The Reform and Friendship Award that was recently bestowed by the Chinese government on Singapore’s former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, is a robust pronouncement of their appreciation to his venerable support of China’s development.
As noted, Lee Kuan Yew’s 30 years of governance within Singapore helped transform the small city-state from an indigent British colony devoid of natural resources into one of Asia’s most affluent and developed countries.
With the passage of time, Lee has also turned to become Asia’s most well-known public intellectuals, one whose distinctive experience and point of view gives him remarkable insight into developments shaping the continent.
Lee’s best legacy to China was stimulating Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, and asserting the concept that reform and adaptation is a never-ending, essential process, and that it can be done in China.
In a 2007 interview with the New York Times, “Singapore embraces practicality rather than ideology: “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.” Such no-nonsense standpoint also resonates in Deng Xiaoping’s celebrated statement which said, “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.”
Lee realized far earlier than the world that China’s ascent would demand a modification in the international order. “It’s not possible to pretend that [China] is just another big player,” Lee said in 1993. “This is the biggest player in the history of man.” These statements thrilled leaders in Beijing eager to believe in the exceptional and potent power of China’s history and culture and the certainty of China’s rise. So much so, that for many years, Chinese leaders placed their confidence and faith in Lee in “explaining” to them their country. And as another Chinese newspaper puts it, “When China encountered resistance in the international arena, Lee played an important role in mediating and interpreting for China.”
Robert Kuok, chairman of the Kerry Group, a Hong Kong-based multinational with diverse interests ranging from property to palm oil, thought Mr. Lee was too fixated on Singapore. “He wanted to talk about politics all the time. There is more to life than politics. To me, there is more to life than business.”
However, according to Mr. Kuok, it was Mr. Lee’s steadfastness and endurance that made Singapore flourish and it helped that Mr. Lee possessed all the leadership traits necessary to govern – an daunting mind-set, and presence of face and body.
“He was very sure of himself, resolute, even ruthless. But he turned Singapore into a model nation, put in place a government that cared for its people, and made sure that others would not bully Singapore,” Kuok said. For him and for the thousands of people who have known Lee Kuan Yew, he was the “greatest Chinese outside mainland China.”