Lee Kuan Yew

This was my take on Singapore’s founding-father, published in The Tablet earlier this year. Having lived in Singapore for four years, I was probably more generous towards the old tyrant than many of his Western critics.

Very few statesmen, in Asia or beyond, can have made such a big impact on the world from so small a country as Lee Kuan Yew, who died on 23 March at the age of 91.

Lee Kuan Yew was the last remaining leader of the anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s, 50s and 60s, on a par with General Aung San of Burma, President Suharto of Indonesia or Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. Yet, like Mahatma Gandhi in India or Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Lee Kuan Yew also transcended the particular story of his own country’s birth to become an exemplar, a paradigm of how all post-colonial nations might prosper. These sorts of people don’t come along very often, so before he passes into myth it’s worth dwelling for a while on the real meaning of Lee Kuan Yew.

Many draw the wrong conclusions from his principal legacy, the so-called “Singapore model”. On the one hand, authoritarians and despots around the world claim him as an ally and fellow spirit, while ignoring all the civic values that he inculcated into Singapore. On the other hand, Westerners dwell on his illiberalism, while ignoring the fact that his values very much reflected those of his people, and undoubtedly held the country together. For all his fame, and notoriety, the real meaning of Lee Kwan Yew is a good deal more subtle than many people allow.

His reputation, of course, rests mainly on his outstanding contribution to the history of the tiny city-state at the foot of Malaysia, which you can comfortably drive across in just forty minutes or so. As prime minister for 31 years, starting in 1959 when Singapore won self-government from Britain, he transformed the island from a racially divided, impecunious coaling station into a global banking and finance hub. Today, by some estimates, it is the wealthiest nation per head of population in the world. Little wonder that around 600,000 of Singapore’s grateful citizenry defied the monsoonal rains last week to pay their respects as their former leader lay in state.

His influence abroad was, if anything, even greater than his standing at home. For the “Singapore model” came to be admired and copied by dozens of other countries, from Rwanda to China, from El Salvador to Cambodia. Everyone wanted the secret of Singapore’s short-cut to prosperity. Even Britain had something to learn from its former colony, founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819. Mrs Thatcher filched much of one of her signature policies from LKY, as Singaporeans called him. This was the “right-to-buy” scheme for council house tenants, and the popularity of this policy contributed considerably to Mrs Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979. Thereafter, she remained an enthusiastic devotee of the Singapore strongman. Her feelings were heartily reciprocated and a breed of orchid named after her grows in the VIP section of Singapore’s Botanic Garden.

The countries that have tried to emulate the Singapore model come in all shapes and sizes, and from pretty well every continent. Usually (though not always), they are nations with few natural resources. So, like Singapore, they have been obliged to learn how to make the most of their human capital. Tiny, land-locked Rwanda constantly invokes Singapore. Its ruthless president Paul Kagame has invested heavily in education and the internet to try and set his country apart from the war and instability that surround it (and which he helped to foment). Many of these nations have tried to replicate LKY’s combination of free-trade economic liberalism with political authoritarianism and social illiberalism. This was, and remains, the quintessence of the Singapore model.

Mr Lee was no armchair philosopher. One unnamed British official described him in 1965 as “the most brilliant man around, albeit it just a bit of a thug”. It’s a fair enough summary. The Singapore model was something that Mr Lee made up as he went along, as Singapore confronted the shocks and crises that marked the early decades of independence. In particular, the 1971 withdrawal of all British armed forces from Singapore, and particularly the Royal Navy from its giant base there, deprived the country of one of its main sources of revenue. This forced Singapore to establish its hub strategy rapidly and ruthlessly, building the world-beating airport, huge container ports and five- lane highways that would draw in the world’s traders and financiers. Race riots between the majority ethnic Chinese and Malays in the 1960s convinced Mr Lee of the need for strict social control, and his battles against the communist party, all too real a threat in those days, led to crackdowns on opposition politicians and tight limits on the exercise of democracy. The sum of all these parts became “the model”, and from the 1990s onwards the stern moral underpinnings of the model started to be called “Asian values”.

Meanwhile Singapore became a bit of a joke in the West. Many laughed at its cranky prohibitions against chewing gum and long hair, part of the city-state’s war against decadent western individualism. The country’s liberal use of the cane and severe penalties for the mildest use of drugs were heavily criticised: “Disneyland with the death penalty”, quipped one journalist. For desperately poor, post-colonial countries, however, Singapore’s combination of rapid development combined with social and political order was compelling, indeed dazzling. For countries with no firm traditions of democracy, lifting people out of dire poverty was the priority, and no-one seemed to have done this better than LKY.

Most dazzled of all were the Chinese. In 1978 Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s extraordinary economic growth of recent decades, visited the island-state and was famously impressed by what he saw. At a time when China was still emerging from the trauma of the Cultural Revolution, Deng Xiaoping was awed by how wealthy his own people had managed to become under the Singapore model, and he vowed to transpose it back to China. This he did, and within 30 years his country had undergone a similar transformation from impoverished peasant commune to the second biggest economy in the world. By this process China has contributed more than any other country towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, an achievement that owes much to Mr Lee. This staunch anti-communist was treated ever after with enormous reverence by China’s communist leaders.  In as far as there is a “Beijing consensus” spreading across Asia today, in opposition to the “Washington consensus” of free-markets allied to political freedoms and democracy, that is largely due to Lee Kuan Yew.

However, it would be wrong to imagine that the Singapore model remains as rigid, oppressive and anti-democratic as the despotic leaders of China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar, Rwanda and others like to think it does. Although Singapore’s electoral system is so distorted that elections are never seriously competitive (in the last election the ruling party won only 60% of the votes but still managed to capture 90% of the seats), nonetheless the government takes enormous care to listen to the electorate, and often responds accordingly.  As long as the ruling party retains power, it is prepared to take on board criticism and change tack for the public good.

Intriguingly, a number of these changes have been overseen by Mr Lee’s own son, the present prime minister Lee Hsien Loong.  There was considerable public anger, for example, at the general election in 2011 over inordinately high ministerial salaries and rising levels of immigration. Having won the usual thumping majority, the younger Lee could simply have ignored this. Yet within months ministerial salaries had been slashed and immigration slowed.

Perhaps most important of all, the despots who invoke the Singapore model to justify their one-party rule entirely overlook the fact that Singapore’s success has been built on remarkably strong and carefully nurtured civic values. There is almost no corruption and graft at a personal level in politics; instead a sturdy sense of public service prevails.  Whereas authoritarianism is usually a cover for personal enrichment and institutional graft, in Singapore the firm rule of law is regarded by the majority as a public good, for setting long-term goals and raising prosperity. People are very wealthy, but they are also expected to give freely to charities (as Mr Lee did himself, donating $12 million to start a Fund for Bilingualism, which promotes the teaching of English beside the local languages, in 2011) and to their Churches and religious communities.  As a mark of respect, bells of the Roman Catholic churches in Singapore tolled on the day of his funeral.

Again, much of the best of Singapore is owed to the personal example set by Lee Kuan Yew himself. He was probably best described as an agnostic, but he had a strong sense of personal morality. He was frugal, and a strict but compassionate father. As in his personal life, so in his leadership of the country that he founded.