Lee Kuan Yew, who died this weekend at the age of 91, was the father of the nation called Singapore, and, for my generation, born more than 20 years after Mr. Lee first came to power, he was in many ways a grandfather or great grandfather: by turns nurturing and protective, authoritarian and frustrating.
Lee served in office from 1959 to 2011 as Prime Minister, Senior Minister and then Minister Mentor of the People’s Action Party (PAP), guiding the country through its first 50 years, a half-century of national development unrivaled by any other state in modern history.
From 1959 when Singapore became self-governing, through independence from Great Britain in 1963 and a brief union with—then expulsion from—Malaysia, Singapore was a fragmented collection of people, shards of polyglot migrant communities rattling around inside a resource-poor island state.
Lee pulled them together around a shared system of values and ambition. Under his party’s stewardship, Singapore transformed itself from a rural colonial outpost to a significant international player with one of the largest per capita GDPs in the world.
Although Lee passed his prime minister’s title to his successor Goh Chok Tong in 1990, Lee retained cabinet-level advisory roles until 2011 and even now few Singaporeans can deny his legacy in their lives or the institutions they interact with daily.
They can see Lee’s thinking in the ethnic quotas of their housing blocks and even the quota of land reserved for greenery. They feel him in the decisions they make and the mental processes that lead them to those decisions. Lee left no stone unturned when mapping the future of a land of 640 square kilometers wedged among hostile neighbors.
Over the years, an astounding array of world leaders have marveled at the man’s accomplishments. U.S. President Barack Obama called him “a giant of history.” Chinese President Xi Jinping called Lee “our senior who has our respect.”
Long after Lee left the prime minister’s office, diplomats and major decision makers sought his counsel. The late Margaret Thatcher said that she had read and analyzed “every one of his speeches” for his brilliant foresight. “He had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our times and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong.”
James Wolfensohn, who headed the World Bank until 2005, recounted his experience serving as Lee’s advisor at one point: “It was a very hard job, because I traveled to Singapore, and every time I was just about to tell something to Mr. Minister Mentor, he would stop me and tell me the thing I was to tell him. Then I would return to the United States and sell his advice. Thank you very much, Mr. Minister Mentor, for all the things you have taught me. I tried giving you my advice. But, in fact, it was you who taught me.”
The leader who offered him the most frequent endorsements probably was Henry Kissinger: “There is no better strategic thinker in the world today. Two generations of American leaders have benefited from his counsel.”
But let’s step back for a moment.
In some respects, Lee’s political mastery put him in the ranks of Fidel Castro, Gandhi or Mao, revolutionaries who wrestled a place for their nation on the world stage. But while the names of those leaders are synonymous with their endemic ideologies, Lee was anything but an ideologue.
He was a pure pragmatist. “If there was one formula to our success,” Lee wrote in his memoir From Third World to First, “it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality.”
But such pragmatism can be ruthless. Those who were a threat to social order felt the full force of the law. From caning to the death penalty, there was no ideological padding to soften the blow.
It’s no surprise then that sentiment toward Lee is sharply divided. For as much reverence as he commands, there are just as many people for whom his name induces bitterness, resentment, even ridicule. Manywere detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. Political dissidents suspected of colluding with the Communists in the 80s, along with their friends and family, spout virulent dissent, albeit in hushed circles and select bookstores. Then there are the rumors of Lee’s death that have polluted cyberspace for many years, mean-spirited pranks by bored avatars who flock online to flex their anonymous muscles.
If most of these attacks lack critical depth and fail to spark serious debate, that is part of Lee’s legacy as well. They are products of an academic tradition that discouraged questioning, and the underdevelopment of institutions, including those in the arts, that might have played a role in critical thinking. When constructing the national ethos, party members engineered a vacuum of sophisticated debate and dissent so that they could govern effectively and without obstruction. Lee believed that a talented elite should be guiding the country because the majority was not prepared to do it. But, not surprisingly, the elite were reluctant to prepare the majority to take over.
Citizens entered a social pact with the government, trading democratic freedom and rights for high living standards and social protection. And many in my parents’ generation, certainly, benefitted greatly from Lee’s approach.
But people of my generation, the under-30s who never came close to experiencing the hardships and the dangerous that justified Lee’s policies, are widely apathetic. Thanks to Lee Kuan Yew, we can afford to forget the past and enjoy the present, and on the occasion of his death he deserves our gratitude.
The future? Without him? That’s something we will have to handle for ourselves.