I first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew in 2007, while moderating a closed-door dialogue with young Singaporeans. The format was unconventional. Four youths in their late teens to early thirties gave presentations on political competition, economic development and our social fabric. The youth audience then discussed and debated among themselves, with Mr Lee watching for the most part, before sharing his own views and fielding questions afterwards.
Even in his mid-eighties, he was a formidable physical and intellectual presence. My youthful compatriots were polite but pulled no punches, and Mr Lee gave as good as he got. What struck me was Mr Lee's keen intellectual curiosity despite his age. He had made the time to engage with us younger folk and was keen to listen, learn and understand, even if he did not always agree. [quip float="pqright"] What struck me was Mr Lee's keen intellectual curiosity despite his age. He had made the time to engage with us younger folk and was keen to listen, learn and understand, even if he did not always agree. [/quip]
But time waits for no man. Some leaders are cut down in their prime, like John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. The rest grow old: Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Deng Xiaoping. Even the luminous among us are also flesh and blood.
Lee Kuan Yew's place in the world
Bending the arc of history requires will and vision. While fire in the belly is easily found in tumultuous times, clear-sighted vision is precious and rare.
In each era of global transformation, the path is often unclear: in the days of post-colonial independence; in the long night of the Cold War when great nuclear powers fought proxy battles using small states as chess pieces to be pushed and sacrificed; in the new dawn of a resurgent East Asia.
Yet each time Mr Lee saw what needed to be done and -- with blood, sweat, toil and tears -- helped steer that arc towards survival and a brighter future for Singapore.
Because of what Mr Lee and Singapore had accomplished, other world leaders took his views seriously: no small achievement given Singapore's tiny size. By helping and advising other countries, Mr Lee helped Singapore and Singaporeans gain international recognition and open doors to new markets. [quip float="pqright"] Because of what Mr Lee and Singapore had accomplished, other world leaders took his views seriously: no small achievement given Singapore's tiny size. By helping and advising other countries, Mr Lee helped Singapore and Singaporeans gain international recognition and open doors to new markets. [/quip]
For example, his discussions with Deng Xiaoping shaped the path of Deng's reform policies. The ensuing booming Chinese economy improved the lives of a billion people and created many opportunities for Singaporeans, while providing an Eastern engine to balance cyclical fluctuations in the Western hemisphere.
It is one thing to read world leaders' views of Mr Lee, quite another to hear their respect and admiration firsthand. In 2008, I represented Singapore at a Youth Forum organised by the InterAction Council. Delegates had the chance to interact with each other, as well as Council members. In conversation, retired leaders from the East and West, developing and developed nations, Left and Right -- all spoke highly of Mr Lee and Singapore. An uncommon consensus, transcending geography, politics and ideology.
Lee Kuan Yew's domestic legacy
Some of Mr Lee's tough methods may seem out of place today, but he did what he felt was needful, in an era where political pugilists were aplenty and knuckledusters abounded.
Indeed, all democracies must navigate a balance between realism and idealism, action and process, substance and form. In an imperfect world, how do countries reconcile the human need for compassion and ideals in internal governance, against the harsh external environment of geopolitical reality?
Mr Lee was clear-eyed and hard-nosed about a world of self-interested countries and power blocs. Yet his team invested in and looked after Singaporeans: building homes, livelihoods, education and opportunities for all to improve their lot in life.
He contributed a value system which guided policymaking:
Meritocracy - the best person for the job regardless of race, language, religion or personal background;
Clean government, a radical idea in an era when corruption was accepted as an inevitable way of life;
Self-reliance, because a country unable to sustain itself must starve and fail, or live on its knees as the servant vassal of a larger power;
Multi-racialism, when so many other post-colonial states were organised along sectarian and tribal lines, with ensuing strife.
And running through it all, the golden thread and prime directive of a fair and just society.
Policies can be changed or replaced, policymakers can come and go, but that deep sense of mission and enduring values are anchors in a complex and changing world.
Building on Lee's legacy to be a beacon to the world
There is a deeper historical significance to Singapore's survival, which is part of Mr Lee's contribution to the world.
In too many places, even among the developed nations, the values that guide Singapore are still more aspiration than reality.
Communal and ideological forces have not gone away in the era of globalisation -- if anything, they are resurgent. With ageing populations, fiscal sustainability and self-reliance are deep concerns for many countries, as they debate whether to burden their children with debt to maintain the present generation's privileges, or to tighten their belts to give their descendants a fair shake.
Against this backdrop, the Singapore vision of a clean, meritocratic and self-reliant multi-racial society is more relevant than ever.
In surviving and thriving, Singapore can be a beacon unto others -- living proof that one united people can transcend geography and history through will and effort, to build an equitable and fair society based on timeless values. A shining city, a light among nations.
Mr Lee, in captaining that greatest generation of Singapore pioneers, leaves an enormous legacy for Singapore and the world. We will not see his like again. But the dream lives on, and it is testimony that the dream outlives its first foundations, its first dreamer.
Indeed, for several years now we have been building on Mr Lee’s legacy. And we should continue to do so.
There is still so much for our generation to do. A nation is more than bricks and mortar. It is people, families and communities. Values, cohesion and resilience. We can transform the intangible landscape, the way Singapore's physical fabric has been transformed over 50 years.
The potential resides within every one of us to build on Mr Lee's legacy and continue the dream.
We can continue living the values that will lead us to become a greater society and a greater people.
We can dare to build a future tomorrow that seems beyond the realm of possibility today.
We can find the fire, iron and courage to lay it all on the line for Singapore and our fellow Singaporeans.
Together, we can accomplish wonders.
Long may the Singapore dream continue, from strength to strength.
Tan Wu Meng is a medical doctor, father, and writer. He writes in a personal capacity. His commentaries and op-eds on Singapore are available here.
Top photo from here.