Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew was embodiment of new Asian dynamism

LEE Kuan Yew, the founder and patriarch of modern Singapore who has died at the age of 91, was one of post-war Asia's most revered and controversial politicians and one of its last remaining independence leaders.

His greatest achievement was to promote the concept of good governance in South-east Asia, a region long plagued by corrupt, inefficient governments.

As Singapore's prime minister for more than 30 years, he built his small island republic into one of the world's economic success stories. Singapore is one of Asia's largest financial centres, and is the world's biggest ship bunkering port.

Mr Lee was the embodiment of a new Asian dynamism: Smart, tough and pragmatic and displaying unshakeable self-confidence.

His style of leadership had many foreign admirers and he was credited with being a pioneer of "authoritarian capitalism", which has influenced other countries including China, Russia and the Gulf states.

Richard Nixon once described him as a big man on a small stage who, "in other times and other places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli or a Gladstone".

Perhaps at times Mr Lee yearned to put his talents to work outside the narrow confines of Singapore, but he was pleased to be acknowledged as a leading spokesman for Asia.

Few other leaders have stamped their personalities so firmly on a country.

His perfectionism, farsightedness, elitism, authoritarianism and intolerance, along with his obsessions with security, cleanliness and order, are reflected in nearly every aspect of modern Singaporean life.

The sale of chewing gum is still banned - a nannyish rule he instigated that is arguably the most-recognised fact about Singapore abroad.

"What is required is a rugged, resolute, highly trained, highly disciplined community," he once said, believing that Singapore's multi-ethnic population and the political instability of South-east Asia represented a constant threat to his creation.

He achieved his goal at the expense of curbing some civil liberties, such as freedom of the press.

He was unapologetic about his means, dismissing the idea of western liberal democracy as unsuitable to Asian societies.

His death comes as the city-state, whose economic and political model he oversaw, has reached a crossroads. 

Singapore is straining to cope with a declining working-age population, increasing reliance on foreign immigrants and unprecedented popular pressure for a less authoritarian government.

Mr Lee, who had been physically frail, but mentally sharp in recent years, relinquished any official government role after an election in 2011 in which the ruling People's Action party suffered its worst result.

But he felt sufficiently alarmed at his country's declining birth rate to issue an appeal the following year, carried on the front page of The Straits Times, calling for Singaporeans to reproduce.

Otherwise, "this place will fold up", he said in his typically brusque manner.

FINANCIAL TIMES