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Lee Kuan Yew: The man who transformed Singapore

The way Lee Kuan Yew crafted the Singapore success story despite severe constraints is an astonishing achievement

Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday at the age of 91, was a giant on a small stage. His reputation was, quite deservedly, far weightier than the heft his small country actually commanded in the global community.

Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday at the age of 91, was a giant on a small stage. His reputation was, quite deservedly, far weightier than the heft his small country actually commanded in the global community.

It is usually a fallacy to lay all credit for national success at the door of one leader. But there is no doubt that Lee was instrumental in changing the fortunes of Singapore, even though he credited an entire team driven by a common vision backed by “a practical and hardworking people who trusted them". Lee was at the helm as Singapore miraculously transformed itself from a small trading entrepôt into a prosperous nation. He was also one of the sharpest thinkers on global strategic affairs, even though his caustic candour sometimes drew more attention than the underlying wisdom.

It is usually a fallacy to lay all credit for national success at the door of one leader. But there is no doubt that Lee was instrumental in changing the fortunes of Singapore, even though he credited an entire team driven by a common vision backed by “a practical and hardworking people who trusted them". Lee was at the helm as Singapore miraculously transformed itself from a small trading entrepôt into a prosperous nation. He was also one of the sharpest thinkers on global strategic affairs, even though his caustic candour sometimes drew more attention than the underlying wisdom.

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Lee began as a Fabian socialist, an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru, but moved towards a more pragmatic course when he took charge of a small city state that had been ejected from the Malaya Union in 1965. It was then threatened from within by race riots as well as communist insurgency. How Lee crafted a success story despite these challenges is wonderfully recounted in his autobiography.

Singapore now regularly features somewhere at the top of various lists of countries that are easy to do business in. It has stable taxes. The rule of law is paramount. Corruption is almost unknown. The interesting thing about the Singapore model is that these free market achievements have been balanced by a chain of successful companies that are owned by the government, public housing projects to house most citizens and compulsory savings through the national provident fund.

Lee was also a deep, but controversial, thinker. His method of analysis was almost Weberian in the way he gave primacy to civilizational values. The German sociologist Max Weber had argued nearly a 100 years ago that Protestant values had helped some countries develop rapidly. Lee similarly argued that the Confucian values embedded in the Sinic civilizations of Asia had helped them grow rapidly after the end of World War II. He wrote in his autobiography that India has allowed its potential to lie fallow for too long, but it is clear that he was more confident about China.

Economists have more prosaic explanations. Singapore was one of several Asian countries that followed a broad set of policies that helped them roll back mass poverty: high levels of domestic savings, trade openness, competitive exchange rates, investment in human capital and good infrastructure. Lee was one of a cast of Asian autocrats who oversaw rapid economic advancement in impoverished countries that at one time were expected to fall to communism like a row of dominoes. The others were Park Chung-hee in South Korea, Chiang Kai-shek in Taiwan, Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia and Suharto in Indonesia.

These countries were to face two big challenges once they reached a certain level of prosperity. First, the 1997 regional economic crisis was an acid test for the Asian economic model: the rapid growth that had been sustained by massive increases in inputs had to be replaced by a system that was more dependent on innovation. Second, the spread of prosperity created pressure from below for more political freedoms: there has been uneven progress here across East Asia but autocracy seems to be in retreat. In his later life, Lee often said that Singapore had to become a knowledge economy while his Peoples’ Action Party would have to adapt to the new times.

Lee had no shortage of critics, both for the restrictions on free speech in Singapore as well as some of his more politically incorrect views. Lee should be seen through a lens that he himself often used when speaking about other countries. Lee was not one for sweeping generalizations, which was why the debate on Asian values emerged in the 1990s. He had disdain for the preachiness of his Western critics because he felt that what works in the West right now may not necessarily work in Asia, though such relativism can be misused by lesser men to rationalize either failure or oppression. Lee believed that the record of any country should be judged against the backdrop of its historical, cultural and institutional realities.

In that sense, the way he crafted the Singapore success story despite severe constraints is an astonishing achievement.

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