Foreign publications weigh in on the passing of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

As the world mourns Mr. Lee Kuan Yew’s death this morning, state media and foreign publications alike have come out with their own posts.

The results are unsurprising. While Western publications have always loved to hate on Singapore and Mr. Lee for his authoritarianism, they simultaneously celebrated his pragmatism and Singapore’s economic success.

A mixture of loath and respect appears to be the order of the day. All of them did not fail to make note of Mr. Lee’s ‘dark legacy’ — but what they have to say despite all of that is interesting, to say the least.

Mr. Lee’s lawsuits, strict laws and controversial policies were the subject of much scrutiny by the Western press, but he never backed down to so-called Western liberalism. He also never really believed in sticking to any ideology except the one which worked.

The Western press fills in on the life of Lee Kuan Yew. Excerpts and links below:

1. The Guardian

Lee himself may not have changed the world outside little Singapore very much. Indeed, his greatest apparent achievement, the creation of a viable independent state, was the outcome of his biggest failure – Singapore’s expulsion from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965, two years after the organisation’s inception. His first vision of Singapore’s future, as part of a multicultural Malaysia, may prove in time to have been the correct one, but he can be at least partly judged by the achievement of his second vision for Singapore, the prosperous, prickly and obsessively hygienic city state.

He did not create modern Singapore’s prosperity. The city state thrived naturally in a region of economic growth and rapid development of world trade. However, he certainly created the image of the state in his own likeness.

2. The Economist

Under him Singapore, with no natural resources, has become one of the world’s richest countries. Many admirers look to it as a model, and Mr Lee as a sage. He did indeed have much to teach the world; but some, especially in China, draw the wrong lesson: that authoritarianism works.

Part of Mr Lee’s influence stemmed from his role as a clear-eyed, blunt-speaking geostrategist. He was an astute observer of the defining contest of our era—China’s emergence and how America reacts to it. He was also a respected interpreter of each to the other, and an important voice, with unique access in both countries, arguing for continued American engagement in Asia and for Chinese tolerance of it.

3. Forbes

But under Lee’s leadership, Singapore made the transition from third world to first without ever really dallying anywhere in the middle. By the time he handed over the reins as Prime Minister to Goh Chok Tong in 1990 – not that he ever really stepped back from leadership all that much, becoming Senior Minister then and Minister Mentor when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became Prime Minister in 2004 – Singapore was the archetypal Asian Tiger, the home of some of the best-run companies in Asia, a thriving port, a hub for education, and a place within which the foreigner could rely upon peerless efficiency and a familiar legal code. Singapore’s post-war story is miraculous and it simply wouldn’t have happened without Lee.

Despite building elite southeast Asian companies like DBS, Singapore Airlines and Capitaland, Singapore has nevertheless sometimes struggled to find leaders, because of a national psyche that has been more about obedience and structure than risk-taking, decision-making or innovation.

4. Quartz

He was a thoughtful interview subject, particularly incisive on the need for a strong US presence in Asia. Also pleasant company, though loathe to suffer fools like me. When, at some function two decades ago, I proffered a compliment that he seemed to be unusually fit “for a man your age.” He scowled, turned on his heel and walked away.

Though mocked for his authoritarian streak, Lee was at heart a progressive social engineer. He believed in the perfectibility of mankind, and his Singapore was a bubbling laboratory of schemes both sound and silly. He banned jukeboxes, chewing gum and Playboy (his successors added tobacco advertising and e-cigarettes to the list). He raised civil service salaries to private-sector levels to attract top talent and discourage payoffs: cabinet ministers today make nearly $1 million a year, five times as much as their U.S. counterparts.

Romance and Singapore are words not often heard together in that famously nonsense-free zone, but Lee was clearly a man of passion—for his country and especially his vision of it. So convinced was he of his rightness that opposition was deemed not just unpatriotic but, worse, stupid. Lee’s results speak for themselves, but he rarely missed an opportunity to do it for them. In frequent articles and books, he expounded on matters great and small—like the proper room temperature for sleeping (66 degrees Fahrenheit).

5. The Diplomat

His powerful intellect and astute observations on global politics – which were praised by a long list of world leaders – certainly justify these compliments. Yet in truth, Lee himself was rather uncomfortable with them. He once quipped that anyone who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist. And if there was one thing consistent in his thinking, it was his firm belief in pragmatism rather than any theory, philosophy or grand idea.

But it is Lee’s role as the founding father of Singapore that he will be most remembered for and which gave him that global status in the first place. His success in turning Singapore from a tiny third-world country – at the time of its independence separated from Malaysia and under threat from neighboring Indonesia – into a first-world city state is a feat to behold. While few expected Singapore to survive, it has thrived far beyond the wildest dreams of many, including Lee himself who once reportedly dismissed small island states as a political joke.

Of course, those familiar with Singapore’s history – including Lee himself – know that he did not do this alone as shallower accounts might suggest. He had the able assistance of others, including Goh Keng Swee, Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Toh Chin Chye, Lim Kim San, and Edmund W. Barker.

6. Washington Post

With his domestic media subservient, Mr. Lee frequently targeted Western news organizations that had the temerity to suggest that nepotism or dynastic politics might explain the installation of his son as prime minister in 2004, or other appointments of family members to high positions. The International Herald Tribune, the Economist and Bloomberg News were among those hit with suits and forced to pay fines and print retractions.

None of this prevented several generations of U.S. and European leaders from seeking Mr. Lee’s counsel and offering glowing praise for his wisdom. Former secretary of state Henry Kissinger has said that no world leader “has taught me more ”; former British prime minister Tony Blair called him “the smartest leader I ever met.” To be sure, Mr. Lee was shrewd in judging his giant neighbor, China, and its leaders. Beijing respected him, too, and at times he helped West and East to understand each other.

Mr. Lee was, however, demonstrably unwise about democracy in Asia. While he was touting supposedly unique Asian values incompatible with liberal Western norms, Taiwan, South Korea and Indonesia became robust democracies and prospered economically. Now Singapore’s entrenched establishment is under pressure from a generation accustomed to free expression on social media.

7. A second Washington Post article, on LKY ruling with Confucian values

For Lee, taking down a writer and globally respected news organization for nine words was all in a day’s work. For decades, this man made family the center of Singapore’s society.

For Lee — the world leader from whom Henry Kissinger said he learned the most and a man who Margaret Thatcher said penetrated “the fog of propaganda … expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them” — liberty as Westerners might define it didn’t matter. Family came first.

8. CNN

While Lee is likely to be remembered with affection and pride by many Singaporeans, a younger generation, with no memory of the poverty and violence that marked the country’s birth, is questioning the Lee dynasty’s control of Singaporean politics and pushing for greater democracy.

9. Foreign Policy

He will be remembered as the father of his country, a political street fighter who cut his teeth in the struggle against colonialism. Some will recall an unapologetic taskmaster — a leader more respected than loved — whose pragmatism lifted a Southeast Asian backwater into a sleek metropolis and global business hub. Others will recall the politically incorrect pundit who became an outspoken champion of “Asian values” and a sharp critic of American-style democracy. Each is correct, and captures part of the man. But to these remembrances one more should be added: Lee was the most successful dictator of the 20th century.

10. Huffington Post

In the coming days, encomiums will most certainly come cascading in about the scrupulous — if authoritarian — life that Lee Kuan Yew led. Singapore is widely considered as a role model for developing countries yearning to establish more prosperous societies, and surely that role model’s ethos couldn’t have been created by anyone other than a man possessing Mr. Lee’s determination and steely will.

What may be overlooked in these encomiums is Harry Lee’s emphasis on a society with 100 percent literacy. And that emphasis also led to broadening the notion of what many Singaporeans called the “literacy of governance.”

It resulted in the establishment of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. Its first — and continuing — head was the former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani.

The school trains current and future leaders, mostly from developing countries. The idea is to inculcate in them values such as clean government, attentiveness to everyday people’s concerns, and effective municipal management.

That may be Harry Lee’s greatest legacy.

A life dedicated to Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew had the respect of everyone — whether reverent or grudging, and not for no good reason either. His story will continue to be told in generations to come, to Singaporeans and the world alike.

Hence, everybody needs to know both sides of the Lee Kuan Yew story to get the clearest picture of what he really was like at heart: an intellectual pragmatist, who gave his life to Singapore.

History textbooks aren’t going to tell you that we owe our lives to Lee Kuan Yew, but not without some unpleasant sacrifices made along the way.


Featured image via Yahoo Newsroom
With references from The GuardianThe EconomistForbesQuartzThe DiplomatWashington Post, Washington PostCNNForeign PolicyHuffington Post