Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew first foreign leader to see terracotta warriors in China

Accolades pour in recognising Mr Lee's role in China reforms

On his first trip to China in May 1976, former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew learnt about the discovery of terracotta warriors two years earlier in northern Shaanxi province.

Keen to see them, he made a last-minute request to then Vice-Premier Li Xiannian, who facilitated a detour to Shaanxi's provincial capital Xi'an, making Mr Lee the first foreign leader to view one of the world's major wonders.

Former Chinese journalists who reported on his Xi'an visit described the Singapore leader as an affable person who did not mind trodding on the muddy paths at the discovery site, then still not open to the public.

Amid the tributes in China after Mr Lee's death on Monday, this little-known piece of trivia emerged in Chinese media to show the country's regard for Singapore's founding Prime Minister and the favourable impressions he left on its people from early on.

In a rare move, four out of the seven members in the apex Politburo Standing Committee sent condolences over Mr Lee's death, which was reported prominently on the front pages of major dailies, including the mouthpieces of the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army.

President Xi Jinping lamented Mr Lee's death "as a loss to the international community", while Premier Li Keqiang said that the Singapore statesman's "contributions towards China's reform and opening up will be recorded in history". Both accolades are hardly used for foreign leaders, say analysts.

The plethora of accolades heaped on Mr Lee by officials and the media included descriptions such as "China's old friend", "world-class strategist" and "China's pure friend".

China's respect for Mr Lee, stemming from a sense of pride in him as an ethnic Chinese who managed to steady Singapore through a bleak situation after its 1965 split from Malaysia, has grown since then due to various reasons, say analysts.

One was Mr Lee's prescient view on the country's re-emergence as a force - a stand he took publicly from as early as 1967 in a televised interview by NBC News in the United States.

Asked if China, which was then in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, could become a strongly unified country again, Mr Lee said: "I would say they are determined, as a people, to unify and build a modern, powerful, wealthy Chinese nation and I say good luck to them."

China is also thankful for the pivotal role that Mr Lee played in its reform and opening-up policy since the late 1970s.

When Deng Xiaoping saw the governance model of a dominant one-party rule and free economy in a Chinese-majority society during a visit to Singapore in 1978, it reinforced the late Chinese strongman's resolve to open up China.

In 1992, Deng's favourable impressions of Singapore led him to hail the Republic as a model of development for China to emulate, during his famous "southern tour" of the coastal provinces to push economic reforms further.

His call led to Chinese officials being dispatched to Singapore to study its public policies, and later prompted Mr Lee and Deng to agree on the first government-to- government project in the Suzhou Industrial Park in 1994 to help China with its industrial upgrading efforts.

Mr Eagle Lyu, 31, a civil servant from coastal Zhejiang province who signed the condolence book for Mr Lee at the Singapore Embassy in Beijing, said he was grateful that Mr Lee was generous in sharing Singapore's expertise with China.

"Looking at places like Suzhou, you can tell that they are governed better the minute you are there. I think that can be attributed to how many of the Chinese officials there have also been trained in Singapore," he said.

Another who signed the condolence book was Mr Chen Kailin, 34, a PhD student at Tsinghua University studying Singapore's political party system.

"While having elections in China might not be possible, China can learn from Singapore in areas such as corruption control and its practical, non-ideological approach to problems," he said.

Sino-Asean expert Deng Shichao of Jinan University in Guangzhou said China is also grateful that Mr Lee, who made 33 visits in 37 years from 1976, acted as its bridge with the outside world, especially with the Western countries.

Mr Lee was the only Singapore leader to have met five generations of Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong to Mr Xi.

But there are also detractors here against Mr Lee, as seen in some commentaries and editorials this week, particularly over his often-repeated stand that the United States should maintain or increase its influence in the region as a balance against a rising China.

"I believe most respect Mr Lee for being open and consistent with his views, and that whatever he did, he did for Singapore's interests," Sino-Singapore expert Lyu Yuanli of Shenzhen University said.

Singapore Business Federation president Teo Siong Seng said most of his Chinese associates appreciated Mr Lee's frankness, knowing that he had also spoken up for them when needed.

"They knew that he would speak for China at the crucial time but also speak up when it was not doing things right. They regarded him as a 'true friend'."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Esther Teo