It would be an exaggeration to say that Singaporeans are “in a state of shock”. But they are noticeably pensive and aware that they are witnessing a major watershed in their country’s history. Lee Kuan Yew, the man who has dominated their lives for more than 50 years has died. As a young pre-independence MP, a prime minister, senior minister and then a minister mentor until just recently, Lee transformed his country from a declining colonial backwater into a dynamic, prosperous, modern state. Only the very old can remember a time when he was not around.
Politically Lee Kuan Yew was extraordinarily long-lived. He was there when Kwame Nkrumah, Ben Bella, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nasser, S. W. R. D. Bandaranayaka and Zhou Enlai were in the news. They and most of the others from that time have either been relegated to irrelevance or discredited. Until just recently, Lee was still being sought out for his opinions on economics, social policy and international affairs, and Singapore still runs along the lines he set down. He was no butcher like Mao, no bungler like U Nu, not a prima donna like Sihanouk or Sukarno, and he never stuffed his pockets like Suharto and a good many of the others. He was squeaky clean, disdainful of personality cults and had the good sense to step back gradually as he aged to allow for a smooth transition of power. Lee Kuan Yew was totally dedicated to building the country he led and if any leader in the 20th century genuinely deserves to be called father of his country it is he. This is not to say that he was universally liked. He was often accused of being bullying, arrogant and intolerant and some of his critics spent years in detention without trial. But he said, and it is probably true, that Singapore would not have survived without a single vision and purpose, which is what he had and what he gave it. His suppression of communism almost certainly saved the country from that social and economic disaster. And he resolutely refused to allow religious, racial or linguistic issues to be used for political ends, thus sparing the country from bloodstained social divisions like those in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Burma and elsewhere. The result is a well-managed, clean, safe and decent society.
Like most citizens, Singaporeans often grumble about their politicians and the policies they enact. But after they return from trips to smog-choked Bangkok, filthy chaotic Delhi, Jakarta where there are power cuts every night, and Rangoon where only the suicidal drink the water, they generally appreciate how lucky they are. In 2010 Lee was asked how he thought he might be remembered and he answered: “I am not saying that everything I did was right, but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial. Close the coffin, then decide.” The coffin is about to be closed.