Lee, who died at age 91, went from being an advocate of trade unionists and socialists to a state-building nationalist to a global paragon of good governance, credited with the transformation of his tiny country from a sleepy backwater to a wealthy First World entrepot. He is both an exemplary post-colonial leader and an almost post-national figure; in his later years, Lee became a seemingly endless font of soothsaying global wisdom, hailed by Western politicians and business management gurus alike.
But there will always be one shadow hanging over Lee's incredible legacy: that of his views on democracy, and the draconian methods his government sometimes deployed to stifle it. Under Lee, Singapore was governed as a virtual one-party state. Freedom of speech, despite slow reforms, was strictly curtailed. Intense libel laws led to the bankrupting and marginalization of opposition politicians.
Lee, erudite and articulate, was outspoken in his ambivalence toward democracy as a political system. "The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development," he is quoted as saying, with trademark pragmatism. "The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people."
Under Lee's stewardship, Singapore became a model of economic growth and efficiency, whose blueprint for success was celebrated throughout the region. It was an unabashed nanny state led by supposedly apolitical technocrats. Deng Xiaoping's 1978 trip to Singapore is believed to have opened the communist Chinese leader's eyes to the benefits of a market economy in an authoritarian context.
"Singapore enjoys good social order and is well managed," Deng later said. "We should tap their experience and learn how to manage things better than they do."
The Singapore model got spun into a larger lesson for the world: that to advance, Asian societies needed to avoid the pitfalls of Western liberal systems. Unsurprisingly, China's state news agency Xinhua framed its praise for Lee in its Monday obituary along these lines: "It is exactly thanks to his firm belief and long implementation of Asian values, that [Lee] could establish an Asian ‘micro power’ with good order, a prosperous economy and a rich culture."
The cult of "Asian values" grew in the 1990s as the economies of East Asia and Southeast Asia took off. This was championed most vociferously by Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, and largely discredited after the 1997 Asian financial crisis exposed the fragility of some of these governments. But its ethos remained a fundamental part of Lee's worldview.
"I don’t think there is an Asian model as such," Lee said in an 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria that was published in Foreign Affairs. "But Asian societies are unlike Western ones." Like Mahathir, he argued that there were hard and clear differences between "Eastern" and "Western" cultures: In the former, the individual matters less than in the latter, and, as a consequence, in the former, human rights matter less than the need for the security of the collective and economic growth.
This argument finds its backers in Asia's authoritarian countries, but it has been widely panned, as well. More than 60 percent of the world's population lives in Asia, and to imply that each and every Asian is somehow bound by a shared system of values is utterly preposterous. The fact that some of East Asia's most advanced economies — Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan — also are healthy, battle-tested democracies suggests that societies steeped in Confucianism can happily accommodate more liberal, "modern" forms of politics.
Others, including Indian academic and Nobel-winning economist Amartya Sen, contend that traditions of debate and argument, as well as the belief in universal values, are as inherent to Asian cultures as they are to the West. To deny that is to provide a fig leaf for authoritarianism.
"Those who wish to deny us certain political rights try to convince us that these are not Asian values," said Aung San Suu Kyi, the former Burmese political prisoner and a Nobel laureate. "In our struggle for democracy and human rights, we would like greater support from our fellow Asians.
Martin Lee, a leading democracy activist in Hong Kong, deemed the idea of Asian values a "pernicious myth."
Indeed, Hong Kong is an interesting counterpoint to Lee's Singapore. Another former British colony that's now uncomfortably part of China, it remains a leading Asian metropolis, with a far freer and more robust civil society. "Colonial Hong Kong, so similar in many ways, prospered as well without the guidance of a 'philosopher king' or a 'Moses', as [Lee Kuan Yew] was to be later described," writes veteran Asia hand Philip Bowring in Britain's Guardian newspaper.
And that may be Lee's legacy after all: A man so unique and so capable, he should be remembered as a one-off figure in history, rather than an emblem of an entire civilization's progress.