Death of a statesman
published : 24 Mar 2015 at 06:00
newspaper section: News
The death of Lee Kuan Yew early Monday was not a shock, yet it marked the end of his remarkable career as national leader and international statesman. Singapore's prosperity and its place in the world are the undoubted achievements of one man. Ironically, Lee's long-stated last wish was the one goal he did not attain. He had long lamented the idea of a lingering death, saying he wanted to go quickly.
There is arguably no other failed goal, whether he set it for himself or his country. Born at a time when giants were at work in Southeast Asia, Lee arguably surpassed them all. He helped to take Malaya and then virtually single-handedly guided Singapore to independence. Compared with his neighbours, Lee achieved high goals, with less bloodshed. Long wars took place next door and all around, but not in Singapore.
Lee's ways were often criticised and intensely hated in some circles. A socialist early in his life and legal career, Lee turned against labour unions and communist movements. His authoritarian hand, however, went well beyond the extremists in these groups. He brooked little dissent, and never wavered or apologised for imprisoning even old political colleagues for years and even decades at a time.
Singapore will celebrate its 50th independence anniversary on Aug 9. It is often forgotten or overlooked that this date does not mark freedom from colonialism. That came two years earlier, in 1963. Rather, it is the anniversary of a more traumatic event, the split that occurred when then-premier Tunku Abdul Rahman expelled Singapore from the Federation of Malaya, forcing it to become independent. Lee wept publicly while announcing this event.
He became the first prime minister of a disreputable, generally filthy and hugely under-developed trade entrepot. He retired as the chief of government of one of the world's most modern city-states. Singapore had housing for all, world-wide recognition for the cleanliness of its streets and government alike — as well as for tough and sometimes quirky laws.
His "war" on hippie tourists and his ban on chewing gum were the butt of many jokes, and still are. He made a long list of offences punishable by on-the-spot fines, and ensured his police force kept it honest. Because Lee himself detested the habit, Singapore was one of the first countries to pass and rigidly apply no-smoking rules. He encouraged or co-opted Muslim leaders to monitor for possible violence, because he believed strongly the government itself had little credibility in religious matters.
Because of Lee's guidance, Singapore still has a mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers. Jailers still wield the cane against some prisoners. Lee established government control of the press by unpleasant and anti-democratic means. With a tamed domestic press, Lee and family never demurred from taking on foreign publications with massive and relentless lawsuits. Lee was not a revered leader, but he earned worldwide respect.
Lee knew his many strengths but unlike most strong politicians he knew his limitations. He served 30 years as premier, but had no hesitation or regrets about stepping down and handing the country to younger people — including, of course, his son. After the death of his wife in 2010, his health became progressively worse.
Lee has been the subject of critics and admirers for many decades. His death will not silence either side. But Lee Kuan Yew's achievements are undoubted and any visitor to Singapore can quickly see his undoubted legacy.