World praise for Lee mixed with human rights concerns
text size

World praise for Lee mixed with human rights concerns

The United States and China on Monday led a global acclaim for Lee Kuan Yew, the Singaporean statesman whose shrewd and sometimes caustic views on world affairs were much sought after by his fellow leaders.

But as tributes poured in for the former prime minister, who died in hospital aged 91 after a long illness, foreign rights campaigners said it was now time for Singapore to relax his authoritarian legacy.

Lee is credited with transforming Singapore from a sleepy British imperial outpost into one of the world's wealthiest societies as leader from 1959 to 1990.

"He was a true giant of history who will be remembered for generations to come as the father of modern Singapore and as one of the great strategists of Asian affairs," US President Barack Obama said.

Lee's views "were hugely important in helping me formulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific", said Mr Obama.

During his rule, Lee positioned Singapore as a key plank of US regional security architecture. In a Forbes interview in 2011, he rejected the notion Washington was doomed to "second-rate status".

He cited America's track record of economic innovation, its willingness to attract foreign talent and the fact that English is the world lingua franca - all strengths he exploited in Singapore's own rise.

But Lee was also an early proponent of the view that China would become a force to be reckoned with, recounting in one of his books a meeting with newly emerged paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1978.

Lee, the ethnic-Chinese leader of a largely ethnic-Chinese nation, wrote that he told Deng: "Whatever we have done, you can do better because we are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the scholars, you have the scientists, you have the specialists."

As they opened China up after 1978, Deng and his Communist colleagues cast a keen eye on Lee's model of rule - marrying economic liberalisation with rigid political control.

President Xi Jinping praised Lee as an "old friend of the Chinese people" and said he was "widely respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman".

After the British withdrew, Lee created modern Singapore out of a short-lived and stormy political union with Malaysia. Their ties remained turbulent down the years.

But in mourning Lee, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lauded his "determination in developing Singapore from a new nation to the modern and dynamic city we see today".

Praise also came from Singapore's other neighbours, which Lee was instrumental in grouping as the Association of Southeast Asia Nations in 1967, as a bulwark against communism and to promote development.

Lee's political vision was forged in World War II, when Japan routed British and Australian troops to occupy Singapore.

He studied law at Cambridge University in the years after, returning home convinced that Asians must be masters of their own destinies.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called Lee "one of the greatest leaders of modern times that Asia has ever produced" and said: "He was highly revered all over the world."

Prime Minister David Cameron noted that Lee was "sometimes a critical" friend of Britain but stressed his "place in history is assured, as a leader and as one of the modern world's foremost statesmen".

India's reformist Prime Minister Narendra Modi also reflected on Lee's legacy, tweeting: "A far-sighted statesman & a lion among leaders, Mr Lee Kuan Yew's life teaches valuable lessons to everyone."

One lesson that Lee sought to impart was delivered in a sharp-tongued warning in 1980, when he said that Australians risked becoming "the poor white trash of Asia" unless they opened up their economy.

"Our region owes much to Lee Kuan Yew," Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, adding that "today we mourn the passing of a giant of our region".

In recognition of his outsized standing on the international stage, Lee was sometimes spoken of as a potential UN secretary-general. Ban Ki-moon, who holds the job today, called him a "legendary figure in Asia".

Philippine President Benigno Aquino "extends his personal condolences to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong", Mr Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said in a statement.

"Throughout his long life, as prime minister and senior minister, Lee demonstrated an unswerving devotion to his country, turning it into a state that would be an exemplar of efficient, modern and honest governance," the statement read.

It added that the development of Singapore has earned it the respect of nations and peoples, "including the tens of thousands of Filipinos who work there and visit the country".

In neighboring Indonesia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a media statement that Lee "was known as the father of modern Singapore and one of the biggest leaders in Asia who was very close to Indonesia".

Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said Indonesia is "deeply sad" over Lee's passing, adding that "his thoughts always inspire Asia".

South Korean President Park Geun-hye offered her "deepest sympathy and condolences" to the bereaved family and the people of Singapore.

"Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew developed Singapore into a global financial and logistics hub and an advanced nation over 31 years, as its founding father and leader with extraordinary skills and forward-looking insights," she said.

In 1979, when Singapore's founding father visited South Korea for a summit with her father, then president Park Chung-hee, she acted as a translator. Recalling her second encounter with him in Seoul in 2006, President Park said he treated her as if she were his daughter.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said Lee "made an extraordinary contribution to Singapore, both as it found its way to independence in 1965 and in the 50 years since then".

"Mr Lee's courage, determination, commitment, character and ability made him a formidable leader who held the respect of Singaporeans and the international community alike," Mr Key said.

In Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou said Lee and former President Chiang Ching-kuo were good friends and that he witnessed their friendship first-hand when he served as Mr Chiang's secretary and English translator.

Also, the island's Foreign Ministry said Lee had a close relationship with Taiwan and long supported peaceful development across the Taiwan Strait.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen expressed his condolences to the government and people of Singapore on the death of "not only the founder of Singapore", but also the co-founder of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Cambodia is also a member.

Hun Sen added that Lee Kuan Yew had spent his whole life working for the good of his country. 

Rights groups, however, expressed hope that Lee's death would open the door to greater freedoms in Singapore, where opposition leaders say they have long suffered legal and political harassment.

"Lee Kuan Yew's tremendous role in Singapore's economic development is beyond doubt, but it also came at a significant cost for human rights," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch.

Do you like the content of this article?