"We have to live with the world as it is, not as we wish it should be." -- Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of Singapore and first prime minister of the country.
Lee Kuan Yew may have been a polarizing figure in life, but since his passing, critics and followers alike have closed ranks to respect Lee's unique brand of utilitarian statesmanship. U.S. President Barack Obama called him "a true giant of history" and said that Lee would be remembered as "the father of modern Singapore." Even on social media, where a new generation of Singaporeans wielding an array of divergent worldviews have dissected and scorned many of his policies, there is widespread outpouring of sympathy.
It is hard to begrudge Lee any of this reverence. Singapore's sudden exit from the Federation of Malaya in 1965 left him the prime minister of a 50 km wide island that had no economic hinterland, barely any natural resources, a population rife with racial tension and national institutions with limited functions. This year, the city-state celebrates its 50th anniversary as an independent nation. In the short span of a generation, it has become a thriving global financial hub with one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world, low unemployment and a bustling metropolis that hosts casinos and Formula One races.
Beyond the official statistics and headline-grabbing events, Lee's legacy extends to a vast improvement in the quality of life for the more than 5 million residents in Singapore. In Gallup's global research on life evaluations, 43% of Singaporeans can be considered "thriving," compared with an average of only 19% within the Asia-Pacific region, reflecting the quality of life those in the city-state enjoy. Eighty-four percent of people in Singapore indicate that they have confidence in the national government, one of the highest ratings in the world, and 85% express confidence in judicial systems and courts.
Three points stand out as hallmarks of Lee's leadership, which continue to pervade Singapore policy-making today:
- Rejection of ideology in favor of extreme pragmatism. From the set up of political institutions, to the role of the media as a "nation-building" tool, to preventing racial enclaves in public housing estates, Lee's government clung tightly to what would work best for Singapore. Despite accusations of limitations to political and individual rights, Gallup's data continues to reflect that 80% of Singaporeans are satisfied with their freedom to choose what they do with their lives, and 92% are satisfied with the city or area where they live -- one of the highest numbers in the world. It is remarkable that this abhorrence of ideology includes even his own: Lee once said that he would allow casinos in Singapore "over my dead body," but today the two "integrated resorts" pull in almost as much revenue as the whole of the Las Vegas strip combined.
- Savant-like attention to detail in ensuring that outcomes are as tightly controlled as possible. Whether it was the decision to outlaw the sale of chewing gum, to determining the species of flora and fauna to cultivate, to urban planning to encourage growth of select industries, Lee's government ensured that it used as much information as possible to reach a thorough, rigorous conclusion on what was best for Singapore. In Gallup's research, unlike other comparison countries in the Asia Pacific, more than 80% of Singaporeans express satisfaction with roads and highways, public transportation systems, the quality of air and water and the availability of quality healthcare. Metaphorically and literally, no stone was left unturned in Lee's transformation of the country.
- Long-term vision. The term "prescient" almost seems appropriate when considering Lee's record. The anecdote of him deciding against well-researched aviation consultants to situate Singapore's airport in Changi is widely retold. It is a neat statement of Lee's unwavering commitment to his long-term vision of Singapore, and his belief that going with the recommendations would impose unacceptable levels of noise pollution over the yet-to-be-established metropolis. Almost four decades later, Singapore's Changi Airport is an iconic landmark, and few can imagine flights taking off and landing regularly in the airspace above Raffles Place and Marina Bay.
In Lee's words, shared by the current prime minister in the public announcement of Lee's death:
"I have spent my life, so much of it, building up this country. There is nothing more that I need to do. At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."
Despite his uber-pragmatism, Lee was a man who lived with the world as it was, while working meticulously to turn it into one that he wished it would be.
Rest in peace, Mr. Lee.