Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy lies in pragmatism

Source:Global Times Published: 2015-3-23 20:03:01

Offering condolences, Chinese President Xi Jinping said "his death is a loss to the whole world," a supreme appraisal to honor the founding father of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, who died on Monday morning.

Keeping a hold on the reins of power for over 30 years in the city state, Lee was a controversial leader.

He was lauded as a grand master for making an overwhelming contribution to Singapore's rise from a disadvantaged "little red dot" to a modern, developed and civilized country, but he was also repudiated by pro-Western thinkers for building an authoritarian political architecture.

Lee's death might make headlines for a day or two, but his legacy will be sustained even under the spotlight of global politics for ages.

Besides presentational achievements in terms of economy and international relations, his most commendable accomplishments are his success in setting up meritocracy in Singapore's politics, aligning Singapore with globalization, and modernizing Singaporeans in both physical and mental dimensions. These are the three major components of Lee's legacy.

Lee's governing philosophy in both internal and external affairs prominently featured by pragmatism, flexibility and self-renewal. His personal experience determines that he was a decisive and self-dependent man with a profound vision and realistic personality.

Lee was born to a Chinese family but educated under Western philosophies. He was a master of combining both values together and making the best of them after he entered the political arena.

He had a clear vision that as a city state surrounded by powerful neighbors, principles should vary based on different situations, and obsession with doctrine might cost the country's existence.

Many decisions he made at different times for both home and foreign affairs appeared to be inconsistent, but they were cautiously considered through a pragmatic process of decision-making.

Such pragmatism and flexibility reflects on Singapore's China policy, which changes in different situations even dramatically.

Lee delivered heartfelt support to China's reform and opening-up back in the late 1970s, and made his country play a significant role in the early stage of China's transformation by becoming a major hub to help China attract foreign investments.

However, in order to avoid the disapproval of its neighbors, Singapore didn't look for diplomatic opening with China until almost all Southeast Asian countries had established diplomatic relations with China.

Lee was of Chinese descent. However, as the leader of a country whose 75 percent population are of Chinese origin, he put a lot of efforts into de-sinicization. In foreign affairs, he supported China's reunification by facilitating the historic dialogue between the mainland and Taiwan senior officials in 1993, but also raised concerns from time to time about China's rise and called for US involvement in curbing China's expanding influence.

As Chinese State media Xinhua said Monday on its social media account, Lee was "an old friend of the Chinese people, but also gave us a lot of emotion."

Lee's statesmanship, which was pragmatically and flexibly "split," earned Singapore a worldwide reputation. Its development model has become an object of study for political scientists and a role model for policymakers.

In the post-Lee Kuan Yew era, the Singapore model will be more closely watched, and debates about its sustainability might grow bigger, especially the current situation in Singapore has exposed some risks of the model, as more people have stood up to challenge the regime.

The key to understanding the productivity of the model rests on its ability of self-renewal. This model will survive and even do a better job if it can find a balanced way to respond to the calls of the Millennials, or Generation Y, for democracy and freedom.

The Singapore model will not remain the same, because it is always improving. That is the real experience we should draw from what Lee established and offered over his 91 years of life.

The article was compiled by Global Times reporter Liu Zhun based on an interview with Xu Liping, a research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. liuzhun@globaltimes.com.cn

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