Lee Kuan Yew on Marcos and the politics of the elite


“Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics…”

The quotation is from Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s prime minister for 31 years who is credited for building the tiny resources-poor city-state into a “First World oasis in a Third World region.” Marcos’ contemporary as autocratic ruler in Southeast Asia, Lee died last year (March 23) at age 91.

Lee’s critical view of Marcos is highly relevant today, with Ferdinand Jr. running for vice president in the May 9 elections and rating high in the surveys – with a relatively big percentage of support from the rich and upper-middle classes.

Public outrage has broken out over Marcos Jr.’s bragging that his father’s two decades in power were the “golden age” of the Philippines. This egregious lie or fable – plus his refusal to apologize for the record human rights violations, plunder and other abuses committed by the dictatorship – are firing up a nationwide campaign against allowing a Marcos return to power. .

Lee Kuan Yew’s bluntly uncomplimentary remarks on Marcos are found in a book I recently received, titled If the Philippines had a Lee Kuan Yew. It’s a compilation of articles about Lee and Singapore, written by 31 Filipinos (mostly journalists) and produced by Jose P. Leviste Jr.

In his Prologue, Leviste says the book aims to “initiate a discussion and a debate over the right way to lead and move forward a people in an archipelagic nation like the Philippines.” In the Epilogue, also by him, he urges Filipinos to “seize this window of time” between Lee’s demise and the May 9 elections to reflect on “who is the most suitable among the candidates vying for national and local government leadership who can lead our country to the same height that Singapore scaled under LKY leadership.”

Cesar E.A. Virata wrote the Foreword. He commends the collection for presenting a wide perspective for Filipinos to think about “why…some countries succeed and many others fail.” A technocrat himself, he hails Lee’s great foresight and meticulous selection of capable people to handle different aspects of governance “that assured Singapore of a cadre of experienced politicians and administrators to manage its long-term development.”

Virata cites Lee’s innovative policies/programs on public housing, traffic control and mass transit, and water supply as “examples of forward planning that have made the difference between Singapore and the Philippines.” The Marcos regime’s BLISS housing program, he says, was an attempt to copy Singapore. Though it has been discontinued since then, Virata maintains that “with proper leadership, there are many other policies that we can learn from (LKY), such as flexibility, pragmatism, recognition of present and emerging challenges brought about by technology and demographic factors, planning ahead, and assembling resources. These are marks of good and transforming governance.”

An insight is given by Ramon J. Farolan into Lee’s perception of Marcos back then. At the Bali Asean summit in 1976, the Singaporean was initially impressed: Marcos was “keen to push for greater economic cooperation in Asean,” including tariff reductions and a plan to lay a submarine cable between the two countries. But then, eager for a follow-through, Lee was disappointed “…to discover that for him, the communiqué was the accomplishment itself, its implementation was secondary, an extra to be discussed at another conference.”

After Ninoy Aquino’s assassination on Aug. 21, 1983, foreign banks stopped lending to the Philippines and the Marcos regime failed to pay the interest due on its $25-billion debt (of which $8 billion was owed to Singaporean banks). Marcos then sent a top aide, Bobby Ongpin, to ask for a loan of $300-500 million to meet the interest payments. Lee flatly refused. Meeting Marcos later in Brunei, Lee was blunt: “As soon as all our aides left, I went straight to the point that no bank was going to lend him any money. They wanted to know who was going to succeed him if anything were to happen to him… The hard fact was that they were not likely to get repayment for some 20 years…”

While acknowledging that the Philippines has many capable people, why couldn’t it be as successful as other Asean states? Lee had this penetrating observation:

“Something was missing, a gel to hold [Philippine] society together. The people at the top, the elite mestizos, had the detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had towards their peons. They were two different societies; those at the top lived a life of extreme luxury and comfort, while the peasants scraped a living…”

To that and other observations, Luis V. Teodoro (in his article in the book) asserts: “What this country needs is to finally remove from power the entire putrid class itself.” I concur!

Remarkably, both Virata and Leviste held high positions in the Marcos government: Virata as finance minister first, then as prime minister, while Leviste was secretary-general of the Office of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. Yet both are pining for a leader like Lee Kuan Yew – not Ferdinand Marcos!

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in the Philippine Star
April 16, 2016

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