Thursday, March 26, 2015


"Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and patriarch of modern Singapore who has died at the age of 91, was one of postwar Asia’s most revered and controversial politicians and one of its last remaining independence leaders. His greatest achievement was to promote the concept of good governance in Southeast Asia, a region long plagued by corrupt, inefficient governments. As Singapore’s prime minister for more than 30 years, he built his small island republic into one of the world’s economic success stories. Average per capita income just after independence in 1965 was a mere US$511. By the time Lee resigned as prime minister it had topped $50,000. Singapore is one of Asia’s largest financial centres, and is the world’s biggest ship bunkering port. Lee was the embodiment of a new Asian dynamism: smart, tough and pragmatic and displaying unshakeable self-confidence. His style of leadership had many foreign admirers and he was credited with being a pioneer of “authoritarian capitalism”, which has influenced other countries including China, Russia and the Gulf states. Richard Nixon once described Lee as a big man on a small stage who, “in other times and other places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli or a Gladstone”. Perhaps at times Lee yearned to put his talents to work outside the narrow confines of Singapore but he was pleased to be acknowledged as a leading spokesman for Asia. Few other leaders have stamped their personalities so firmly on a country. His perfectionism, farsightedness, elitism, authoritarianism and intolerance, along with his obsessions with security, cleanliness and order, are reflected in nearly every aspect of modern Singaporean life. The sale of chewing gum is still banned — a nannyish rule he instigated that is arguably the most-recognised fact about Singapore abroad. “What is required is a rugged, resolute, highly trained, highly disciplined community,” Lee once said, believing that Singapore’s multi-ethnic population and the political instability of Southeast Asia represented a constant threat to his creation. He achieved his goal at the expense of curbing some civil liberties, such as freedom of the press. Lee was unapologetic about his means, dismissing the idea of western liberal democracy as unsuitable to Asian societies. His death comes as the city-state, whose economic and political model he oversaw, has reached a crossroads. Singapore is straining to cope with a declining working-age population, increasing reliance on foreign immigrants and unprecedented popular pressure for a less authoritarian government".
By John Burton, Peter Montagnon, Kevin Brown and Jeremy Grant, "Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, 1923-2015". The Financial Times. 22 March 2015, in
"He had performed the dramatic feats required by the crises that had brought him to power. He had consolidated new political institutions. He had achieved the decolonisation of French Africa while maintaining French self-confidence at home and its prestige in the former colonies. Barely overcoming incipient civil war, he had restored French pride by giving it a central role in the policies of Europe and the Western Alliance. His challenge to the United States had to a great degree the purpose of inspiring French self-assurance. But the student upheavals of 1968 had shaken de Gaulle. And the challenges facing him thereafter were not of a magnitude he considered relevant to his vision of himself. To ensure a growing economy, to arbitrate contending claims on limited resources, to organise and manager a bureaucratic state---these were tasks for what he half-contemptuously called 'quartermasters', not for heroic figures."
Henry Alfred Kissinger. The White House Years. (1979), pp. 387-388.
The query raised above is pertinent in considering the career and legacy of the late Singaporean Prime Minister (1959-1990). At least on the surface, Mr. Lee was an outstanding leader who via a mixture of political smarts and intelligent policies managed to raise the once relatively poor island of Singapore to unprecedented wealth and luxury. Something of a martinet or if you like an usually authoritarian Prefect from an early 20th century British Public School, Lee enforced policies and programmes which ordinarily would have landed him in an early and long-lasting retirement in almost any Western country in the past forty-five year: banning the chewing of bubble gum in public being the epitome of the very same. The fact that Lee enjoyed being in office for upwards of fifty years, highlights the differing political culture of Singapore to the post-soixante-huitard West. What would have become of Lee in the much less forgiving atmosphere in say Britain, France or indeed any Western country is perhaps best pointed to by the similar political denouements of General de Gaulle and Lady Thatcher. In both cases, political leaders who had accomplished much in a period of ten-years were ousted (directly in the case of Thatcher or indirectly in the case of General de Gaulle), soon thereafter. Given his overtly authoritarian tendencies in the latter part of his premiership, it is difficult to envisage Lee lasting longer than either of these two Western leaders. Whether or not Lee's so-called 'Confucian' model of authoritarian capitalism, is something that the contemporary West can or should adopt is of course a speculative question to put it mildly. Au fond, there is nothing in Lee's model of statecraft that cannot be found in say Meiji or early post-bellum Showa Japan (sans of course the endemic corruption of the latter), or 18th and 19th century Prussia. One can merely note that neither of these two models survived democratization of the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. It is difficult to imagine at this point in time, that any Western country would be willing to step back into time and adopt the ways or the methods of the Prussian State. Perhaps this fact is an unfortunate one (and to a degree I do believe this to be true), but I cannot for the life of me, imagine this occurring. At least not in my lifetime. So in short, to answer my own query: I believe that Lee Kwan Yew was more of a Gaullist 'quartermaster' than a visionary statesman. The reason being that Lee's political career in Singapore did not require him to be anything else.


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