Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

How will history see Lee Kuan Yew?

By Tom Plate ( Updated: 2015-03-23 07:51

How will history see Lee Kuan Yew?

Lee Kuan Yew at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in this May 23, 2011, file photo. [Photo by Xu Jingxing/Asianewsphoto]

Lee Kuan Yew and his followers, which most of the time included most of the people of Singapore, have showed the world that economic self-improvement has to have public policies grounded in best-practice, real-world pragmatism rather than ideological schematics.

It also has to have hard-working citizens sharing the vision. Whether your political system is argumentative-parliamentarian, messy-direct democracy or shut-up authoritarian, the people have to be brought along and make to believe in the leader's way of moving forward if they were to give it their best.

LKY (as he used to sign his notes) convinced people that his way — hard work, scientific public policy, political-party monopoly, clean government, and media as ally, not as smarty-pants second-guesser — would work. And it did. In his own phraseology, Singapore went from "Third World" to "First World" in a generation's time, never stopping for a rest, much less to entertain a second guess or tolerate second-guessers.

I once offered him the formulation of the late Isaiah Berlin, the great Oxford don who imagined political genius in the manner of Leo Tolstoy. The great ones were either "hedgehogs" or "foxes". Their political sense was either multi-faceted (the ultra-alert fox who knew a thousand ways to survive) or the one-big-idea porcupine (with but a single survival move — yet it was a doozey!). The wartime Winston Churchill with all his many tricks was a fox; Albert Einstein, who could barely cross a street without help, was nonetheless the hedgehog with his one world-changing idea.

Lee Kuan Yew, only grudgingly accepting my Berlin-Tolstoy dichotomy, insisted he was a fox, not a hedgehog: "You may call me a 'utilitarian' or whatever. I am interested in what works." He had a strong argument. Really good and sophisticated governance requires a map of multiple routes to the future, as well as mature management of the present. Critics belittled it as a "nanny state", but not every nanny was as competent and diligent as this one.

Little Singapore's journey also needed a team of like-minded colleagues and a talented people, with their Confucian culture tolerant of exceptionally strong singular leadership.

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