Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew – Pragmatist of the 20th Century

Photo taken on Nov. 23, 2004. Tara Sosrowardoyo (National Museum of Singapore Collection)
On September 20, 2014, at the Singapore Summit, the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made an interesting observation. When he was asked whether the Singapore Model is replicable in a larger scale, he categorically said no.

“I think it is not replicable not only because of scale but also because of history and circumstance,” the Prime Minister said. He went on to say that “we had certain formative experiences in the anti-colonial period, fighting for independence, fighting against the communists, going into Malaysia, running into new problems in Malaysia, coming out from Malaysia suddenly and the shock of that sudden independence, galvanizing a generation of Singaporeans and their children to do something exceptional together. Those are unique circumstances in a unique environment where it may not have resulted in success but fortunately for us, it did.”

In these few sentences, Lee Hsien Loong captured the post World War II history of a people. The man who is credited with the success the Prime Minister described was none other than his father, Lee Kuan Yew. Universally known as the father of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew led the small nation to what it is today.

“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 a 2007 interview with New York Times. “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.”
"Moment of anguish"

Perhaps this is why he described the separation from Malaysia as a “moment of anguish.” His voice choked with emotion and he virtually broke down at the press conference which announced this separation on August 9, 1965. It was unthinkable that a tough man like Lee would break down in public in that manner.


Perhaps his biggest failure in politics was being unable to stay in Malaysia. However, after this, he came out stronger and with a will to succeed. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in Washington Post that Lee Kuan Yew “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.”

He attempted to encourage the ‘never fear’ attitude in Singaporeans. The Straits Time editor Warren Fernandez recalls a speech delivered by Lee Kuan Yew in September 1965. “This country belongs to all of us,” he had said. “We made this country from nothing, from mud-flats... Over 100 years ago, this was a mud-flat, swamp. Today, this is a modern city. Ten years from now, this will be a metropolis. Never fear!”

After the shock of separation from Malaysia, Lee started consolidating Singapore as a state from what he had. His “Singapore model” included centralized power, clean government and economic liberalism. However it also incorporated suppressing political opposition, imposing strict limits on free speech and public assembly, and creating a climate of caution and self-censorship.

The motto says it all (Straits Times)
Security was one of his major concerns, both for local and regional reasons. The threat of communism was not too unreal. After the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942 and the three and a half years of Japanese occupation, he had seen what foreign forces could do to a country. Perhaps with all these in mind, he set up the Ministry of Interior and Defence in 1965.

At independence, Singapore had only two infantry battalions of 50 officers and about 1,000 men and two ships. There was no air force. Today, Singapore’s military expenditure as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is higher than that of China, Japan and the U.K., according to World Bank data. Meanwhile, conscription of male youths has enabled the country to build up a defense force with fewer burdens to the national economy than it could have been. Singapore is termed “Israel of the East” for obvious reasons.

Lee started building up the financial capital of the country. The Development Bank of Singapore was incorporated in 1968. Today, DBS Group Holdings Ltd. is Southeast Asia’s biggest bank.

Singapore Airlines was established in 1972, when Malaysia-Singapore Airlines separated. Meanwhile, Singapore's Changi Airport got its first terminal in 1981. It now has three and two more are on the way. Meanwhile, it was just named the world's best airport again.

In 1974 Temasek Holdings was incorporated under the Singapore Companies Act to hold the assets and manage the investments previously held by the Singapore government. These were investments made in the first decade of nation building since independence in 1965. The government had already bought stakes in private companies and owned a number of companies as well.
Changi Airport Control Tower (Wikimedia Commons)


Lee focused on building a meritocracy in multi-racial Singapore and strove for equality to harness talent that was the city-state’s only resource. Lee said Malaysians saw Malaysia as a “Malay country” and was critical of how the Bumiputeras dominated Malaysia.

He disagreed with the way Malaysia managed its multi-cultural, Malay-majority society through affirmative action policies. “So the Sultans, the Chief Justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them into modern knowledge. So the Chinese build and find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It’s a most unhappy situation,” he told New York Times in 2010.

“Our Malays are English-educated, they’re no longer like the Malays in Malaysia and you can see there are some still wearing headscarves but very modern looking,” he went on to say in the interview in 2010 with NYT.

Lee was accused of clamping down on opposition, with detention without trial and using libel suits to drive opponents bankrupt. Seth Mydans, writing in New York Times, calls it “a distinctive Singaporean mechanism of political control.” Opposition parties did not contest elections until 1981 when JB Jeyaretnam won a parliamentary seat. In 2011, opposition parties won an unprecedented six seats in parliament.

Journalist and science writer Nalaka Gunawardene stated that one major reason for his success was that the country was small. On one side, he could enforce a tight grip on the country because of this. Singapore is a small city, comparative to the size of a medium sized metropolis in the Indian subcontinent. One can never tell if Lee would have succeeded in a much bigger country, Gunewardene said.

However, he pointed out that even Malaysia was extremely successful with Dr. Mahathir Mohamad at the helm. But, in contrast to Lee, Dr. Mohamad could not contain corruption. Leaders who succeeded him were less competent in controlling corruption, especially in the peripheries. A leader like Sukarno in Indonesia fell due to a similar reason, Gunewardene recalled.


Gunewardene also pointed out an important fact in Lee, not having an ideology. Lee was never dogmatic. “We are ideology-free,” 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.”

As Gunewardene recalled, “Not having an ideology was his ideology.” He stated that Lee is perhaps the most pragmatic leader ever. He was pragmatic in his politics and economics. He could deal with the capitalist world as well as Chinese communists, while having a tight grip over the matters in Singapore.

Singapore Minister for Education Heng Swee Keat, who was former Principle Private Secretary of Lee Kuan Yew, wrote an obituary in The Straits Times and stated, “if you update him on something, he will invariably reply with "So?".” Furthermore, Heng said that this would inevitably follow with another sentence. “what does this mean for Singapore?”

He gave attention to even minute details. Heng wrote that he had a mental map of the world in which he knew the contours well. The center of his mental map was always Singapore, Heng recalled.

In 1990, Lee decided to step down as Prime Minister, but stayed on as Senior Minister. He supported the new Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong the best he could, Heng Swee Keat stated in his obituary.

After 2004, when his son became Prime Minister, Lee became a Minister Mentor. He resigned from all these positions in 2011.

“What really sets this complex man apart from Asia's other nation-builders is what he didn't do: he did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long. Mao, Suharto, Marcos and Ne Win left their countries on the verge of ruin with no obvious successor. Lee left Singapore with a per capita GDP of $14,000, his reputation gilt-edged and an entire tier of second-generation leaders to take over when he stepped down in 1990” Time magazine said in 1991.

Where does it begin... or end? An aerial view from the 18th storey of Swissotel The Stamford at 9pm shows snaking queues as people try to make it into Parliament House to pay their last respects to Mr Lee Kuan Yew. - Straits Times PHOTO: DESMOND FOO
Nevertheless, he was in the midst of action. He would never let anything go beyond control. He once said that “even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.”

However, Nalaka Gunewardene said that he might not have to get up from his grave for the next two three decades at least. “His shadow is very long,” Gunewardene insisted. “He has institutionalized everything. Those who were trained while he was there will be around for a few decades to come. Therefore, the system will go on,” he said.

Another important aspect of Lee’s life is his ability to change. The world changed around him but he adapted accordingly. Other leaders who could not, eventually faded away, but Lee did not. This made him an exceptional leader in the region, and in the world.

However, one characteristic he never lost was his outspokenness. “No one can accuse me of not speaking my mind,” he once said.

No one will ever dare accuse him on that.

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