Lee Kuan Yew leaves behind an ambiguous legacy in Singapore

Even in retirement, the late Lee Kuan Yew cast a long shadow from which Singapore has yet to fully emerge. EPA/Stephen Morrison

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, died in the early hours of Monday at the age of 91. His passing will come as no surprise given his health had worsened in recent times, but it will come as a shock to the Singaporean people nevertheless.

No leader of modern times has been more closely associated with a single country’s fate than Lee. For Singapore’s entire existence as an independent state, Lee exerted a profound direct or indirect influence over the nation and its citizens. Even in retirement as the “minister mentor”, he cast a long shadow from which Singapore has yet to fully emerge.

Despite Lee’s relatively modest background, his intellect and self-confidence distinguished him even while at Raffles College. His education was interrupted by the Second World War and the profoundly shocking, ignominious defeat of the British at the hands of the Japanese. Lee made the pragmatic decision to learn Japanese and work for the occupying forces.

After the war, Lee managed to win a scholarship to Cambridge, where he also met his wife. On his return to Singapore, Lee became immersed in local politics and established the People’s Action Party (PAP), which was originally imbued with a brand of Fabian socialism Lee had acquired in Britain. Lee’s pragmatism was once again in evidence when he briefly allied himself with the Malaysian Communist Party in what he described as a “marriage of convenience”.

As the leader of an increasingly dominant PAP, Lee was at the centre of the on-again, off-again federation with Malaysia. While Lee saw federation as a way of accelerating the end of colonial rule, the Malays eventually baulked at the prospect of including Singapore’s large ethnically Chinese population in the federation. Singapore was expelled and the future looked grim for the small, impoverished, unexpectedly independent city-state.

No doubt Lee played a large part in the subsequent developmental “miracle”, which saw Singapore ultimately achieve some of the highest living standards in the world. And yet Singapore was also in the right place at the right time. The reason Singapore exists at all is because of its place as a natural trading hub in one of the world’s busiest sea lanes. There were immense natural advantages to be exploited as the rest of Asia began to take off.

Singapore’s remarkable economic success story has attracted enormous attention – perhaps more than is merited for a small city-state with a unique and unrepeatable history. Lee was never shy about suggesting why he thought Singapore had prospered, however: far-sighted leadership and guidance from an elite group of incorruptible technocrats and hard work by a grateful population.

By contrast, much of the West was becoming work-shy and decadent. This was one of the reasons Lee famously thought that Australia would become the “poor white trash” of Asia.

Lee’s ideas about the superiority of the Singaporean model came together under the banner of “Asian values”, which he did more than most to champion. Lee’s enthusiastic adoption of Chinese culture, language and some of the principles of Confucianism provided a template for Singapore’s domestic development and a way of explaining the region’s overall development to the rest of the world.

Asians work hard and respect authority, the story goes. This is a convenient combination for any leader not enamoured with individualism or Western-style democracy.

The implausibility of the Asian values story was dramatically undermined by the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Nevertheless, the PAP’s political dominance remained undiminished. On the contrary, Lee pioneered new ways of defeating political opponents: a compliant judiciary was used to sue political opponents for defamation.

An equally obliging media did little to hold government to account. Even more effectively, perhaps, Singaporeans who contemplated voting for opposition parties were none-too-subtly reminded of the possible cost of being deprived of government funding in their electorates.

Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is Singapore’s current prime minister. EPA/Rolex Dela Pena

But as in so much of the world, inequality is on the rise in Singapore. Social and ethnic tensions are growing as a consequence. It is not obvious if the paternalistic, authoritarian, semi-democratic model that Lee built will survive his passing. Young Singaporeans may not be as willing as their parents were to make the implicit trade-off between economic development and political liberty that seemed a feature of the Lee era.

And yet given that Lee’s son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current Singaporean prime minister, it is also possible that an enduring dynasty may be in the making.

Many Singaporeans will no doubt be genuinely saddened to see such a dominant figure depart the stage. They have, after all, never known a time when Lee wasn’t exerting an influence over every aspect of their lives – even who they spent their lives with in some cases. Surely only Singapore would have come up with a government-sponsored dating agency for the nation’s brightest and best?

But it is not just Singaporeans who will mark Lee’s passing. Lee’s memoirs were adorned with endorsements from the likes of Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and George W. Bush, confirming his status as the Asian oracle and a champion of right-wing politics. Lee quite literally helped put Singapore on the map and its subsequent influence far outstrips the tiny island’s geopolitical significance.

That China’s leaders are now also seeking to learn from Singapore may prove to be Lee’s most enduring legacy – if the lessons are transferable. Whether we would want them to be is another question.

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