The legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

It’s the end of an era in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew died at 3.18 am today at the Singapore General Hospital, where he had been warded for severe pneumonia for more than a month. He was 91.

Singapore today lost not only its first prime minister, but also the man who personified exceptionalism.

Generally, commentators talk about American exceptionalism, but hasn’t Singapore been exceptional too?

Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew broke down when he announced separation from Malaysia in August 1965.

Yet, look at Singapore now. As the Economist says today: “One of the world’s great economic success stories, Singapore owes much of its prosperity to a record of honest and pragmatic government, the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew…”

In effect, Lee has been gone since May 2011 when he resigned from the Cabinet after the opposition won six of the 87 constituency seats in parliament and the People’s Action Party’s vote share fell to 60.1 per cent, its lowest since independence.

We heard less and less about the former leader. Even after he was warded in hospital on February 5, there was no official announcement till February 21.

The Prime Minister’s Office lately began giving daily updates and Singaporeans prayed and flocked outside the hospital to pay respects to their former leader, but the news did not make international headlines like the prolonged illness of Nelson Mandela, who died on December 5, 2013, at the age of 95.

Maybe the government did not want that kind of publicity. Maybe Lee did not capture the world’s imagination quite like Mandela.

There’s no question, however, who contributed more to his country materially. The Economist says it all today in an article headlined Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore: An astonishing record. Singapore’s per capita gross domestic product (in current US dollars) in 2013 was more than $55,000, more than that of the United States (over $53,000).

However, man does not live by bread alone, and it’s not just the Western media which, while praising Lee as a nation-builder, has been recalling his lack of patience with dissent; even the local newspaper Today says in its special edition:

To Mr Lee, the idea of a free press as the “fourth estate” was anathema.

Freedom of the press, freedom of the news media, must be subordinated to the overriding needs of the integrity of Singapore, and to the primary purposes of an elected government,” he declared in 1971 to a General Assembly of the International Press Institute.

Would Singapore have been better off with a free press?

We will never know.

What we do know is Singapore is prosperous, stable, and has a government promoting education, racial harmony and a gracious society. That makes it a haven for some.

Singaporeans should ask themselves why foreigners come to Singapore: Because they can earn more for doing the same work here than they did back home — and have a better life.

Singapore has been exceptional. The Economist says:

Singapore has flourished in part because of the failings of the rest of its region. Rather as Hong Kong’s prosperity was based on being Chinese but not entirely part of China, so Singapore is in South-East Asia, but not of it.

However, the most important reason for Singapore’s singular experience is Mr Lee himself. Incorruptible himself, he kept government unusually clean.

Lee Kuan Yew did not claim to be perfect. As he himself said in an interview with Seth Mydans of the New York Times in 2010: “I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

But, as Robert Burns wrote in a poem, “A man’s a man for a’ that”.  And Lee Kuan Yew and his generation made Singapore what it is today. We should be grateful for that.

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