The senior Lee is widely considered to be almost single-handedly responsible for Singapore’s unique success story, the architect behind its fantastic transformation from swamp-filled, mosquito-infested fishing village into one of the world’s economic powerhouses.
He was both a visionary and a radical thinker. He was instrumental in a host of major policies that have shaped almost every aspect of Singaporeans’ lives, from promoting public housing, home ownership and later estate upgrading, to adopting English as a common language for the disparate races in Singapore society which would also help it plug into the global economy, to his lifelong passion for planting trees and keeping the island “clean and green” long before such environmental-consciousness became fashionable.
Noting this unusual willingness to relinquish power, which he did after three decades in power, handing over the premiership to Goh Chok Tong, and taking on the role of senior minister and later minister mentor serving as guide and mentor in the Cabinet.
On his willingness to relinquish power after 31 years at the helm Time magazine wrote in 1991: “What really sets this complex man apart from Asia’s other nation-builders is what he didn’t do: He did not become corrupt, and he did not stay in power too long. Mao, Suharto, Marcos and Ne Win left their countries on the verge of ruin with no obvious successor. Lee left Singapore with a per capita GDP of $14,000, his reputation gilt-edged and an entire tier of second-generation leaders to take over when he stepped down in 1990.
“Lee now basks in the wisdom of seniority, a latter-day Doge whose views continue to be sought by statesmen and commentators who travel from all over the world to pay court to him in Singapore,” Time wrote.
A complex and controversial figure, Lee’s adherence to the rule of law and tight social control ushered in an era of peace and prosperity that he worried in his later years would be taken for granted by a younger generation of Singaporeans. Indeed this has in part come true as the Internet and social media forced open a very tightly controlled media environment on the island, providing unprecedented avenues for individuals to express their views.
His decades in office were not uncontroversial and Lee made plain that he was not averse to wielding the proverbial big stick, declaring his readiness to confront political foes with “knuckle dusters”, which included suing political opponents for libel.
He insisted that he would not rule by opinion polls, rejecting the idea that popular government entailed a need to be popular through his term, believing that voters would come round when they eventually saw the results of policies he had pushed through.
“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader,” he wrote in “The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew” (1997). “Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.”