Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew has been called the “Kissinger of the orient.” As he turns 90 this year, he presents an interesting perspective on geopolitics.
Befitting an individual who will be turning 90 this year, Lee Kuan Yew is increasingly reflective these days—about his life, the memories that he shared with his wife of 60 years, and the lives that their three children have led. Unlike most his age, however, he is also preoccupied with the challenges that his country will confront when he is gone. And Singapore truly is his country: he served as its founding father, its prime minister (1959-90), its senior minister (1990-2004), and its minister mentor (2004-11). As Nicholas Kristof observed in a review of Lee’s 2000 memoir, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, “[o]ther leaders have reshaped nations—Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Lenin in Russia, Deng Xiaoping in China—but no one left a deeper imprint on his people than Lee.”
Lee is concerned that future leaders of Singapore may take for granted the peace and prosperity that it now enjoys. The further removed one is from the struggles that made them possible, after all, the more likely one is to act as though they are organic conditions rather than fleeting ones; and, it follows, the less urgency one is likely to demonstrate in striving for their preservation. He also fears that Singapore may be squeezed amidst growing strategic distrust between the Asia's two giants, China and India.
Interestingly, though, for someone who cuts as complex and contentious a figure, Lee is not that concerned about how others appraise him and his policies. “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls,” he once said, echoing a sentiment that he has conveyed throughout his career. “I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.” As for his legacy, he insists on being remembered for the virtues that he embodied, not the positions that he attained. He told a group of journalists from the Straits Times that he is “determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something. I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That is all….Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.”
Lee’s policies have elicited great criticism over the decades, as has the determination with which he has pursued them; as a quick Google search will reveal, some hail him as a visionary while others denounce him as an authoritarian. Regarding the breadth of his perspective, however, there is far less debate. As Seth Mydans noted in a September 2010 profile, when his conversation with Lee shifted “from introspection to geopolitics…he grew vigorous and forceful, his worldview still wide ranging, detailed and commanding.” I was able to catch a glimpse of that worldview in December 2011 and March 2012, when I accompanied Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill to meet with him in Singapore. Here are some of the questions on which he meditated at length:
- “Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number one power in Asia?”
- “Is the United States in systemic decline?”
- “How should U.S. policies and actions adjust to deal with the rise of China?”
- “Will India rise to become a great power, and if so, on what timeline?”
- “What are Russia’s long-term prospects?”
- “What lessons have you learned from the global financial crisis?”