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COMMENTARY

What I learnt from Lee Kuan Yew

THE statesman and nation-builder Lee Kuan Yew died this week. I had the great privilege of getting to know him during my time as ambassador to Singapore 25 years ago. Since that time, I consulted him regularly across my service as Governor of Utah, trade ambassador, and as ambassador to China. Along with generations of other American policymakers, I always benefited from his keen insight - insight which the world has now lost.

Among the consistent themes I will remember most were these three core lessons:

One, the power of culture in shaping policy. America has a Constitution, we have guiding documents that shape who we are, but we are a nation of multiple cultures. It doesn't dawn on most Americans that strong singular cultures really do shape policy in places like China, India and in other corners of the world. Mr Lee was eloquent in helping American policymakers and leaders understand that culture plays a very central role in the worldviews of those in many of the countries with whom we were trying to forge relationships.

Indeed Mr Lee's own formative years were far different from what we can imagine in the West. He grew up learning the national anthems of four different countries - the UK, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore. As a result, he employed a governance model very much based on Asian values: the wellbeing of the collective, the community before the individual.

Two, the power of strategic thinking and looking around the bend. Mr Lee always stressed to his leadership team the importance of planning for the next lap of development and in thinking in terms of the next big thing. Singapore couldn't afford to remain the same as everyone else in their neighbourhood. They had to be faster, sharper and more creative in considering their approach to economic development.

With strong leadership, he was uniquely able to bring a team together that got Singapore through its early vulnerable days, where its very existence was in question. Equally important was his willingness to assume risk - something that is completely foreign to today's politics where you go by polls and public opinion surveys.

Mr Lee's emphasis on the power of strategic thinking, having a plan, and looking around the bend were things I tried to incorporate when I was elected Governor. I imagined myself surrounded by very competitive states and if we couldn't somehow stand out based on our geography, population, institutions of higher learning and work ethic, then we would lose. He would often say if you're not attracting brainpower and maximising it, and if you're not bringing in capital, the seed for economic growth, then you are losing - because someone else is gaining at your expense.

And three, a better understanding of the critical balance between security and economic development. In the United States, we take for granted the fact that we have the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, or as Mr Lee used to call them, the two most impenetrable barriers possessed by any country in the world. For most Americans, it isn't until you travel abroad, particularly in corners of Asia, that you discover that providing and maintaining security are critical parts of economic development and growth.

Mr Lee was consistent in almost every meeting I had about the need for the presence of the United States, our forward-deployed Seventh Fleet and our indispensable role in fostering regional prosperity and growth. It provided an insurance policy by keeping the sea lanes open for trade and commerce, which has given economic lift to the region since World War II. Without this insurance policy, all bets were off. Less benevolent actors would fill that vacuum and, without a doubt, impact economic growth and prosperity and result in regional security complications.

He would school every American he met on understanding the balance between security and economic development. In the United States we just don't think in those terms. We think about growth, we think about technology, we think about the next new thing coming out of Silicon Valley, Austin, Texas, or Ann Arbor, Michigan. We don't have to stop and consider the security implications of where we are. It is much different in South-east Asia and it was certainly different during the nation-building years for Mr Lee.

He created an ownership society at a time when the rest of the world was moving in the opposite direction. His visionary leadership, based on the rule of law and a clean government, generated the world's most recent example of a country going from Third World to First World under a single generation of leadership.

Along the way, mistakes were made. By his own account, he regretted some of the decisions taken but also argued that everything was done for "honourable purposes" to keep Singapore stable during those early years.

With today's secure economic foundation, I suspect Singapore will further expand its creative class and existing civil society and people inevitably will demand more of a representational government.

The lessons of Mr Lee's formidable leadership and success will be a case study for generations to come.

  • Jon M Huntsman, Jr, is chairman of the Atlantic Council, a former governor of Utah, and a former ambassador to Singapore and China

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IN DEPTH: Lee Kuan Yew: 1923-2015