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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

LEE KUAN YEW

By Mohamed Najib Tun Razak


Curriculum Vitae

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT that Lee Kuan Yew will go down in history as a leader who has left an indelible mark on not only his country's development but also the region's. To supporters, he is the dynamic architect of modern Singapore. To detractors, he is uncompromising and authoritarian. Yet there is a general consensus that he has made his presence felt in the region and his influence and legacy will remain for a long while.

I see him from four perspectives: as one who fought for Independence, though his notion of statehood differed from that of his colleagues, such as Tunku Abdul Rahman and my late father [Tun Abdul Razak]; as Singapore leader from 1965 to the 1990s; as an Asian statesman; and, finally, in terms of Malaysia-Singapore relations.

Like that of many Asian "freedom fighters," Lee's political awakening occurred in World War II, particularly during Japan's invasion and occupation of Singapore. Like my father, Lee was studying at Raffles, the most prestigious college in British Malaya. There is a picture of Lee with his future wife as well as my father. War disrupted Lee's studies, and he witnessed the horrors associated with occupation. The British defeat also shattered the myth of the invincible "white man." No doubt, Lee's political ideas began to take shape in those bleak days.

After the war, Lee read law at Cambridge, obtaining double first honors. Britain was a breeding ground of discontent over colonial rule for many Malayan students. As the Labour Party was far more sympathetic to independence for the colonies, students like Lee became fascinated with this socialist organization. He was active in the Malayan Forum, a vehicle for Malayans to discuss issues in Britain.

With political apprenticeship in England and legal experience upon his return to Singapore, Lee won his Tanjong Pagar seat in the 1955 general elections. He never looked back. With Malayan Independence, Singapore too became free. But amid irreconcilable differences between Lee and Tunku Abdul Rahman, Singapore was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. The rest, as they say, is history.

It has been cogently argued that Lee's greatest contribution is his building of Singapore. Today it is one of the world's wealthiest states, despite the current economic turmoil. However, historically, Singapore always had good infrastructure; as a crown colony and an entrepot, it had a head start. Lee merely pushed this city state to its full potential.

Singapore's basic homogeneity, with ethnic Chinese dominance, has allowed Lee to stress meritocracy. But in Malaysia, due to a historical imbalance among ethnic groups - Malays were marginalized in the colonial period, with profound implications later - there was an urgent need to address this critical issue, through the New Economic Policy.

It seems clear that Lee belongs to a school of thought which argues the necessity of putting political reforms in abeyance while concentrating on economic development. His ideas are similar to those of the late Deng Xiaoping and in sharp contrast to those of Mikhail Gorbachev, who pursued both political and economic reforms concurrently, much to his detriment. It is perhaps not surprising to see Lee at the forefront in support of Deng's opening of China.

As an advocate of Asian values, defined principally in the Confucian tradition, he became one of the region's spokesmen. This had the unfortunate result of pitching Asian values against those of the West. However, there are many within the region who do not subscribe to the notion of Asian values, for values are far more universally shared, although culturally there are obvious differences. Despite this, even with some taking offense at his strong remarks, Lee has continued with conviction and vigor.

Most Malaysians see Lee through a different prism. There is a degree of healthy competition between the two countries, which, to some extent, Lee epitomizes. He has highlighted it, with the message more targeted to Singaporeans, to motivate them. On the other hand, both sides recognize that they have to co-exist. The relationship was once described as that of separated Siamese twins, marked by a degree of vacillation.

In Lee's twilight years, I believe history will be kind and complimentary to this Asian statesman. A man of his generation has historical baggage, as expected. His fading away from the limelight, pushing Goh Chok Tong forward as prime minister, has allowed him to be in a unique position - to see a transition while still in power, to be present but not around. Despite some resentment toward Lee within and outside Singapore, he undoubtedly has a special place in the annals of Asian history and development.

Mohamed Najib Tun Razak is Malaysia's education minister and a vice president of the dominant UMNO party.


LEE KWAN YEW

•Born on Sept. 16, 1923, in Singapore

•Established People's Action Party in 1954

•Negotiated self-rule for Singapore in 1957-58 and became its leader in 1959

•Took Singapore into Malaysia in 1963, but saw it expelled in August 1965

•Stepped down as PM in 1990, having led Singapore to its status as an Asian NIC

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