LEE KWAN YEW, Father of Modern Singapore, 1924-2015
Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore into prosperity over 30-year rule, dies at 91
By William Branigin March 22
Lee Kuan Yew, whose efficient but often heavy-handed leadership helped transform Singapore from a chaotic British colonial backwater into one of the world’s most prosperous and orderly states, died March 23 in a Singapore hospital. He was 91.
Mr. Lee had been hospitalized with pneumonia since February. The prime minister’s office announced the death.
As prime minister from 1959 to 1990, Mr. Lee ushered Singapore through independence from Britain, a merger and subsequent breakup with neighboring Malaysia, and a period of explosive racial tensions before turning the Southeast Asian city-state into one of the region’s economic “tigers.” By the time he stepped down after 31 years at the helm, he was the longest-serving prime minister in the world.
Mr. Lee then held senior advisory posts in the cabinets of two of his successors, including his eldest son, until he resigned in May 2011. In all, he spent 52 years in government, presiding over Singapore’s rise as one of the globe’s leading financial centers and busiest ports, with GDP per capita ranked third in the world. Even after relinquishing power, he maintained outsize influence, sought for his counsel on matters ranging from how to achieve political stability and economic growth to ways of dealing with China.
His bluntness sometimes got him into trouble, notably when he lectured other countries publicly or when his private comments to U.S. officials became public. According to a U.S. diplomatic cable released by the anti-privacy group WikiLeaks, Mr. Lee in 2007 said dealing with Burma’s military junta was like “talking to dead people.” In 2009, in another leaked cable, he apparently called North Korean officials “psychopathic types, with a ‘flabby old chap’ for a leader who prances around stadiums seeking adulation.”
Scarred by deadly race riots that rocked Singapore in the 1960s, Mr. Lee took far-reaching steps to tamp down racial and religious tensions among the teeming island state’s Chinese, Malay and Indian populations. He imposed integration, instituting strict rules to ensure that Singaporeans of different backgrounds lived, studied and worked together.
A British-educated lawyer by training, Mr. Lee ran a government that was widely regarded as farsighted, honest and efficient, but it also could be overbearing and patronizing. The result was a tidy, law-abiding country, but one that visitors often described as regimented, sterile and dull.
Critics also charged that Mr. Lee’s administration permitted detention without charge or trial, censored the press, harassed political opponents and turned a blind eye to police mistreatment of suspects.
Some Singaporeans complained that the avowedly “paternalistic” government treated them like children, forbidding private citizens to own home satellite dishes, fining and humiliating people caught failing to flush public toilets, and even imposing a nationwide ban on chewing gum.
When a BBC reporter once suggested to him that allowing people to chew gum could help spur creativity, Mr. Lee retorted: “If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.”
Mr. Lee steadfastly defended his tough approach to political opponents, arguing that it was imperative in a country such as Singapore, with its ethnic Chinese majority and sizable Malay and Indian minorities.
“Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac,” he was quoted as saying in “Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas,” a 1997 biography. “If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society.”
Harry Lee Kuan Yew was born Sept. 16, 1923, in Singapore, then a British colony, where his great-grandfather had emigrated from China’s Guangdong province in 1862. His father, Lee Chin Koon, was a storekeeper and worked for Shell Oil as a depot manager. His mother, Chua Jim Neo, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman and became a renowned cooking teacher.
For the first three decades of his life, Mr. Lee was known mostly as Harry Lee, but he dropped the Anglicized first name as his political career blossomed.
He studied at Raffles College in Singapore, but his higher education plans were interrupted by the outbreak of World War II and the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Mr. Lee learned to speak Japanese and found work as a translator and editor for the occupiers’ propaganda department.
The 1942-1945 occupation had a profound impact on the young Mr. Lee, who recalled in his memoirs being slapped and forced to kneel for failing to bow to a Japanese soldier. He and other young Singaporeans “emerged determined that no one — neither Japanese nor British — had the right to push and kick us around,” he said later. “We determined that we could govern ourselves.”
The occupation also drove home lessons about raw power and the effectiveness of harsh punishment in deterring crime, he wrote in his memoirs.
After the war, Mr. Lee earned a law degree from the University of Cambridge, where he courted Kwa Geok Choo, a fellow law student he had met in Singapore. They married secretly in London in 1947, then again more formally in 1950 after returning to Singapore, where they set up a law practice together.
The couple had two sons — Lee Hsien Loong, who became prime minister in 2004, and Lee Hsien Yang, chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore since 2009 — and a daughter, Lee Wei Ling, who heads the National Neuroscience Institute. They survive, along with seven grandchildren. Kwa died in 2010 at 89.
In 1954, Mr. Lee and a group of other British-educated Singaporeans formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) as a populist, socialist organization seeking independence from Britain, which had reoccupied its colony after the war. The following year, he won a legislative seat that he would continue to hold for more than five decades. He became Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959, presiding over a government that was autonomous except in defense and foreign affairs.
In 1961, neighboring Malaya proposed a merger in which Singapore would join a new Federation of Malaysia, which Mr. Lee enthusiastically endorsed, seeing it as a way to ensure the political and economic viability of his tiny, resource-poor island. Voters backed him in a referendum, and, on Aug. 31, 1963, Mr. Lee declared independence from Britain, paving the way for Singapore to join the federation.
Race riots in 1964, in which at least 34 people were killed and more than 560 were injured in clashes between Chinese and Malays, exacerbated a political dispute between Mr. Lee’s PAP and Malaysia’s ruling United Malays National Organization. Eventually, Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman moved to expel Singapore from the federation.
Displaying rare emotion, Mr. Lee wept on national television as he announced Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in August 1965, declaring it a “moment of anguish” for him that “literally broke everything that we stood for.”
As a result, Singapore gained full independence — the only country in modern history to do so against its will.
Mr. Lee set about building Singapore, adopting free-trade and business-friendly policies. He cracked down hard on corruption, launched urban reforms, bulldozed squalid slums and enforced multiculturalism in an effort to create a uniquely Singaporean identity.
To prevent the formation of what it called “racial enclaves,” his government crafted elaborate rules stipulating the percentages of Chinese, Malays and Indians who could live in public housing projects. “We cannot allow segregation,” Mr. Lee declared.
At the same time, Mr. Lee showed little tolerance for dissent. Saying that Singapore “has always to be a tight ship,” he made free use of the Internal Security Act, a law predating independence that allows for arrest and detention without trial.
The case of Chia Thye Poh illustrated Mr. Lee’s penchant for political vindictiveness. Chia, a mild-mannered former physics teacher and member of parliament from a socialist opposition party, was arrested in 1966 and spent 23 years in prison without charge or trial, becoming one of the world’s longest-held political prisoners. The government suspected him of being an undercover communist agitator, which Chia emphatically denied, and he stubbornly refused to sign a confession in return for his freedom.
Chia was released in 1989, but Mr. Lee’s government then imposed a bizarre form of internal exile off Singapore’s main island. He was confined to a small former guardhouse on Sentosa Island, a resort that is the city-state’s equivalent of Disneyland. It was not until 1998 that authorities lifted all restrictions on him.
“They wanted me to pay a very high price for not kowtowing to them,” Chia said.
Mr. Lee was unapologetic. “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists,” he said in 1986. “If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”
Critics also accused Mr. Lee of using Singapore’s libel laws to suppress dissent by suing political opponents into bankruptcy. One who made that charge was Devan Nair, who served as president of Singapore in the early 1980s before falling out with Mr. Lee and moving to Canada, where he died in 2005. From exile, Nair described Mr Lee as an “increasingly self-righteous know-all” whose acolytes were “department store dummies.” Mr. Lee later sued his former comrade for libel in Canada but eventually dropped the case.
A bigger target of Mr. Lee’s wrath was Workers’ Party leader J.B. Jeyaretnam, a gadfly who in 1981 became the first opposition politician to win a seat in Parliament since independence. He was repeatedly sued for slander or libel over the years. After failing to keep up with payments for damages, he eventually declared bankruptcy in 2001 and was stripped of the parliamentary seat he held at the time.
Under Mr. Lee, Singapore instituted some of the world’s strictest gun-control and drug laws, enforcing them with mandatory death penalties. For example, automatic sentences of hanging were prescribed for trafficking slightly more than an ounce of cocaine, or for firing a gun while committing another crime, regardless of whether anyone was hit. As a result, Singapore has practically no gun crime and negligible drug problems. But it also regularly ranks among the top countries in executions per capita.
Mr. Lee was also a strong proponent of corporal punishment, notably caning. Singapore’s zeal for the penalty led to a diplomatic tiff with the United States in 1994 when an American teenager, Michael Fay, was sentenced to be caned for vandalism. U.S. officials saw the case largely as a Singaporean repudiation of American permissiveness.
A tendency to dabble in social engineering sometimes put Mr. Lee at odds with foreign critics, as well as Singaporean women. In the 1980s, his government set up the world’s only state-run matchmaking agency, in part to find mates for Singapore’s growing number of unmarried, *college-educated women. Another program provided incentives for graduate mothers to have several children, reversing an overly successful family-planning campaign.
“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool . . . you would end up a more stupid society,” Mr. Lee complained in a 1983 speech.
In 1994, Mr. Lee even lamented that his government had been “young, ignorant and idealistic” when it had promoted equal education and employment rights for women decades earlier. As a consequence, he said, they were having a hard time finding husbands, because “the Asian male does not like to have a wife who is seen to be his equal at work.”
Some of his most controversial comments concerned democracy and its applicability to Asian societies.
“With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries,” Mr. Lee said in a 1992 speech in Tokyo. “What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value.” He ignited a furor in Manila the same year when, ignoring two decades of previous authoritarian rule, he told Philippine businessmen that their country needed “discipline more than democracy” to develop. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development,” he said.
His outlook was perhaps best summed up in his 1997 biography. “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right,” he told his biographer. “If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”
Singapore in uncharted territory as longtime leader Lee Kuan Yew dies
By Chico Harlan
Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, died early Monday, leaving the wealthy and orderly city-state in uncharted territory as a small but growing percentage of the country questions the one-party monolith that Lee helped forge.
Lee, who died at 91 after a bout with pneumonia, ruled Singapore for 31 years and transforming it from a British outpost into an independent trading and finance powerhouse. Lee stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and left government in 2011, but he remained a towering figure whose distaste for corruption and criticism set the tone for modern-day Singapore.
His death brings Singapore to a moment of both grief and national anxiety. Among the central questions is whether Singaporeans — particularly a more outspoken younger generation, influenced by democratization movements elsewhere and facing slowing economic growth and rising inequality — will continue to accept what for decades has been a national paradox: economic liberty but little freedom of expression.
Singapore has been governed since its founding by the People’s Action Party. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew’s son. The system is nominally democratic, but the PAP has overwhelming influence over the media and judiciary and has gerrymandered districts to give it an electoral edge.In the 2011 election, the party faired poorly — by its standards of dominance — with a fragmented opposition grabbing 40 percent of the vote.
Lee Hsein Loong said in an interview with Singaporean journalists this year that there was “no certainty” the dominance of one party would continue. “You make one small change — the [political] sky can change,” he said.“And that is not a comfortable position to be in.”
In a statement, President Obama said of the elder Lee, “A visionary who led his country from Singapore’s independence in 1965 to build one of the most prosperous countries in the world today, he was a devoted public servant and a remarkable leader.”
Early Monday, a stream of grieving messages grew on the official Facebook page of the prime minister’s office. Nearly all were admiring.
“You have done Singapore proud,” one post said. “A tiny red dot [on the map] becomes world famous because of you.”
But others have mixed feelings about Lee’s legacy. Commentator Carlton Tan, 28, wrote in a recent column that Singaporeans “simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man.”
“We are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms,” Tan continued. “We are grateful for the stability and security, but we wonder whether we can maintain it without a strong civil society.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said that while the economic development Lee oversaw is “beyond doubt,” it came at a “significant cost,” with restrictions and self-censorship that “Singapore now needs to overcome.”
Now that Lee Kuan Yew has passed from the scene,” Robertson wrote, “perhaps that long overdue conversation [about political liberalization] can finally proceed.”
Singapore is only about three times the size of Washington D.C., and has maintained relative peace despite its mish-mash of ethnicities and proximity to traditional powers. The country maintains close trade and defense ties to the U.S., and Singapore has spoke favorably about the Obama Administration’s avowed pivot toward Asia.
Correction: An earlier version of this editorial included incorrect dates for Lee Kuan Yew’s tenure as Singapore’s prime minister. He held the post from 1959 to 1990. The following version has been updated.
By Editorial Board
March 23 at 2:41 PM
LEE KUAN Yew was the democratic world’s favorite dictator. Over the course of half a century, the Singaporean leader, who died on March 23 at the age of 91, helped propel his island city-state from a backwater British colonial trading post to one of the world’s richest countries. His counsel was sought by a succession of U.S. presidents and many other world leaders, who valued his insights about China, capitalism and what he called “Asian values.”
High among those values was a belief in strict discipline and a disregard for democracy, which Mr. Lee claimed was not suited for developing nations. As prime minister from 1959 to 1990, he created a public administration renowned for its efficiency and lack of corruption, which became the foundation of Singapore’s economic takeoff. He steered the country through independence from Britain, a painful divorce from Malaysia and multiple wars and upheavals in Southeast Asia, while forging a community from Singapore’s ethnic mix of Chinese, Malay and Indians.
But Mr. Lee also persecuted anyone who violated his hidebound notions of public order, from gum chewers to gay people, media critics and opposition political leaders. “I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial,” he told the New York Times in 2010 . One opponent, Chia Thye Poh, was imprisoned for 23 years without charge or trial beginning in 1966. More recently, opposition party leader Chee Soon Juan was bankrupted by spurious libel suits and repeatedly jailed for offenses such as speaking in public without a permit and saying that the judiciary is not independent.
With his domestic media subservient, Mr. Lee frequently targeted Western news organizations that had the temerity to suggest that nepotism or dynastic politics might explain the installation of his son as prime minister in 2004 , or other appointments of family members to high positions. The International Herald Tribune, the Economist and Bloomberg News were among those hit with suits and forced to pay fines and print retractions.
None of this prevented several generations of U.S. and European leaders from seeking Mr. Lee’s counsel and offering glowing praise for his wisdom. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has said that no world leader “has taught me more ”; former British prime minister Tony Blair called him “the smartest leader I ever met.” To be sure, Mr. Lee was shrewd in judging his giant neighbor, China, and its leaders. Beijing respected him, too, and at times he helped West and East to understand each other.
Mr. Lee was, however, demonstrably unwise about democracy in Asia. While he was touting supposedly unique Asian values incompatible with liberal Western norms, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia became robust democracies and prospered economically. Now Singapore’s entrenched establishment is under pressure from a generation accustomed to free expression on social media. “It’s a different generation, a different society, and politics will be different,” Prime Minister (and Lee’s son) Lee Hsien Loong told The Post’s Lally Weymouth in 2013. “We have to work in a more open way.”
Arguably, Mr. Lee’s stewardship of Singapore has made it inevitable that a prosperous, globally connected society will embrace personal and political freedoms. But the country will sustain its success only if his successors abandon the dark side of his legacy.
The eulogies to Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of the modern city-state of Singapore, are flooding in for good reason. Few world leaders stood astride as grand a sweep of history as Lee or represent as much to their nation as he did. Later this year, Singapore will mark its 50th anniversary of full independence — a half-century defined by Lee's rule and vision.
Lee, who died at age 91, went from being an advocate of trade unionists and socialists to a state-building nationalist to a global paragon of good governance, credited with the transformation of his tiny country from a sleepy backwater to a wealthy First World entrepot. He is both an exemplary post-colonial leader and an almost post-national figure; in his later years, Lee became a seemingly endless font of soothsaying global wisdom, hailed by Western politicians and business management gurus alike.
But there will always be one shadow hanging over Lee's incredible legacy: that of his views on democracy, and the draconian methods his government sometimes deployed to stifle it. Under Lee, Singapore was governed as a virtual one-party state. Freedom of speech, despite slow reforms, was strictly curtailed. Intense libel laws led to the bankrupting and marginalization of opposition politicians.
Lee, erudite and articulate, was outspoken in his ambivalence toward democracy as a political system. "The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development," he is quoted as saying, with trademark pragmatism. "The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people."
Under Lee's stewardship, Singapore became a model of economic growth and efficiency, whose blueprint for success was celebrated throughout the region. It was an unabashed nanny state led by supposedly apolitical technocrats. Deng Xiaoping's 1978 trip to Singapore is believed to have opened the communist Chinese leader's eyes to the benefits of a market economy in an authoritarian context.
"Singapore enjoys good social order and is well managed," Deng later said. "We should tap their experience and learn how to manage things better than they do."
The Singapore model got spun into a larger lesson for the world: that to advance, Asian societies needed to avoid the pitfalls of Western liberal systems. Unsurprisingly, China's state news agency Xinhua framed its praise for Lee in its Monday obituary along these lines: "It is exactly thanks to his firm belief and long implementation of Asian values, that [Lee] could establish an Asian ‘micro power’ with good order, a prosperous economy and a rich culture."
The cult of "Asian values" grew in the 1990s as the economies of East Asia and Southeast Asia took off. This was championed most vociferously by Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, and largely discredited after the 1997 Asian financial crisis exposed the fragility of some of these governments. But its ethos remained a fundamental part of Lee's worldview.
"I don’t think there is an Asian model as such," Lee said in an 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria that was published in Foreign Affairs. "But Asian societies are unlike Western ones." Like Mahathir, he argued that there were hard and clear differences between "Eastern" and "Western" cultures: In the former, the individual matters less than in the latter, and, as a consequence, in the former, human rights matter less than the need for the security of the collective and economic growth.
This argument finds its backers in Asia's authoritarian countries, but it has been widely panned, as well. More than 60 percent of the world's population lives in Asia, and to imply that each and every Asian is somehow bound by a shared system of values is utterly preposterous. The fact that some of East Asia's most advanced economies — Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan — also are healthy, battle-tested democracies suggests that societies steeped in Confucianism can happily accommodate more liberal, "modern" forms of politics.
Others, including Indian academic and Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, contend that traditions of debate and argument, as well as the belief in universal values, are as inherent to Asian cultures as they are to the West. To deny that is to provide a fig leaf for authoritarianism.
"Those who wish to deny us certain political rights try to convince us that these are not Asian values," said Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Burmese political prisoner and a Nobel laureate. "In our struggle for democracy and human rights, we would like greater support from our fellow Asians.
Martin Lee, a leading democracy activist in Hong Kong, deemed the idea of Asian values a "pernicious myth."
Indeed, Hong Kong is an interesting counterpoint to Lee's Singapore. Another former British colony that's now uncomfortably part of China, it remains a leading Asian metropolis, with a far freer and more robust civil society. "Colonial Hong Kong, so similar in many ways, prospered as well without the guidance of a 'philosopher king' or a 'Moses', as [Lee Kuan Yew] was to be later described," writes veteran Asia hand Philip Bowring in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
And that may be Lee's legacy after all: A man so unique and so capable, he should be remembered as a one-off figure in history, rather than an emblem of an entire civilization's progress.
Henry A. Kissinger was secretary of state from 1973 to 1977.
Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.
Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.
Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.
But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.
A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.
Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.
This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.
Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.
Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.
I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.
The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.
Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.
Lee Kuan Yew: Singapore's founding father divided opinion
By Katie Hunt and Susannah Cullinane, CNN
Updated 0256 GMT (1056 HKT) March 23, 2015
Lee Kuan Yew will forever be remembered as the man who transformed a mosquito-ridden colonial trading post into a prosperous financial center with clean streets, shimmering skyscrapers and a stable government.
Born in 1923, Lee became Prime Minister in 1959 when Singapore, a tiny spit of land with no natural resources and a polyglot population of Chinese, Malays and Indians, was still British territory and beset by riots and unrest.
He presided over Singapore's bitter split from Malaysia in 1965 and molded the independent country into the global economic powerhouse it is today. "I was trying to create, in a third-world situation, a first-world oasis," Lee told CNN in 2008.
Lee's thinking also had an international impact. His brand of capitalism -- which stresses the role of government rather than the free hand of the market -- has provided a blueprint for China's landmark economic reforms.
But Lee was also a divisive figure, attracting criticism for stifling media freedom and for the harsh treatment of political opponents.
In 2013, protests over plans to allow more immigrants into the city-state indicated growing unease among Singaporeans about the vision of the country set forth by the People's Action Party -- the party co-founded by Lee that has ruled Singapore for five decades.
Lee voluntarily stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, the first Asian strongman to do so.
However, he played a role in the country's Cabinet until 2011 when his eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, was elected for a second term as prime minister.
The elder Lee retained his influence around the world. "This is one of the legendary figures of Asia in the 20th and 21st centuries," U.S. President Barack Obama said during a meeting with Lee at the White House in October 2009.
"He is somebody who helped to trigger the Asian economic miracle," Obama added.
But there were indications Lee's health had been slipping in recent years.
In 2010 he was admitted to the hospital with a chest infection and in early 2013, Lee -- then 89 -- was hospitalized and treated treated for "stroke-like symptoms."
He was again admitted to the hospital on February 5 for severe pneumonia and more than six weeks later remained on a ventilator.
A fourth-generation Singaporean, Lee's family originally emigrated from southern China.
A bright student, he gained a place in the city's elite Raffles Institution and went on to study law at Fitzwilliam College at Cambridge.
He attributed his decision to go into politics to his experiences during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.
"I learned how people survived and how people had to submit because you need to eat and your family needs to live, so I learned the meaning of power," he told CNN in 2002.
The city Lee took control of in 1959 was still recovering from the ravages of war and could not have been more different from today's Singapore. However, Lee told CNN he had no "great vision of transformation."
He concentrated on attracting investment and creating jobs; first finding a successful niche in electronics manufacturing by touting Singapore as an alternative to Hong Kong, which he said was in turmoil due to the Cultural Revolution in China.
While Lee has been lauded for his economic accomplishments, he also created a Singapore bound by stringent laws and regulations that dictated most, if not all, aspects of society -- including media and political freedoms, censorship and even the selling of chewing gum.
The country ranks 150th in Reporters Without Borders' 2014 Media Freedom Index, putting it just above the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mexico and Iraq.
The New York Times, The Economist, the International Herald Tribune and the Asian Wall Street Journal have all been targeted with the "judicial harassment" employed by the Lee family, according to the media watchdog.
In a 2014 article for CNN, opposition politician Dr. Chee Soon Juan criticized Singapore's authoritarian system, blaming a lack of dissenting views for economic inequality and worsening working conditions.
"The ranks of the opposition, civil society and labor movement have been decimated in the last 50 years through imprisonment without trial and criminal prosecution, and nearly every newspaper, TV channel and radio station is owned and run by the state," Chee said.
But in a 2008 interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, Lee rebuffed charges that Singapore was too domineering or coercive a state.
"I want social peace and stability within the country. I am not following any prescription given to me by any theoretician on democracy," he said.
While Lee is likely to be remembered with affection and pride by many Singaporeans, a younger generation, with no memory of the poverty and violence that marked the country's birth, is questioning the Lee dynasty's control of Singaporean politics and pushing for greater democracy.
In 2011, the People's Action Party lost six seats to the opposition, prompting Lee, then the party's "minister mentor" and another former prime minister, Goh Chok Tong, to resign.
In a joint letter to parliament, the two explained they "decided to leave the Cabinet and have a completely younger team of ministers to connect to and engage with this young generation in shaping the future of our Singapore."
How Singapore copes with these democratic demands will be key to its success in its second half-century, but those demands are unlikely to detract from Lee's achievements in its first 50 years. In 2010, Time magazine listed Lee as one of world's 100 most influential people.
"The mark of a great leader is to take his society from where it is to where it has never been," wrote former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the article on Lee. "There is no better strategic thinker in the world today."
The death of Singapore's founding father marks a milestone in the island-nation's 50-year history and raises questions about what the next decade will bring for the country's political system.
Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) was considered one of Asia's greatest statesmen for turning a fishing village into a first-world economy, but his political ideology made him a controversial figure at home and abroad. His vision centered on a one-party political system, manifested by the People's Action Party (PAP) that he co-founded, which combined elements of capitalism and a state-directed economy.
Strict controls over freedom of speech and censorship are among his more contentious policies, but Mr. Lee's passing should now allow for a more open debate on those issues, Michael Schuman, TIME Magazine's business correspondent for Asia, told CNBC on Monday.
"You can make the argument that though LKY had tremendous success, it may be time for a change. He made the case for having a soft authoritarian government…Now, times have changed and I think Singapore will revisit his ideas and say: this worked in the past, but do we need something else going forward in the future. Do we need to have more political and social change? Those are the big questions going forward."
A pluralistic system?
Political opposition in the tiny Southeast Asian city-state is limited to a few names including the Workers Party, the Democratic Progressive Party and The Singaporeans First Party, which was formed last year. Some say that Mr. Lee's policies, like restrictions on public protests, have limited the ability of these parties to grow, but they are still gaining traction. During the 2011 general election, the opposition won a collective 40 percent of the vote.
Going forward, Ernest Bower, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), believes the city will shift to a pluralistic political system.
"Singaporeans will harvest the legacy that LKY has given them of an excellent education and global linkages and they will loosen up and create more political space," he said. "Singaporeans will be able to have a more normal governance structure than they have had in the past, so finding consensus rather than implementing the views of a political genius."
"I think there's a genuine, palpable desire for people wanting political plurality. That's been like a genie kept in a bottle, and now the genie is completely out," agreed PN Balji, strategist at RHT Digital & Media and former deputy editor of The Straits Times, alluding to increasingly opinionated social media users as well as several protests last year on issues related to government transparency.
Singapore will hold its next general election sometime before January 2017 and political observers say it will be a real test for the ruling PAP.
Lee's passing may complicate the timing of elections, said Citi analyst Kit Wei Zheng in a note on Tuesday. She believes the vote could be delayed until September 2016, instead of May or June: "While some may think having elections earlier can gain sympathy votes, this might be viewed as too opportunistic and thus backfire in our view."
Bower at CSIS expects the opposition, led by the Workers Party, to receive a larger share of the vote this time around, which should see Singapore's political landscape resemble a globally-accepted two-party system where parties compete for ideas.
"I'm telling Washington that, geopolitically, we have to be ready for a Singapore that's less decisive," he said.
When we Filipinos talk about Singapore, it is nearly always in the context of a broader discussion of what is wrong with the Philippines. Rarely do we talk about our affluent neighbor in order to highlight the positive in our own way of life. Singapore is for many of us the mirror of our aspirations as a people, a living example of the country we could have been, or could still be—if we had the right leaders.
I expect this unfortunate, self-lacerating habit of ours to go into full swing in the wake of the passing of Singapore’s tenacious and deeply feared founding leader—Lee Kuan Yew. Lee, who presided over the affairs of the smallest country in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for over three decades, was a contemporary of three other strongmen—Suharto of Indonesia, Mahathir of Malaysia, and Marcos of the Philippines.
By far, only Lee’s legacy has endured. It is difficult to argue with success. Under Lee’s autocratic leadership, Singapore transformed itself from an insignificant trading port in the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula into one of the top financial centers of the global economy. More than 7,000 multinational corporations have offices in Singapore, most of these serving as their main Asian headquarters.
From being a transshipment point for finished products and raw materials, the country has become a dynamic center for manufacturing. Unlike Indonesia, it has no oil of its own. But it is now the biggest oil-refining center in the region, and a major producer of oil rigs. Singapore remains a port—indeed, it is one of the world’s five busiest ports, and an important hub for ship repairs. Its gigantic airport is the gateway to Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
Chronically fearful of sliding back, Singapore continually reinvents itself. To boost its tourist industry, it abandoned a long-standing ethical policy against gambling by inviting the world’s largest casino operators to set up shop in their city-state. Very quietly, it has also moved into a new sector of the modern economy—the life sciences—bringing in top scientists from all over the world to work at its cutting-edge laboratories. For some years now, it has been aggressively recruiting the top high school graduates from the region, luring them with full scholarships, and offering them employment and permanent residency when they graduate. Close to a hundred thousand foreign students study in Singapore, making it Asia’s most important educational center.
Singapore’s public bureaucracy can compete with the best-run private corporations in governance and compensation. A strict meritocratic system governs recruitment into the civil service. The best and the brightest are plucked out from the graduating classes of every year, and invited to work in government. They are sent to the best schools abroad for further training. When they finish, they must come home. At one point in their apprenticeship, they are taken on an exposure tour of the region, where they familiarize themselves with the economic environment, the politics, and social realities of Southeast Asia. Not surprisingly, Singapore’s top civil servants are among the highest paid in the world.
The whole country is a technocrat’s dream laboratory. In Singapore, planners are at work daily, formulating new programs and policies, anticipating issues and complaints, and preparing the responses, long before the public has even thought of them. This view of governance as a planning exercise keeps the role of politics to a bare minimum. Virtually the only time it is allowed is during elections. Protest is a highly regulated activity; the designated place for this endangered activity is the “Speakers’ Corner.” Beyond it, you need a police permit for a public gathering of five or more people.
If you make allegations of corruption or wrongdoing against any government official, you could be held liable for libel. The late Lee Kuan Yew was known to file such cases against his critics, and to doggedly pursue them until the offending party pays a financially ruinous fine. If you criticize government programs and policies, you will be challenged to offer a better alternative; otherwise, you will be browbeaten into publicly admitting the foolishness of your views.
Yet, Singapore’s past is far from that of a society of sheep. Indeed, this tiny nation has had a glorious tradition of political dissent. Lee himself belonged to a generation of courageous Singaporeans who spoke sharply and fought fiercely against the British who ruled them until 1959. Most of those who joined Lee at the founding of the People’s Action Party were socialists. They were progressive intellectuals, young professionals and labor organizers who passionately loved their country, but did not always agree on how it should be run once it was free.
One of Lee’s implacable critics was Dr. Lim Hock Siew, a cofounder of the People’s Action Party. On Feb. 2, 1963, he and a hundred other activists were rounded up in a crackdown against suspected communists. Jailed under the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA) which gave the executive the power to indefinitely detain anyone considered a threat to national security, Lim spent the next 20 years in prison, refusing an early offer of release in exchange for publicly acknowledging his faults.
The dreaded ISA remains in force until now, a grim reminder to Singaporeans and the rest of the world that this city-state’s phenomenal prosperity and stability owe as much to the vision of Lee Kuan Yew as to the repressive tools by which the government has maintained public order.
Singapore, the Nation That Lee Kuan Yew Built, Questions Its Direction
By JOE COCHRANE and THOMAS FULLER
MARCH 24, 2015
SINGAPORE — Among the many orders that Lee Kuan Yew issued during his five decades as leader of Singapore was the razing of his home.
“I’ve told the cabinet, ‘When I’m dead, demolish it,’ ” he told an interviewer several years ago.
Pragmatic even about death and averse to a cult of personality, Mr. Lee, who died Monday at age 91, said the house would cost too much to maintain and would become a shambles when “people trudge through.”
There was no wrecking ball on Mr. Lee’s quiet street on Tuesday, and the official memorial does not begin until the public viewing of his coffin in Parliament on Wednesday.
But Singaporeans are asking the same questions about the larger house that Lee Kuan Yew built — modern Singapore and the vaunted “Singapore model.” Will it survive him, or has the sleek Asian financial hub outgrown his father-knows-best style of government?
Among members of the country’s increasingly assertive and demanding electorate, there are calls for a new social contract, a more consultative government and participatory rule-making.
More foreigners are living in Singapore, with nonresident immigrants and permanent residents making up 39 percent of the population last year.
“Singapore is at an inflection point,” said Kishore Mahbubani, the country’s former ambassador to the United Nations. “I think the young population of Singapore appreciates the strength of Singapore, appreciates the stability the Singapore government brings, but they also want more voices. So you’ve got to create opportunities for them to speak out — social issues, on political issues, on economic issues. It’s coming. Change is coming.”
The Singapore model that transformed this former British colonial outpost into a tidy, gleaming metropolis was a mix of semi-authoritarian, one-party rule; meticulous urban planning; laissez-faire economic policies; low taxes; and heaps of imported foreign talent. The loss of personal freedoms and government intrusiveness — like muzzling political dissent and issuing fines for failing to flush public toilets — in exchange for order and prosperity was a trade-off broadly accepted by a generation of Singaporeans who saw their country’s living standards rocket beyond those of its neighbors.
Many became loyal acolytes of Mr. Lee’s governing party, which has held power without interruption since independence five decades ago. But to younger generations, for whom stability and one of the world’s highest per capita incomes are a given, good sidewalks, clean tap water and graft-free government may no longer be enough.
“The Third-World-to-First-World in one generation narrative has less traction with the younger Singaporeans,” said Eugene Tan, an associate professor of law at Singapore Management University. The governing party’s monopoly on power may not end soon, but the expectations are changing.
“It’s not a question of whether but rather when Singapore will evolve to a two-party or multiparty democracy,” he said.
Nor will the government have Mr. Lee, who was viewed as a sort of strict national grandfather, both loved and feared, to defend it. None of his successors, not even his son, the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, have the same prestige and authority.
Issues that were unthinkable when Lee Kuan Yew was alive now cannot be dismissed as easily, including the prospect that his People’s Action Party could split into factions, a possibility that some believe is beginning to take shape.
“Anything is possible,” said Kenneth Paul Tan, the vice dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. “When you have very talented people gathered in an organization, there will be differences in view and ambitions.”