The man who built Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, 87, resigned from his last cabinet position as the Minister Mentor on May 14.
Henry Kissinger has described Lee Kuan Yew as "a big man on a small stage." "One of the asymmetries of history," wrote Kissinger of Singapore's patriarch Lee, "is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries." And Richard Nixon once speculated that, had Lee, Singapore's founding father and master strategist, lived in another time and another place, he might have "attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone."
As the architect of modern Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew has ruled the city-state for more than five decades. Today, his stage, says Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, "does not look quite so small. Singapore's per capita GNP is now higher than that of its erstwhile colonizer, Great Britain. It has the world's busiest port, is the third-largest oil refiner and a major center of global manufacturing and service industries. And this move from poverty to plenty has taken place within one generation. In 1965, Singapore ranked economically with Chile and Mexico; today its per capita GNP is five times theirs."
Lee Kuan Yew not only has shaped the fate of Singapore, but also is one of the most powerful minds that helps to shape the course of Asian politics. As Lucian Pye, author of Asian Power and Politics, wrote, Lee is a statesman "who knew how to 'get it right' in world politics. Throughout his career, Lee's analysis of political problems displays the workings of a brilliant lawyer's mind unencumbered by lawyer's jargon. He also demonstrates a genius for reading human character. His forthright evaluations of the personalities of a host of foreign leaders provide a degree of candor rare in the memoirs of political leaders."
One of most important legacies of Lee Kuan Yew, however, is his belief that economic development has nothing to do with political democracy. Lee has managed a miraculous economic transformation in Singapore; but he also maintained a tight political control over the country. "Singapore's government," says Zakaria, "can best be described as a 'soft' authoritarian regime, and at times it has not been so soft."
Served in the cabinet without any interruption for 52 years and as a blatant admirer of the 16th century Italian political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli, Lee Kuan Yew's name is often synonymous with dictator. "I have never been over-concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader," Lee once said, "between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I am meaningless."
"Lee Kuan Yew was a formidable authoritarian leader who fully appreciated the value of fear," noted Roberto Coloma of Agence France-Presse, "people who dared to oppose Lee often found themselves in court, while dissidents were held without charge as threats to national security. Lee's admirers insist the end justified the means-Singapore is now the second-richest society in Asia whose economic model is admired by many developing countries."
Lee Kuan Yew does not believe that the Western concepts of democracy and human rights will work in Asia. "Lee Kuan Yew's track record," stated former South Korean President Kim Dae-Jung, "makes it obvious that his admonition to Americans 'not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work' implies that Western-style democracy is not applicable to East Asia... Lee makes these claims to justify his rejection of Western-style democracy. He even dislikes the one man, one vote principle, so fundamental to modern democracy, saying that he is not 'intellectually convinced' it is best."
Lee is also critical of the social breakdown that he sees in America and doubts that American-style individualism will ever catch on in Asia. "The expansion of the rights of the individual has come at the expense of orderly society," so says Lee Kuan Yew.
It is the Lew Kuan Yew-style of economic growth under authoritarian rule, rather than the American belief that without political democratization, there will be no sustainable economic development, that is now spreading across Southeast and East Asia. Lee Kuan Yew has provided authoritarian regimes in Asia and beyond with a powerful justification that economic development can only come with the blessing of a political autocracy.
Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.