You are here


A life rich in achievement that leaves behind a precious legacy

The tributes and condolences streamed in all day, after the passing, on early Monday morning, of Singapore's first prime minister and founding father Lee Kuan Yew. They are still pouring in at the time of writing.

THE tributes and condolences streamed in all day, after the passing, on early Monday morning, of Singapore's first prime minister and founding father Lee Kuan Yew. They are still pouring in at the time of writing. They come from around the world - from global leaders and politicians past and present, academics and intellectuals, business people, social organisations, and ordinary citizens, even those from other countries. It is all a measure of the respect and admiration Mr Lee commanded, even in faraway places, over more than half a century of public life.

But of course, Mr Lee's passing is most acutely and profoundly felt here in Singapore. And Singaporeans have been fulsome and heartfelt in expressing their grief, their reflections and their appreciation.

Not many national leaders have been truly transformational, at least in a positive sense. Mr Lee will unquestionably go down in history as one who was. While of course many others - all manner of leaders and ordinary Singaporeans alike - have contributed to the transformation of Singapore from post-colonial backwater to post-modern first-world city-state with a hundred-fold increase in per capita income, no one would deny that it was Mr Lee who was the main driving force. Much of what has been achieved was the result of his vision, his agenda, his policies and his methods. He was the ultimate "conviction politician" who decided and did what he believed, even if it defied conventional wisdom or popular appeal.

Much of what he did was guided by what he considered to be pragmatism. Singapore's industrialisation strategy in the 1960s, based on inward foreign investment by multinationals, was for example, iconoclastic at the time, but he was persuaded it would work, and it did. Mr Lee also signed off on Singapore's big bets on electronics, pharmaceuticals and more recently, casinos - an industry to which he was firmly opposed for decades before pragmatically changing his view, on the grounds that it would be good for the economy and tourism, and it was.

In foreign policy, he relentlessly pursued strategic relationships for the benefit of Singapore, adroitly navigating third-party disputes and avoiding taking sides. And so it is that Singapore has cordial relations with both the United States and Iran, Israel and the Arab world, India and Pakistan, China, Taiwan and Japan; Russia and the European Union, as well as the biggest network of free trade agreements of any country.

Relations with Malaysia was one of Mr Lee's deepest foreign policy concerns. In an emotional speech after Singapore's separation from Malaysia in 1965, he declared: "The whole of my working life I have believed in merger and unity of these two territories." He kept up this belief long afterwards. In 1996, at a Singapore Press Club dinner, he expressed a glimmer of hope for re-merger, if Malaysia could retain its economic dynamism and embrace true meritocracy. But after the Asian crisis of 1997, this was not to be. Re-merger with Malaysia may remain one of Mr Lee's biggest unfulfilled dreams.

Honourable purpose

In domestic politics, Mr Lee's methods were sometimes harsh. He was wary of civil liberties and even, until late in his premiership, artistic and cultural expression. He could be uncompromisingly tough on many of his political opponents. He later acknowledged this. In an interview with The New York Times in 2010, he famously said: "I'm not saying everything I did was right. But everything I did was for an honourable purpose." All through his political career, he showed little desire to be loved, preferring to be respected and even feared, because, in his view, this enabled him to do what he thought was right for Singapore. It is fair to say he was selfless in that he was concerned not so much with his own achievements, but with Singapore's achievements.

It will be asked: what will change in Singapore with the passing of Mr Lee? The challenges facing the current generation of leaders are quite different from what Mr Lee faced. The economic challenges have to do with not just production but also productivity and innovation. Issues of economic inequality, as well as non-material concerns, have come to the fore. The political challenges are also different. In an era of the social media, there is a greater plurality of views and ideas. Politics has become more contestable, which calls for politicians to be more adept at consultation and consensus building than top-down paternalism. The globalised world of 2015 too is very different from the more economically fragmented world of 1965.

But some of the core strengths of Singapore will not, and should not, be allowed to change: The rule of law, the respect for order, the belief in meritocracy, inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony, well-functioning institutions and an incorruptible administration.

These are the most precious legacies of Mr Lee Kuan Yew. And he created them not out of pragmatism, but out of a conviction that they are intrinsically right and good, in and of themselves.

It is for Singaporeans now, and their leaders, to build on these solid foundations.


BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to