How will history see Lee Kuan Yew?

Updated: 2015-03-24 08:00

By Tom Plate(China Daily)

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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 made 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.

Perhaps only his late wife Kwa Geok Choo understood what was behind that iconic public face that at one hour could be so gruff and cold and intimidating - and two hours later so charming and gracious and reasonable. I told him I marveled at how well Singaporeans understood him, but he shook his head and snapped back: "They think they know me, but they only know the public me."

I tried - probing him with annoying questions. Once asked whether there was anyone alive who was like him, he answered without apology: "I do not know of any person who is most like me." He may very well be right, but if so, that helps make my case for awarding him hedgehog honors despite everything.

Sure, I'm stubborn about this, but let us note that in one conversation he summoned up the notable figure of Jean Monnet (1888-1979), whom history reveres for his prophetic vision of European unity, by way of a Common Market and a European Union. For this one singular contribution, Monnet gets marked as a political hedgehog. So how is the Lee Kuan Yew a modern Monnet, as I suspect history will say?

We will require more time to helicopter upward for the illuminating panoramic view. But in my mind with each year in power he grew into a composite figure, a dual icon of sorts where a modern-day Plato (glowing with the vision of an ideal city-state run solely by the virtuous) fused with a modern-day Machiavelli (coldly calculating strategies to keep the "soft-headed" utopian vision from getting its head chopped off).

To govern in these fraught times, you need to be both. The political hedgehog in effect must have two sides to his political being. As Machiavelli insisted, it was best if the leader was both feared and loved. Because Lee Kuan Yew had it all, he became a political giant of his time.

The author, a distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has penned the book, Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, in the Giants of Asia book series.

How will history see Lee Kuan Yew?

(China Daily USA 03/24/2015 page12)