Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew 1923-2015 

This time it's true. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore died yesterday morning.

I was in third or fourth grade at the boarding school in northern Japan when I read in my Weekly Reader that Singapore and teamed up with Malaya and a couple other insignificant areas to form the new country of "Malaysia." The year was 1963. At the time I didn't think much about it--I just thought the new name sounded better than "Malaya." I was puzzled when Singapore pulled out of the deal a couple years later. But when I read Lee Kuan Yew's autobiography years ago, he told the story differently. He says in his book that he cried when the decision was made to push Singapore out. It has been some twelve years now since I read his memoirs, so I can't remember just how he put it, but at the time I thought it must be political posturing. That departure turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Singapore. They were not under the British and they were also not chained to Malaysia. Can you imagine Singapore today being saddled with Malaysia's woes? I don't know--maybe at the time he just couldn't see the future and feared that this would doom Singapore to being returned to colonial status or something.

During the Cold War years of the sixties, we always used to hear talk of "Communist infiltrators" trying to take over the world. Lee Kuan Yew turned the whole idea on its head. He infiltrated the Communist party of Singapore, used it to take over the country, and then eliminated the Communist Party. The CIA became nervous about his association with the Communists and talked to the British. The British either knew what Lee Kuan Yew was up to, or they just knew him better than the Americans did. Lee Kuan Yew was educated in Britain, and if I'm not mistaken, he practiced law there for a few years. Anyway, the Brits trusted him and told the CIA not to worry. But the CIA wouldn't leave it alone and stupidly tried to infiltrate the Singapore police. They got caught, and then offered Lee Kuan Yew a $3 million bribe to hush it up. He refused. When he recounted this story several years later, the CIA denied it. That was also stupid--given a choice between Lee Kuan Yew and the CIA, anyone with half a brain would believe Lee Kuan Yew. Here's his statement:

The Americans should know the character of the men they are dealing with in Singapore and not get themselves further dragged into calumny. They are not dealing with Ngo Dinh Diem or Syngman Rhee. You do not buy and sell this Government.
Lee Kuan Yew has not been without critics. He was compassionate, but he was also an autocratic leader. They used to call him "Hitler with a heart." He outlawed chewing gum, and there is lots of back and forth on how much dissent is really tolerated in Singapore. But he was always easy-going with religious people. He would say, "Pray to whatever God you believe in." Singapore has some of the largest churches in the world. It's interesting that China seems to see Singapore as a model for how they want to operate--a tight ship run by a benevolent dictator. But if that is their thinking, they have a long ways to go. Singapore is a much more open society than China. By a long shot. There is no GFW in Singapore, and as far as I know, you can buy foreign newspapers on Singapore without restriction. But I guess I would have to say that Singapore is not a happy place for trouble makers or protesters. And there have been some cases of foreign migrant workers being abused by corrupt employers. But it must also be said that Lee Kuan Yew built Singapore into a place where educated professionals from just about any background or culture who are willing to work and mind their own business can find a way to fit in. You don't meet professional anywhere who don't like Singapore, or at least value the experience of having worked there. To see what Lee Kuan Yew did for Singapore, you really need to look at a map and see just how insignificant that little portion of the beach is from a natural perspective. That it should become a major international city-state is something that no one could have guessed just by looking at what the people of Singapore had to work with.

Lee Kuan Yew will go down in history as an extraordinary leader in a time of great change as the belated remnants of the nineteenth century colonial period moved toward independent statehood. Vietnam is an example of one that had much more rugged and tragic transition.

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