Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Global media on Mr Lee Kuan Yew's legacy

During his years in power, and even after he stepped down from national leadership, global media often had a difficult relationship with Lee Kuan Yew. In his death, though, the praise came pouring out.


WHEN historians chronicle Asia's modern resurgence, they will focus on the rise of the region's biggest economies: China, Japan, India. But if there's such a thing as "Asian capitalism", its spark, smartest proponent and most controversial symbol was the founder of the region's smallest country: Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew.

Few would dispute that what Lee achieved in his city-state was an economic miracle. This success, together with his clarity of purpose and outsized personality, influenced the course of Asia's giants.

Between 1960 and 2011, Singapore's per capita gross domestic product surged more than 100-fold. It now tops US$55,000. The city stands as one of the most advanced economies on Earth, a preternaturally clean and green oasis famed for strong institutions and wide-open markets in a region still burdened by graft, cronyism and snarled bureaucracies.

Lee's great insight was to recognise that Singapore, after being kicked out of the Malaysian Federation in 1965, needed to look beyond its then-hostile neighbourhood and export higher-end goods to the advanced economies of the West and Japan. Along with the other so-called Asian Tigers, Singapore concentrated on getting the economic fundamentals right - encouraging savings and investment, keeping inflation and taxes low and currencies stable, and emphasising high-quality education.

This has since become accepted wisdom. Yet Lee chose this path at a time when Communist movements retained a powerful appeal across Asia. (One of his first acts was to harshly suppress Singapore's own leftists, with whom he'd once allied.) China remained in the throes of Mao's mad experiments, while Nehruvian India was busy repressing enterprise and shutting itself off from trade. Lee saw his choice not as a matter of ideology - he loved to say that the only test of an idea was its applicability - but of simple pragmatism.

Deng Xiaoping, a great admirer of Lee's, would adopt a similar attitude when launching his market reforms in China. If for nothing else, Lee should be celebrated for helping to inspire Deng's revolution, which lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and constituted one of the greatest expansions of economic liberty in human history.



IF YOU seek his monument, look around Singapore. Prosperous, orderly, clean, efficient and honestly governed, it is not the work of Lee Kuan Yew alone. But even his severest critics would agree that Mr Lee... played an enormous part.

Under him, Singapore, with no natural resources, has become one of the world's richest countries. Many admirers look to it as a model, and Mr Lee as a sage. He did indeed have much to teach the world; but some, especially in China, draw the wrong lesson: that authoritarianism works.

Part of Mr Lee's influence stemmed from his role as a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking geo-strategist. He was an astute observer of the defining contest of our era - China's emergence and how America reacts to it.

He was also a respected interpreter of each to the other, and an important voice, with unique access in both countries, arguing for continued American engagement in Asia and for Chinese tolerance of it.



THE nation reflected the man: efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking and pragmatic. "We are ideology-free," Lee said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007, stating what had become, in effect, Singapore's ideology.

"Does it work? If it works, let's try it. If it's fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one." The formula succeeded, and Singapore became an international business and financial centre admired for its efficiency and low level of corruption.



LEE saw moral failings in the liberal democracy of the West, and believed that "good government" and economic advancement were a more important national goal than individual liberties. He considered "so-called human rights" largely irrelevant to the growth of developing Asian nations.

Once asked whether Singapore - a country with so many restrictions that even chewing gum was barred - would slowly become more liberal, he replied: "You mean more like a Western society, like Britain or America?

" I hope never. I think we'd go down the drain. We'd have more poor people in the streets, sleeping in the open, we'd have more drugs, more crime, more single mothers and delinquent children, a troubled society and a poor economy."

Although often reprimanded by human rights activists, Lee remained a close friend of the United States throughout his political career.

Even his harshest critics agreed on one point: The Singapore he built is one of Asia's great success stories, with one of the world's most efficient airports and ports.



HE BELIEVED in the rule of law, though he used it as a blunt instrument in merciless pursuit of his suspected enemies. His authoritarian instincts were mitigated by intellectual rigour, patent incorruptibility and a modest lifestyle.

At the end of the working day in the Istana, his official quarters, he returned to his plain family home nearby; he ate sparingly, rarely drank anything stronger than tea, and allowed himself no distractions except golf. He was said at one time to be the best golfer among the world's leaders, though as Lyndon Johnson remarked in a banquet speech, "that's a pretty small league".

Lee often expressed contempt for the decline of Western moral fibre, yet he retained a fondness for the British way of life and an admiration for the colonialists of earlier generations, including Singapore's founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. After one diatribe by Lee on the rotten state of modern England at a garden party in honour of the visiting foreign secretary, George Brown, in the late 1960s, Brown replied: "Harry, you're the finest Englishman east of Suez", leaving Lee momentarily lost for words.



LEE'S life traced a long arc of modern East Asian history: the last vestiges of colonialism; the advent of affluence; the introduction of democracy, albeit flawed and limited; the spread of globalisation; the decline of Japan and the rise of China; and now the retreat to nationalism.

He was not so much an architect of change... as an observer of the way of the world, on anything from nation-building to geopolitics to terrorism, and everything in between. Over six decades of public life, Lee preached, berated, pontificated and counselled his own people, but also those of other countries, whether the advice was solicited or not.


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