You are here

LEE KUAN YEW 1923 - 2015

The leader who delivered - and made history

Thursday, March 26, 2015 - 05:50

MANY readers questioned the second-deck title of my book Looking East to Look West on India and South-east Asia. How could I speak of Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India, they asked, when everything happened on Goh Chok Tong's watch long after Mr Lee had ceased to be prime minister?

There's a simple answer. Mr Lee didn't have to wait for the promise of "Incredible India" to be realised. He saw struggling and poverty-stricken India as an Asian player long before Indians turned again to their ancient footprints in the Sri Vijaya and Majapahit empires. Mr Goh warned twice about what he regarded as India's hegemonistic and militaristic trends but Mr Lee hoped India would one day become what The Straits Times called the "guardian of South-east Asia" when Britain packed her bags and withdrew from the region.

It was this ability to peer into the crystal ball of the future that made Mr Lee one of the most extraordinary personalities that Asia, and indeed the world, has produced. Posterity alone can do justice to his multi-faceted genius, for the people he interacted with and the events he shaped are still too vividly remembered to permit an impartial audit. But it can be said without fear of contradiction that no other Afro-Asian leader has led his country to independence and lived to fulfil its promise.

Jagat Mehta, a veteran Indian diplomat, called Singapore "the only former colony to make a success of independence" and that was solely because of Mr Lee. Robert Elegant was more blunt: "Among those who lead fights for independence, only Lee Kuan Yew afterward ruled wisely . . . Others failed the transition from revolutionary to ruler: Mao Zedong in China, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam and Sukarno in Indonesia. Those great men left disorder - economic, political and administrative, compounded by corruption."

In the view of James Cameron, a distinguished British journalist and friend of India, Mr Nehru "made India and lost it"; he "could have done with India anything he wished, but he let it wither . . ."

Unforgettable lessons

That was also Mr Lee's ultimate verdict on the man who sparked his youthful idealism. "Amongst the politically aware - what were our models?" he asked and answered his own question: "First, India and Indian nationalists, the Congress Party, and the writings of Nehru and people like Panikkar (an Indian diplomat of the 1950s). We used to get all the books and pamphlets that came out." Then came the damning echo of Mr Elegant's verdict. "Alas, they didn't deliver!"

Mr Lee did - and made history.

The boy whose Indian form master, M N Campos, predicted that he was "likely to attain a high position in life" claims it happened only because of the Second World War.

He "never planned to go into politics". But the three-and-a-half years of Japanese occupation after Singapore fell on Feb 15, 1942, taught him "more than any university could have done". He learnt "unforgettable lessons on the meaning of power and the nature of people and nations". His personal wartime experience at Japanese hands rankled even in the 1990s. "I decided that we should govern ourselves and that's why we formed the People's Action Party."

The silver lining to those grim years illumined his life ever afterwards. He began courting Kwa Geok Choo. "That was the happiest time in my life," he said. They were married on Sept 30, 1950, and it was one of the most enduring high-profile unions the world has known. Mrs Lee, who suffered a stroke in October 2003, passed away in her sleep on Oct 2, 2010. "Without her, I would be a different man, with a different life" was Mr Lee's tribute. "She was always there when I needed her."

Mr Lee often ascribed his and Singapore's - the two became synonymous - success to the immigrant ethic. He was a fourth-generation migrant. His Hakka great-grandfather, Lee Bok Boon, came from China's Guangdong province in 1862. Lee Kuan Yew was born in a large bungalow on Kampong Java Road, the eldest child of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo. He was strongly influenced by his Anglophile grandfather, Lee Hoon Leong, who gave him the nickname "Harry" whose public use Mr Lee discouraged after joining politics.

Maurice Baker, a college friend and one of the founders of the Malayan Forum in London in which two other young Singaporeans, Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, were also active, recalled an incident at the old Raffles College which Mr Lee joined after Telok Kurau Primary School and Raffles Institution. Hearing the explosion when the retreating British forces blew up the Causeway, Mr Lee exclaimed: "That is the end of the British empire!"

The British principal standing nearby pretended he hadn't heard. It was an early instance of the perspicacity that enabled Mr Lee in later life to deal with the British, his Barisan Socialis opponents at home, Tengku Abdul Rahman and Malaysia, and to shape the PAP into an instrument of growth.

The same perspicacity impelled him to move from the London School of Economics, which he first joined, to Cambridge and enrol at Fitzwilliam College. The Double Starred First Class Honours he gained remained a matter of pride throughout his life. It's said that when he left Cambridge, his tutor said: "Well, Harry, when you get back to Singapore, I hope you'll keep the flag flying", to which Mr Lee shot back: "When I get back, I will make it my duty to get the flag down!"

On returning in 1949, Mr Lee again displayed political wisdom by joining lawyer John Laycock who had founded Singapore's first multiracial club. Mr Laycock provided Mr Lee with an entrée into politics by appointing him election agent (Mr Lee had campaigned for a British Labour MP in England) in the 1951 legislative council elections. But Mr Lee soon realised that Mr Laycock's pro-British Progressive Party had no future, especially when the 1953 Rendel Constitution expanded the electoral rolls to create a huge Chinese-speaking, working class constituency that Mr Lee was able to tap into.

His legal debut representing striking workers of the Postal and Telecommunications Uniformed Staff Union demonstrated his skills as a strategist: by persuading the government to promise negotiations without victimization and the strikers to accept the offer, Mr Lee established his reputation as someone whom workers could trust but who was responsible enough not to alarm the establishment. The case also brought him into contact with Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, then an associate editor of the Singapore Standard. Their meeting at a dinner Goh Keng Swee gave at the Chinese Swimming Club was the start of a lifelong partnership.

Other cases followed. Mr Lee's mature handling of the Naval Base Labour Union strike in December 1952 prompted several trade unions to engage him as legal adviser. Fame and popularity came when he successfully defended the editors of Fajar, the organ of the University Socialist Club, against a sedition charge.

The Chung Cheng High School riots brought him into contact with the Chinese-speaking masses who were to form the bedrock of the party he had been discussing with Mr Goh, Mr Toh, Kenny Byrne (another Singaporean friend from London) and Mr Rajaratnam every Saturday afternoon. The PAP was born on Nov 21, 1954. Mr Lee became its secretary-general, a post he held until 1992, save for a brief period in 1957.

The PAP's three seats in the 1955 legislative election made Mr Lee the leader of the Opposition. It was not until May 1959 that its capture of 43 out of 51 seats enabled the 35-year- old Mr Lee to be sworn in as the island-state's first prime minister.

He has described how he outwitted his Communist adversaries on the road to independence. He wooed the public by insisting on their release from prison before he was sworn in; but by also insisting that the release should be after the PAP's victory rally, he prevented the Communists from claiming any share in it.

Start of the real challenge

The new government's first big undertaking was to set up the Housing and Development Board with Lim Kim San as chairman. The next was to merge Singapore with an enlarged Malaysia.

History will decide on the connection between merger and the defection in August 1961 of 13 PAP legislators who opposed it, followed by Operation Coldstore in February 1963 when 107 left activists were arrested. The Barisan Sosialis still attracted more than 33 per cent of the vote and won 13 seats in the election seven months later but made the fatal mistake of boycotting the assembly and the 1968 election. But for all the stormy prelude, the marriage with Malaysia did not last much beyond the honeymoon. An emotionally overcome Mr Lee announced on Aug 9, 1965, that it was over.

That was when the real challenge began. Singapore had to get "some muscle", as Mr Lee put it, so that there was no danger of succumbing to pressure.

At home, he displayed his genius by selecting the right men for the right jobs. Mr Lim, with his business background, made Singapore the international byword for clean and comfortable public housing without any of the blemishes of the British welfare state, while Dr Goh created a full employment society. Jurong was his triumph. When he began draining the marshland to create an industrial estate, people spoke of "Goh's Folly". The booming township became "Goh's Glory".

Abroad, Mr Rajaratnam steered Singapore deftly through the shoals of Cold War politics, simultaneously courting the Non-Aligned Movement and Western powers without forfeiting Soviet goodwill.

Mr Lee's dexterity prompted Lord Rees-Mogg, the British writer, to suggest that "the use he made of power reflect(ed) both the Chinese culture of his family and his predominantly English education".

Israel helped to develop Singapore's military capability; India - the first country Mr Lee approached - would not. But it was Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist who became Singapore's economic adviser in 1961, who gave shape to Mr Lee's strategy of leapfrogging the stagnant neighbourhood to link Singapore with what was then the world's most dynamic economy and invite some 3,000 American-based multinational corporations to Singapore. And as evidence of Mr Lee's attention to detail, he gave instructions that the statue of Stamford Raffles which Mr Winsemius regarded as a symbol of stability should not be touched.

Gradually, the "pestilential and immoral cesspool" (citing a British MP) burgeoned into the world's busiest port, the third-largest oil refining centre and a major hub of global manufacturing and service industries as well as the region's intellectual and technical centre. Singapore's annual per capita income rose from about US$400 a year to close to US$40,000. Mr Lee amply fulfilled Henry Kissinger's "mark of a great leader", which is "to take his society from where it is to where it has never been".

The secret of this miracle, he claimed, was that Singapore was "ideology free". Its unsentimental pragmatism, which some thought harsh or dubbed as opportunism, was an ideology in itself. Mr Lee's criterion for any policy was: "Does it work? Let's try it and if it does work, fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one." The yardstick, he always said, was: "Is this necessary for survival and progress? If it is, let's do it."

Haunted by the fear that a Chinese island in an Islamic sea had little chance of surviving unless it continued to present a model of excellence, Mr Lee argued, like the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland who had to run faster and faster to remain where she was: "The moment it (Singapore) stops spinning, it topples and falls down."

His strong support for Asean when it emerged in 1967 reflected this need to consolidate regional moorings and devise a mechanism to subsume differences with neighbours. He never forgot any historical experience or its lessons: Konfrontasi and Singapore's dependence on Malaysia remained as pertinent to this thinking as the Japanese occupation or the Chinese school riots.

Mr Lee was criticised for his media relations. But his contention that "freedom of the press really means the freedom of the owner"and that the Fourth Estate concept of the press as "invigilator, adversary and inquisitor of the administration" is alien to Asian thinking is tacitly endorsed far more widely than might appear from public rhetoric. What became famous as his advocacy of Asian Values demanded that group or individual rights did not expand at the expense of orderly society.

Mindful of his warnings on the perils of American-style democracy, many Asian governments sought his advice on achieving economic growth without jeopardising political discipline and social stability.

When the world's longest-serving prime minister relinquished office on Nov 28, 1990, in favour of Goh Chok Tong, Nicholas Kristoff of The New York Times called him "one of the few Confucian emperors to ever step down voluntarily". Mr Kristoff needn't have worried. The newly-designated Senior Minister warned that those who thought he had gone into permanent retirement "really should have their heads examined". There was no visible reduction in activity after 2004 when Lee Hsien Loong's prime ministership made Mr Goh the new SM while Mr Lee acquired the title of Minister Mentor.

Initiatives on China, India

His thinking on China mirrored some of the complexities of his person and position. Wariness about Communists exporting revolution mingled with an awareness that the best Chinese didn't migrate and pride in China's achievements in which he claimed a share through the advice he gave to Deng Xiaoping. Although private links had long been booming, Mr Lee astutely waited for all the other Asean countries to establish diplomatic relations with Beijing before following suit on Oct 3, 1990.

He was no longer prime minister when Singapore took its other major initiative to draw India into Asian affairs. But Ong Keng Yong, Asean secretary-general (2003-09), said that "the strategy was MM's, the stamina was SM's". Moreover, Mr Lee stepped up his visits to India (14 up to 2005 alone) with which Singapore signed significant defence and economic agreements and forged a strategic partnership. Late in life, he had the satisfaction of seeing the realisation of the early hope that took him to India privately in 1959.

China, India and the West were never central to Mr Lee's thinking. Singapore was. The title of the second volume of his autobiography, From Third World to First, was no idle boast though Mr Lee himself summed up his life's work with uncharacteristic understatement. "In 1963 we joined Malaysia, in 1965 we were asked to leave - and the rest was just trying to make Singapore work."

And what a handsome piece of work it turned out to be.

  • The writer is a veteran Indian journalist who spent many years in Singapore as consultant with The Straits Times and teaching at Nanyang Technological University. His more than 50 years in journalism include stints in Britain and the United States. He was editor of The Statesman, and has written extensively for the International Herald Tribune and essays for Time magazine. He is author of the book, Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew's Mission India.

READ MORE:

IN DEPTH: Lee Kuan Yew: 1923-2015

Powered by GET.comGetCom