23. Mar, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew RIP

Lee Kuan Yew. 1923 – 2015

 

The world has today lost one of its greatest statesmen.

 

Former Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, was a colossus in South East Asian history. He strode across the pages of diplomacy and history with sagacity, courage, and the ultimate interests of his nation state and a deep sense of integrity. 

 

Born 1923 into a wealthy Chinese family he studied law at Cambridge, qualified as a barrister in London before returning to Singapore in 1951 to practice. During the height of the anti-British Communist Emergency he founded the anti-Communist People’s Action Party [PAP] in 1954 and entered the Singapore Legislature in 1955.

 

Trusted by both the British, the Chinese moderates and the trades unions he managed successfully to steer his country to independence by what became colloquially known as riding the ‘tigers’ back’. Supported by the British colonial administration Lee and his colleagues in the PAP courageously fought the Malayan Communist Party in a vicious war for the hearts and minds of Singaporeans. By playing on the sympathy and impetus for independence he was able to channel this energy into support for a Westminster style of government. Having thoroughly routed the communists in 1959-63 Singapore was granted separate colonial status and internal self-government. In 1963 it joined the Federation of Malaysia but personal conflict with Malaysia’s Prime Minister, the aristocratic Tunku Abdul Rahman, and a sense of discrimination by the Malay majority of Malaysia [note: three quarters of the island’s citizens are of Chinese origin] the experiment failed in acrimony and Singapore seceded becoming an independent republic within the Commonwealth on 9 August 1965.  

 

The genius of Lee Kuan Yew was that he took his resource poor island state, and forged it into one of the economic powerhouses of South East Asia. In the early days he received much support from the United Kingdom and his islands extensive port facilitates continued to be the home of Britain’s Far East Fleet. It also remained a garrison island from the declining Commonwealth forces in South East Asia. Despite the occasional mistrust between the island and its massive neighbour just across the causeway, Lee fostered sound economic and defence links with Malaysia. Indeed, through his pragmatism, his contribution to various defence links and his own personal experience of riding the ‘tiger’s back’, Lee Kuan Yew contributed significantly to keeping South East free of communism.

 

The People’s Action Party, structured along strong cadre principles unhesitatingly used the Leninist principles of democratic centralism to raise and legitimise policies to the public arena. It followed a strict programme of social reform, economic development and, most significantly financial probity. It welcomed foreign investment, it set up employee superannuation schemes and housing development boards into which foreign companies were obliged to contribute.

 

Lee was not one to suffer fools easily. His pithy comment about Australia being the ‘poor white trash of Asia’ was a prescient and still apposite comment. Considered authoritarian by many, his one overriding objective was to make Singapore a viable, self-sufficient plural state with its own sense of pride, nationalism and culture. He achieved this by a mix of what he called modern Confucianism – invoking the traditional Chinese values of hard work, family and meritocracy. He introduced national service and created formidable armed forces. Much of the transportation infrastructure of Singapore can be mobilised within hours for military purposes

 

But, the bottom line was, he gave Singaporeans an increasingly prosperous way of life; he gave them a country and the proud identity of being Singaporean.

 

Lee Kuan Yew was a figure from my childhood. As a child in Singapore during the ‘fifties his name was indelibly printed on my brain. I was once caught up in one of the communist contra anti-communist riots and can testify to their bloodiness. In a sense I should hold him a grudge in that in 1963 he made it impossible for my father to live any more in Singapore. But I understood that. The time had come. I had the great privilege of meeting him in 1987 during a course of interviews I was conducting in Singapore. I can vouch for his strong sense of humour.

 

Singaporeans will have reason to feel a great sadness over the coming days. They will also have every reason to be proud to have given the world such an exemplar of statesmanship. This country could do much by learning from his example.

 

May the Gods ensure his everlasting peace.

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