Strong rule of law is Lee's legacy

Strong rule of law is Lee's legacy

Citizens throughout Southeast Asia might be jealous of his success in building what he called "a disparate collection of immigrants from China, British India and the Dutch East Indies" into one of the world's most prosperous nations.

But the founder of Singapore, who passed away in the early hours of yesterday, left behind invaluable lessons for this region.

In his 30 years as prime minister and 20 as adviser to the government, Lee Kuan Yew explored many different routes in search of his goals for the tiny island state at the tip of peninsular Malaysia.

Sometimes he was laughed at, looked down upon and criticised for his direction.

Lee first took the helm in 1959 as the British colonial power loosened its grip on Singapore.

Four years later he piloted the city-state into a merger with Malaysia in a bid to gain full independence for the country.

But the Federation of Malaysia quickly turned sour amid tensions with the predominantly Malay society over different political approaches, economic conditions and, notably, ethnic roots.

Tension between Chinese and Malay communities erupted in violence in 1964, when scores were killed during race riots.

Though a champion of a multiracial society, Lee was unable to solve the crisis.

A year later, Singapore was ejected from the federation, to, as Lee put it, "go our own way with no signposts to our next destination".

Born reluctantly and with no certainty of survival, the new country grew into the success story whose 50-year anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Hailing from Chinese stock, Lee was adamant that the fledgling country's multiracial population was no obstacle to its development.

It didn't matter which race was the majority: the country could unite and progress in harmony. It was equipped with four official languages: English, Malay, Tamil and Mandarin.

The nation's geographical roots are reflected in its national anthem, Majulah Singapore, whose Malay lyrics were composed in 1958, years before independence.

But ethnic Malays make up just 14-15 per cent of the population.

The announcement of Lee's death was made in Malay, Mandarin and English by his son and current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong. Prime Minister Lee speaks all three languages fluently, reflecting the multiracial reality of Singaporean society.

Other countries in Southeast Asia, including Thailand, also face challenges posed by ethnic divisions.

Lee's route to racial harmony in Singapore over the past 50 years has been controversial in some respects, but it also offers a guide for ethnically diverse Thailand and Myanmar, where race is of great significance.

Lee's "Singapore model" - a soft authoritarianism of centralised power, clean government and economic liberalism - is not suitable for regional neighbours with more democratic aspirations.

As leader of a newly independent state, Lee announced that Singapore would be a democratic nation founded on principles of liberty, justice and the welfare and happiness of its people.

But his People's Action Party has used the levers of power to dominate the political scene and intimidate any opposition. It faces little opposition in parliament and tolerates no dissent in the administration.

Free speech and political freedom are a scarcity in Singapore.

To its critics, Singapore is a sterile society where everyday life lacks colour and is limited to mostly eating and shopping.

Others, however, point out the lack of corruption in government and the state-private sphere. Many mistakenly ascribe the "clean" governance to authoritarian rule.

In fact, its roots lie elsewhere, in Singapore's strong rule of law. Let's not forget that Harry Lee, as his foreign friends knew him, earned a law degree at Cambridge University.

He might not be regarded as a "legal-minded" leader, but Singapore's rule of law and its enforcement are among the most effective in the world.

It is this recipe of fair laws, enforced fairly and transparently, that is Lee's true legacy as a world leader of renown.

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