Lee Kuan Yew, who has just died at the age of 91, was the preeminent Asian statesman and one of the greatest men of his time. He was also one of the few national leaders who defied the saying of Enoch Powell that all political lives, except those cut short by death or illness, end in failure. Like Churchill, he relinquished power voluntarily, albeit by degrees and to handpicked successors, and by the time of his death he was all but universally regarded as the father of his country.
In Lee Kuan Yew’s case, that phrase, “father of his country,” halted just short of literalness. He created the prosperous modern Singapore city-state from the modest raw materials of a small British colonial trading post and naval base inhabited by a multi-ethnic population with an average annual income of just over $500. Maneuvering between the colony’s British masters (whom he largely liked) and the left wing of the anti-colonial movement, including Communists (whom he distrusted), he led the colony peacefully into independence within the Federation of Malaysia.
That partial independence was a necessary step in the circumstances of 1963, when southeast Asia was plainly entering a period of war and instability. It gave Singapore a breathing space in which Lee could quietly lay the economic foundations of full independence. He soon realized that Singapore would always be uncomfortable inside a Malaysia that was more feudal, more riven by ethnicity, and less dynamic than itself. By the simple expedient of continually asserting Singapore’s rights against the rest of the federation, he made Malaysia’s feudal rulers (including its president, an old friend from Cambridge University) anxious to get rid of him and Singapore. That split duly occurred in 1965 — and, again, peacefully.
Tiny Singapore now needed a protector, however, and with Britain’s Labour government in the late Sixties departing from east of Suez and closing the Royal Navy shipyard, eliminating 50,000 jobs (much to the distress of Lee, who had been a member of the Cambridge University Labour Party and felt betrayed), the only protector available was the United States. Lee, who believed in “foreign policy without ideology,” became a reliable ally of the U.S. In particular he strongly supported America’s intervention in Vietnam, seeing it as a firewall behind which Singapore and other southeast Asian countries could transform themselves economically. He held this unfashionable view to the end of his life, citing the economic rise and political stability of his city-state and region as clear evidence that, from a geopolitical standpoint, the U.S. had won the Vietnam War.
Whatever the truth of that verdict, Singapore certainly flourished in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Sheltering under the American umbrella, Singapore under Lee embarked on a program of economic reform and development that began with taking over the old naval dockyard and making it one of Asia’s most important shipbuilding, ship-repair, and marine-engineering centers. A policy of encouraging market-based diversified development (in which manufacturing amounts to about one-third of the economy) was pursued vigorously thereafter with great success. According to various international rankings, Singapore today is the world’s fifth busiest port, the fourth largest financial center, the second freest economy (after Hong Kong), one of the least corrupt political systems, and the best place to do business or start a company. Its average income, which has increased more than a hundredfold since 1963, is now more than $52,000. All of this amounts to a phenomenal achievement of statesmanship, and the overwhelming share of the credit goes to Lee personally. The world recognized this achievement in the sincerest way possible: Other nations sent their experts to Singapore in order to learn how to do it.
It is generally known, however, that there is darker side to this picture. Singapore’s elections are not left wholly to chance or electoral choice — opposition campaigns are harassed and sometimes opposition MPs are imprisoned. Its government exercises considerable control of the media, mainly but not wholly on moral grounds. Its legal system, inherited from Britain but made friendlier to the prosecution, has been reasonably criticized as “compliant.” Visiting journalists and academics find the atmosphere in their professions stifling and claustrophobic. And so on.
#related#Lee disputed some of these claims in court, but he justified others as necessary to sustain order and stability in a dangerous world. Where does the truth lie? Is it fair, in particular, to describe Lee as a “dictator,” as many otherwise sympathetic obituaries have done?
If “dictator” is to be applied to the likes of Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro, who rule with both cruelty and inefficiency, it is absurd to apply it to Lee Kuan Yew. Free speech and media freedom in Singapore are not unlimited, but the restraints on them are not much more severe, if even that, than those in many Western democracies. There is a genuine rule of law in Singapore: The authorities obey the rules, neither police nor bureaucrats take bribes, trials are fair, and when the government is party to one, it sometimes loses. Elections are not meaningless: The opposition party wins seats — indeed, more seats with each succeeding election.
Not even opposition politicians contend that a party other than Lee’s PAP (People’s Action Party) would have won a genuinely free election since 1963. And many who are now Singaporean citizens have voted with their feet by emigrating there. Perhaps the best judgment is that of the Democracy Index; it describes Singapore as a “flawed democracy.” And with the departure of its Grand Old Man, Singaporean democracy is likely to remove more and more of its flaws over time. Lee laid the foundations for that progress, too.
For even the greatest of men are products of their time. Lee was the product of British colonialism, the Japanese occupation, the experience of post-war Cambridge and the London School of Economics (where he was known, as always to his family and friends, as “Harry”), a British legal education, the realities of power in an age threatened by Communism, the global dominance of the U.S., the fall of Communism, the recovery of liberal capitalism in the 1980s, and the rise of Asia that he first envisaged and then led. He was a clever, hardworking, dedicated young man who rose by following the rules and doing the right thing. He married his high-school sweetheart — the only rival who could beat him academically — and together they won the glittering prizes, first in the colonial metropolis of London, later at home. He had the flexibility of mind to abandon his early socialism when free-market capitalism seemed to offer a better future for Singapore.
But Lee would not abandon the values — family loyalty, good education, hard work, reward for effort — that had sustained him and lifted up his country. He called them “Asian values,” but he would perhaps have agreed with his friend Margaret Thatcher that “Victorian virtues” also described them pretty well. His occasional but sharp criticisms of American and British “decadence,” as well as his puritanical laws on matters as different as drug-taking and long hair, should probably be seen in this light. He was not so much hostile to the U.S. and to Britain on these matters as disappointed and saddened. He remembered the great democracies in their palmy days; he thought they had fallen from that peak of liberty enhanced by self-discipline; he did not want Singapore to follow them down the path of license to disorder.
At a garden party to welcome a British foreign secretary, George Brown, to Singapore in the late 1960s, Lee suddenly launched into a diatribe on Britain’s decline. Brown surprised him by responding: “Harry, you’re the finest Englishman east of Suez.”
It was a witty riposte that contained a partial truth. Lee Kuan Yew was the last of a certain kind of Englishman and the first of a certain (and new and, yes, democratic) kind of Asian leader. He drew on both Asian and Anglosphere traditions in making Singapore a haven of stable prosperity. He was a good friend of Western democracies, but also a candid and perceptive friend. We should celebrate his achievements, but we should also heed his criticisms. It is not only Singaporean democracy that is flawed.