BEIJING: Singapore’s population is less than 0.5 percent of China’s, but its founding father Lee Kuan Yew wielded significant weight with the Asian giant as model, adviser, critic and geopolitical realist.
Lee, who died Monday at 91, was a British-educated ethnic Chinese who mixed stern government with free-market economics, and turned the former colonial entrepot into one of the region’s wealthiest—and most disciplined—countries.
That achievement did not go unnoticed in mainland China when it embarked on its epoch-making transformation after the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
The architect of that dramatic shift to economic reform and opening — Deng Xiaoping — visited Singapore in 1978, along with other Asian countries including Japan, and met Lee.
“In Singapore, Deng saw how a small island without natural resources was able to create a good life for its people” through foreign investment, management and technical skills, Lee recalled in his 2013 book One Man’s View of the World.
“He returned to China persuaded that he needed to open up its economy to the world,” the book said.
“It was a seminal moment in China’s history, a key turning point, and the country has not looked back since,” it added.
Deng himself acknowledged his admiration for Singapore during an historic 1992 tour of southern China to reinvigorate flagging reform efforts.
“Singaporean social order is good, because the country put it under strict control,” he said, according to the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily.
“We should learn from its experiences and should exercise better management of society,” he added.
Lee’s vision had a definite impact in Beijing, according to Willy Lam, an expert on politics in China at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“It’s correct to say that the so-called Singapore model has had a substantial influence in terms of China’s economic development,” he told Agence France-Presse, particularly as Lee’s People’s Action Party enjoyed a “kind of one-party rule situation.”
Even now about 1,000 Chinese officials venture south every year to study aspects of Singaporean society including its civil service and financial industry, Lam said.
President Xi Jinping hailed Lee on Monday as an “old friend of the Chinese people” who was “widely respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman.”
But China occasionally allowed criticism of Lee—on sometimes surprising grounds, for a country that brooks no dissent of its own.
A People’s Daily opinion piece in 2011 referred to Singapore’s turbulence of the 1960s, “when many of Lee’s political opponents were arrested and imprisoned for up to 23 years without trial.”
For his part, Lee questioned how far Chinese authorities could imitate Singapore’s success.
“When you are in collusion with the developers and you force ordinary folk to give up farmland for development, without a fair compensation, how does that square up with our system?” he asked in his book.
When Singapore was booted out of Malaysia in 1965, several Southeast Asian countries including South Vietnam and Thailand were fighting or fending off communist insurgencies, some backed by Beijing.
Singapore’s neighbor Indonesia, the region’s biggest country, was about to embark on a massive bloodletting that would wipe out its own Communist Party, and China itself was on the verge of the decade-long Cultural Revolution, unleashed by Mao Zedong to shore up his rule.
But Lee pushed the learning of Mandarin in predominantly Chinese Singapore with the simplified characters of the mainland rather than the older, more complex variant used in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
He was one of the first foreign leaders to identify China’s potential might—helping to ensure Singaporean businesses today enjoy enviable access to its markets—and maintained dialogue throughout the period after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.
“When the People’s Republic of China was very unpopular in the West, Mr. Lee was a contrarian,” Tommy Koh, twice Singapore’s ambassador to the United Nations, told Channel News Asia, praising his “strategic” outlook.
“And then [he]followed through by visiting more than once a year, cultivating generation after generation of Chinese leaders so that he knew all of them personally,” Koh added.
Lee counseled Chinese leaders on issues of statecraft, including relations with the United States and Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade province.
“Lee Kuan Yew advised the Chinese leaders to start with economic integration first and not to put too much political or military pressure on Taiwan,” Lam said.
He also kept China at a distance strategically, stressing the importance of the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific, while US leaders listened to his views on China—a debt acknowledged on Monday by US President Barack Obama.
Referring to that balancing act between China and the United States, Lam said: “Singapore is following the standard model for many countries in Asia.”