Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

US presidents past and present laud Mr Lee Kuan Yew's friendship and advice

(From left) Former US president George Bush, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft at Raffles Hotel in 1992.
(From left) Former US president George Bush, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft at Raffles Hotel in 1992.PHOTO: ST FILE

Rarely has the passing of a leader of a small nation far away made such a splash here. But in a testament to Mr Lee Kuan Yew's extraordinary standing in the United States, news of his death was greeted by an outpouring of tributes from American leaders past and present.

President Barack Obama led the way, hailing Mr Lee as a "giant of history" and a statesman who influenced his administration's pivot to Asia.

He said in a statement he was "deeply saddened" and conveyed his condolences on behalf of the American people.

Recalling his visit to Singapore in 2009, he said his discussions with Mr Lee, who was Minister Mentor at the time, "were hugely important in helping me formulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific". "He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs."

Though the US President was among the first to pay tribute, by Sunday night in Washington, many of his predecessors had added their own panegyric in Mr Lee's memory.

Mr George H.W. Bush, who was president from 1989 to 1993, mourned the passing of a friend.

"Barbara and I, and indeed the entire Bush family, extend our heartfelt condolences to Prime Minister Lee's family and countrymen. I will always be proud that Lee Kuan Yew was my friend," he said.

Mr Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and Mr George W. Bush (2001-2009) separately paid tribute to Mr Lee's wisdom as well as his work in building up Singapore and the bilateral relationship with the US.

"After leaving office, he continued to offer brilliant analysis and wise advice to those who sought it. We will always be grateful for our fascinating conversations with him over the years. Our thoughts are with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, his entire family, and all the people of Singapore," Mr Clinton said in a joint statement with his wife and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

The younger Bush, in a tribute on Facebook, said: "The Singapore he leaves behind is an influential force for stability and prosperity and a friend to the United States."

Mr Lee is known to have consulted a long line of American presidents, including the late Richard Nixon (1969-1974), with most seeking clear-headed advice about China.

While Mr Lee was an early proponent of the rise of China, he also believed in the long-term success of America due to the nation's dynamism and ability to innovate.

Over the years, he helped build a longstanding alliance with the US. While he was Prime Minister, he visited the US 12 times between 1967 and 1988, both on private and official visits.

He forged lasting friendships with many US statesmen, including Dr Henry Kissinger, a former secretary of state.

His personal interactions have clearly made a lasting impact.

In his tribute, Vice-President Joe Biden, who met Mr Lee most recently in 2013, said: "I valued his insights on Asia, geopolitics, and economics, which have shaped the thinking of many around the world... Then just shy of 90 years old, he remained formidable."

jeremyau@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Melissa Sim