugenicist anti-natalist (ie. cutting down birth rates) policy from the 1960s to 1980s. His views were decidedly elitist and social Darwinist in nature.
Fortunately, records exist from other sources to show that then-PM Lee back in 1972 conveniently omitted any reference to the fact that it was ultimate his idea that educated Singaporeans should be exempted from the draft. In its earliest days, Singapore and Israel collaborated to implement a conscript army in Singapore modeled in part on the Israeli IDF. Before the idea of conscription was touted, Israeli advisers flown in to Singapore discovered that the population then was largely opposed to soldiering as a profession. Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2004 published this lengthy article containing the details of the Singapore-Israeli collaboration as follows:
Lieutenant Colonel Moshe Shefi, who was an instructor in a company commanders course, was sent as an adviser. “We discovered that there was psychological resistance to conscription in Singapore,” he relates. “Of 10 professions, that of soldier was ranked last. In first place was the artist, followed by the philosopher, the teacher and the merchant, and the thief was in ninth place. Soldiering was considered a contemptible profession. In Singapore, conscription was considered a means to overcome unemployment.”
The Israelis faced a problem. To evade service, most of the young men of draft age (18-24) who were of Chinese origin furnished proof that they were employed. Some 70 percent of the inductees were unemployed and of Malaysian origin – the opposite of their proportion within the population.
When the Israelis presented that finding to then PM Lee and Dr Goh Keng Swee, the first defence minister of Singapore, Lee’s response was initially not to demand that all able-bodied males serve regardless of their background but instead to deliberately and selectively recruit, in his own words, “the most primitive people in the country”:
Elazari and Golan complained to Lee and Goh, but the prime minister was undeterred. “I want you to recruit the most primitive people in the country, the uneducated and the jobless,” he told them. Stunned, the Israelis tried to persuade him to reconsider, but he was adamant: “In the Second World War, I saw the Japanese and the British. All the British soldiers were intelligent and educated. But as soldiers they were worthless. The most primitive Japanese soldier gets an order and executes it, and they were extraordinary soldiers. The fact is that the Japanese army defeated the British army.”
There you have it, straight right from the horse’s mouth that the Army was initially meant to be staffed by “primitive people” instead of being manned by the draft. It took the efforts of the Israeli advisors to persuade Lee that it was ultimately not about “primitives” being better soldiers but their intrinsic motivations which drove them to fight as ferociously as they did:
Golan says, “Yaakov and I tried to explain to him that it’s not a question of education but of motivation. The Japanese soldier was motivated because he was fighting for his emperor, who for him was God. For him, he was ready to sacrifice his life. What motivation did the British soldier have, who fought thousands of kilometers from his home?” The explanations about the spirit of combat and about how to generate motivation persuaded Lee.
Even if one ignores this incident, there were other instances where Lee’s own ideas ran counter to his warning about not creating “privileged groups”. Here’s one straight out from the same year: 1972 The 4th Sept 1972 edition of the Straits Times carried a report that Lee had toyed and proposed that having tertiary education graduates vote for a separate and unique Parliamentary seat so as to provide more constructive debate in Parliament:
He said the Government was toying with the idea of having graduates of the University of Singapore and Nanyang University vote for a candidate to Parliament and the Teachers’ Training College, the Polytechnic and Ngee Ann Technical College vote for another two or three.
These candidates would not have to belong to the PAP or be obliged to it. They could become an Opposition and take on the Government.
They should be intelligent enough to point out where the Government was wrong
Though he provided a justification, it appeared to be somewhat weak and ridiculous in retrospect. Ultimately, the plan did not follow through. In retrospect it appeared that it might be necessary to have done so to ensure the PAP retained power in the 1970s because it faced the threat of the electorate (whom Lee often viewed as not quite intellectually capable of rationally choosing the best qualified candidates) voting in a populist and leftist government (Barisan Sosialis was still around). Now if this isn’t creating “privileged groups”, I don’t know what that is.