Lee the legend is gone

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A LEGEND of contemporary political history has passed away. We refer to the founding father of Singapore. LKY as Lee Kuan Yew is often referred to is credited with having transformed a sleepy colonial backwater to a thriving commercial hub of banking and finance with the highest per capita income not only in the Asean community but in the world. Singapore being short of natural resources, LYK relied on limited human capital that his administration rigorously developed which in turn generated a robust economy that served the nation well.

He experimented in social engineering and opened up the tiny city-state to foreign talent. One of the beneficiaries of this enlightened policy was my grandson who upon graduating from a famous Singapore university was immediately offered a permanent residence. This same happened to a friend who received the same upon completing a Ph.D. Indeed LKY prioritized human development and government transparency to lure foreign investment, which has made the tiny state a floating industrial zone and a flourishing commercial hub.

Sometime after EDSA Uno catapulted Cory Aquino to the presidency, Lee Kuan Yew was one of the first heads of state to pay his respects to the Philippine president. Shortly after his courtesy call, he invited fellow Cantabrigensis (translation – “of Cambridge”) to his Manila Hotel’s MacArthur Suite. During the conversation LKY in his characteristic candor shared his impressions on the new government.

He lamented the fact that in his thinking it was not much of an improvement from the previous one given that “he saw the same faces.” This is not a real revolution, he added, which must be characterized by a thorough cleansing of the Augean Stables. Pointing to a Singaporean cabinet member who accompanied him to Manila, Prime Minister LKY remarked “these guys will not steal because they are well paid.” He added that giving bureaucrats a good pay was a small price to pay for honesty in public service.


LKY was not only a legend in his own country – he was also a prominent personality in our alma mater, Cambridge University, which made him an honorary fellow in his college Fitzwilliam – a stone’s throw from my own Trinity College. The honor was awarded by his college for his having graduated with a distinguished double first class honors, equivalent to a super summa cum laude, rarely achieved by other graduates.

Lee Kuan Yew’s was an authentic tuwid na daan which eliminated endemic corruption in the first year of the new state. Thanks to the dreaded Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, empowered by legislation to conduct, search, call up witnesses and investigate bank accounts and income tax returns, bureaucrats were ever so wary of any form of wrongdoing. One anecdote we heard was about a cabinet official who threw a cigarette butt from his car window violating the very strict anti-littering laws of the city. Noticed by the surveillance team of the CPIB he was immediately reported to LKY who demanded an explanation from the cabinet member. When the latter apologized for the incident and promised not to do it again, the prime minister simply fired him on the spot.

According to a daughter who lives in the city state, the atmosphere in the country is as she describes it – a day of mourning akin to that of Good Friday in this country. From media commentaries and TV coverage, one senses an atmosphere of genuine sadness for a much beloved leader – one who picked up a limited but progressive landspace surrounded by international harbors converting it into a truly impressive international trading post which serves as the link between East and West.

Bereft of natural resources Singapore invested heavily on people development with well-endowed schools of higher learning some of which are truly globally competitive. By introducing an enviable work ethic among its people in the public and private sectors, LKY showed the world a new economic development template. It says that a nation bereft of natural resources can pull itself by its own bootstraps by people power. A classical economist Joseph Schumpeter once posited that entrepreneurship was the key to development. Singapore under LKY proved this to be the case. It helped of course that this development process was accompanied by meritocracy and authoritarian rule or perhaps what we may describe as enlightened authoritarianism. On a cost/benefit analysis I would dare to say that most Singaporeans will agree that perhaps the benefits derived by such rule much exceeded the cost.

While critics of Lee Kuan Yew will criticize his meritocracy characterized by a rule of British-educated bureaucrats which critics denounced as intellectual elitism, many of us here in this country I am sure who despise the clowns and ignoramuses that we send to Congress and the executive would rather have a Lee Kuan Yew in the palace than a popular but incompetent chief-of-state.

Perhaps one of the biggest accomplishments of LKY was his ability to effectively rule a multi-ethnic/racial society that after a very short period of strife learned to live together in peace and prosperity. This gives the lie to what is being peddled about in this country that Muslims must receive special treatment and preferential option for them to integrate successfully in our society.

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