Oppressor and Visionary: How should the world look back on Lee Kuan Yew

By Asa Zuberman-Leibman

It is quite difficult to place a proper title on one of the most influential yet controversial leaders of the 20th century. This is not meant as an obituary for Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, but rather as an assessment of his impact not only on Singapore, but also on the region, and the world.

Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀) took over the reigns of a city-state expelled from Malaysia in 1959. The country was multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, and comprised largely of immigrants. For Lee, this spelled disaster, but instead of buckling under the pressures ethnic differences can cast upon a state (read: China), Lee placed efficiency and wealth above all else. As he said, “in the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can have maximum enjoyment of their freedoms.” As long as people were enjoying their freedoms, albeit economic ones, the country would prosper. In the 1980s, just as Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea were rapidly developing economically, Singapore was following the model that the Chinese Communist Party had employed beginning in 1949: single-party dominance with an emphasis on economic rights over political ones.

All of this effort toward economic prosperity changed an economy from one that was sullen because of a dearth of natural resources, to one focused almost exclusively on becoming “a major manufacturing and financial center.” Plus, they “[had] very, very free trade, very low tariffs [and] very few non-tariff barriers,” said Josh Kurlantzick of the Council on Foreign Relations. All of these factors made Singapore a welcoming place in which to conduct business, which helped bring in large foreign investment and capital. Similar to China’s approach to economic development, the largest producers of wealth were supported by the government. Lee’s government heavily backed industries such as “shipbuilding, electronics, and banking,” Kurlantzick also mentioned. The economic prosperity, however, like anything supported by the government, would come at a steep price.

“Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.” This quote, taken from Lee at a rally in 1980, indicates just how consumed he was with economic development, and how much political and human rights would take a backseat; he was not one to allow political dissidents to attack him or his regime. Lee certainly was a fervent proponent of “Asian Values,” which led to the prioritization of economic development and social stability over individual freedoms. Many of these rights, or lack thereof, beginning with Lee’s rule and continuing to this day, are reflective of his Chinese background and influence: lack of free speech, a one-party state, and other individual liberties.

All combined, the recipe of a state’s citizens relinquishing their political rights in favor of economic progress is an all too familiar story. Take the PRC, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia, as examples. All of them followed the East Asian Economic Development Model, which denotes a system of economic progress wherein manufacture and export-oriented economies drive the GDP and GNP of a state up; all of this comes while supplanting political rights and individual liberties as the country’s singular focus. Singapore is no different. While Singapore looked less towards manufacturing and exports to drive their economy, the state nonetheless remained a strident disciple of the economics first, political rights second-mantra.

What does all of this mean for Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy? First, it’s important to examine the response to Lee’s passing from the perspective of the PRC, one of Singapore’s strongest allies. Foreign Ministry Spokesperson, Hong Lei, had this to say regarding the late leader: “Mr. Lee Kuan Yew is a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.” That Lee was influential in the Asian sphere is not a unique view, but the use of “embodying oriental values” is. It is rather difficult to discern the true meaning of “oriental values,” but it may be in praise of Lee’s commitment to development without Western democracy. In fact, Huang Jing, a professor at the National University of Singapore said as much: “It is [Lee’s accomplishments] symbolic, showing that Chinese can be successful, both in terms of economic modernization and political modernization. It shows that a non-Western political system can also succeed.” This all boils down to a certain level of pride that China has in Lee’s legacy because he defied Western norms with regards to governance, and ruled Singapore with perceived Chinese traits.

Next, it is crucial to analyze the reaction to his death from his home country. Tens of thousands of Singaporeans braved downpours to see their founding father be laid to rest. Nearly 1.5 million people across the country visited various other sites to pay their respects to Lee. These were not people forced by their government to say their final goodbyes to a controversial leader—unlike a certain hermit kingdom—but supporters and beneficiaries of Lee’s incredibly powerful economic policies. One cannot argue that Lee’s policies did not lift an entire nation out of poverty and into the seat of one of the world’s most powerful economic players. To say that Lee Kuan Yew did not economically empower hundreds of thousands if not millions of citizens would do his legacy a grave injustice.

China and Singapores’ views of Lee are one thing, but how would an objective observer look back on Lee’s life and rule? This is where an assessment is slightly trickier. While they are not nearly the same person with equally wide-ranging influence, Lee Kuan Yew and Mao Zedong have similar, controversial traits. First, they both brought an authoritarian regime to their respective countries, in one way or another. Neither of them can be called a champion of human rights.

Second, they both stressed economic progress as the cornerstones of their rules. Mao had the Great Leap Forward campaign and Lee had his own economic policies geared toward economic development. The comparisons may stop there—Mao, after all, is responsible for tens of millions of deaths—but both leaders have slightly tarnished reputations, at least from the perspective of an outsider.

Comparisons aside, Lee has had a tremendous impact on the region. Singapore is a global economic powerhouse, as well as a strategically placed actor along sea routes heavily focused on global trade. He has also developed relations with many surrounding countries, and the economic model on which Lee based Singapore’s progress is one that many other developing states in the region should and have followed. All of this prominence should be attributed to the late statesman. But should we simply cast aside the lack of individual liberties and one-party rule in the name of wealth and progress? For some people, Singaporeans, Chinese, and other developing-nations’ citizens alike, the answer is a resounding yes.

For others outside Singapore, the answer may not be so simple. As the question posed by developed states to their developing neighbors always is, should a country sacrifice political and civil rights if the result is a nation of citizens better-off economically? To an extent, my answer is yes. When a country’s citizens can reach a certain level of economic mobility, political rights and civil liberties must then take precedent. Until then, however, what citizen of a developing nation would rather have the right to speak out against its leader than be able to put food on the table for his family? That answer is obvious.

Lee Kuan Yew will be remembered fondly by many in his home country and the surrounding East Asian sates, and less so by others in the West who champion political rights. No matter how one views him, whether as an economic liberator or political tyrant, one thing is clear: Lee Kuan Yew was one of the most controversial yet impactful leaders of the 20th century.

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