In late 2010 I was working as a research assistant to Graham Allison, director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. One day he asked me if anyone had written a short book that summarises Lee Kuan Yew’s wisdom on the pressing challenges of world order. After informing him I could find no such distillation, he and his longtime colleague Robert Blackwill embarked on what would become a short book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.
I accompanied Professor Allison and Ambassador Blackwill to Singapore on two occasions, once in December 2011 and again in March 2012, to interview Lee. Despite his physical frailty, Lee was mentally acute, capable of ranging across an impressive array of topics with ease and concentrating powerful insights into a mere phrase or sentence — quite often, in fact, his initial responses were far shorter than our questions. That he rarely couched his responses in hedges or caveats amplified the power of his judgments.
Here is the first question we asked him: “Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number one power in Asia? In the world?” His memorable response: “Of course. Why not?”
Leaders around the world valued Lee’s panoramic worldview, a fact that is remarkable considering how small Singapore is — not even 700 square kilometers — and how minimally it figures in the global strategic balance. Of particular interest: he advised every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping. Indeed, as Ezra Vogel recalled in his 2011 tome on the father of modern China, Deng sought out Lee's counsel when he was contemplating the economic reforms that would propel China’s torrid growth over the next three and a half decades:
By the time Deng left Singapore on November 14 , the two leaders had developed a special relationship that … enabled them to communicate with mutual respect on a common wavelength … Only one other person outside mainland China, Y. K. Pao … and no other political leader, had bonded with Deng the way Lee did. Deng had close ties with many foreign leaders, but his relationship with Lee reflected a greater depth of mutual understanding. From Deng’s perspective, what made Lee and Y. K. Pao attractive was their extraordinary success in dealing with practical issues, their first-hand contacts with world leaders, their knowledge of world affairs, their grasp of long-term trends, and their readiness to face facts and speak the truth as they saw it.
Lee’s uncompromising candour polarised observers at home and abroad: while his proponents often spoke of him with reverence, his detractors tended to deride him with little qualification. When I told a Singaporean friend of mine I was helping to write a book about the founding father of Singapore, he urged me to read Francis Seow’s To Catch a Tartar: A Dissident in Lee Kuan Yew’s Prison (and brought me a copy the next time we met).
It was not just Lee’s heavy-handed approach to dissent that provoked the ire of his detractors. A growing number of Singaporeans contend that the country’s current challenges are at least in part the result of the monopoly he wielded over its governance. From 1959 to 1990 he served as Singapore’s founding prime minister, from 1990 to 2004 he was senior minister, and from 2004 to 2011 he served as minister mentor. It is no exaggeration to note that Singapore’s trajectory registers his imprint more than almost any other country reflects the legacy of its founder.
While Lee played the decisive role in guiding Singapore to first-world status, a feat he chronicles in his 2000 memoir, the country faces serious hurdles as it mulls how to modernise further. Last year the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked its capital the most expensive city in which to live, and college graduates increasingly complain they cannot find affordable housing. With a Gini coefficient of 0.463 (as of 2013), Singapore also has one of the highest rates of income inequality in the developed world; wealth inequality is even more acute. Demographics pose another challenge: while Singaporeans want to slow the tide of immigration, they are not reproducing quickly enough to sustain the country’s population; the current fertility rate of 1.3 is well below the replacement level of 2.1.
As David Pilling argued in late February, though, "Singapore’s problems … are ones most nations would kill for. Clean, safe, and an important financial and manufacturing center, it struggles to serve as a model only because of its small size." At the time of its founding, its struggles were of a far more urgent nature: Singapore was a poor, corrupt city-state, possessing neither natural resources nor an organic basis for cultivating a cohesive society. Lee nurtured a sense of unity by making English the country’s working language. Moreover, while many of Singapore’s newly independent counterparts in the developing world shunned investment by multinational corporations, regarding it as an instrument of the very imperialism from which they had just extricated themselves, Lee actively courted it. Through it all, he entrusted the country’s future to a technocratic elite, reflecting both a longstanding pragmatism and a wariness of what he once called the "exuberance of democracy."
Lee’s passing will doubtless renew the debate over his policies. In particular, critics will continue to ask whether he could have transformed Singapore without inclining so heavily towards authoritarianism. While Lee would respond that he did what he had to do, he would not concern himself too much with persuading his detractors. When asked by a team of journalists from the Straits Times how he would like history to judge him, he replied: “I’m dead by then. There’ll be different voices, different standpoints, but I stand by my record. I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that’s all. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore.”