BEIJING — Tributes poured in Monday for the late founder of modern Singapore and the enormous influence he had on Asia and the world. But the debate over Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, and the lessons from his paternalistic model of governance, also continued to simmer.
Lee, Singapore’s first prime minister and its ruler for 31 years, built his city-state into a global financial and trade center — and one of the world’s richest nations — with little corruption, safe streets, good schools and low tax rates.
But he did so while crushing dissent and muzzling the news media, as well as jailing some political rivals without trial for decades.
Such was Singapore’s success that Lee’s influence was felt far beyond his tiny island state. His autocratic, technocratic and development-focused approach was emulated across Southeast Asia. And the idea of an economically free and prosperous nation under authoritarian rule also helped inspire China’s Communist Party and its opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping.
On Monday, Singapore’s state television devoted all of its programming to Lee. Glowing tributes flowed in from world leaders, including President Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Obama called Lee a “true giant of history” and described his leadership as “remarkable.” Obama met Lee during a visit to Singapore in 2009.
Obama said Lee was also “hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific” region.
On Monday, Singapore’s government declared seven days of national mourning. No national holiday has been declared, and daily life continued uninterrupted.
But Lee’s legacy of micromanagement — imposing his vision and whims — could leave Singapore struggling for new political footing at a time when China is casting a broader shadow over the region and when rights issues increasingly become intertwined with Western foreign policy.
In China, Xi called Lee “an old friend of the Chinese people” and said he was “widely respected by the international community as a strategist and a statesman.” As of Monday afternoon, four of China’s seven Standing Committee members — its highest-ranked party officials — had sent condolences.
Lee had visited China 33 times since his first trip in 1976 and met all five generations of Chinese leaders, from Mao Zedong to Xi.
He described Deng as one of the most impressive leaders he had met, defended the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 as necessary to maintaining stability, and compared Xi to former South African president Nelson Mandela.
Chinese state media celebrated his refusal to bow to Western democratic ideals, saying this provided an alternative Asian model of governance.
“Neither slander from the foreign media, nor criticism from the West, has ever shaken Lee Kuan Yew’s governing ideals and values,” China’s Xinhua News Agency wrote. “He thought the U.S. and Europe would not succeed in imposing their so-called human rights and democratic standards onto the world. It is exactly thanks to his firm belief and long implementation of Asian values that he could establish an Asian ‘micro power’ with good order, a prosperous economy and a rich culture.”
But China’s reading of Lee’s legacy has largely been selective, and his personal attitude toward China was almost always more complicated than Xi and Xinhua said.
On the one hand, Lee foretold the rise of modern Chinese might and praised China for steering clear of Western influence and seeking its own path. On the other hand, he also warned against the threat that a powerful China could pose to its neighbors and stressed the necessity of U.S. involvement in Asia as a counterweight of sorts.
Singapore under Lee cooperated militarily with Taiwan, to Beijing’s intense annoyance, and in 1990 was the last Southeast Asian nation to establish diplomatic relations with China. Lee, who was sometimes known by his initials LKY, also carved out a Singaporean identity distinct from the Chinese heritage of most of its citizens, with English the main language of instruction in primary and middle schools.
Just as fundamentally, Lee established a different version of authoritarian rule than China’s. Singapore’s model stresses an independent judiciary, a corruption-free government and genuine rule of law under a British-influenced system. In China, the Communist Party remains fully in control of the judiciary and corruption is widespread, despite a campaign under Xi to stamp it out.
“China has been learning from the economic and social policies of Singapore, but they will not learn Singapore’s political system,” said Willy Wo-lap Lam, an adjunct professor of history at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “The difference between China and Singapore is still huge in terms of rule of law.”
Expressions of grief have flooded the Facebook page of the office of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the late leader’s son. But others have mixed feelings about Lee’s legacy.
Commentator Carlton Tan, 28, wrote in a recent column that Singaporeans “simultaneously love and hate, respect and despise, cherish and abhor, the man.”
He added that “we are thankful for our decades of economic progress, but we wonder whether it was really necessary to sacrifice our freedoms.”
Several commentators said that the challenge for Singapore now is to continue to move away from dependence on a single ruler who called all the shots and to shift toward a more consensus-based and democratic model of governance.
Ernest Bower at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said Lee was one of Asia’s “great men” — including Indonesia’s Suharto and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad — who centralized power and drove economic development, spawning a large, fast-growing and increasingly confident middle class.
But the rise of that middle class, Bower wrote on a blog, “will challenge the paternalistic, top-down and centrally controlled governance models” that Lee and his contemporaries championed.
That could force their successors to move away from dependence on a single vision and toward a system “where competing parties and leaders argue to convince a nation their ideas are best.”
While Malaysia’s ruling party, the United Malays National Organization, has tried “to turn the clock back” after Mahathir’s retirement and bet on an ultraconservative approach, Bower said it was more likely that Singapore’s well-educated and globally focused rulers “will find there is more room to breathe and innovate in the post-LKY era.”
“This will slow Singaporeans down a bit and make their regional and global geopolitical role more nuanced, but this is evolution, not a descent into chaos,” he wrote.
Michael Barr, an expert on Singapore at Australia’s Flinders University, said that the immediate implications of Lee’s death for Singapore might not be profound but that the challenges ahead were.
Lee had taken a back seat since his son became prime minister in 2004 and had effectively bowed out completely in recent years. As a result, his People’s Action Party was losing its reputation for “sheer political administrative professionalism,” Barr said. It experienced a significant decline in its vote share in elections in 2011, though it still dominates Parliament.
Lee’s successors, Barr said, came from the same narrow social class and racial background and were mostly educated at the same schools.
“His successors can’t rely on their democratic credentials. They can’t claim to be representative. Their administrative competence is their main selling point, and there is a feeling that that’s collapsing,” he said.
“Lee’s death has emotional value for Singaporeans, and the grief being expressed is genuine. There is a real sense of gratitude, but that is not really passing onto his successors. That’s the weakness of the Lee Kuan Yew system — it needs a Lee Kuan Yew to run it. His successors might like to think they are little Lee Kuan Yews, but they are not.”
Gu Jinglu and Xu Yangjingjing in Beijing, Chico Harlan in Washington and Daniela Deane in London contributed to this report.