Tribute to Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)
If you have ever been to Singapore, it is hard not to be impressed. Your first port-of-call in Changi International Airport, one of the popular airports in the world. Like a model university campus with high-rise dormitories, you will find orderly design, gleaming skyscrapers, green lush vegetation, classic colonial buildings like Raffles Hotel (where English high-tea beckons), and squeaky clean streets. Affluence and orderliness is (almost) everywhere. Hard to believe that only 50 years ago it was only a shell of its current stature, with a GNP that has grown 15-fold in only 20 years.
Without question, the architect of this phenomenal success story was LEE Kuan Yew, founding father and prime minister of the city state from 1959-1990, who died on March 23, 2015, at the age of 91. It is no exaggeration to call him the ‘George Washington of Singapore,’ and the great display of public grief and interest in his funeral is a testament to it.
He led the People Action Party (PAP), the only ruling party Singapore has ever known. His state funeral was attended by Australian PM Tony Abbot, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe, Indian PM Narendra Modi, former US President Bill Clinton and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
LEE Kuan Yew provides an interesting and important profile in leadership. Born in 1923 and educated in Britain during the 1940's, he caught a vision of how his own nation should be. LEE’s vision for Singapore was to have political stability, adequate living conditions, modern infrastructure, sound and corruption-free governance. During and after his tenure, all these boxes were ticked.
When LEE came to the helm in 1959, Singapore had many challenges - small in size (715 square kilometers), sandwiched by larger neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia. The population was mixed race and religion without a proper sense of nationhood. Unemployment was high, housing was inadequate, and there were no natural resources, including water. It was a haunt of gangsters and ghettos. This was also the time of the Cold War, leading to the Vietnam War. All of Southeast Asia was hit by insurgencies, inter-communal violence, and political instability. Could tiny Singapore fend off these scourges? The short answer: Yes.
In 1963 Singapore joined the Malaya Federation as a protection but it was expelled two years later, thus creating the Republic of Singapore on August 9, 1965. LEE missed the jubilee celebration of his nation by 4 months.
LEE wasted no time in casting vision and getting to work. He ordered that Singapore have a market economy, everyone was to learn English, they would have a strong military based on the Israeli-model, foreign investment was encouraged, corruption was banned, and Singapore would attract the world by making it a hub trade and transport. LEE also spearheaded limited socialism, where no one was to go unfed or unhoused; also, the government is the biggest single employer.
Today, Singapore is one of the top economies in Asia and the world. In 2014, it had a higher per capita gross domestic product than the United States. It is a centre for shipping, manufacturing, finance, and oil refining. The crime, drug, and corruption rate is very low. You can walk the streets at night without fear, even as a woman.
Of interest is that under LEE’s watch, Christianity flourished in Singapore. The population of the city-state is 20% Christian, with a minimum of 300 churches (some of them mega-churches), several fine Bible schools, and an enviable record of missionary giving and outreach. Because of its size and location, Singapore has always been forced to ‘look outward’ (remember, there are no local flights at Changi Airport - if you board a plane, you will be going out from Singapore). This attitude has spilled over to the missions mindset. Being multi-lingual, cross-cultural, culinary adventurous, Singaporeans can make good missionaries as well. A local pastor named TAN Kok Beng coined the phrase ‘Singapore: Antioch of Asia’ in the 1960's, a term that was later used by Billy Graham. In many ways, Singapore has proven to be a modern-day Antioch.
From a western view, LEE’s rule was viewed as less than democratic, with tight social controls, limits on freedom of speech, and the like. From an Asian context however, a continent that has very limited experience with democracy, LEE provided exactly what Singapore needed. His values included discipline, pragmatism, stability and harmony. He made an important admission in a New York Times interview in 2010. ‘I’m not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honourable purpose.’
Regarding the latter clause, a grateful nation is sure to agree.