Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away in the early hours of Monday, March 23, defined post-war, 20th century Asia more than any leader other than Deng Xiaoping.
He turned a fractious, poor and backward island within Malaya into one of the world’s most successful new states. Under Lee’s pragmatic leadership, Singapore became a rich, stable and influential country. That enabled Singapore to project itself as a role model and exemplar of Asian capitalism, with a respect for property rights and individual success married to a socialist mentality; as a law-and-order government that also promoted traditionally leftist agendas for labour and proved that different cultures could coexist peaceably.
Lee was unapologetic about his authoritarian streak, for it was fundamental to ensuring Singapore’s survival in a dangerous neighbourhood. For decades he suppressed free speech, and used libel laws to scare the press. But he was no generalissimo. The military always remained subordinate to civilian rule, and his reign was as committed to the rule of law as it was to paternalism.
All one needs to know about the character of the “Minister Mentor” is found in the opening paragraph of The Singapore Story, the first part of his memoir. His earliest recollection was how his angry father held a four-year old Kuan Yew over a well by the ears:
“Fifty years later, in the 1970s, I read in the Scientific American an article explaining how pain and shock released chemicals in the brain, ensuring that the experience would be remembered for a long time afterwards.”
That was Lee: stung to action, and ready to sting others who didn’t exhibit his sense of urgency or shared sense of mission.
His first sense of political identity was equally unpleasant, when at primary school he and others protested against the “sharp and cavalier” attitude of a college official who happened to be Malay – and the other Malay students threatened to resign en masse were the official punished. It was an introduction into the bitter race relations for this native English speaker that would both bedevil and inspire Singapore’s creation.
The brutality of the short-lived but searing Japanese military occupation served another lesson to the young man, who escaped the murderous Sook Ching massacres by luck.
Leading two nations
Armed with a law degree from Cambridge, Lee found his political voice by representing labour groups, which he courted for their political backing. Against the tumult of the independence movement, he sought a Singapore beholden neither to the British nor the Malaysians, and that would require votes.
Early on his socialist organisation, the People’s Action Party (PAP), aligned with the Communists, who initially impressed Lee with their ability to mobilise the masses. But Lee quickly saw through the Communists’ propaganda and realised they would be a disastrous choice for Singapore.
At that time, many ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia reflexively sympathised with Maoist China. Lee broke with the Communists, but also had to fend off right-wing Chinese parties that remained mired in a feudal past. He won elections by cobbling together a coalition of Indians, Malaysians and friendly Chinese factions, such as the Hakka clan associations (Lee was of Hakka stock).
He also had to deal with the bombshell surprise out of Malaysia that it would seek to include Singapore as part of its independence negotiations with the British. That threatened Singapore’s Chinese with being outvoted – but also made it possible to outflank the Communists, and at any rate Malaysians were less hostile to the Chinese than the Indonesians (Sukarno was screaming Konfrontasi). Lee led the argument to merge with Malaya in 1963. He is a father of Malaysia too.
But the union never gelled. Malaysian politicians shamelessly played the race card against the PAP in national elections, and jealous Malaysian Chinese factions also undermined Lee. Violence broke out. Firebrand Malaysian politicians such as Mahathir Mohamad argued that the “arrogant” Lee represented overbearingly rich Chinese who should be countered by racial preferences for Malays and by making Malay the sole official language of the land.
Lee responded to these arguments in a speech in parliament in Kuala Lumpur – speaking in Malay – that outlined why such policies would be counterproductive, to Malay and Chinese alike. No one has had the chance to be so blunt about the fallacies of race-based rights in KL’s capital ever since. Of course by then it was obvious to Lee that having co-founded Malaysia, he had to lead Singapore out of it.
Despite Lee’s authoritarianism, he achieved power through democratic means. The PAP has been in power for a very long time now, but in its early days it had to compete, and win, elections. Moreover, it was an authentically Singaporean party facing incredible odds, against the numerically superior Malays, against the disciplined Communists, against the feudal right, and in a regional context of violent upheaval.
The Singapore created in Lee’s image has clung to some of the paranoia and authoritarianism that was required in the 1950s and 1960s – too much so, as most of the leadership has come to realise. And Singapore’s rise as a rich, successful hub has shown that Lee and the PAP were the right choice for the country. Without their pragmatism, there might not be a country.
Legacy and lessons
Lee is a titan of the 20th century, but what lessons he holds for 21st century Singapore are less clear.
Some challenges are the same, such as developing a post-racial Singaporean identity and maintaining security within a volatile region. But the physical dangers today are not existential. Indonesia may be home to some Islamic terrorists but it is not bent on invasion. The US Navy underwrites Singapore’s security. Relations with China are friendly and constructive.
On the other hand, today's social challenges would be unrecognisable to the Lee of the 1960s. Labour unrest, where the young lawyer got his start, now involves either underpaid foreign migrants, or resentment by natives toward the wealthy expats driving up land prices. Lee was once a master of social engineering, but his latest exhortation for Singaporeans to have more babies has fallen on deaf ears. The once straight-laced nerdy city now offers a better nightlife than Bangkok, yet the creative economy it strives for can’t be easily conjured by economic planners.
These, however, are the problems of a successful and wealthy country. It is no surprise that governments around the world turn to Singapore (not China, not Malaysia) for inspiration. From Dubai to Rwanda to Gujarat, Singapore’s combination of stability, capitalism and strong government is an intoxicating vision.
Lee’s reputation includes authoritarianism and paternalist values, but Singapore’s success also rests on its commitment to a British rule of law, intolerance of graft, and at least partly free, democratic elections, standards that other governments fail to grasp when they try to emulate Singapore's model. These are also part of Lee Kuan Yew's legacy, to his country, and to the world.