The mixed legacy of Lee Kuan Yew, a leader who turned Singapore into a model for Asia
Singapore (AsiaNews) – For days, hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans paid tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the city-state who died from on 23 March from complications of pneumonia at the age of 91. The country’s highest officials as well as numerous foreign leaders did the same at yesterday’s funeral.
Along with the foreign heads of state and government who came to honour one of Asia’s foremost and longest serving leaders, ordinary Singaporeans, from all walks of life and every ethnic and religious background took part in the memorial service, a testimony to the type of society Lee promoted, or imposed, as some would say.
Buddhist monks, Catholic nuns (who referred to him as a "father"), the disabled, immigrants and young people who learnt about the Asian tiger’s strongman in textbooks were among those who paid tribute to the late prime minister.
Yet, a cloud hangs over Lee’s decades in power. Although formally democratic, he led the country down the path of economic development by relying heavily on “Asian values,” something that has inspired mainland China.
Vincent Tan, a thirty-something Catholic, attended recent memorial church services for the late leader at St Joseph’s Parish, in Singapore. Like many, he had “mixed” feelings for Lee, a certain sense of “detachment" coupled with a deep sense of "gratitude".
For some, his authoritarian rule was the necessary price the country had to pay to go from being a Third World nation to a developed one.
Lee Kuan Yew led the country with an iron fist, isolating political opponents, gagging the media and restricting personal freedoms. Yet, he led the small nation to economic prosperity.
Although recognised in principle, religious freedom was limited by the primacy of the “common good”. Lee especially pushed for legislation that “preserved” confessional harmony. However, under his rule, the state effectively left little room for reflection, freethinking and challenges to those in power.
Opinions vary about the late leader’s impact on Singapore’s economic development, labour policies and relations with unions.
After he graduated from Cambridge in 1949, he provided legal counsel to trade unions. However, when he was in power, Lee did not hesitate from curtailing workers’ rights, nipping in the bud the type of protests by dockworkers he saw in London, Liverpool and Southampton in the late 60s.
In recent days, Chinese newspapers have heaped praise on Lee, starting with the People's Daily, which highlighted his ability to maintain stability, organise a smooth transition of political power, and fight corruption.
These are goals that Beijing itself has tried to implement in the past few years, especially after Xi Jinping took over.
China’s official news agency Xinhua has been generous with its praise of the Singaporean leader, stressing especially his fidelity to his original political beliefs and values despite foreign criticism and slurs.
Chinese leaders view Singapore’s strongman with a mixture of envy and admiration, and appear to be obsessed with success of his model.
They have tried to copy the city-state’s "managed democracy", or, as critics would put it, "benevolent dictatorship,” which, combined with the much-vaunted "Asian values," they hope can help the mainland keep at bay Western-styled liberal democracy.
In today's South China Morning Post, analyst Minxin Pei noted that mainland China uses the Singapore model to justify authoritarian rule rather than the rule of law, which is what Lee did, albeit within limits.
For Pei, to follow Lee Kwan Yue, China should, “at a minimum, legalis[e] organised political opposition, introduce[e] competitive elections, and creat[e] an independent judiciary.”
However, what Asia’s authoritarian regimes have in mind “is limited to the perpetuation of their power”.