Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Nation Builder

The December 2006 copy of Time magazine featured "60 Years of Asian Heroes" which covered nation builders, business leaders, artists & thinkers, athletes, and explorers. Sharing company with Ghandi, Corazon Aquino, Deng Xiaoping, General Vo Nguyen Giap and Mohammed Ali Jinnah was Lee Kuan Yew.

"Lee Kuan Yew - Smart, tough, pragmatic—an enduring symbol of Asia itself" by Simon Elegant

The first time I met Lee Kuan Yew I was under strict orders not to open my mouth. It was 1987, I was a wire-service reporter, and Singapore's patriarch was in the middle of one of his periodic campaigns to show the Western press who was the boss in his city. When my father, also a journalist, secured an interview with Lee for a book he was writing and asked if I could tag along, Lee's people eventually agreed—but only on condition that I not utter a single word. At one point during the interview, Lee launched into a withering criticism of arrogant Western journalists who imposed their values on others. I opened my mouth to say something, but one stern look of warning from Lee was enough to make me snap my jaws shut.

Lee is famous for his formidable personality and unshakeable faith in his own convictions. Combine those qualities with a burning intelligence, a cold-eyed pragmatism and an unrelenting focus on his goals and you have some sense of the man who almost single-handedly transformed a sleepy tropical port into one of the world's most economically vibrant city-states. Yet that achievement, extraordinary as it is, is not what makes Lee unique. Today, at 83, after some 50 years of public life, Lee can securely count himself as the one and only Asian who has played witness, sculptor and adviser to all the great historical shifts Asia has undergone over the decades: the rise of nationalism; the end of the cold war; the growth of prosperity; and the emergence of China as a new global power. It is all this that makes Lee not just an elder statesman and a voice for Asia, but an enduring symbol of the region's pragmatism and resilience.

Like most people, Lee was profoundly shaped by his early experiences—and the Cambridge-educated lawyer cut his teeth as a politician in a very rough school indeed. Amid the turmoil of independence from Britain in the 1950s, Lee faced down and ultimately defeated a deeply entrenched communist movement at a time when the red banners of Marxism seemed to be advancing inexorably throughout Asia. When he found himself Prime Minister in 1965, Lee applied the same tough approach to governing the tiny new nation. Although he called himself a socialist until the early 1970s, his actions were purely capitalist, forging Singapore's export-led economy by courting foreign investment and never wavering in his focus on three things: long-term planning, meritocracy and zero tolerance for corruption. The results have been dazzling: Singapore's GDP per capita exploded from a few hundred dollars in 1965 to around $29,500 today, just a few notches below its former colonial master Britain.

Last year, I had the opportunity to meet Lee again—this time for an extensive interview during which I was allowed to speak. I found him mellower than at our first meeting nearly two decades ago. He even choked up at one point as he talked about the death of a close friend. But the steely, uncompromising core that will always be bedrock Lee still rose to the surface. Asked about what his critics call a low tolerance for dissent in the city he virtually created, Lee wouldn't give an inch: "I'm not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That's the test." That test, even Lee's fiercest detractors would concede, Lee has passed spectacularly.