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Why Singapore's extraordinary leader will be missed

Lee Kuan Yew at a dialogue session with Steve Forbes, president and CEO of Forbes Magazine, at the 6th Forbes Global Conference in 2006.

LEE Kuan Yew was one of the great statesmen of the post-WWII era. He made Singapore an economic powerhouse, demonstrating that so-called natural resources aren't necessary for prosperity, that the key is creating an environment in which human ingenuity can thrive. He didn't tolerate corruption; to eliminate the temptation and attract capable people, Mr Lee paid government officials high salaries. He kept a tight grip on spending and pushed down taxes; the top rate on personal incomes is all of 20 per cent. He knew the folly of weak money; the Singapore dollar looks like the Rock of Gibraltar compared with most currencies - including the US dollar, most of the time.

Mr Lee simultaneously demonstrated that sound finance can coexist with soundly thought out social programmes. He pursued a vigorous housing programme that enabled people who didn't earn high incomes to buy their homes; his was a model for how subsidies need not lead to the housing-related disasters that have plagued the US. Singapore's health care system has provided comprehensive coverage to its people without the rationing, high costs and dicey care that characterise so many others. Singapore's pension system avoided the pay-as-you-go trap that is hurtling those in other countries toward insolvency.

Under Mr Lee's guidance Singapore developed a real-life playbook for how an impoverished country can flourish. When he became prime minister in 1959, Singapore's per capita income was little more than US$400. Today it is over US$56,000, higher than that of all but a handful of other countries.

Critics will tell you that Mr Lee was no Jeffersonian democrat, and he wasn't. But he allowed elections, even if he didn't give the opposition a lot of breathing room (though if he had, he would have won handily). More important, under his leadership Singapore developed a thriving middle class, along with the civic institutions and habits that are crucial to a sustainable democracy. Too many times we've seen that merely holding an election does not a lasting democracy make. Singapore's political system is evolving in a way that bodes well for long-term stability.

Early in his political career Mr Lee shed his socialist sympathies and became a hardheaded pragmatist. He ruthlessly suppressed communist attempts to hijack his political party, even though he had made common cause with them in the fight for independence, when Singapore was a British colony.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Mr Lee demonstrated superb political skill in maintaining Singapore's independence in the face of real hostility from two immensely larger neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

But his influence extended far beyond his small country. One wishes he could have been the leader of a country like Indonesia or China. (He would have conducted US foreign policy better than almost all of our Secretaries of State.) He supported US efforts in trying to save South Vietnam from communist takeover by the North. Although the US lost that war, Mr Lee argued that our long-term effort gave the rest of Asia the time needed to develop the strength to resist communist takeovers. He strongly supported a robust US role in the region as a counter to the old Soviet Union and China.

I got to meet Mr Lee, thanks to our chairman, Cap Weinberger. When Cap was Secretary of Defence, he worked closely with Mr Lee and considered him a stalwart ally, whose insight and advice were extremely valuable and who provided enormous practical help during the Cold War.

To listen to Mr Lee talk about the world situation was an enlightening delight. During one of our most memorable visits he recounted the story of his meeting with Deng Xiaoping soon after Mr Deng had won the reins of power and was mulling how to go about rebuilding China in the aftermath of Mao's horrific Cultural Revolution. Mr Deng's trip to Singapore in 1978 was his first and only trip there. He was stunned by what he saw in Singapore: a booming area populated by Chinese that was independent and politically stable. "How did you do it?" he asked Mr Lee. Mr Deng threw aside his itinerary and spent hour after hour in intense conversation with the Singapore leader.

When he returned to China, Mr Deng began putting Mr Lee's precepts to work, creating special Singapore-like economic development zones along China's coast. Thus was China's historic and rapid modernisation set in motion.

One of our journalistic coups occurred in 2001, when Mr Lee kindly accepted our offer to become a Forbes columnist, agreeing to share his insights with our audience every three months. It's so unfortunate that the civilised world has lost such a wise voice at this troubled time.

  • The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of Forbes Media


IN DEPTH: Lee Kuan Yew: 1923-2015