Dead at 91: The world's first State entrepreneur Lee Kuan Yew
March 23, 2015
Many would argue he was the world’s first whole of country entrepreneur and in any assessment he probably was. Singapore’s founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, who died today aged 91, took a struggling back water former British colony, after the savagery of world war two and turned it into a regional and international power house. He was Prime Minister from 1959 and led the country to independence in 1965 after a very brief integration with Malaysia (also newly independent).
Singapore celebrates its 50th anniversary on August 9th.
As the New York Times reported:
The nation, reflected the man: efficient, unsentimental, incorrupt, inventive, forward-looking and pragmatic.
“We are ideology-free,” Mr. Lee said in an interview with The New York Times in 2007, stating what had become, in effect, Singapore’s ideology. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”
His leadership was sometimes criticized for suppressing freedom, but the formula succeeded. Singapore became an international business and financial center admired for its efficiency and low level of corruption.
An election in 2011 marked the end of the Lee Kuan Yew era, with a voter revolt against the ruling People’s Action Party. Mr. Lee resigned from the specially created post of minister mentor and stepped into the background as the nation began exploring the possibilities of a more engaged and less autocratic government.
Since Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965 — an event Mr. Lee called his “moment of anguish” — he had seen himself in a never-ending struggle to overcome the nation’s lack of natural resources, a potentially hostile international environment and a volatile ethnic mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians.
“To understand Singapore and why it is what it is, you’ve got to start off with the fact that it’s not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” he said in the 2007 interview. “To begin with, we don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny. So, history is a long time. I’ve done my bit.”
His “Singapore model,” sometimes criticized as soft authoritarianism, included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism along with suppression of political opposition and strict limits on free speech and public assembly, which created a climate of caution and self-censorship. The model has been admired and studied by leaders in Asia, including in China, and beyond as well as being the subject of countless academic case studies.
The commentator Cherian George described Mr. Lee’s leadership as “a unique combination of charisma and fear.”
As Mr. Lee’s influence waned, the questions were how much and how fast his model might change in the hands of a new, possibly more liberal generation. Some even asked, as he often had, whether Singapore, a nation of 5.6 million, could survive in a turbulent future.
Mr. Lee was a master of “Asian values,” a concept in which the good of society took precedence over the rights of the individual and citizens ceded some autonomy in return for paternalistic rule.
Generally passive in political affairs, Singaporeans sometimes chide themselves as being overly preoccupied with a comfortable lifestyle, which they sum up as the “Five C’s” — cash, condo, car, credit card, country club.
In recent years, though, a confrontational world of political websites and blogs has given new voice to critics of Mr. Lee and his system.
Even among people who knew little of Singapore, Mr. Lee was famous for his national self-improvement campaigns, which urged people to do such things as smile, speak good English and flush the toilet, but never to spit, chew gum or throw garbage off balconies.
“They laughed, at us,” he said in the second volume of his memoirs, “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000.” “But I was confident that we would have the last laugh. We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts.”
Mr. Lee developed a distinctive Singaporean mechanism of political control, filing libel suits that sometimes drove his opponents into bankruptcy and doing battle with critics in the foreign press. Several foreign publications, including The International Herald Tribune, which is now called The International New York Times, have apologized and paid fines to settle libel suits.
The lawsuits challenged accusations of nepotism — members of Mr. Lee’s family hold influential positions in Singapore — and questions about the independence of the judiciary, which critics have said follows the lead of the executive branch.
Mr. Lee denied that the suits had a political purpose, saying they were essential to clearing his name of false accusations.
He seemed to genuinely believe that criticisms would gain currency if they were not vigorously disputed. But the lawsuits themselves did as much as anything to diminish his reputation.
He was proud to describe himself as a political street fighter more feared than loved.
“Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac,” he said in 1994. “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.”
A jittery public avoided openly criticizing Mr. Lee and his government and generally obeyed its dictates.
“Singaporeans are like a flea,” said Mr. Lee’s political tormentor, J.B. Jeyaretnam, who was financially broken by libel suits but persisted in opposition until his death in 2008. “They are trained to jump so high and no farther. Once they go higher they’re slapped down.”
In an interview in 2005, Mr. Jeyaretnam added: “There’s a climate of fear in Singapore. People are just simply afraid. They feel it everywhere. And because they’re afraid they feel they can’t do anything.”
Mr. Lee’s vehicle of power was the People’s Action Party, or P.A.P., which exercised the advantages of office to overwhelm and intimidate opponents. It embraced into its ranks the nation’s brightest young stars, creating what was, in effect, a one-party state.
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