John Wong, For The Straits Times

Lee Kuan Yew: The leader who struck a chord with China

Mr Lee (on podium, right) with Chinese Premier Li Peng at a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People during his nine-day visit to China in September 1988, when he also met Chinese President Yang Shangkun, General Secretary of the Chinese Comm
Mr Lee (on podium, right) with Chinese Premier Li Peng at a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People during his nine-day visit to China in September 1988, when he also met Chinese President Yang Shangkun, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party Zhao Ziyang and paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Lee Kuan Yew could get China's attention, but it will be tough for tiny Singapore to find comparable successors to fill his big shoes

China has published many books about former Singapore prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. One written by Chang Zheng in 1996 bears this interesting title, Lee Kuan Yew: A Great Man In A Small Country (Xiao Guo Wei Ren). In politics and international power relations, does "size" matter at all?

Deng Xiaoping, a "five- footer", had struck Mr Lee as "a giant among men" when they first met in 1978. Mr Lee has since openly stated that Deng was the most impressive leader he had ever met.

Viewed from a different angle, Singapore is a tiny city-state while China is a huge continental- sized country. The two also have inherent political, economic and social differences. Yet, they have developed strong bilateral relations, thanks to the efforts of both Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Deng.

Singapore must have also struck Deng as the most impressive country he had ever visited. He passed through Singapore in the 1920s on his way to France, when Singapore was then only a small trading port. Before his official visit to Singapore in November 1978, Deng had not been to any developed society other than the United States and Japan. He must have marvelled at how the Singapore leadership had managed to overcome the constraint of size and successfully transform this small island into a throbbing industrial state. This is something China had failed miserably to do under Mao Zedong.

Thus, Deng, in his famous Nanxun (tour of South China) speech in 1992, specifically singled out Singapore as a good model of economic and social development for China. This set off instant "Singapore fever" in China that has lasted to this day. Deng's endorsement of the "Singapore model" laid down a strong institutional base for a robust Singapore-China relationship ever since.

As for Mr Lee, he quickly changed his original Cold War perception of China. He was once attacked by Radio Beijing as the "running dog" of Western imperialism. As Deng started his pragmatic policy of economic reform and opening up, Mr Lee was quick to see rising economic opportunity for Singapore, particularly after Deng's Nanxun speech. True enough, Nanxun sparked off China's dynamic double-digit rates of economic growth for more than two decades.

Specifically, Mr Lee was instrumental in setting up the Singapore-Suzhou Industrial Park. After overcoming initial start-up problems, this park has developed to become a symbol of successful Singapore-China cooperation based on mutual benefits. Success in Suzhou led to another government-to-government flagship project, the Tianjin Eco-City, and then many others in different forms.

Under the auspices of these two great leaders, Singapore and China saw their economic ties grow by leaps and bounds, with two-way trade reaching US$64 billion (S$81 billion) in 2011. Bilateral cooperation has also broadened beyond trade and investment into political, social, cultural, education, and even security areas.

As Harvard University's China expert Ezra Vogel has pointed out in his recent book on Deng, Singapore and China would not have cemented their relationship in such a unique way had Mr Lee and Deng not been able to establish close rapport and a kind of "special bond" with each other from the start.

Lee Kuan Yew to the Chinese

IN CHINA, Mr Lee is probably the best-known foreign political figure, partly because he has been in public office for more than 50 years. More importantly, ordinary Chinese see him primarily as a prominent Chinese (not foreign) leader who has brought development to a foreign country called Singapore. To some, Singapore is still a very Chinese city-state.

This ethnocentric approach is very much in evidence in virtually all popular writings and books about Mr Lee. Invariably, they all start by tracing his ancestral origins (ji guan), for example, as an ethnic ke jia, and Guangdong's Dapu as his ancestral home. To many Chinese, Mr Lee is an overseas Chinese, and he will remain an overseas Chinese. Actually, because of this, his success outside China is all the more remarkable to the Chinese people.

Views on Mr Lee from the scholarly community are understandably more sophisticated. Thanks to Deng's promotion of the "Singapore model" and the many thousands of Chinese officials who have subsequently been sent to take training courses at Nanyang Technological University and National University of Singapore, Singapore studies as an academic subject is becoming popular in many universities in China, with the number of "Singapore watchers" growing rapidly.

Domestic Chinese scholars studying Singapore tend to interpret Mr Lee's role in Singapore's development through Chinese cultural lenses. Singapore's promotion of Confucian values in schools and the Speak Mandarin Campaign, in particular, have made a deep impression on China's scholars with an interest in Singapore. To them, Confucian values such as emphasis on education, frugality and hard work, must have contributed to Singapore's successful economic and social development. So Mr Lee is broadly viewed as a kind of Confucian ruler.

Since Mr Lee is a lawyer and Singapore is well known for upholding the rule of law, so Mr Lee should also belong to the Legal School (fa jia). Indeed most successful Chinese rulers and mandarins in the past were both Confucianist and Legalist. They governed China with an optimal mix of de (virtue) and fa (law). One scholar even labelled Mr Lee as a Legalist in substance but a Confucianist in spirit.

However, to the numerous young netizens and bloggers - there are 700 million Internet users in China today - Mr Lee presents a different image, often superficial and inconsistent.

In November 2009, Mr Lee called on the US to continue its presence in the region to balance a rising China. That remark immediately touched off a big hue and cry in China's cyber world.

Many Chinese, including those well disposed towards Singapore, were upset. This was not about Chinese nationalism. To them, it was just inconceivable that Mr Lee, as a Chinese who had said many good words about China, should turn around to ask the Americans to prevent China from developing into a strong and prosperous country!

After Lee, then who and what?

A LEADER from a small country needs to constantly shout in order to get attention. When Mr Lee speaks, Western leaders listen. In particular, they want his views on China. Mr Lee also commands an attentive audience in China. In Beijing, Chinese leaders are similarly very eager to seek wise counsel from him, especially his views about the US and the outside world. Mr Lee's official title of "Senior Minister", zi zheng (policy adviser) in Chinese, is particularly appropriate for his role in China.

After Mr Lee, it will be difficult to find comparable successors to fill his big shoes. That is rather unfortunate for Singapore when it comes to dealing with China's rise in future. In 1990 when Singapore normalised relations with China, China's gross domestic product (GDP) was only 10 times larger than Singapore's. Today, it is 30 times. Mr Lee can be frank and blunt in his views, but Chinese leaders still respect him as their senior.

After Mr Lee, Singapore's political discourse with China will have to take a different form. Without his astute guiding hand and stature, can Singapore continue to manoeuvre effectively in the dynamic power relationship of the US and China without running the risk of displeasing one or the other? This is a big question yet to be answered.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a professorial fellow at the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore.