In Mr Lee's later years, the world turned to him as seer and sage

In Mr Lee's later years, the world turned to him as seer and sage
File photo of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew at the Standard Chartered Forum in Singapore on March 20, 2013.

Perhaps this article should begin with Henry Kissinger, the guru of realpolitik who was secretary of state to United States president Richard Nixon and shared a long association with Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

Perhaps with the words of another lifelong friend of Mr Lee's, former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt, or Britain's Margaret Thatcher.

Maybe even India's Sonia Gandhi, whose famous mother-in-law, the late Indira Gandhi, had a sometimes testy association with Singapore's founding father.

But that would be all too predictable.

So let's start with what an African American cabby in a city not known to have a particularly deep interest in the wider world had to say about Mr Lee.

It was 1998 and, visiting New York, I was in a yellow top from my hotel near Central Park to catch up with friends at a micro-brewery pub off Times Square. The driver was an emigre from Nigeria and, as in the manner of cabbies everywhere, curious to know more about his ride.

When he heard I lived in Singapore, he chuckled loudly.

"Hey, you are the guys who caned the American kid," he said. "You stood up to President Clinton and you did damn right. Who's that old man who runs your country - Lee?"

He was referring to Singapore's punishment, in 1994, of teenager Michael Fay for vandalism. After then President Bill Clinton intervened, Fay's caning sentence was reduced from six strokes to four.

Singapore's decision to go ahead with the punishment made headlines around the world. Annoyed at the island's steadfastness, Washington voted against plans to hold the inaugural meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Singapore.

Fortunately, diplomacy and good sense prevailed. The inaugural summit, held in late 1996 at Suntec City, went through smoothly, highlighting Singapore as the world's pre-eminent trade-driven economy.

In many ways, the Fay incident and how it was received abroad underscores the world's perception of Mr Lee and the foundations on which he built Singapore.

Intellect and integrity, common sense above compassion, inclusiveness in domestic and foreign policy, a practical, non-ideological approach to issues, an unwavering commitment to globalisation and free markets, and a firm determination to enforce the rule of law - these are the qualities the world came to recognise in Mr Lee, and today, Singapore.

Some years later, when I was posted to India as the South Asia bureau chief for this newspaper, I would become aware that the world viewed Mr Lee's Singapore as more than an efficiently administered state - that it also stood for a healthy, throbbing habitat.

Outside a golf course in Greater Noida, a boom town in the notoriously poorly run state of Uttar Pradesh, I would frequently pass a billboard advertising a new, tree-lined condominium complex with plenty of water bodies. The promise was "Singapore-style living".

Without question, the reputation of an irascible, combative, Western lackey preceded the hallowed image of the sage and seer Mr Lee bore in his later years.

In the post-colonial era and its emphasis on non-alignment and suspicion of Western multinationals, his hard-nosed, contrarian approach and his open welcome of foreign investment evoked much disdain.

"Lee is like a banana - yellow of skin, white underneath," then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai complained at the Bandung Conference in 1955, echoing the Chinese view of the time.

A quarter-century later, the Chinese leadership would instruct rising party figures to travel to the island to study its growth and governance model.

In 2012, no less than President Xi Jinping ordered China Central Television to produce a series on Singapore.

From the mid-1970s, global companies such as Silicon Valley legend Hewlett-Packard, Seagate, DuPont and Sony would arrive in droves on an island with few resources except having a good location in South-east Asia and a clean, efficient government run by Mr Lee.

The jobs they provided and the technology they brought elevated Singapore to new heights - which was precisely why Mr Lee had invited them.

In 1999, Mr Lew Platt, retiring as chairman and chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, made a farewell visit to Singapore with his successor Carly Fiorina.

As always, they used the opportunity to touch base with the leadership here and exchange ideas.

"He is a mensch," Mr Platt told me later of Mr Lee, using the Yiddish word for a wise man who radiates fortitude and firmness of purpose.

The fortitude, which rose from deep conviction, came with a price on occasion. Mr Lee, it was well-known, was prone to hectoring his interlocutors, especially when he believed they were under-performing in their potential, either as individuals or as leaders.

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