ST Asian of the Year - Lee Kuan Yew: Giant on the global stage

Admired by world leaders for his candour, insights and judgment, Mr Lee was hailed by Obama as a 'legendary figure of Asia'

Steering from the bow of a small island nation in the Asia-Pacific, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's impact on the world was far bigger than the geopolitical space he occupied.

The last leader to have been shaped directly by World War II, his influence on China is well-documented, the product of years of painstaking effort.

Mr Lee visited China over 30 times, nurturing relationships with five generations of China's leaders, from Mao Zedong to President Xi Jinping. But he had the biggest impact on Deng Xiaoping, who was impressed by Mr Lee's successful mix of strong government and free markets.

Mr Lee provided an account of Mr Deng's catalytic four-day visit to Singapore in 1978 in his 2013 book, One Man's View Of The World. Over dinner, he writes, Mr Deng congratulated him. "I asked him what for, and he said, 'You've got a beautiful city, a garden city'."

Mr Lee answered that China could do better than Singapore, a sentiment that Deng repeated in 1992, during his famous Southern Tour. "Ah, he has not forgotten what I told him," Mr Lee writes, remembering with satisfaction.


Nearly four decades later, when the benefits of China's transformation had long become clear and at least 300 million had been lifted out of poverty, Premier Li Keqiang offered a tribute on Mr Lee's death.

Mr Lee's "contributions towards China's reform and opening up will be recorded in history", he said.

President Xi, who referred to Mr Lee as "our senior who has our respect", said his death was "a loss to the international community".

Across the Pacific, in the United States, Mr Lee was a treasured friend, adviser and mentor to several senators, congressmen and former functionaries. "I often arranged his visits in Washington, but it was not easy to put in order the many applicants who wanted to see him," said former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger.

A visit by Mr Lee was a kind of national event, Dr Kissinger wrote in an obituary. "That he would see the President was a matter of course. But in addition, he would see key Cabinet members. Senators, too, wanted to see him. And why? He did not talk about Singapore. He told them what they ought to do. He facilitated their reflection on their own role in the world.

"I looked at him as a teacher. I learnt much from him."

Mr Lee had a direct line to US presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, who sought his views on China. President Barack Obama hailed him as a "legendary figure of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries".

Former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher was another admirer, saying that he was "never wrong" in his reading. "Prime Minister, an hour's talk with you is itself worth a journey halfway round the world and farther still," she said at an Istana banquet in April 1985.

Mr Helmut Schmidt, the former West German chancellor, also counted Mr Lee as a close friend. At 93, defying a blood clot in his leg which ultimately contributed to his death last month, Mr Schmidt travelled to Singapore in May 2012 for what was to be their last meeting. "We need leadership figures. We need people like Harry Lee," Mr Schmidt said afterwards.

Why was Mr Lee so admired by foreign leaders? "Because of his intellectual brilliance, his power of analysis and judgment, his eloquence and charisma, and his willingness to share his candid and disinterested views. His longevity also gave him an advantage as he evolved from being the brilliant prime minister of Singapore to being a wise elder statesman," Singapore's Ambassador-at-large Tommy Koh said in an article for The Straits Times.

In a testament to the deep regard for him across the globe, Mr Lee's funeral was attended by leaders from 23 countries, including the Malaysian King, Sultan Abdul Halim Mu'adzam Shah, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

India and New Zealand declared a day of mourning and flew their flags at half-mast. A village in Tamil Nadu held a procession in his memory and a bus driver named his newborn child after him. A bust of Mr Lee was unveiled last month in Barcelona's Cap Roig Gardens, which he had visited a decade ago.

His memoirs, and other books distilling his insights, like Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas and Vintage Lee, continue to carry his ideas, translated in many languages from Croatian to Myanmarese.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2015, with the headline 'GIANT ON THE GLOBAL STAGE'. Print Edition | Subscribe