Who is Lee Kuan Yew?


The founder of Singapore has become the inspiration for Chinese economic reform.

By N. R. Gataveckas.

The name Lee Kuan Yew, for most Westerners, draws a blank if mentioned in conversation. As the founding Prime Minister of the small nation of Singapore, his political legacy is conceived by the Western political imagination as something totally obscure, foreign, and thus of little consequence to world politics. This attitude, however, could not be more misleading.

Such conception of Lee should be contrasted to the view of him held by American dignitaries such as Kissinger, Nixon, and Clinton. Most recently, former president George W. Bush summed up this view when he described Lee in awing reverence as “one of the brightest” and “most effective world leaders that I have ever known”. Lee’s influence, furthermore, looms even larger within the Asian political community. He is sought out for advice regularly and is celebrated as a hero by officials and business leaders in East and Southeast Asia.

Now retired from politics at the age of 91, Lee has lived long enough to see his bust immortalized as an 80 kg statue, which has been installed in his eponymous Centre for Innovative Cities at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. In the same way that this giant bronze statue dominates the room, Lee occupies the center of an economic revolution for the Far East in which the political and cultural values of these social orders have been remade into a new and powerful image.

That Lee’s list of fans should include high-ranking members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after the death of Mao Zedong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping is all the more astonishing. Xiaoping would come to join the chorus of Lee’s admirers, referring to him as his “mentor”, and new President Xi Jinping recently spoke of Lee as “our senior who has our respect”. There is an intimate relationship between Lee’s conception of “capitalism with Asian values” and the CCP’s vision of …

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