The greatest of all enterprises, Machiavelli wrote, is the founding of a prosperous and free state. Singapore today is such a shining example, thanks to Lee Kuan Yew.
For many Asians, Lee was simply a good to great leader, and little about him, including his authoritarian ruling style, would have been contentious. Citizens who grew up in what is sometimes called the Confucian belt, think like him and value what he valued. They understood each other.
Yet, controversy and debate dogged him throughout his career, usually in the Western media. To be sure, there were the individual incidents such as his government banning this or that Western publication and suing this or that journalist for libel. But the real controversy and debate were philosophical. For Lee challenged the basic premises, often unexamined, of modern Western democratic ideology and economic orthodoxies.
If you were in the mid-1960s witnessing the ejection of tiny Singapore, then a big slum, from Malaysia, how would you judge its economic prospects, a place with a poorly trained workforce, with so few natural resources that it had to import most oil and other raw materials as well as water? By the dogmas of post-war Western developmental economics, such a place would be condemned to perpetual poverty without foreign aid. After these types of theories went out of fashion, in no small part due to the rise of Singapore and other Asian “tiger” economies, there followed the so-called Washington Consensus about the need for governments to stay out of the economy and let the free market rule.
Singapore, and to a greater or lesser extent Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China, all achieved riches and a measure of stability by not following Western scripts.
Lee’s Singapore also challenges the widespread Western notion that no government can succeed without being fully democratic and that authoritarianism must lead to corruption and inefficiency.
Lee showed how a strong government could not only avoid those vices, but was a prerequisite of the twin political virtues of prosperity and stability. The recalcitrant natives refused to be taught but went their own way, with Lee at the front. Many self-styled teachers from the West were outraged.