It was not long ago that my mentors and colleagues would say it sufficed to study how the US ran political and economic life, for right there was the model of universalist success. The only exceptions were too special and too small, and almost surely too unsustainable.
We are now more than a quarter century past Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History, more than two decades after Paul Krugman’s The Myth of Asia’s Miracle. Today, none of that universalism is obvious. Instead, today six years after the fall of self-proclaimed Great Moderation in Western economies, we read the Economist newspaper reflecting how "The dysfunction in Brussels and Washington will be all the more noticeable because of (another) worry about Western democracy: there is now an Asian alternative."
Lee Kuan Yew, the statesman and original independent thinker who carved out that alternative, died today. He had provided the vision and political leadership to build out of an island tropical swamp a modern metropolis that is a global powerhouse, with a clean, small, efficient public sector; an average income higher than that in the US; and endowed with landscapes of political awareness, education, industry, and high technology unsurpassed in the world. He immeasurably improved the lives of millions of Singaporeans directly. Leaders from states far bigger than Singapore routinely sought his views and advice.
Lee Kuan Yew was a giant in the world.
None of this is to ignore the flaws and paradoxes that even his most ardent admirers will readily admit. After convincing LSE to admit him despite his not actually applying in time, Lee then decided he couldn’t hack the urban frenzy of London although he did greatly enjoy Harold Laski’s lectures. He cast around and got the Master of Fitzwilliam House, Cambridge to personally admit him midway through the regular school year, to the consternation of LSE who felt they had taken something of a chance on him.
Lee acquired his Double Starred First in Law at Cambridge University, but then decided to skip the Inns of Court lectures ahead of the Bar Examination. He holed up instead in Cornwall, and returned to London just in time to take the finals, and ended up with only a Second Class.
In the 1950s Lee connived behind the scenes with shadowy leaders of Communist infiltrators in Singapore while working actively to make sure the state would emerge free from the possibility of Chinese communist revolution. He modelled Singapore’s democracy after what he saw in the Vatican, where only cardinals nominated by a Pope could elect the next Pope. He referred to those closest to him and in his greatest trust as "dreadful … [delivering] speeches in a dull monotone, mumbling, reading from a script, and looking bored." As Prime Minister he bankrupted or imprisoned individuals in the political opposition. He was politically powerful beyond belief in Singapore, but he lived a simple life and had no desire to be celebrated or adulated. He spoke in disparaging and politically incorrect ways of women, the disadvantaged, and both the downtrodden and the powerful – but worked harder than anyone else in Southeast Asia to build a harmonious, peaceful state, where all races felt welcomed in an incorruptible, transparent meritocracy. And to his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, he was the most loving, devoted, and supportive husband imaginable.
Lee Kuan Yew broke the mold. He gave us a new model. He forged us multiple pathways to success. The world is richer for having had him show us the way and tell us the hard truths we needed to hear.