Lee Kuan Yew was known and will be remembered for his iron-handedness in maintaining socio-political stability, his absolute intolerance towards corruption, his seemingly authoritarian approach to obtain social harmony and order, and his far-sighted policy to attract global talents to work in and for Singapore.
Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral that took place not long ago was attended by world leaders, including those of the great powers such as USA, China, Russia, India, and Japan. What makes this man achieve such a world-wide respect?
Lee’s legacy roots in the success of Singapore. Under his leadership, Singapore––a city state with little natural resources––has developed from a ghetto town into one of the most advanced countries in the world after its establishment in 1965. Some criticized that such a miracle was achieved under Lee’s authoritarian rule, under which Singaporeans were deprived of some fundamental rights and, above all, democracy. This is misleading. If anything, Lee and his successors have established an effective system of ‘rule of law’. This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that the political process and policymaking in Singapore are highly institutionalized according to the fundamental principles of democracy.
First and foremost, power is institutionalized. Despite Lee’s unparalleled clout in decision making, the highest authority goes to the Constitution under which power resides with institutions––not those who sit in the offices––at each level of government. Moreover, the exercise of power and interactions between various government agencies in public affairs are also institutionalized by clearly defined and abiding rules and regulations. As such, not only the abuse of power, hence corruption, is effectively constrained, but governance is also effective and accountable.
Secondly, the policymaking process is institutionalized. Policymaking in Singapore is subject to formal rules and due procedures, especially when there is a dispute among policymakers, including the top leaders. All policies are produced through a transparent process of deliberation, consultation, and coordination among the involved parties, with final outcomes pending on the abiding procedures rather than the visions and/or preferences of the political elites, including Lee himself. All this has resulted in a high level of policy consistency based on consensus reached among policymakers in a formal process in which a system of checks and balance secures a compromise but prevents a winner-take-it-all game.
Last but not the least, political participation is institutionalized. All forms of participation––elections, demonstrations, complaints, lobby, reports, instructions and etc.––will have to be done through formal channels secured by various laws and regulations. Supportive to citizens’ political participation is a civil society that is well incorporated into the system of governance. These institutional arrangements have enabled Singaporeans to be fully involved in their country’s politics in accordance with the established order, which in turn has ensured the socio-political stability necessary to sustain Singapore’s development.
Indeed, Lee Kuan Yew was known and will be remembered for his iron-handedness in maintaining socio-political stability, his absolute intolerance towards corruption, his seemingly authoritarian approach to obtain social harmony and order, and his far-sighted policy to attract global talents to work in and for Singapore. All these achievements, however, could hardly be sustained but for the institutionalization of the political process in the city-state. This is essentially why Singapore has remained as it is and will continue to move forward in the post-Lee Kuan Yew years.
Lee Kuan Yew’s statesmanship also arises from his vision and masterful manoeuvre in international affairs. Under Lee’s leadership, Singapore quickly joined the US camp after its establishment in 1965, as the US dominance in Asia-Pacific and its Containment policy during the Cold War period left little room for the newly established city-state to go otherwise. As such, not only did Singapore gain a stable security environment, but was also able to optimize its strategically important location in its development.
After the normalization of US-China relations, Lee keenly realized that the bilateral relationship between the largest rising power and the hegemon would dictate the strategic balance in Asia-Pacific and beyond. Thus, he worked tirelessly between Washington and Beijing, not necessarily because of his passion for major power relations, but because of his conviction that a stable (or at least workable) US-China relationship guarantees peace and stability in Asia-Pacific, while a confrontation between the two great powers would be a catastrophe for everyone in the region, especially Singapore.
Noticeably, Lee tried not to please the leaders in USA and China but to share his wisdom and sharp analysis with them on the issues with far-reaching significance. Although Lee’s no-nonsense remarks––that China would never adopt the Anglo-Saxon democracy but its rise is inevitable, and that a formidable US presence in Asia is necessary to counterbalance China’s rise––had displeased quite a few strategic elites as well as the general public in both the USA and China, his relentless effort and visionary advices were deeply appreciated by political leaders in both Washington and Beijing. Indeed, despite the petit size of Singapore, Lee was perhaps the only leader on earth that had earned the trust as well as respect from several generations of leaders from both the USA and China.
It is Lee’s unique role and capability in working with both superpowers for the sake of their bilateral relationship as well as peace and stability in the region and beyond that has enabled Singapore to punch way above its weight in global diplomacy. In this regards, Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy also rests in the establishment of Singapore as a perpetual bridge between Asia and the rest of the world.