Immortal Lines on Lee Kuan Yew

I believe Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore would be a fine place to visit. I’ve never been there, though, and all I’ve heard of it is second hand. In the nineties, I remember the preoccupation with Michael Fay, an 18-year-old American, who had vandalised cars, been caught, and sentenced to six strokes of a half-inch thick rattan cane. American media recoiled in horror, wrote about how bits of flesh would fly. Bill Clinton intervened; the sentence cut to four strokes, and it was all over in a minute, except for the bleeding; Fay was to go on to the US to commit other misdemeanours, and Clinton was supposed to have subsequently remarked to Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong privately years later, “You should have caned him more. And his father should have caned him earlier.”

Small, some say it takes only about an hour and half tops to cross the length of the entire country, but Singapore occupies a large spot in our imagination. Our leaders always cite the Singapore model; Chandrababu Naidu now wants to build a Singapore-style capital. LKY ran a tight political ship, lifted Singapore from being just another non-descript colonial outpost to the most famous roaring tiger, and became a legend in his own time. Going through Morgan Chua’s L.K.Y, (Epigram Books/Singapore; 2014), which has the phrase ‘Political Cartoons’ over the abbreviation, I wonder what it must have been like to be a political cartoonist in LKY’s Singapore. In publisher Edmund Wee’s wee foreword, I get a wee clue: “Morgan Chua’s first political cartoon of Lee Kuan Yew in the Singapore Herald was said to have led to the closure of the newspaper in 1971.” From publically available information, I learn that the cartoon he drew had LKY in a tank, threatening to crush a baby which symbolised Singapore Herald. Soon young Morgan retreated to Hong Kong, to the Far Eastern Economic Review and continued on his satirical rampage there till it closed as well, though not presumably because of  his cartoons, although his passion for tanks continue to surface now and then. I noticed one on Tiananmen where Deng Xiaoping is a tank, his nose morphing into a really long main gun pointing at the iconic lone protester who stands in front, holding a bag in his left hand, and the right one is raised in a peace sign. An ageing Deng wears a slightly perplexed expression. Morgan usually has a miniature cow-like creature in his cartoons, and in this one, it quips in one corner: “High Noon!”

LKY is also a cartoonist’s delight, and I really like the bulge Morgan gives him around his eyebrows, beneath which his eyes are sometimes two slits, sometimes small buttons and rarely open. I’ve never read a biography of someone in the form of political cartoons, but this one works pretty well, all the way from being a scholar in Raffles College who falls in love with someone who bests him in English and economics, to nation building to the point where his son takes over. There is a delightful section where he meets foreign leaders. Picture this: Nixon, who is a giant bug, like from Kafka’s Metamorphoses, in a room across the Watergate hotel. Nixon is telling a speechless LKY who is seated by him in a curving sofa, “Premier Lee, rest assured, there ain’t no bugging around!” The little cow-like creature seated next to LKY stares at a little cushion next to it, which is saying, “Testing, 1,2,3.”

Sudarshan is the author of Anatomy of an Abduction: How the Indian Hostages in Iraq Were Freed

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