Who among you has heard of Lee Kuan Yew? He died last week and his headline in the Washington Post ran "Lee Kuan Yew, whose efficient but often heavy-handed leadership helped transform Singapore from a chaotic British colonial backwater into one of the world's most prosperous and orderly states, died March 23rd in a Singapore hospital. He was 91."
Lee is credited with turning the city state of Singapore of five million people into one of Southeast Asia's regional tigers - now boasting a GDP ranked third in the world, students perennially top-of-table in world education achievement, enviable outcomes in health and in effectiveness of government.
Let us leave aside for a moment the Post's characterization of Singapore as a "British colonial backwater". Prior to World War II, Singapore had been viewed as one of Britain's crown jewels of Asia. It was thought to be an impregnable Naval base athwart the strategic straits of Malacca, giving Britain control of the sea lanes from Asia to Australia. The Japanese conquest of Singapore in early 1942 was a devastating blow to the British Empire and put Australia and even India at grave risk.
Lee Kuan Yew survived the Japanese occupation as a young translator. He combined an understanding of the most effective aspects of both British democracy and Japanese military autocracy.
When given the opportunity to lead an independent Singapore in the mid-1960's he proved the most able Asian leader of the 20th century. He was smart, tough-minded, and forward looking. He built on Singapore's strength as a trading center. He understood the importance of government that was transparent and effective. He insisted that government attract the most able people so he recruited the best people and promoted on the basis of merit . Singapore's civil servants were the best paid and the least corrupt in the world. Singapore's teachers had similar elevated status.
Seeing the opportunity in the late 80's to attract financial companies to Singapore, he adapted policies that made it attractive for global financial institutions to do business in Singapore. Companies came because the Government regulation was honest, transparent, and not overly intrusive, because a highly-educated workforce was available, because Singapore was a safe place and a place where many cultures worked well together.
Lee's government was indeed "paternalistic". Political opposition was only tolerated if it was ineffective. Singapore was a one party state and Lee was perhaps the 20th century's only true philosopher king. Once asked about his governing style, Lee famously said: " Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed that Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless."
Chinese leadership learned much from Lee in attempting to combine a one party autocracy with a vibrant economic policy. Whether the Chinese will be as successful remains in doubt. Whether even a city-state like Singapore can retain its enviable positioning in the world post-Lee is a question. What is not in doubt is that we here in the United States could learn from the legacy of Lee Kuan Yew - the importance of education, the veneration of teachers, the application of merit and reward in government, and the willingness to make long-term investments in spite of having to endure short-term pain.
The continuing dysfunction of government here in the United States has this scribe yearning for a new generation of American leaders with some of the abilities that Mr. Lee so ably demonstrated.