Harry Lee Kuan Yew was a leader, loved and loathed in equal measure. To some he was a dictator, an autocrat who ruled by edicts and one who muzzled individual freedom under the garb of progress. To others he was the messiah, a hero who led a failing nation into the arms of progress and wealth. To most Singaporeans, Lee and Singapore are synonyms.
It is interesting that Singapore was never destined to become a developed nation, much less a first world state nation, which would be patronized by many MNCs. For one, it lacked land, as it was a tiny island. For another, it had no natural resources to export, unlike its neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia. Yet under Lee, it grew from an underdeveloped nation into being called Asia’s tiger for its strength, resilience and power. So how did Lee achieve the impossible?
Strong work ethics and discipline...
Lee often stated that Singapore's only wealth is its people and their strong work ethic. He worked with a team of outstanding civil servants. He punished those who did not perform and rewarded those who did.
Lee was known to stand rock-solid behind advice of experts. Albert Winsemius, a Dutch economist, advised Singapore during Lee’s rule. Lee embraced his idea of export-oriented industrialization at a time when the World Bank advocated and promoted import substitution. The argument was that the Bank’s thinking wouldn't work for Singapore, as its 2 million population (less than half of Chennai’s) was insufficient to provide the necessary domestic demand for such a model to function. Asian nations like Japan and China would soon find this model enticing and follow suit.
Taking professionalism and education seriously
Perhaps the core of Lee’s legacy is to have created a society that has extra-ordinary regard for education and professionalism. At a time when many nations were sceptical of allowing foreign talent into their nations and were fearful that it may jeopardise the local job market, Lee welcomed foreign talent. At a time when MNCs were feared for their capacity of destroying the local business, Lee provided tax breaks to them and allowed them set up their bases in Singapore.
In 1968, his team of economic experts advised him that Singapore could establish itself as a financial centre by taking advantage of gap between closure of San Francisco and the opening of the Zurich stock exchanges half a day later. Their plan was that Singapore could establish itself as a 24-hour money and banking market and connect Europe with the United States. This needed both investment and skillsets and meant importing foreign talent as well as driving cultural change in its own people. This was 1968 when Singapore’s existence itself was under doubt due to political and economic reasons. But execution was Lee’s specialty and he went ahead with the plan and the rest is history.
Democracy, freedom and human rights
One of the central charge against Lee was that he never valued democracy, and was complicit in violating many of them. For example, the press in Singapore has no freedom, the private lives of people were regulated in so far as they were caned for drawing graffiti on walls or fined for eating chewing gums. He is reported to have said: “I am accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn't be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters - who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”
Is Lee a hero or a villain?
So how would history judge him? Is Lee a hero or a villain? Lee Kuan Yew is a colossal figure in modern Asian history. The bread vs freedom debate will now continue more vociferously than ever and whether it is fair to lose one in pursuit of another will continue to haunt us without any answer. People would continue to charge that Lee produced prosperity but at a cost of leaving behind a sterile, soulless and racist society that has little respect for human values.