With Lee Kuan Yew gone, we have nothing great or even just good with which to compare Asian leaders of yesterday and today.
Despite the small size of Singapore, Lee stood alongside the giants of the times. But only he withstood the test of time.
Nehru died too soon. Mao lived too long. Ho Chi Minh died in the middle of his ancient country’s long war of independence. Sukarno survived a similar struggle but never stopped rewarding himself with women for his role. Magsaysay died right after taking up the role. The rest were non-starters at best and scoundrels at worst.
The Philippines produced no one who left a lasting contribution. Yet Lee Kuan Yew said that we had the most potential in the region.
So, when the Singapore Straits Times announced that “former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had passed away” I protested on Twitter. Surely he was more than just that. He was the Father of His Country and he deserves the title more than Washington, who led a nation already independent in substance and spirit, and far committed to fighting for independence in name. After winning that distinction, Washington stepped away after a brief stint as President; ignoring an offer of kingship for the term of his life. Maybe he wanted to give his countrymen a symbol by leaving, before his name was tarnished by staying.
Lee struggled to give birth to a nation where no components of nationhood existed. So he created a new country. He shielded its infancy through the perils of the Cold War. He gave it his own tough face when it had no face of its own. He instructed a young nation in self-reliance because no one gives to the needy.
By example he trained it in tireless and intelligent endeavor. By fidelity, he disciplined its morals. He never cheated on his wife. He never stole from his country. To his wife he gave all of his affection, to his new country his undivided attention.
Promiscuity disgusted him. A man unable to control his sex drive will take his country to bed when he has the power to do it. The only thing a robber appears to be leading is the posse that is chasing him.
If power corrupts, he disproved it.
If absolute power corrupts absolutely he denied himself that power. He established a parliamentary and not a presidential government. That way he could tell to what extent he was still well regarded.
He submitted himself to the strict laws that he imposed on his countrymen. He demanded of his people and government what he freely gave of himself: unfailing intelligence and integrity in everything that needed to be done.
He promoted free enterprise but he disproved that only free free enterprise is efficient. The Singaporean economy started almost entirely government-owned and government-run—without a trace of graft and corruption.
He even taught his country social graces by laws that he admitted invited laughter: no spitting; no littering; no chewing gum; speak well and write clearly at least one global language. But he promised that Singapore would have the last laugh and it is still laughing.
A Chinese premier said with sarcasm that Lee taught him much that would be useful when he became mayor of Shanghai; yet of all the cities of the world only Singapore does not have a slum.
In a racist world, he amalgamated 3 distinct and ancient races in one Singaporean people: fiercely nationalistic yet cosmopolitan; distinctively secular and far advanced in education. They are unique in their self-assurance as arguably the best in a very small space, yet Singapore’s influence in the world is way out of proportion to its size and astonishing wealth. Singapore made itself indispensable to commercial life and financial stability in our half of the world.
More than the father of his country, Lee Kuan Yew created a great country ex nihilo in a relative instant of historical time. Credit for this is shared of course with the founding generation he inspired. In their political maturity his people still doggedly call the man they revere as “Founding Prime Minister,” as if all he did was set up a parliamentary govt. But he already knew that the real honor lies in the universally acclaimed success of his creation.