“The final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives,” Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew told The New York Times soberly when asked about his legacy in a September 2010 interview. On Monday morning, Lee passed away at 91 following weeks at the Singapore General Hospital and on the 50th year of the republic’s founding. Even if any true assessment at this time would be premature by his standards, how do we remember Lee Kuan Yew?
There are those who will cite his “strategic thinking.” Henry Kissinger himself once admitted that of all the world leaders he has met over the past half-century, none has taught him more than Lee. Richard Nixon famously said that had Lee lived in another time and another place, he may have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”
His powerful intellect and astute observations on global politics – which were praised by a long list of world leaders – certainly justify these compliments. Yet in truth, Lee himself was rather uncomfortable with them. He once quipped that anyone who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist. And if there was one thing consistent in his thinking, it was his firm belief in pragmatism rather than any theory, philosophy or grand idea.
But it is Lee’s role as the founding father of Singapore that he will be most remembered for and which gave him that global status in the first place. His success in turning Singapore from a tiny third-world country – at the time of its independence separated from Malaysia and under threat from neighboring Indonesia – into a first-world city state is a feat to behold. While few expected Singapore to survive, it has thrived far beyond the wildest dreams of many, including Lee himself who once reportedly dismissed small island states as a political joke.
Of course, those familiar with Singapore’s history – including Lee himself – know that he did not do this alone as shallower accounts might suggest. He he had the able assistance of others, including Goh Keng Swee, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, and Edmund W. Barker.
There was also a darker side to the Singapore story that some prefer not to dwell on. While Lee shaped one of the world’s least corrupt and best educated societies, he did so by creating a “nanny state” that slapped hefty fines on people for littering or not flushing toilets, banned chewing gum and encouraged graduates to produce smart babies. And his People’s Action Party (PAP) maintained its iron grip on the city-state in part by squashing dissent, bankrupting political opponents in court or imprisoning them without trial. “If you are a troublemaker… it’s our job to politically destroy you,” Lee once said rather chillingly. “Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac.”
To be fair, Singapore is far from the only country in its neighborhood to have this dark side. The reason why it is often singled out is because its success makes it stand out as a potent challenge to the idea that development and democracy need to go together – as is often believed in the West – as opposed to being pursued sequentially as advocates of “Asian values” like Lee suggest. Some continue to maintain that Lee could have accomplished what he did without being the autocrat he was. But at times his approach did find support even in the most unlikely quarters. For instance, Singapore’s caning of the American teenager Michael Fay in 1994, which sparked outrage from U.S. officials including then-president Bill Clinton, was actually a divisive issue among the American public, with many approving the city-state’s harsh punishment in part because they were angry about juvenile crime at home and their own government’s leniency.
Lee himself was often rather unapologetic about his methods, viewing them as necessary to get Singapore to where it was. That may have been acceptable to some Singaporeans when their country was vulnerable and still striving for economic growth. But today, Singapore’s politics are “normalizing,” to put it politely. The PAP, now led by Lee’s son and prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, lost six out of 84 seats in the last general election, a sea change by the city-state’s standards. According to a recent survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, most Singaporeans do not even remember historical events like race riots or the communist threat. And many are asking tough questions of their government on issues such as the rising cost of living, immigration and social welfare. The next test for the country’s leadership is also approaching quickly, since national elections have to be held before January 2017.
At a national rally parade in August 1988, Lee famously declared: “Even from my sick bed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up.” Even if he does not rise from the dead, Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy will loom over Singapore as the city-state contemplates its future.