As Americans we often are so obsessed with our political leaders and their failures we forget that our times have seen successful world leaders. One of these leaders died the other day. Former Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015) served as his country’s leader from 1959-1990 and remained actively involved in national affairs beyond his time in power. A former British colony, Singapore suffered under Japanese occupation in World War II and, at independence, it faced turmoil in neighboring Malaysia and communist revolution in adjoining Southeast Asian countries.
Singapore was a Third World country with limited natural resources which easily could have become a failed state. A mixture of European and Asian ethnic and religious groups make up its populace. Through Lee’s iron will, prudent and prescient statesmanship, and unswerving commitment to traditional moral values Singapore has become a successful demonstration of free market economics. Its per capita income has risen from $500s per year when he came to power to $56,000 today. Singapore is a high tech center and prosperous business locale with international impact. It has a highly professional military and its strategic location adjacent to the Straits of Malacca enable its to serve as a critical geopolitical transit point between Asia and the Indian Ocean region. It also has first rate educational institutions and its students enrich universities in countries as far flung as the U.S. and Australia.
Singapore’s government is influenced by British parliamentary democracy and authoritarian Confucian influences. Some political scientists describe it as a “firm democracy.” Lee placed acute emphasis on enhancing personal discipline and empowerment. He warned against the dangers of governmental welfare states sapping personal and societal discipline as this particularly perceptive quote demonstrates:
“Social and health benefits are like opium or heroin. People get addicted and the withdrawal of welfare benefits is particularly painful.”
Singapore’s highly restrictive drug laws should be emulated by countries around the world. That is one lesson we should learn in the U.S. as many states foolishly embrace legalizing marijuana and other drugs. It would be particularly delightful if Lee made caustic remarks about Obama. Lee was a politician who subscribed to Machiavelli’s maxim that it is better to be loved than to be feared. While he was authoritarian in many ways and excessively convinced of the superiority of Asian culture, he was still a great leader who materially and morally improved his county and the lives of his people.
I extend my personal sympathy to his family and to the people of Singapore as they mourn his death but also celebrate the enduringly positive legacy he left his country through his outstanding stewardship and leadership.