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.
Singapore’s humming economy, material comfort, and smooth efficiency seem to confirm the view of many that authoritarianism works better than democracy, at least in some parts of the world. No wonder, then, that Lee was so much admired by autocrats everywhere who dream of combining their monopoly on power with the creation of great wealth.