Thursday, March 26, 2015

What the world has learnt from Mr Lee

March 26, 2015

SINGAPORE — Commentary writers from around the world have penned tributes for Mr Lee Kuan Yew, covering a range of topics including Mr Lee’s unique style of leadership, strategic vision and the strengths of the Singapore model that has become the cornerstone of the country’s relevance to the wider international community. The writers talk about their personal encounters with Mr Lee and give a glimpse of Mr Lee’s forward-looking thinking and straight-talking personality.


Jon Huntsman, chairman of the Atlantic Council, former Utah governor and former US ambassador to Singapore remembered how he had regularly consulted Mr Lee along with generations of other American policy-makers. “I always benefited from his keen insight — insight which the world has now lost”, Mr Huntsman wrote.

Mr Huntsman said that he had learned “three core lessons” based on his interactions with Mr Lee:

First, Mr Lee was keenly aware of the power of culture in shaping policy. “Lee Kuan Yew was eloquent in helping American policymakers and leaders understand that culture plays a very central role in the worldviews of those in many of the countries with whom we were trying to forge relationships,” wrote Mr Huntsman.

“Second, Mr Lee was a strategic thinker who looked around the bend, stressing to his leadership team the importance of planning for the next lap of development.

“Third, Mr Lee had an understanding of the critical balance between security and economic development. Mr Lee stressed the need for the presence of the US, its forward-deployed Seventh Fleet and indispensable role in fostering regional prosperity and growth.”


Steve Forbes, the Editor-in-chief for Forbes magazine, described how Mr Lee made Singapore an economic powerhouse, demonstrating that natural resources are not necessary for prosperity and that the key is creating an environment in which human ingenuity can thrive.

“He had zero tolerance for corruption and to eliminate the temptation and attract capable people, Mr Lee paid government officials high salaries,” Mr Forbes wrote.

Mr Lee simultaneously demonstrated that sound finance can coexist with soundly thought out social programs.

“He pursued a vigorous housing program that enabled people who didn’t earn high incomes to buy their homes; his was a model for how subsidies need not lead to the housing-related disasters that have plagued the US,” noted Mr Forbes.


Mr Jeff Bader, senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President Barack Obama, shared his insights of Mr Lee at work, and how he would always speak his mind and not shy from controversy.

Recounting Mr Lee’s attendance at one Bo’ao Forum for Asia conference on China’s Hainan island, he pointed out that the older generation of Chinese understood the Confucian values of modesty and humility, but he feared the new generation did not.

“He criticised the destruction of Japanese property and facilities in response to the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni Shrine,” Mr Bader wrote. “He complained that masses of Chinese Internet users had insulted his son, then Singapore’s deputy prime minister, for visiting Taiwan, referring to ‘Big China’ and ‘Little Singapore.’ He said these actions sent a profoundly disturbing message to China’s neighbours.

“As if this wasn’t enough to rattle his Chinese hosts,” Mr Bader wrote, “Mr Lee said he wanted to add one more point. He said he had heard many Chinese talking about the 21st century being China’s century, and that America’s time was past. ‘Well,’ Mr Lee said, ‘I have news for you. The 21st century will be America’s century too. Americans have an extraordinary capacity to reinvent themselves, to learn from their mistakes, and to innovate. Don’t underestimate them,” he closed.

“The senior Chinese officials, smiles still frozen on their faces but in semi-shock, applauded dutifully.”

[This is one of the more interesting anecdotes in this anthology of anecdotes. I found Bader's full article, but in trying to find the original speech, I could only find the official archived speech, which does not align to Bader's recollection.

Two possible explanation. One, Bader is wrong or misremembered the speech. Two, Bader recalled correctly and accurately, and Lee departed from the prepared speech and the archived speech was not checked against what was actually delivered. 

I would like to see the transcript (translated) of the speech Lee actually gave.]


Dr Ong Kian Ming, a Malaysian MP for Serdang, was an Asean scholar at Raffles Institution from 1991 to 1992 and in Raffles Junior College from 1993 to 1994. He wrote about Mr Lee’s strategy of investing in the future of society.

“Looking back, I cannot help but feel (Mr Lee’s) imprint in my own education experience,” Mr Ong wrote. “Being placed in the best class in one of the best secondary schools in Singapore ... the intense competition, the high standards in English, Mathematics and the Sciences, the exacting teachers and the spanking new facilities in a new campus came as a culture shock to me.

“While I acclimatised myself to my new surroundings, I also began to realise that the elitist culture around me was also highly meritocratic. Among my classmates was a son of the then education minister, who is now himself a member of Parliament in Singapore, and the son of a kuay teow seller who later on graduated from MIT.

“The willingness to invest in training high quality teachers and physical infrastructure in schools ... the implementation of a vigorous and challenging syllabus and tough exam standards, the creation of a highly elitist and meritocratic education system and the foresight of offering scholarships to foreign students at a relatively young age, are all classic hallmarks” of Mr Lee, Mr Ong wrote.

Mr Ong said that he gained political consciousness during his time in Singapore, which left him wondering whether Singapore’s policies were right.

He cited the ban of chewing gum and the caning of American Michael Fay for vandalism left him as examples. “Did a country as successful and orderly as Singapore really need to resort to these extreme measures in order to maintain law and order, I thought to myself,” he wrote, adding that he also became curious about critics of Mr Lee, including former Solicitor-General Francis Seow, now a political dissident living in the United States and academic Christopher Lingle.

He noted how Singapore now faces new challenges that were not present when he studied here in the 1990s, including questions being asked over whether the education system has evolved to favour students from more well-to-do backgrounds as well as the transportation system coming under strain from a rapidly growing population.

“The rise of social media and of a generation of voters who are not used to being muzzled and not easily scared by yesteryear stories of political bogeymen are already posing some interesting challenges to the PAP regime. How will all of this play out in the next general election in Singapore, which is due in 2016?” wondered Mr Ong.

Reflecting on his time in Singapore, the member of parliament quipped that it helped him to better appreciate life in his own country.


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