Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: An astute observer who could make things happen

One of the abiding memories former US diplomat Jeffrey Bader has of Mr Lee Kuan Yew is a 1997 meeting in Singapore where the then Senior Minister captivated the Americans, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

"I remember on the way out, she was dazzled," said Dr Bader. "She was dazzled by the strategic narrative, the adroitness and deftness of what she heard about China."

To top it off, Mr Lee had the answer to a question the US officials had been grappling with.

"At the time, nobody knew who the next premier of China was going to be. There was just a lot of rumours and a lot of speculation," said Dr Bader, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

"But he just said flat out during the meeting that the next premier was going to be Mr Zhu Rongji, just said it, like a matter of fact."

Talk to any American leader or senior official who had met Mr Lee, and he or she will have similar anecdotes to tell.

Mr Lee is known in this part of the world as an unparalleled observer of China, and every US president since Richard Nixon (1969-1974) has sought his counsel at some point during their tenure.

Little surprise then that after a while, many of the tributes for Mr Lee emerging from the US started to strike very similar notes.

President Barack Obama hailed Mr Lee for "his insights on Asia, geopolitics, and economics, which have shaped the thinking of many around the world".

Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about the "breadth and depth" of Mr Lee's understanding of the world; Secretary of State John Kerry said he was a "uniquely astute analyst and observer of Asia"; former president Bill Clinton brought up Mr Lee's "brilliant analysis and wise advice"; Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel described him as a "lucid voice of reason America always counted on".

Still, their tributes capture but a small fraction of Mr Lee's real American legacy.

After all, as astute as his analysis of Asia was, Mr Lee's intention was not to be simply wise counsel for the US or a voice of reason for the country to turn to.

Being a source of wisdom is of little value when one is no longer around to dispense it - and Mr Lee is not known as one for ephemeral pursuits. Rather, he seemed to parlay the trust he earned into a platform for Singapore and Asia. In gaining the ear of the US, he gave Singapore a voice much louder than it would otherwise have had and continually pushed the US to engage in the region.

Long before Mr Obama's so-called "pivot to Asia" - a policy Mr Lee is also given credit for - the Singaporean leader urged the US not to turn its back on the region despite its trauma in the Vietnam War.

Mr Ernie Bower, the Sumitro Chair for South-east Asia Studies at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says: "Mr Lee and Singapore helped deepen US engagement in Asean and get over the geopolitical hangover of the Vietnam War. The fact that relations will be strong and normal now, not as illuminated by the bright star of Mr Lee's towering genius, may be just what is needed for both countries.

"An enduring legacy of Lee Kuan Yew will always be having helped reattach the United States - strategically, economically and intellectually - to the vital centre of the world's most dynamic and important region in the 21st century... South-east Asia."

Mr Lee keenly understood that the fact the US was willing to listen to a country like Singapore was an artificial construct borne out of human effort, and one that would require human effort to maintain.

In October 1985, the Singapore Prime Minister opened his address to a joint session of the US Congress by saying: "It cannot be often that someone representing 21/2 million people from a small country in the Third World is offered the opportunity to address the representatives of 240 million people who form the world's most wealthy and most advanced nation."

Before failing health curtailed his travels, Mr Lee would visit the US frequently to meet presidents and lawmakers. On those visits, he was unlike any diplomat. For one thing, he had seemingly little patience for the niceties and small talk of diplomacy.

In a 2009 meeting with President Obama, he launched into a scathing critique of the US fiscal and trade deficits seconds after the two leaders sat down.

And as US statesman Henry Kissinger notes, Mr Lee did not go to Washington to lobby for assistance for Singapore.

"His theme was the indispensable US contribution to the defence and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time," said Dr Kissinger.

Any discussion about Mr Lee's legacy in the US would not be complete, however, without considering his hardline policies.

Mention Singapore and the image that comes to mind for the ordinary American is the caning of US teenager Michael Fay for vandalism in Singapore, and the ban on chewing gum. The US media has also spent some of the days since Mr Lee's death going over the instances when political opponents or newspapers were sued.

Indeed, those in policy circles who interacted with Mr Lee primarily through the lens of governance and policy would mainly see a great statesman who built a country where one should not exist. Those who encountered Mr Lee primarily in the human rights sphere would invariably focus on the cost of that nation-building.

Dr Bader puts it this way: "I don't think Mr Lee would have been surprised by some of the reaction, nor would he have cared."

And perhaps former secretary of state Colin Powell best sums it up in his tribute to Mr Lee. For all of Mr Lee's vision and intellect, Mr Powell said, the defining feature that made him great was the fact that he was a do-er.

"Vision and determination are not as important as execution, making something happen... Some will say, maybe he was too tough, well maybe so, but the results show."

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