'The mark of a great leader is to take his society from where it is to where it has never been'. So said Henry Kissinger about Singapore's founder and master-builder, Lee Kuan Yew, in 2010. Kissinger went on to say that 'There is no better strategic thinker in the world today'.
Kissinger's sentiments have been echoed the world over. Lee, one of Asia's great architects, was a remarkable statesman and a much revered thinker on politics, society and state-building.
Rising to become Singapore's first prime minister at the age of 35 in 1959, Lee was all too aware of his island-state's fragility. Resource poor and under threat from communist forces, he sought a union with the Malaysian Federation. But Malaysia's ethno-centric nation-building was at odds with Lee's vision of a meritocratic, secular state and in 1965 Singapore found itself exiled from the Federation.
A fierce pragmatist who narrowly avoided execution under Japanese occupation, Lee set about building the impossible nation. His Singapore would become, by the end of the 20th century, a key financial and trade hub of Asia and a centre of innovation and big ideas.
During Lee's prime ministership, lasting from 1959 to 1990, he ran the island-state more like a multinational corporation than a state. Indeed, there were few models in the 20th century or Cold War for the viability (let alone survival) of a city-state. Through his lifetime (both as PM as well as in his advisory roles as senior minister from 1990 to 2004 and minister mentor from 2004 to 2011) he saw GDP per capital rise from $400 to $40,000, constructed an unlikely stability and weeded out corruption in Singapore. Today, Singapore is unique in a region prone to developmental teething problems.
Lee was a man of strong convictions. His pragmatism was arrived at through empirical study and driven by expert consultations, earning him the accolade of being a 'one-man intelligence agency'. He was of course not alone in the building of his big ideas. Sinnathamby Rajarathnam and Goh Keng Swee were just two who played a pivotal role in the creation of Singapore, as Lee would himself attest. (He was known for publicly deriding the idea of statesmanship, once saying that 'anyone who thinks they're a statesman should see a psychiatrist'.)
Under Japanese occupation in 1942-45, Lee worked as a translator for occupying forces, narrowly escaping execution when upon being asked to board a truck for relocation, sensed something amiss and excused himself to return home to collect a change of clean clothes. He stayed there for two days before returning to work, thus avoiding the massacre of Sook Ching. As he would later say about his escape, it was 'a lottery'. After reading law at the University of Cambridge where he obtained a 'Double Starred' honours, he returned to Singapore to work as lawyer before entering politics in 1954. He was elected the first prime minister of Singapore in 1959 after the island was granted self-government from Britain.
Lee's vision for Singapore was of development in phases, and in this sentiment rests the essence of the strongest criticism of Lee, who demanded strong rule (often rule by law rather than rule of law) throughout his tenure. In 1980, on the campaign trial, he declared: 'Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him'. He led an illiberal democracy that has often been derided for curbing civil liberties and upholding severe penalties (including death) against offenders. He saw little place for the media in his Singapore, noting that 'One value that does not fit Singapore is the theory that the press is the fourth estate'.
His irreverence toward media was derived from pragmatism:
I ignore polling as a method of government...I think that shows a certain weakness of mind, an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. You're not a leader.
His straight-speaking, strong will and foresight in dealing with the big picture rather than what we would today term 'inbox issues' earned him the admiration of leaders and reformers the world over.
When asked of the great men he had met, he responded:
I would say the greatest was Deng Xiaoping. At his age, to admit that he was wrong, that all these ideas, Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, they are just not working and have to be abandoned, you need a great man to do that...
Lee was a visionary of equal merit, and Deng would thrust on him (and him alone) the mantle of 'mentor'. China's reformer wasn't the only one who sought Lee's counsel. Lee was the only individual who has been called to give counsel to every US president since Nixon.
In a 2011 interview, when asked how he judged his life's achievements, he responded:
Has the life I've lived been worthwhile? Have I made the world around me and those dependent on my decisions...[have I] given them a better life? I give myself a B+. That's enough.
Singaporeans both lament the restrictions on liberties under his tenure (which remain in place today) and celebrate the progress and achievement made possible through him. Standing firmly upon his belief in pragmatism, he has long expressed his concerns: 'What I fear is complacency. When things always become better, people tend to want more for less work.'
As Singapore marks its 50th anniversary of independence this year, time will tell if complacency can corrode the bastion of strength that Lee has constructed. But for today, this man's life achievements as the father of a nation and the adviser to a generation of statesmen should be revered and remembered. Asia is poorer without him.