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Ajish P Joy
Ajish P Joy


In Yew we trust

End of an era End of an era: Portraits of Lee Kuan Yew being set up in Hong Kong ahead of a public broadcast of his funeral | AFP

Unsentimental pragmatism defined Lee Kuan Yew, and it continues to define the nation he built

Lee Kuan Yew was in hospital with a chest infection when his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, died in 2010. He took his doctors' permission to attend her wake held at their house. Late in the night, despite his doctors' orders, Lee refused to return to the hospital. Instead, he asked his assistants to take him to the Singapore River. Lee took a solitary walk along the river bank, mourning his beloved wife of 63 years. On seeing some trash floating in the river, he stopped abruptly and beckoned one of his security officers. He asked the officer to take a photograph so that he could deal with the issue the following day.

Unsentimental pragmatism was Lee's greatest gift to Singapore, the nation he conceived, created and inspired till his death on March 23. He was Singapore's prime minister between 1959 and 1990 and then served as minister mentor till 2011, moulding the city-state in his image.

Born on September 16, 1923, as Harry Lee Kuan Yew, Lee's father was an oil depot manager for Shell and his mother, a homemaker. He had an outstanding academic career, topped by a law degree from Cambridge. Upon his return from Cambridge, Lee worked to set his country free from British rule. He set up the People's Action Party in 1954 and, in 1959, a year after the British left, became the first prime minister of Singapore. In 1963, Singapore joined Malaysia in a union, but was kicked out two years later. Suddenly, this nation of escaped convicts, bonded labourers and traders―with Chinese, Malay and Indian ethnicities―found itself adrift. "Singapore was doomed to live on the wits of its people," wrote The Economist. Speaking to the nation on August 9, 1965, Lee wept openly and said it was a "moment of anguish" for Singapore, which was then nothing but just another muggy, mosquito-laden swamp.

But the transformation of Singapore began that balmy night with Lee at the helm. People, planet and profit was his undeclared triple bottom-line. Through the following decades, Lee's aim was to keep the people happy, the environment healthy and the profits coming. To keep the people happy, he created a welfare state, but with a difference. The welfare measures were only for the needy. For Lee, universal benefits were wasteful and inequitable.

Another important initiative was the near-government monopoly in housing, making it not just affordable, but also a tool for social engineering. The government constructed housing colonies in prime locations and these were allotted to families of all ethnicities, strictly maintaining their proportionate strength in the country's total population. Nearly 90 per cent of Singaporeans today have their own homes and more than 80 per cent of them live in government-built apartments.

For a country bereft of natural resources―Singapore had to import even drinking water when it became independent―the key to economic recovery was developing key infrastructure and human resources. Leveraging Singapore's strategic location, Lee developed an air hub and a sea-freight transshipment hub, both of which now rank among the best and the busiest in the world. With a low and transparent tax regime, few capital restrictions, a stable currency, an impartial judicial system, a strong regulatory framework, a liberal immigration policy and high-quality education, Lee promoted free trade and turned around the fortunes of Singapore. Its per capita gross domestic product rose to $55,000 in 2013 from around $500 in 1965, while the GDP grew from $1 billion to around $300 billion.

Perhaps an even greater contribution of Lee was his farsightedness in understanding the importance of a clean and green environment. Way before climate change became a part of the mainstream discourse, Lee envisaged Singapore as a garden city, with its urban jungles balanced by ample green spaces and water bodies. From a garden city, the government's new plan is to make Singapore a "city in a garden―a bustling metropolis nestled in a lush mantle of tropical greenery", which will be a fitting tribute to Lee.

Singapore's inspiring growth story has been no less determined by the country's no-holds-barred fight against corruption. The Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which reports directly to the prime minister, spares none. The stigma of corruption is another powerful deterrent. In 1979, Teh Cheang Wan, who was the minister for national development, chose to commit suicide rather than face a CPIB investigation. And, Teh remains Singapore's only cabinet minister to be accused of corruption. The country is ranked seventh on the corruption perceptions index 2014.

Although he transformed Singapore from a third world outpost to a first world city-state in a matter of decades, Lee was ham-fisted when it came to political freedom. During a recent visit to Singapore as part of a press delegation from India, we found it unbelievable that most officials refused to speak on record whenever they were asked about their opinion, even on issues they handled. "We will get back," was the refrain. And, a look at The Straits Times, the leading English newspaper in the country, will tell you that in Singapore there is not enough room for dissent or debate.

Lee held democratic elections, but the PAP always won. Lee and the party were genuinely popular, but he always used the might of the state to scare and harass the opposition. "I'm not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best," said Lee, in an interview he gave to the Foreign Affairs magazine in 1994. "We practice it because that's what the British bequeathed us and we haven't really found a need to challenge that."

Way back in 1994, when Michael Fay, an American citizen living in Singapore, was sentenced to six strokes of cane for vandalism, President Bill Clinton and as many as 24 senators put pressure on Singapore for leniency. All they got was a reduction of two strokes. The same ruthlessness is the reason why littering, jaywalking and gum-chewing are punishable offences in Singapore. Failing to flush a public toilet after use attracts a fine of 500 Singapore dollars. Such seemingly draconian measures have drilled into the Singaporean psyche the importance of hygiene and decorum, which keep the city-state clean, green and in perfect order.

But, with Lee's departure, it remains to be seen how long does the old order thrive. The old generation, which gave away its rights in exchange of stability and prosperity are fading away. The younger generation seems itching for change.

If he felt that the old order had outlived its utility, Lee would have been the first person to call for its dismantling. Many years ago, he had ordered the cabinet to raze down his colonial-era bungalow located off the posh Orchard road after his death. He wanted the plot to be redeveloped. "I have told the cabinet, when I am dead, demolish it.... I have seen other houses, Nehru's, Shakespeare's. They become a shambles after a while," said Lee. His views and way of life continue to define the nation he built.

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The Week

Topics : #Singapore

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