Today Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew passed at the age of 91.
Lee stands among the finest statesmen in history. He turned a tiny resource-free island into a global financial hub. He dedicated his life to Singapore, to his vision of Singapore, participating in the affairs of state up until his final days. No doubt the press and pundits will do a far finer job of eulogizing him than I ever could.
When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I think of the father of modern Singapore. The lawyer who stood with the early nationalists and fought for the people. The politician who founded a party and a movement that won independence from the British and support from the people. The statesman who defied all expectations to transform Singapore into the pearl of Southeast Asia, emphasising transparent and efficient governance. I think of Malaysian Malaysia, Merdeka, economic transformation, and the shining city around me.
When I think of Lee Kuan Yew I also think of an Asian Machiavelli. The leader who latched on to the left-wingers’ popularity base, split with them over the issue of merger with Malaya, and purged the Barisan Sosialis in the wake of the Brunei Revolt. The pragmatist who sought friendly ties with East and West without falling firmly into either camp during and after the Cold War. The autocrat who brooked no dissent and used every means at his disposal to hammer his political opponents, real or imagined, into subservience. I think of Operations Coldstore and Spectrum, the Internal Security Act, lawsuits for defamation, and Group Representative Constituencies.
Lee has earned his place as hero and villain in the annals of history. I suppose it is the curse of every man who has reached such august heights. Yet for all his accomplishments he did not single-handedly build Singapore. The task of building a nation is too great for any one man. When I think of the founders of Singapore I think of Lim Yew Hock, David Marshall, Devan Nair, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Albert Wisemius, the ones who set in motion the policies that have served Singapore so well. Lee is a man, not a myth, and even as his era ends I hope the generations to come will remember him as he was: the father of Singapore, a man who wielded the levers of power to execute his will in service to his nation, but a man nonetheless.
I think Lee’s greatest legacy is that Singapore will outlive him. Where many lesser leaders have created cults of personality or dictatorships around themselves, Lee created institutions that will keep running long after this passing. Today is a day of mourning, but it is not a shock to the organs of state. Singapore will grieve, but I am confident Singapore will adapt and carry on. I cannot say for certain that the present generation of leaders are up to the task, but compared to Lee nearly every politician will fall short. In that regard, Lee’s crowning achievement is the creation of a place where a man like him is no longer needed, a state that no longer requires the services of a personality as forceful and divisive as he is, a nation that can thrive without him. We will be all the poorer for his death, but we will endure.
I don’t think the majority of my generation will fully comprehend the impact of his passing. We have not lived through the tumultuous years of Singapore’s birth, nor the uncertainty of the early post-independence era. We who have lived through unprecedented prosperity will remember only a glittering city-state that is the envy of the world, and with that baseline judge Lee by his deeds and words. This is our curse, but also our blessing, for we who are so distant from those troubled years have the benefit of hindsight and history, a clearer lens with which to examine the man and his legacy. And, armed with the lessons of the past, building upon the foundation Lee has laid, we can forge into uncharted tomorrows and usher in a new era.
We have every tool and every resource at our disposal to build a brighter tomorrow, needing only knowledge, planning and willpower. That, I think, is my generation’s greatest inheritance from the father of the nation. Now it is up to us not to squander it.