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Opinion | Remembering the life and legacy of Lee Kuan Yew

His accomplishments are studied and cited as authority for creating a dynamic economy from scratch.

Then-Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen (right) meets in his Pentagon office with Lee Kuan Yew (center), of Singapore on Feb. 29, 2000. Department of Defense
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Imagine a country in the 20th century that in a matter of 30 years went from a per capita income of $500 to one of $50,000. Imagine further that the country had no natural resources and was roughly 150 times smaller than Alabama.

And what would we think about a leader who achieved such spectacular results?

Meet Lee Kuan Yew, who, had he lived, would be 100 years old this month. From 1959 to 1990 he served as prime minister of Singapore and was largely responsible bringing a third world country into the first world.

In short, he was a visionary leader who contemplated a greatness for his country that few could imagine. He refused to accept the low expectations of his peoples’ capabilities and embarked on a mission of almost unachievable goals.

When Lee (in Singapore last names come before given names) accepted the mantle of political leadership, the world bequeathed to him was neither stable nor secure or certain. Singapore was a city state with a strategically located port where ships from all over the world docked, but that seemed to be its only natural asset.

Far from homogeneous, Singapore’s people were ethnically diverse with a stratified community of various faiths and cultures, with little historical memory. Other than the business of trade, the country had no unifying or organizing principle for political cohesion. 

But, Lee, who trained as a lawyer in Cambridge with a smattering of additional education from the London School of Economics, created a political party that focused on a peaceful transition to home rule within the British Empire. Politically, he never sought independence, but saw Singapore as part of a larger state, merged with other, smaller countries that were former colonies in his region. 

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Initially, this concept worked, and for at least a few years, Singapore was part of Malaysia. But, with boundaries artificially defined and few commonalities between the people, Singapore was not a great fit as part of an emerging country.

Within the combined territories that comprised Malaysia, there were many factions based on ethnic issues and fueled in many ways by competing cold war ideologies. Singapore became infected with racial strife leading to riots stirred up by Malaysian ethnic rivalries.

To stop the bloodshed, Malaysia decided to expel Singapore at which point Singapore became the first country to inadvertently achieve independence. Thus, against its will, Singapore was foisted, kicking and screaming, into nationhood.

At this time, no one was sure how a large city could maintain a separate independent state in a rough neighborhood. Were it not for Lee’s leadership, Singapore could easily have become a pawn in the larger cold war or a satellite in the Chinese sphere of influence.

But Lee had a different vision. While he was devastated by Singapore’s expulsion, he embraced the opportunity and created a vision for Singapore that would set in motion a prosperity unimaginable to anyone-except for Lee Kuan Yew.

Realizing the vulnerabilities of the new country, Lee sought Singapore’s diplomatic recognition. He applied for entrance and was accepted into the United Nations. Largely dependent on other countries and with no minerals or other resources, he entered into treaties with surrounding nations. He also imposed conscription to rapidly built up a defense force.

Within his government, he removed all communist elements and supported President Johnson’s policies in Vietnam. Thus, within a few years of independence, Lee had placed his small city state on the world stage.

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Economically, Lee realized he must create employment opportunities for his citizens. Knowing that work and a high standard of living were a key to his independent country’s growth and development, he created an economic policy that provided incentives for foreign investments.

He built factories and provided job training. Critically, he embraced the British legal system, adopting the common law so that foreign investors would know with certainty their rights would be protected against any nationalization. This stability, along with a low tax base and a highly skilled, but cheap labor force, expanded Singapore’s economy to new heights.

As prime minister, Lee ran a squeaky-clean government with zero tolerance for corruption. One means to prevent corruption was to pay government employees a high wage so there was no incentive to supplement a government salary with bribes.

But the economic growth came at a cost. Even while embracing a market economy to efficiently allocate resources, the people of Singapore were not given the rights Lee observed from his time in Britain. The press was not especially free as censorship was practiced to prevent criticism of government policies.

Under Lee, Singapore strictly enforced its criminal laws with public corporal punishment for littering and executing anyone found guilty of trafficking in narcotics. When questioned about the severity of these laws, Lee’s supporters pointed to the cleanliness of the city and the lack of serious crime.

Even though several human rights groups objected to Singapore’s human rights violations, that did not stop foreign investment in the manufacturing sector, financial services, and international trade. Businesses liked the stability of the government but were also drawn to the work ethic of the people.

When asked why Singapore experienced such dynamic growth, Lee said that the most critical factor to achieve national competitiveness is “manpower resources,” which he believed is exhibited in creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship and good management.

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As Lee retired from government in 1990, he continued to serve in an advisory role and became a commentator about leadership, economic development, and the power of ideas.

Even after his death in 2015, his legacy as a visionary leader has grown, and his accomplishments are studied and cited as authority for creating a dynamic economy from scratch.

Remembering Lee Kwan Yew on his birthday, one quote is worth highlighting: “A nation is great not by its size alone. It is the will, the cohesion, the stamina, the discipline of its people, and the quality of their leaders which ensure an honorable place in history.

Will Sellers is an associate justice on the Supreme Court of Alabama.

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