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Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Photograph: Wikipedia

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Strong Men don’t just build towers, they built institutions to ensure the continued propersity of their nations, writes Nicholas Chan.

It is not wrong to say that Singapore stood on the shoulders of Lee Kuan Yew in achieving its contemporary success. More accurately, her founding father placed Singapore on his shoulder and lifted it from Third World to First – a feat now known as the Asian miracle.

An arduous and triumphant nation-builder aside, Lee was also known for his authoritarian rule of Singapore with very little room for dissent, even less for chewing gum.

But this brand of leadership was not unusual for his times. His contemporaries, in Southeast Asia especially, were all known to be strongman leaders, or worse, dictators, like Mahathir of Malaysia, Suharto of Indonesia and Marcos of the Philippines.

In fact, Lee was not so different from Mahathir in his thinking about leaders being necessarily atop of the masses and about democracy’s dispensable position in the Eastern world, alongside some deplorable views on eugenics.

But Lee’s remarkable success, which distinguishes him from his peers, lies in the foundations, institutions and structures he entrusted Singapore with when he resigned.

For us Malaysians, I am certain in this age of democracy, we don’t crave for another strongman leader like Lee but we long for the institutions he built. One would say this what we envy most about Singapore.

Among the keys to Singapore’s success: a high quality education system with reputable universities; a clean and efficient civil service; and a resilient and competitive first-world economy, where the best talents gravitate towards and has survived multiple global financial crises.

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More importantly, these will remain to safeguard Singapore’s position in the world. The world looks to Singapore now – less for Lee’s transformative leadership – but to learn from the institutions he built.

These are uncharacteristic of one-party ruled states, where they are often corrupt, uncompetitive with a weak statist economy exemplified by government-linked companies bleeding money like nobody’s business.

Lee is the pioneer, architect and engineer to these foundations. Unlike other autocrats (like Mahathir, he would insist he is a democratically elected one), Lee did not engross himself with the powers he had and the privileges that come with it.

Ever paranoid about Singapore’s survivability, he instead worked hard and boldly to lay down strong politico-economic structures and institutions that are supported by a culture of meritocracy, competency and pragmatism. He placed priority in ensuring Singapore’s perpetual prosperity and stability even after his leadership, charisma and vision expired one day.

That said, the institutions Lee built were Executive-related and top down. And like the strongman he was, he neglected building institutions to enhance participatory democracy, a more vibrant electoral process and the legislature, and a more critical yet responsible media. These, if institutionalised, could have better served as checks and balances to the Executive

But unlike Lee, the fallacy of most other strongman leaders, including relatively progressive ones, is that they never prepare the country beyond their own premiership. Institutions are often bloated, incompetent and corrupted. The economy is neither diversified nor resilient. Education is mostly lagging. And democratic checks and balances are never present to check on an inept despot in case one unfortunately comes into power.

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Some of these strongmen actually favour weak institutions as it enables them to usurp complete control easily. As a result, these nations often fail to replicate their past progress or even hold it together after the strongmen vacate office as the nation’s integrity had come to depend solely on one man’s clout, gravitas, and charisma. The best example would be to look at Venezuela after Chavez’s death.

Malaysia is no such basket case – at least for now. But it is not hard to sense the people’s nostalgia towards the dynamism and vitality of the country during Mahathir’s leadership. Although far from being flawless (same as Singapore’s Lee), the Grand Old Man of Malaysian politics indeed injected life into Malaysia, transforming an agricultural based economy into an industrialised one.

But that is as far as the country can go, for without strong structures and institutions built in, the propulsion into a knowledge economy cannot be done. Malaysia is now stuck in the middle income trap.

Those accustomed to the authoritative leadership of the 1980s and 90s may see the current problem as rooted in a lack of strong, willful and intelligent leadership. There is some truth to that, I suppose, but good leadership needs to be complemented by competent regenerative structures and institutions to ensure sustainability and relevance.

Mahathir’s successors find it hard to improve upon his achievements as he built it without infusing capacity into the system. His legacies are only highways and towers but nothing organic that would flourish in the absence of the Great Mind behind them.

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Singapore today, on the other hand, is undoubtedly Lee Kuan Yew, but Singapore also has a future beyond Lee Kuan Yew.
It is not to say that Singapore is without its own problems. It has a multitude of them in fact, chief among them are growing social inequalities, an aging population with low birth rates, restricted democratic space as well as an identity crisis following a massive influx of immigrants.

But thanks to Lee, Singapore is better prepared to anticipate these problems, figure out the solutions and boldly implement them. Lee, as Singapore’s unbending patriot, was constantly worried about the island-nation’s survival. Now, thanks to him Singapore will survive and even prosper long after his demise.

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