Lee's demise ends era of pioneer leaders

Lee's demise ends era of pioneer leaders

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister at the age of 91, brings to an end the era of politics in Southeast Asia dominated by leaders who led anti-colonial struggles. For seventy years, the region evolved in the shadow of men who forged new nations after the end of the Pacific War, which concluded more than two centuries of colonial occupation and rule.

Most of these leaders— men like Tunku Abdul Rahman, who led Malaysia to independence or Sukarno of Indonesia — died several decades ago in the last century. A few like Lee and Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia, cast a longer shadow, influencing their countries even as a third generation of post-independence leaders came of age.

Lee stood head and shoulders above his surviving peers, because not only did he continue to play a key role in Singapore's government until well into his 80s, but he was a global voice in international affairs, able to influence policymakers in the West as well as in China, India and Japan.

However, whilst he was regarded as a voice of pragmatism and moderation when it came to the machinations of great powers, his prescriptions for government were firmly rooted in paternalistic, authoritarian thinking.

Lee Kuan Yew brooked no opposition to his stewardship of Singapore where he served as Singapore's leader from 1959 to 1990. When political opposition emerged, he used the courts and the media to undermine the integrity and financial resources of its leaders. Even as late as the last election in 2011, Lee warned voters not to vote for opposition parties or face consequences. But by then, times had changed and the ruling People's Action Party was returned to power with the lowest share of the popular vote in Singapore's history.  

Lee Kuan Yew was quite simply the enduring face of soft authoritarian power in Southeast Asia. As a journalist who covered the region for three decades for publications subject to sanction in Singapore's courts, I shared the sense of helpless dismay as my colleagues at how effectively Lee subdued the foreign media. I witnessed the fruitless efforts of senior media executives, supported by Singapore's powerful friends and aided by some of the world's best legal minds, to assert the right to criticise and publish objective news and commentary about Singapore, but to no avail — and at great cost to the publications.

I always thought the Singapore government's concerns were disproportionate to the issue under consideration: most of Singapore's serious social and economic challenges were resolved in the 1960s, so why seek to block coverage that would only ultimately conclude in favour of the government's approach?

Lee Kuan Yew never shied away from strident commentary about the larger issues facing Asia and the world. I recall a meeting with him after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, which stirred in Lee a passionate concern about the threat of Islamic extremism. He saw Islamic extremism as something as dangerous to global stability as Communism had been at the height of the Cold War. Given where we are today, his view was not entirely misplaced.

Lee's prodigious intelligence and blunt manner of speaking made him a hard man to argue with. He made a point of knowing everything about you even before you started speaking. He often used cultural stereotypes and personal foibles to batter away at those who dared argue with him.  His personal attacks on opponents were withering and relentless.

His was the mindset and spirit of the committed leader of popular struggle, something clearly kindled by his experience under first British colonial rule, and then under Japanese occupation. "I saw the British people as they were," he once said. "They treated you as colonials and I sensed that."  It was ironic therefore that so many former colonials came to regard Harry Lee's advice and counsel as indispensable.  

One of his many international achievements was to persuade all the world's powers to convene their most senior defence officials once a year at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore — a forum that is today the only place where the military chiefs of China, Japan and the US meet.

Lee's legacy is secure enough at home in Singapore; the island republic has managed to defy all the odds to emerge as Southeast Asia's wealthiest, best-run state. Unburdened by corrosive corruption, it offers a stable platform for business and banking; multi-ethnic and tolerant of religious diversity, it provides a safe and secure haven for immigrants from all parts of the globe.  

Where Lee's legacy is on shakier ground is in the realm of geopolitics. His vision of a balanced array of power in Asia, where China and the US jointly guarantee security of Asia's prosperity, has proved illusory in an era of growing friction between the superpowers over such issues as freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.  

My own view is that Lee's profound disdain for untrammeled popular sovereignty and has not proven to be completely anachronistic.

Although he sadly died a few months short of the 50th anniversary of Singapore's birth on Aug 9, had he been asked about the regional political landscape to mark the occasion, he would have pointed to military rule in Thailand, to Myanmar's troubled democratic transition and to political instability in Indonesia as well as to the signs of growing intolerance and religious conflict in the region, and insisted that Singapore had got it right.


Michael Vatikiotis is a veteran journalist and former Editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, who is now Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue based in Singapore.

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