By his ninth decade, Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore from 1959 until 1990, had seemingly done it all.
Lee, who died on March 23 at 91, survived Japanese occupation during World War II. Against all odds, he brought Singapore out from under the yoke of Britain. He also brought his nation out of poverty — from “Third World to First,” as the title of a book he wrote put it. And he established a political dynasty. After his tenure, he would serve as “minister mentor” to his son Lee Hsien Loong, who followed Dad into the family business.
But despite his many achievements, on Feb. 16, 2010, Lee was left fuming by nine words in an article about South Asian political dynasties published in the International Herald Tribune. They there were, plain as day, reporting a plain fact: “Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong is Lee Kuan Yew’s son.”
Other dictators may have shrugged this off. Eastern strongmen with less-than-stellar human rights records — think Chairman Mao, Pol Pot, Kim Jong Il — aren’t typically interested in libel lawsuits. And though the author’s article, Philip Bowring, ran afoul of Lee before by implying Lee’s son became prime minister through nepotism, Bowring was stating the obvious truth. Could reporting that one man was another’s man’s son really be defamatory?
Lee thought so — and he got his cash. In a payout questioned by its own public editor, the New York Times — the Tribune’s owner — settled before it was sued. As one blogger put it: “$114,000 paid for nine words.”
Watching a publication associated with the Gray Lady say sorry — after the New York Times, for example, praised Google for standing up to censorship in China — was cringe-inducing.
“Mr. Bowring … included these two men in a list of Asian political dynasties, which may have been understood by readers to infer that the younger Mr. Lee did not achieve his position through merit,” the Tribune wrote. “We wish to state clearly that this inference was not intended. We apologize.”
Without even stepping into a courtroom, Lee had cowed the paper of record — and anyone who questioned his “Godfather”-like tactics in defense of family was met with a shrug.
“Everybody knows that if you impugn our integrity, we must clear our name,” Lee said when asked by The Washington Post’s David Ignatius in 2002 about a different libel lawsuit. “How can it be otherwise?”
For Lee, taking down a writer and globally respected news organization for nine words was all in a day’s work. For decades, this man made family the center of Singapore’s society.
“Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and for learning,” Lee wrote in “From Third World to First.” “These values make for a productive people and help economic growth.”
This wasn’t just bluff and brag — la cosa nostra or Hatfields vs. McCoys in South Asia. This was Confucius — the Chinese philosopher whose ideas of civil order carry great weight in the East more than two millenia after his death.
“Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family,” Lee wrote. “Many in the West believe that the government is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when it fails, as with single mothers. East Asians shy away from this approach.”
Educated in England, this learned man — who former British prime minister Tony Blair called “the smartest leader I ever met” — was well aware that, an ocean away, the most successful country in the history of the world was running things quite a different way. After all, America’s Great Society was born — and, some say, died — while Lee was running Singapore.
It didn’t make much of an impression. Lee didn’t like what he saw in the United States — “guns, drugs, and violent crime,” he told Fareed Zakaria in 1994 — as it experimented with big government and alternative lifestyles. He thought solutions such as educational reform that came from the top down — “one magic formula, one grand plan” — were doomed to fail.
Singapore wasn’t having any of it. Not on his watch.
“There is grave disquiet when we break away from tested norms, and the tested norm is the family unit,” he said. “It is the building brick of society.”
Lee’s philosophy — or, perhaps, Confucius’s philosophy — led to a Singapore that ran well and got rich. This was success, but it was success as an uncool dad or, perhaps, “The Great Santini” might define it. It wasn’t just drug use that was harshly punished in the island nation. Homosexuality was technically illegal. The press was censored. And gum-chewing was outlawed.
“The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society,” Lee told Zakaria. “In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.”
For Lee — the world leader from whom Henry Kissinger said he learned the most and a man who Margaret Thatcher said penetrated “the fog of propaganda … expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them” — liberty as Westerners might define it didn’t matter. Family came first.
“It is the basic concept of our civilization,” he said. “Governments will come, governments will go, but this endures.”
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