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Lee Kuan Yew, the Man Who Remade Asia

When I arrived in Singapore one sultry summer evening in 1962 as a 22-year-old student, the Union Jack still fluttered over the British colony. Coolies unloaded wooden boats on the docks, per capita income was languishing under $500 and the young independence leader Lee Kuan Yew was still in his 30s. It was a far cry from today’s well-ordered cityscape of manicured parks, gleaming office towers, high-rise apartment blocks filled with middle-class families and glittering malls swarming with wealthy consumers.

 

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew is hoisted by supporters after leading his People’s Action Party to a landslide victory in the country’s elections on Sept. 21, 1963. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

What distinguished Singapore back then was its colonial torpor, a total absence of natural resources (not even its own supply of drinking water) and little industry. It was a small, backward Third World outpost. Besides a few iconic British buildings, the city consisted mostly of low arcaded “shop houses,” flimsy street stalls that made up its outdoor markets and a chaotic infinity of dilapidated shacks that formed the slums where most of Singapore’s poor Chinese, Malay and Tamil immigrants made their homes.

As Europe’s colonial era in Asia drew to a close, this ragtag, polyglot populace had turned for leadership to a fiery young anti-colonialist organizer called Harry Lee (as Lee Kuan Yew was then known). By the time he died last week at the age of 91, after serving his country for well over a half-century, not just Singapore but much of Asia had come under his thrall.

Upon returning from legal studies at the University of Cambridge, Harry Lee had plunged with single-minded determination into the task of first organizing his People’s Action Party to liberate his city from colonialism and then building a new kind of micro-country. After Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai snidely described him as “like a banana—yellow of skin, but white underneath,” he soon dropped the Anglicized “Harry” and become, simply, Lee Kuan Yew.

In the early 1960s, his real problem was not his name but that Singapore was ethnically fractured, under attack by Indonesia in its bizarre policy of “konfrontasi,” reviled by Beijing as “a running dog of U.S. and British imperialism,” and then in 1965 expelled unceremoniously from an ill-fated union with Malaysia. In announcing this devastating rupture on television, Lee became so distraught by the apparent hopelessness of his country’s situation that he ended up weeping.

Lee came from the diaspora of simple, poor emigrants who had been driven from the South China Coast by penury. Stripped of anything but folk culture and an abiding belief in the importance of their families, education and diligence, they had heaved onto the alien shores of this unlikely colonialized city-state. As Lee ruefully observed in trying to imagine his small country’s future, “City-states do not have good survival records.”

Prime Minister Kuan Yew Lee, left, talking to children while visiting a housing project. PHOTO: LARRY BURROWS/THE LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION/GETTY IMAGES

Left with no other allies, he turned to Singapore’s own people, who were immigrants like himself. Because they were so divided by what he called “the most hideous collection of dialects and languages,” he quickly concluded that, if full democracy were implemented, everyone would simply vote for their own ethnic group and overlook the common interests of the country. Anyway, despite his British schooling and fluency in English, he never accepted the idea that Western liberal democracy was the only suitable political model for Singapore, or even that Western political principles were universal, much less superior.

One finds expressions of this divided loyalty between East and West again and again in his writings. “We felt a sense of loss at being educated in a stepmother tongue, not completely accepting the values of a culture not our own,” he would say of his British education. “My world of textbooks and teachers was totally unrelated to the world I lived in.” He was, he lamented, “lost between two cultures.”

Though cut off from his Chinese roots, Lee was a proud Chinese, and that may very well be how history remembers his astonishing career. Impressed by the economic growth enjoyed by Asian countries such as Japan, Korea, Taiwan and finally China, Lee began wondering if their common Confucian heritage was not the foundation of their success.  He was soon propounding the Confucian virtues that came to be known as “Asian values”—family, diligence, filial piety, education and obedience to authority. He viewed these values as binding agents for developing countries that needed to find a way to maintain order during times of rapid change.

“In the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can have maximum enjoyment of their freedoms,” Lee declared, suggesting that the curtailment of one freedom sometimes best assures the advancement of others. In his view, economic success and social order fully justified whatever state controls were necessary, even if a leader sometimes had to act in an arbitrary, even dictatorial, manner. “We have to lock up people without trial whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists,” he bluntly said in 1986. “If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”

Sometimes what Lee said and did outraged Western liberals, but he took a certain delight in being independent-minded and provocative. “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right,” he proclaimed. “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless!” And his record on civil liberties and political pluralism was checkered indeed: Many of his critics ended up in exile, jail or bankrupted by long, costly libel suits.

But there was an irony in Lee’s latter-day conversion to Chinese traditionalism and Asian authoritarianism, especially in his insistence that they could serve as agents of modernization. After all, it was only a few decades earlier that reform-minded Chinese intellectuals (including Communists like Mao Zedong) had identified such Confucian “Asian values” as the very cause of their country’s backwardness and weakness, and then sought to extirpate them from Chinese thinking. After the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards drove a final stake through the heart of traditional Chinese culture by savagely attacking it as retrograde and “feudal,” hardly anyone expected to see a self-conscious revival soon.

Then, just as Lee was extolling his notion of “Asian values” abroad, something unexpected happened in China. Faced with social upheaval brought about by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, leaders in Beijing began groping for new ways to maintain order themselves. Intrigued by what Lee had been doing in Singapore, they too began reviving aspects of their old cultural edifice as a stabilizing force. The cultural vacuums in Singapore and China may have had different origins, but some version of “Asian values” suddenly felt like a comfortable remedy for both.

Lee Kuan Yew, left, welcomes Chinese Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping in Singapore in 1978. PHOTO: ZHANG GUIYU/XINHUA/ASSOCIATED PRESS

By then, Lee’s earlier anticommunism had morphed into an ideologically more neutral pragmatism. He found himself becoming not only a fan of China’s new Confucianism Lite but an enthusiastic booster of Deng’s reform-minded leadership. In fact, to demonstrate his fraternity with China, only a year after the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, when most countries still spurned China, Lee fully normalized diplomatic relations.

“I consider Deng a greater leader who changed the destiny of China and the world,” he said. He was deeply gratified by the way that Deng had brought wealth, power, order and pride back to China—still his racial homeland—as well as to all Chinese.

Deng’s admiration of Lee was just as deep. He appreciated Lee’s pragmatism and friendship, especially his refusal to criticize China for its undemocratic form of statecraft, even after the infamy of 1989. And, because “the Singapore model” proved that a country could modernize without surrendering to “wholesale Westernization,” Deng (and all subsequent leaders in Beijing) celebrated it. “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly,” he once wistfully lamented of his success. “But I have the whole of China!”

Lee’s own support for Deng grew to the point where he started admonishing the U.S. for being too critical of China and too sanctimonious about the virtues of liberal democracy. “It is my business to tell people not to foist their [political] system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work,” he chided. In the West, he continued, “the idea of the inviolability of the individual has been turned into dogma.”

For Lee, the Chinese aphorism that best captured the uniquely Asian/Confucian view of the individual’s role in society was: Xiushen, qijia, zhiguo, pingtianxia: “Bringing peace under heaven first requires cultivating oneself, then taking care of one’s family, and finally looking after one’s country.”

Various people have described today’s supremely well-ordered Singapore as “a think tank state,” “a paradise designed by McKinsey” or “Disneyland with the death penalty.”  Call it what you will: Lee’s nation-building experiment succeeded spectacularly well.

Modern Singapore boasts the world’s second-busiest port, its most celebrated airline and an airport that hosts 15 million visitors a year. With an annual average growth rate of almost 7% since 1976, it now has a per capita income of well over $50,000, making it the wealthiest country in Asia. And it has the second most entrepreneurs per capita in the world, trailing only the U.S.

But quite apart from Lee’s acumen as a leader or the fact that he became the longest-serving prime minister in world history, we are still left to wonder: Where did his enormous commitment and energy come from? How was he able to create such an unusual success story from virtually nothing?

Lee was a very different leader from his confreres in Beijing, but he shared something important with them: a mutual sense that, despite the long, painful and humiliating history of the Chinese people’s modern weakness, it was their destiny to make something of themselves. Where Lee seemed to connect most deeply with Deng and other Chinese leaders was in this common yearning to win back a measure of the prosperity, greatness and respect that they, as “a people,” had once known but had lost to the West and Japan over the last bitter century of defeat.

Lee once described the Chinese as burdened by “a sense of frustration that they were down for so long” and as “enormously ambitious to catch up.” As this rebirth finally began in the 1990s, it allowed Lee to proudly proclaim that China’s “reawakened sense of destiny is an overpowering force.” In making such utterances, he seemed to be speaking as a Chinese who identified as much with his race as with his nation. True, Lee was a Singapore nationalist, but like many overseas Chinese, he often seemed to view the destiny of his own small country as inextricably connected to the larger enterprise of Greater China.

At the same time, his sympathy for China’s rise never eclipsed his respect for the U.S., as well as his firm conviction that the rule of law was important for Singapore and that its interests would be best served by refusing to take sides in big-power competitions. “We will not choose sides between America and China,” he told Charlie Rose, “or between China and India.”

When Lee’s ancestors joined the great Chinese diaspora, they were stripped of their culture and national identities. This defoliating process created, in them and later generations of overseas Chinese, a strange kind of hunger for advancement, and in Singapore, Lee could begin to satisfy that longing for progress uninhibited by the conservative traditions that have so often clashed with modernizing impulses around the world. His new country may have been an almost synthetic nation, without a coherent cultural core, but this relative vacuum ended up being a blessing in disguise when it came to the challenges of creating a completely new state from the bottom up.

 

China faced a similar situation in the wake of its own tectonic revolutionary upheavals. Mao Zedong once spoke of his people as possessing “two remarkable peculiarities.” They were, he said, “first poor and secondly blank,” which meant that they were inclined to “want revolution.” As he observed, “a clean sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.”

Mao’s savage Cultural Revolution destroyed even more of his country’s cultural legacy. But he was fond of reminding his followers that, “Without destruction there can be no reconstruction.” By the time Deng came to power in the late 1970s, his own reforms met with little resistance from those traditional forces that had so obstructed change earlier in the century. Like Lee in Singapore, Deng was aided by the fact that traditional culture had already been demolished.

Lee was no Maoist, but when he came into Singapore’s narrative more than a half-century ago, just before I first landed there, his city-state did evince a certain “poorness and blankness.” Aided by a powerful patriotic yearning to put an end to the long period of imperial domination in Asia, Lee managed to kindle a miracle of development that was distinctly un-Western. As a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing eulogized Lee after his death, “He was a uniquely Asian statesman and a strategist boasting both Eastern values and international vision.”

Fighting back tears, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s current prime minister, memorialized his father by saying: “He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him.”

Lee Kuan Yew not only made Singaporeans proud; he also made Chinese and other Asians proud. He was a master builder, a sophisticated Asian nationalist dedicated not only to the success of his own small nation but to bequeathing the world a new model of governance. Instead of trying to impose Western political models on Asian realities, he sought to make autocracy respectable by leavening it with meritocracy, the rule of law and a strict intolerance for corruption to make it deliver growth.

Though his country was minuscule, Lee was a larger-than-life figure with a grandness of vision. He saw “Asian values” as a source of legitimacy for the idea that authoritarian leadership, constrained by certain Western legal and administrative checks, offered an effective “Asian” alternative to the messiness of liberal democracy. Because his thinking proved so agreeable to the Chinese Communist Party, he became the darling of Beijing. And because China has now become the political keystone of the modern Asian arch, Beijing’s imprimatur helped him and his ideas to gain a pan-Asian stature that Singapore alone could not have provided.

As countries such as Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and even China continue to search for new models of development and governance that do not bear the stigma of their former Western colonizers, Lee Kuan Yew’s example is a tempting option. Even though he is now gone, the Venice-like republic he founded will continue to be extolled as a hopeful experiment, and the man himself, the progenitor of what has come to be known as the “Singapore model,” will doubtless remain an influential political evangelist.

By 

ORVILLE SCHELL

Mr. Schell is Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and co-author, with John Delury, of “Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century.”