Lee Kuan Yew rest in peace sign Vian Saputra/ZumaPress

Asian Values RIP

Few politicians have garnered as many effusive public tributes after their death as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and former prime minister. But Lee was hardly alone in advocating capitalism with an iron fist, so why has he – rather than, say, Augusto Pinochet – been praised by everyone from Barack Obama to Vladimir Putin?

NEW YORK – Few politicians have garnered as many effusive public tributes after their death as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and long-serving former prime minister. A man who was treated as a sage by Henry Kissinger, regarded as a political role model by Russian President Vladimir Putin, and described as “a true giant of history” by President Barack Obama must have done something right.

One thing is indisputable: Lee’s influence was many times greater than his actual political authority, which, to his evident chagrin when Singapore and Malaysia split in 1965, never stretched beyond the narrow borders of a small city-state in Southeast Asia. Lee’s most profound influence has been in post-Mao China, where booming economic enterprise coexists with an authoritarian Leninist one-party state.

Lee was the pioneer of capitalism with an iron fist. His People’s Action Party, though far less brutal than the Chinese Communist Party, has ruled over a de facto one-party state. Like many authoritarian leaders (Mussolini, for one), Lee was once a socialist. But his thinking was influenced just as much by oddly nostalgic memories of British colonial discipline and a somewhat self-serving take on Confucianism, stressing obedience to authority, while disregarding the equally Confucian right to dissent.

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