Lee Kuan Yew’s Death Has Already Taken Place


Death Mask, Yanyun Chen, 2013

by Jeremy Fernando

… the highest function of the sign is to make reality disappear and, at the same time, to mask that disappearance.

— Jean Baudrillard, The Perfect Crime

To conquer death you only have to die, you only have to die

—Tim Rice, ‘Jerusalem’

There is a famous maxim that one must always kill your idols. That the only way to become your own person, as it were, is to free yourself from the shadow of the one you admire, look up to. Singapore has clearly taken this to heart: and has murdered its founding father. Not in the banal sense of attempting to erase his memory, an erasure by censorship, omission, but in a far more sophisticated way: by cementing a version of him, memorialising him — archiving him.

For, as the late French-Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida continues to remind us, an archive “shelters itself from [its] memory which it also shelters: which comes down to saying also that it forgets.” [1] Even as it is a collection of memories — ostensible for the purpose of sharing, making public — it is a place that is guarded, not just by the arkhon (lord, ruler), but by the fact that it is always put together, enframed — thus, incurring choices, selections, pickings, as well as exclusions. In other words, once archived it is both opened and closed at the same time: you are invited, free even, to see, but the invitation to view is guided, under an arkhé, and there are rules. And once we open the register of framing, we must also never forget that to frame something, someone, is to accuse them of something they haven’t done: to make them guilty. Which is not to say that archives are false, at least not necessarily so: but it is precisely in its attempt to frame the truth — to ground a certain version as true — that lies its crime.

A perfect crime: one without any victim, except that of the real. Keeping in mind that the real is always already potentially unknowable; at best, we can only catch glimpses of it. And thus: not only always groundless, but more importantly, immortal. Hence, in order to commit this crime, one has to first create what is to be killed. An image: in other words, a sign.

An idol.

Here, one should not forget that everybody dies twice. Once in the realm of the body: a physical death. The other, in the realm of the symbolic: in the realm of memory. A physical murder vanquishes one’s body: after which, it is the memory — other people remembering them — that keeps them temporarily alive; until they are forgotten. A far more insidious murder is to annihilate the memory of them whilst they are alive: in this way, they are forgotten even whilst alive; they become nothing more than the living dead. Of course, it is impossible to will forgetting; not even one’s own, let alone another’s. For, we have no control over it; forgetting happens to us. Thus, the only way to do it is to cement a certain version of the said person — one that has little or even naught to do with them — whilst the living memory, the one that is constantly changing, morphing, is murdered.

Not in that banal way in which advertisers attempt to shape our notions, ideas, memories, of a brand: by telling us, or at least attempting to dictate, what we should think about. But, in a far more insidious way: of allowing us the space, the gap, to fill in our own meaning. For, what else is an idol but an empty signifier; one that can be whatever you want it to be. In other words, an idol is nothing other than the signifier for the possibility of forgetting.

It is no wonder that it is not skepticism, or doubt, that is the true enemy of religions, but idolatry.  For, idols remind us not only that God has left but that we no longer even need the idea of God.

And here, one must not forget: the archive is not so much a place of memory, but a reminder.

What it reminds us of is that the person is dead.

Twiddle Dee, Kenny Png, 2010

On 28 March, 2013, Singaporeans woke up to the announcement of the most recent extension of Lee Kuan Yew’s oeuvre: “The latest 10 volumes of former Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s speeches, interviews and dialogues were launched yesterday by Cengage Learning and the National Archives of Singapore … This collection is a record of his statements and thoughts over the last two decades, from 1990 to 2011, some of which are published for the first time.” This was the second major collection of his work, “the first 10 volumes [having been] launched in Sep 2011.” [2]

Even though this seems to be an addition to the recent spate of books by Lee himself—The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew (1999); From Third World to First: The Singapore Story (1965-2000) (2000); Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (2011); amongst others [3]—it works on a completely different register. Lee’s own texts are an attempt to leave, write — immortalize even — his own legacy, sending out a missive into the world (legatie; body of persons sent on a mission) as his ambassadors (legatus) to secure his last will (legate). And once we open the register of the legate, we can always already hear echoes not only of legality, and the law, but also the notion of holiness (legate; official representative of the Pope), of a whole, of a legacy intact, and more importantly of a Father.

These, on the other hand, are an attempt to cut daddy’s head off.

For, not only must daddy now be ignored — this was the lesson of Hamlet: when confronted with the ghost of his father, he took out a piece of paper and jotted down the message, as if to say I’ll get to it after I’m done playing hookey with Ophelia — the one who wants to be the new leader has to be the one to kill him. Otherwise, someone else would take over: Prince Hamlet missed his chance the first time, only to see Claudius take the throne; he was certainly not going to let it happen again.

And we saw this exemplified in current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s statement on 3 May 2011, at a lunchtime election rally for the People’s Action Party, when he uttered: “MM is MM.” He continued: “whether it is ordinary times, or whether it is election time, you can be sure that it is still the same MM.” [4] Whilst seemingly a retraction for his father’s statements, a strategic apology designed at damage control — after all, it was at an election rally — this was also a declaration that the Minister Mentor was in stasis. For, regardless of the situation, he is exactly the same. Anywhere else in the world, this might not have been an issue; consistency is usually even regarded as a compliment. However, when one takes into consideration that Singapore is a port city — where movement, transit, transition, flow, are the order of the day — being static is the equivalent of being completely irrelevant; is a death knell.

One might argue that PM Lee is merely taking a page from daddy’s playbook: after all, the elder Lee’s political acumen shone through in the way he dealt with political opponents. The key was to never make them, nor let them make themselves, martyrs. This was the crucial error of the Bolivian state: not that they shot Che Guevara, but in allowing him to be photographed looking like the crucified savior; this was the image that burned into everyone’s mind. This was also the mistake of Soviet censorship: by imprisoning poets and artists, they elevated them to the level of prophets. In Osip Mandelstam’s words: “Poetry is respected only in this country — people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” [5] Lee Kuan Yew’s strategy was far more sophisticated: allowing the populus to forget his opponents. Not by hiding them away — for that only stirs the imagination — but by showing them to be completely irrelevant in full view of the public. The classic case would be that of his long-time rival, the late Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam. By systematically bankrupting him through a series of legal battles— turning the very system that the lawyer and judge Jeyaretnam stood for against him — JBJ was eventually reduced to selling his books on the street-corner: thus, turning him into a very public example of the financial risk of being a dissident; the perfect deterrent to any budding rebel in a state where wealth is the religion.

His son has taken it one step further. For, it is no longer about eliminating rivals, but about cementing — authoring — founding moments, origins (auctor). And this is the true genius of the strategy: it is not a taking over by becoming the leader (this is not Highlander) but by writing one’s own position into place through the legacy of the one that came before. Borrowing the voice of the other. Which might well be why Nietzsche warned us: beware of your followers. Not so much that they may betray you (it didn’t hurt the legacy of the Nazarene too badly), nor even attempt to take over (otherwise the notion of dynasties would long have fallen), but that they may cite you, borrow your voice, echo you.

Speak in your voice. Speak as you.


And what better way than to place you in stasis, put you within your own cenotaph, whilst speaking of the need for constant change in the state: the implication of which is that movement, flow, change — notions that have been put into place by you — are now handed over to me.

The lesson of the father, learnt perfectly, too well even, by the son. Never forgetting that teaching, pedagogy, is about following the leader (agogos). The good learners do as I say not as I do; the best ones realise that it is precisely what you do that is the point. For, if learning, all knowledge, is mimetic then surely it is the acts — not just the body of work, but the body itself — of the teacher that truly matter. We saw this play out when Margaret Thatcher’s death was announced: the parties in the streets demonstrated nothing other than the fact that her lesson was well and truly learnt — compassion is now dead. [6]

Naturally — and here, one is free to hear irony resound as loudly as one desires — the elder Lee will still be paraded around, particularly on events pertaining to the nation, especially since the state is desperately attempting to author a nation into being. And at each of these events, he will be announced, named, as one of the founding fathers of Singapore. But sooner or later, we will no longer hear him speak — even if he is speaking.

For, he has already been spoken for.

Twiddle Dum, Kenny Png, 2010

If criminals were judged by a Court that was outright fantastic, that is, a Court dressed like devils in an opera, in a frightening carnival, or were composed of inhuman, superhuman beings, like priests for example, the sessions would be less terrifying. But composed as they are of men involved in commonplace everyday existence who suddenly—without losing their humanity, since we have all been able to see how they retain the idiosyncrasies that show they are men—become judges who decide about death, we are bound to conclude that one aspect of men, an aspect of ourselves, remains in close touch with hell, since this part of us suddenly refers to it.

— Jean Genet, Miracle of the Rose

Perhaps this is the disconcertment that one is left with, we are left with; perhaps even an admission, confession, of what I am left with. For, in writing a piece that makes a claim, stakes a position, one is always already judging, playing judge and opening oneself to the very same judgement: putting oneself before the law, as it were.

In that very same moment, where one has to state one’s position, stake a claim, one might well also be staking. Not just driving a point through the heart of the matter, but through a heart that is matter. For, one must never forget that writing is of the order of death: not just in the sense of all writing is a recording of sorts, an archiving, but that writing entails inscribing a particular, abstracting a single from a multiplicity: and at that very moment, universalising it — making it an idea, eidos — no matter how momentarily this may be.

And perhaps this is what truly scares us: that we have learnt the lesson of the master too well. That it is not that his son, or even us, that has managed to kill him. But that he has allowed himself to be killed. That he has disappeared and is now only masking that very disappearance.

For, we are all already Lee Kuan Yew.


[1] Jacques Derrida. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1995, 2.

[2] ‘Latest 10 columes of Papers of Lee Kuan Yew launched’ in AsiaOne (28 March, 2013):


[4] Joy Fang. ‘PM: We’ll make system better.’ in AsiaOne (4 May, 2011):

The context of his statement was in response to then Minister Mentor’s quip that “Aljunied GRC voters would regret voting in the Workers’ Party and would have five years to ‘repent’ if they did” which drew much controversy, and flak from the voting populus. PM Lee Hsien Loong’s response was to explain to the electorate that: ‘We don’t try to do it MM’s style. We do it our way, we spend some time to talk, to explain … to overcome some of these working problems so that we can go in the right strategic directions … While MM understands the difference in Singaporeans today and those from previous generations, whether it’s ordinary time, election time, you can be sure he is still the same MM,’ said PM Lee.”

Alicia Wong. ‘PM Lee: I’m sorry for our mistakes.’ in Yahoo News (3 May, 2011):


[6] In his piece ‘I’ve always felt sorry for her children’ for The Guardian (5 April, 2013), Russell Brand argues convincingly that the street parties celebrating Thatcher’s death was the sign of Thacherism par excellence. Her legacy—much like Lee Kuan Yew’s; which should come as no surprise considering their friendship—is that of ultra-individualism, where no one matters but oneself. Is it then even remotely surprising that the revelers missed the point that it was irrelevant whether one agreed with, or even liked, Thatcher; ultimately another human being has died.

Brand’s piece can be found here:

About the Author:

Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at the European Graduate School, where he is also a Reader in Contemporary Literature & Thought. He works in the intersections of literature, philosophy and the media; and has written six books — including Reading Blindly, and Writing Death. Exploring other media has led him to film, music and art; and his work has been exhibited in Seoul, Vienna, Hong Kong and Singapore. He is the general editor of both Delere Press, and the thematic magazine One Imperative; and a Fellow of Tembusu College at the National University of Singapore.