Having spent most of my youth in Singapore, and being educated in the island state, much of my life was impacted by Mr Lee’s vision and decision. In the end, my political views are much more aligned to his ideas. To really know Lee Kuan Yew, one would probably have to know the history of Singapore and there have always been the reports of how a small resource-less island became the leading nation of South East Asia. Granted Lee Kuan Yew probably was not the only person responsible for it all, but he was the leader that made it possible. If I may draw a correlation, it is like how Apple Inc. would not be what it is today without Steve Jobs.
As the founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew mandated National Service to ensure the nation was ready to protect itself since it had been ravaged by Japanese forces in World War 2, and it faces the threat of larger nations with a largely Muslim population. This drew parallel to Israel within the Middle East. Another major policy he instituted was public housing that ensured much of the populace have access to subsidized apartment units. Along the way, he made it easy for companies to do business and established air links with much of the region by building a competent and efficient airport and airline. Both Singapore’s Changi Airport and Singapore Airlines are always ranked amongst the world’s best. Even its sea ports are some of the most efficient ports. What all this meant is a well-oiled corporation that does business very well indeed.
Of course there were always controversies in the way leaders do things. One was how press freedom in Singapore is virtually non-existent with all public media being a subsidiary of some government-controlled enterprise. And the use of legal suits to crush the opposition. There was also the criticism of how the government tries to coddle its citizens too much by cleaning up the streets from chewing gum to even matchmaking them.
In the end though, I like to bring up Deng Xiaoping’s famous quote, that it is results that matter. Singapore has become one of the most respected nations in the world, and is also one of the most prosperous. Not only that, the country is amongst the most technologically developed and safest to live in. When you have a vision, never let go of it and try to work towards it, as that is the way things should be done. With that being said, I envy the ability for Singaporean citizens to live in a safe, healthy and clean environment, and that is what I think is important for people when it comes down in the end. Perhaps then it is not really fascinating to know that Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew were probably statesmen that changed the path for a nation.
To his critics, these are some of the achievements that I think you cannot take away from him:
1) Created one of the most efficient airport and airline in the world, both from scratch. Both are also amongst the world’s best, and hence ensuring that high-tech and value added industries would invest in the island nation, allowing rising wages and productivity.
2) Instituted policies that allowed Singapore to become one of the largest oil trading venue in Asia, when it does not even have access to oil. That is a brilliant stroke of genius as it was another aspect to ensuring stable energy supply to power the island.
3) Built Singapore into the most prosperous nation in Asia, with a standard of living that is higher than any of its immediate neighbours. The fact that many of its neighbouring citizens come to Singapore to study, live, work and play are testament to the success of the nation.
4) Established a sustainable national defence policy for a small nation that ensured its sovereignty and dignity. I know many people ask about the need for a nation like Singapore to have an army, but Lee Kuan Yew’s focus on self-reliance enabled the nation to have dignity in the international stage.
5) Ensured a clean and potable water supply for the populace living in Singapore. For a small island nation without any glaciers, I have learnt to value water as a resource since young.
6) Emphasis on education as he knows its people are its only resource. By making education compulsory, he ensures a well-educated workforce and the investment in being bilingual allows students educated in Singapore to take advantage of the emerging Asian economy. And it attracted students from the South East Asian region like me who were able to benefit from a world-class education that would eventually enlarge the island nation’s resources.
7) Helped to create an efficient public transport eventually becoming a metropolis with a great traffic system. This meant it was safe and easy for members of the public to move around the island.
8) Created the Housing Development Board to build public housing and thus making it affordable for the majority of its citizens. I was never a beneficiary of this plan being a foreigner but this meant that
If one were to look back at the policies he instituted, it shows some of the focus that statesmen need to look into, and these include improving the economy, sustainability of livelihood, safety and security for its citizens and finally stability in growth and development. An emphasis on self-reliance for a fledgling nation coupled with strong, decisive leadership that is incorruptible ensured that Singapore was able to plan for numerous contingencies and establish a competitive advantage versus the other emerging Asian economies.
It was also interesting to know Lee Kuan Yew was a socialist at heart, even after building Singapore to be an efficient capitalism state. One of the policies within the nation was the CPF scheme whereby employers and employees contribute a portion of their wages to their retirement plans which includes a trust to cover their medical expenses. This public-private shared responsibility is actually something I view as a sustainable method for developed nations going forward but the irony is that some people instead choose to politicize the issue and create a media ruckus out of it. Perhaps if he had still been Prime Minister that alternative viewpoint would have been crushed. The fact that it has not might have been indicative that his methods would seem antiquated for the developed society that he has made possible. As he passes on, the youths of Singapore are not as patient as their predecessors and demands for faster gratification. This mirrors the development of other developed societies (notably Hong Kong since they both have similar characteristics) and it is up to a new generation of Singaporean leaders to have the same vision as Lee Kuan Yew has for the betterment of the nation.
In the end one of the phrase that left an impression was the one where he contributed his life to building the nation only to have his life lost in the shadows of the history books. Thus it is even more so important as individuals to recognize the difficult choices leaders like Lee Kuan Yew have to make in the face of challenging situations, and thus rationalize his deeds that have transformed a generation and Singapore.