Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy lives: Philosophy of Singapore’s founder remains relevant

By Aditya Ramachandran|| Staff Writer

The significance of the death of the founder and first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, on March 23 was widely unreported in the American media. That being said, there is no doubt that the man himself will go down in history as one of the most renowned leaders of the twenty-first century along the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.

The enormous significance of Lee Kuan Yew is reflected in the remarkable success of his country. Lee, who founded the modern day state of Singapore, oversaw the development of a South East Asian backwater to what became, in the words of the strategist Parag Khanna, the “world’s most successful post colonial state” (Khanna). Today, Singaporeans have a higher income than Americans and the city is internationally renowned for the high levels of cleanliness, livability and efficiency that make it more similar to the highly developed nations of Western Europe than to any of its peers in the South East Asia. Singapore’s development has truly been one from third world to first — incidentally the title of Lee’s memoirs.

Lee’s relevance is understood better when the observer accounts for the fact that at the time of his nation’s independence, not only were there no role models for his nation to follow, but Singapore was not even endowed with the fundamental ingredients of nationhood by the definitions of that epoch. The colony was composed of a mismatch of the Han Chinese, South Indians and Malays and no dominant language, religion nor culture. Ultimately, Lee decided to not emulate any established postcolonial methods but to absorb various political models that had been shown to work well in different contexts. For example, Singapore was built to follow the urban planning model of Western European nations like Britain, where he studied, as well as the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Singaporean political hierarchy is built upon the established management structure of global corporations the likes of Royal Dutch Shell. Ministers take home six and seven figure salaries and are hired and promoted within the framework of a strict and mercilessly meritocracy. Singapore’s history proves that its progress was hardly linear; quite to the contrary, Lee experimented with different political and economic models until he found one that worked.

Lee governed Singapore with an iron fist, often imprisoning his political opponents without good reason attracting the scorn of Western human rights organizations and often of Western governments. Under his governance, it became illegal to chew gum in Singapore as well as to speak out against the ruling PAP political party, of which Lee sat at the helm. However, Lee was stolid in the face of these criticisms, most notably replying, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbor is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” Yet for all of Lee’s frightening authoritarianism, the trade off between political pragmatism and idealism embodied in Singapore has been an overwhelming success.

Today, Singapore is a global hub and a magnet for expatriates from all over the world. The country has one of the highest rates of millionaires per capita anywhere in the world and a good number of these people are highly skilled professionals and entrepreneurs from not only the nearby Asian countries, but from places like Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the United States amongst others. They have left behind the sanctity and the familiarity of their homes for a standard of living that they simply would not be able to attain anywhere else on the planet.

In addition to the remarkable success of Lee Kuan Yew’s political strategies and firm governance, he will be remembered because he was a pioneer and a leader in a changing world. The twenty-first century is a decentralized world order, where the forces of globalization are slowly stripping power and importance away from the antiquated concept of the nation state. Power is seeping not only to corporations, but autonomous city-states like Singapore and Dubai. As the nation state continues to fragment and as corporations continue to accrue power, corporate leaders and the heads of the 150 countries that have less than 10 million inhabitants are going to look to the remarkable success of Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore for a roadmap, which they can implement going forward. In this vein, Lee will live on.

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