A statesman departs

A statesman departs

Newspapers are quick to describe political leaders of importance as statesmen, especially when they pass away; it is only the dispassionate mirror of history that separates the grain from the chaff.

In the death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, the world has lost a man whose legacy will last the longest course that history may set.

That he transformed Singapore is too well known to bear repetition, except to record that when the tiny island chose to part ways with Malaysia a half century ago, it was thought to be a swamp-infested hellhole without a future.

But there were two things that he never lost sight of -- and these were Singapore's strategic interests and the need for its government to improve living conditions of its citizens.

The transformation within his lifetime of a tiny, third world city-state into a prosperous First World nation that always punches above its weight tells us that his methods, unpalatable as they may have seemed to some, worked.

LKY had his critics, especially in the West, and especially of the Asian-style democracy he made fashionable in his region.

When critics crossed the line, he sued them and mostly won; when they didn't, he dismissed them.

But always, it was the pragmatist in him that drove decisions, including whom to sue, when and in what forum.

In his early days, LKY was an admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru and even flirted with Fabian Socialism that was the intellectual flavour of the 1940s and 50s.

But once he came to the conclusion that a paternalistic, almost autocratic form of capitalism administered by a single, dominant political party was what his country needed, he embraced it. The end was more important than the means, and the end always was to transform Singapore. Indeed and on the evidence, it is possible to argue that had LKY believed a liberal, multi-party democracy would make his country more prosperous, he would have adopted such a system. Many of his colleagues have noted the extreme attention to detail that made up his working style; it is therefore inconceivable that one of the greatest minds of the 20th century would not have weighed the proposition dispassionately especially after he had hitched his strategy bandwagon to the liberal West, particularly America.

Until almost the end, LKY remained deeply involved with his country. While he gave up prime ministership nearly a quarter century ago, he continued to occupy positions as first senior minister and then minister mentor -- until four years ago and left no one in any doubt that his word was still law.

While he was careful to draw the country's finest minds into government, it is difficult to imagine that any of them, including his very accomplished son and current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, could possess the obsessive passion that he had for Singapore.

The world will know him as a statesman; LKY perhaps would have preferred to be remembered as a patriot.

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