A year of solid leaders

A year of solid leaders
Mr Lee Kuan Yew (above), United States President Barack Obama and South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela.

THIS has been a year of leaders. Although unlikely to be recorded in the history books, the symbolically most significant day for me was Aug 6. That was the date of the launch of One Man's View Of The World, a book by Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. The venue was the Istana.

A hush fell on the room as Mr Lee entered, went up to the podium, and made a short speech. Then, on his way out, he stopped as he passed some of his political colleagues from the early years of the People's Action Party (PAP). He lingered in front of them, unwilling to go, a dazzling smile his gift to them in old age, both theirs and his.

Mr Lee is accustomed to silence when he speaks. But this hush was different. It was born not out of fear but out of awe.

Fear would have been the default reaction when he enjoyed almost unchallenged power in Singapore. Now, what makes him iconic is his dignity in old age, his larger-than- life presence on a national scene from which he is receding physically although he created it, more than anyone else, with single- handed, steely-minded zeal. His ability to outlive his times in the minds of his people has earned him a place much higher than fear. It is respect.

In his book, Mr Lee says he is not certain Singapore will be around in 100 years. What he is certain of is that if the country gets a "dumb" government, "we are done for". "This country will sink into nothingness."

Not everyone is convinced. Many think the myth of Singapore's exceptionalism is an old party trick to scare people into voting for the PAP. Hence I once remarked, at a dinner, that it might be best for Singapore to enter a period of bad governance so that Singaporeans could decide what good governance is, and adjust their political beliefs and expectations accordingly. A foreign diplomat stopped eating and looked at me. "Be careful of what you ask for," he said. "Beware of people revering bad governance."

Reassuringly, good governance was the theme of a conference on Mr Lee's legacy organised on Sept 16, his 90th birthday, by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. The mood was neither hagiographic nor elegiac.

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