Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

The importance of being Lee Kuan Yew

As the world mourned the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the father of Singapore and the iron man who held things together through the union with Malaysia, the divorce, and the tumultuous aftermath, comment ranged from the sublime to the absurd. Mr Lee died on 23 March, 2015.

Taking umbrage at petty Western stands, commenting in Singapore's Business Times, Joyce Hooi wrote, "The Guardian newspaper devoted an entire article to his policy on chewing gum. Decades of phenomenal GDP growth, the lowest crime rate in the region and top-notch healthcare, and Westerners are still talking about the friggin' chewing gum. This is like being complimented on your English."

She concluded on her blog post, "I have my reservations about what this country will become, but as for how it came to be, my appreciation is unequivocal, without qualification and unreserved. Thank you, Mr Lee, for Singapore. There was nothing more you could have done."

Also writing in Business Times, Jaime Ee wrote on 27 March, 2015, "...there is nothing but stoic contemplation, a people united by sadness but at the same time, an amazing, totally unscripted display of goodwill and community. People are chipping in to help with free water, flowers, food and general kindness for one's fellow man. Without any expectations of reward or publicity - just plain human decency." While "champion grumblers" took the spotlight, it was this coming together of a nation, united in grief and mourning, that was Mr Lee's 'final gift', she said.

The New York Times referred to it as a "mixed legacy", describing Mr Lee as a "towering figure on the global stage who helped transform his small city-state into an economic powerhouse." NYT went on to say, "He was also an autocrat who silenced critics and sent opposition leaders to jail, suppressing dissent and intimidating the press," something Mr Lee never denied. The newspaper ran a feisty 1994 quote from the former Singapore prime minister where he apparently said, “Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac." The editorial went on to say, "By the standards of Southeast Asian autocrats, Mr Lee was hardly a tyrant. He did not brutalize and impoverish his country, unlike military leaders in Myanmar and Cambodia"...concluding, "The next generation of leaders should make Singapore a political model, not just an economic one."

The Bangkok Post had its own takeaway from the Lee saga - "Most of all, Lee was a civilian whose rule was always above the military." Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi described the elder statesman as "among the tallest leaders of our times," while US President Barack Obama defined him as a "visionary... and one of the great strategists of Asian affairs."

A Singapore Straits Times commentary out things in perspective. "The youth of the 1980s and early 1990s chafed at the restrictions on civil liberties, real and perceived, imposed by the Singapore system. Years later, we all saw things with a clearer eye. Like pre-sent-day critics, history will judge Mr Lee on the changes he had wrought, but they must do so in the context of what he had achieved for Singapore. And what he had achieved is well documented: an economic miracle, a nation forged from nothing - accomplished in apparent defiance of history." - Asian Conversations