Lee Kuan Yew’s Enduring Legacy
Image Credit: REUTERS/Tim Chong

Lee Kuan Yew’s Enduring Legacy


In Nepal, prime ministers often do not rule for long, and their reign is often chaotic, and in the end, inconsequential. But they often begin with grand proclamations. In particular, many have begun their terms with a promise to turn their country into the “next” Singapore. And Nepal is not alone. Throughout Asia, Singapore’s success has long fascinated and inspired leaders and visionaries. And one man embodies that success – Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Indeed, few Asian leaders are as revered as Lee. Witness the outpouring of praise for him upon his death. Fewer still have made such an impact on Asia’s rulers by ruling over a tiny city-state. Because of Lee, Singapore has, like America, like Japan, transcended boundaries to become an idea that stands for something unique and powerful – an oasis of peace, stability and prosperity in a neighborhood that is often racked by turmoil. Lacking any significant natural resource, Singapore instead turned towards educating its population and cleverly exploiting its unique geostrategic location. Lee was a visionary, but he was also a pragmatist. He understood the limitations of his tiny country just as well as he understood its potential for greatness. He saw clearly the trend towards globalization, and how his country was uniquely situated to take advantage of it. All it needed was the right infrastructure – and he helped to develop it. He opened the economy and made Singapore a notable financial center. He developed its port – until recently the busiest in the world. He built an international airport that has long been considered the world’s most efficient and hassle free.

Lee would remain a pragmatist throughout his life. In this, he much resembled another leading figure: China’s most towering post-Maoist leader Deng Xiaoping. In fact, for Deng, tiny Singapore provided a sort of blueprint for developing his own country. During the Maoist era, China was often messy and violent. Singapore, by contrast, worked smoothly. Its people were prosperous and there were no disturbances. Lee, whose grandparents came from Guandong in Southern China, seemed to have created a perfectly harmonious society in Singapore, one that even Confucius might admire.

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Singapore is far from a perfect society. Its harmony can seem a little forced. But to his credit, Lee was unafraid to admit that his country, like many others, needed a guiding hand. Lee never tried to claim that he had developed the perfect democracy. At heart, he was a conservative who believed that family, above and beyond anything else, was the true building block of society – certainly more than the individual. Family provided the support to the individual and the moral fiber of society. In an interview he gave Fareed Zakaria in 1994, Lee deplored the erosion of the “moral underpinnings” of society in the West. This happened partly because in the West, the individual became removed from family and society. Yet, even as he retained a deep faith in familial values, and in the power of culture and society to restrain aggressive individualism, Lee was willing to allow changes to occur in society if that seemed to improve overall welfare. A very good illustration of this was his decision to allow casinos to operate in Singapore. As a traditionalist and a strict disciplinarian, he was fundamentally averse to gambling. Yet, with his blessing, they were finally allowed to open in the city state – albeit under tightly regulated conditions. The objective, as always, was to find a pragmatic, middle path. Gambling can bring in needed revenues, but it could have severe social costs on Singaporeans themselves. But the compromise that Singapore devised was to pass laws that do not explicitly bar natives from visiting casinos, but to impose significant costs on them so as to discourage them from the habit. The compromise attitude towards gambling contrasts with the uncompromising attitude towards drugs. Singapore has one of the world’s harshest drugs policies – even small amounts can be used as evidence of intent to distribute. In fact, Singapore has long had one of the highest per capita execution rates of any country on earth, and the majority of these are related to drug trafficking. Visitors to the country are told in no uncertain terms that the punishment for drug trafficking is death. Punishments for other crimes are also relatively harsh. In fact, severe punishments for violations of norms begin in schools. Caning, for instance, is permissible and even encouraged in schools as a method of controlling unruly children. Lee wanted to impress order and discipline into the very fabric of his society. To do that, he needed to start with the young.

Above all, Lee deplored chaos. And having developed in Singapore an ordered, even conformist society, he was not afraid to prescribe similar solutions to other countries that faced the threat of chaos – countries often vastly larger and more complex than his. Had anyone other than he done that, it would have been considered overreach. Which other leader of a country of a few million tucked in one corner of the world is taken seriously? But under Lee, the success of Singapore had been so striking that there was almost no option but to listen. Herein lay his claim to greatness – that his “model” was applicable not just to his city state – but to the world at large. And his model essentially was a pragmatic alternative to the Western democratic ideal. In an interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, he stated that he could not base “his system” on Western democratic norms, but had to “amend” to suit “his people.” He noted especially how in a multiethnic society like his, Western democracy was bound to result in stalemate and foster chaos. Thus, in such a society, there was no alternative to strong leadership that would guide democracy in the desired fashion. That was why he so often discarded the notion that India would be able to catch up with China. India was a multiethnic state where the people often identified less with the state than their own ethnicities or communities, leading to fractiousness and political paralysis. For this reason, Lee greatly admired Indira Gandhi, considering her to be a more forceful leader than Margaret Thatcher. Given his disdain for India’s messy political system, it seems natural that he would support a strongly authoritarian leader like Gandhi who could bring order to the chaos. Moreover, in an interview with the conservative American journalist William Safire in 1999, Lee deplored the sudden collapse of the USSR, arguing that the power vacuum there gave rise to chaos and widespread crime. One could thus argue that he wasn’t a mere “pragmatist.” Clearly he believed that society had to be restrained – by the family at the individual level and by the strong hand of the state at the larger level.

Of course, Lee was not the only one in Asia who thought that Western-style democracy brought more problems than solutions. Many leaders in the region believe that the kind of “guided democracy” that Lee implemented in Singapore is especially appropriate to their societies. Many think that Western models of democracy are neither appropriate nor applicable in Asia. Yet, for all their enthusiasm for the Singapore model, few leaders have been able to emulate its successes. Singapore’s success owes to Lee Kuan Yew’s exceptional ability to control and guide his small country in the direction he wanted to. With the very noticeable exception of Deng Xiaoping, Lee’s admirers and followers have been unable to follow his lead.

Meanwhile Lee himself became aware of the shortcomings of his model when applied to more complex societies. Where once he had looked at India’s messy politics with a measure of disdain, he began to show some respect for what the world’s largest democracy had accomplished. And he was put off by questions of nepotism – never quite managing to explain why in a meritocracy his children held such powerful governmental positions. When William Safire asked him if his son, Lee Hsien Loong, could have deputy prime minister if he was just an ordinary citizen, Lee wittily replied that he would have been the prime minister instead. The fact that his son was deputy prime minister, he further added, was entirely due to his own merits. It was a clever, but unsatisfying answer.

Even more unsettling was the social unrest that occurred in 2013. Because it was quickly put down and was not repeated, that particular case of rioting was deemed an isolated incident by the authorities – yet it may be a sign that it is not enough for a country to have law and order alone. Singapore’s new leaders may have to deal with new problems, and look with new eyes at old problems. Lee’s reputation is secure, but new leaders will have to add to his achievements and perhaps do things differently. Lee has left behind a monumental legacy, but time does not stand still, and his successors will have to adapt to newer times, problems and circumstances. They have to show themselves to be as flexible and perceptive as he was. Singapore’s success began in an era in which globalization was only beginning. Today, it is a much more potent force. If the dynamics of globalization are correctly understood and harnessed, this force could lead the little city-state to ever greater heights; if not, it could lose its luster as the “next” Singapore emerges, perhaps in the most unexpected of places.

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.

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