Lee Kuan Yew: Who made him great? | Inquirer Opinion

Lee Kuan Yew: Who made him great?

/ 12:12 AM March 06, 2017

This month marks the second death anniversary of one of the greatest statesmen the world has ever known. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, took a small, poor, corrupt city-state with no natural resources, and in 35 years, raised its status from Third World to First World. He passed away at age 91 in March 2015.

At the time of his death, I happened to be confined in a hospital in Quezon City during one of several bouts with illness that year. Lying in bed, I had nothing else to do but read, and watch television.


When I turned on the TV, the announcement of the death of Lee Kuan Yew was being broadcast to a worldwide audience. I decided to follow the events that were unfolding with the buildup of a crowd—Singaporeans and foreigners were lining up outside Parliament House in order to pay their respects (447,299 would be the official head count, with many more being turned away to allow for other ceremonies to begin).

During the state funeral, the Singapore armed forces accorded Lee a 21-gun salute, although by tradition, as a former head of government (prime minister) he was entitled only to a 19-gun salute. The 21-gun salute is reserved for heads of state (presidents). Special permission was granted for the 21-gun honors for “his exceptional contributions to Singapore and to the rest of the world.”


The Singapore Air Force (SAF) made a fly-by salute consisting of four SAF fighter jets. The original plan was to fly the “missing man” formation, but due to inclement weather, this was cancelled. Incidentally, the “missing man” formation is an aerial salute executed at a funeral or memorial event,
with one of the aircraft splitting off from the formation, to honor the person who has died. Another variant is to keep
one slot vacant in the formation representing the individual being honored.

As Singaporeans grieved, tributes poured in from around the world.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi: “Lee was a far-sighted statesman, and a lion among leaders.”

Japan’s Shinzo Abe: “A great Asian who laid the foundation for Singapore’s prosperity today.”

Germany’s Angela Merkel: “Mr. Lee led Singapore to become the epitome of progress and modernity in Southeast Asia.”

US President Barack Obama: “Lee Kuan Yew was a true giant of history, and the great strategist of Asian affairs.”

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair: “Mr. Lee was one of the most extraordinary leaders of modern times” and “the first to understand that modern politics was about effective government, not old-fashioned ideology.”


Russia’s Vladimir Putin: “Over his decades of work as Prime Minister, he earned his compatriots’ sincere love and respect and won the highest international influence.”

At the state funeral, the Philippines was represented by then Senate President Franklin Drilon. My own thoughts raced back to 1974 when I served as aide-de-camp to the visiting prime minister from Singapore on his first official trip to Manila.

In his introduction to the book “The Big Ideas of Lee Kuan Yew,” Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani, currently the dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National
University of Singapore, points out five traits of Lee Kuan Yew that made him stand out among the many great leaders of the 20th century.

Lee Kuan Yew was a deeply thoughtful man. No one among his contemporaries in Asean (Tunku Abdul Rahman, Suharto, Ferdinand Marcos and Thanom Kittikachorn) could match the quality of his mind. He was the only Southeast Asian leader to appear on a list of top 100 public intellectuals in the world in 2008.

Unlike many thoughtful men who sometimes suffer from paralysis through analysis, Lee Kuan Yew was a man of action. He was an extremely results-oriented person. When officials failed to deliver results, he would tell them, “I don’t accept excuses. I only recognize failures.”

While Lee was tough, he was also pragmatic. If proven wrong he was prepared to reverse course and try different methods.

Lee Kuan Yew was guided by deeply held values. In the early days of Singapore, corruption was a scourge. He and his colleagues were able to overcome this problem because they led by example. They did not take a penny while in office.

Lee Kuan Yew was courageous. The story is told that on his first official visit to China in 1976, he was presented a book by Chinese Prime Minister Hua Guofeng. The book was “India’s China War,” a pro-China history of the Sino-Indian War of 1962. Lee handed the book back to Hua saying, “Mr. Prime Minister, this is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. In any case, I am from Southeast Asia—it has nothing to do with us.”

Another example of the steel in his spine was an event in 1996, when American teenager Michael Fay was convicted of vandalism and sentenced to five lashes of the cane. Most countries thought Singapore would falter under American pressure. Lee stood firm and proceeded with the caning.

The last paragraph of Mahbubani’s essay dwells on the role of Kwa Geok Choo, Lee’s wife. On several overseas trips, he
witnessed firsthand how she moderated Lee when he came on too strongly. He cautions us not to forget the contributions of Mrs. Lee, saying, “There is no doubt Mr. Lee is a great man.
There is also no doubt that Mrs. Lee played a critical role in making him a great man.”

Congratulations to Marc and Yanie Rosales on their recent wedding. Marc is the son of Gen. Mel Rosales, first captain of PMA Class 1968 and former PMA superintendent and undersecretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government. Marc is the country manager for French firm Pernod Ricard in Cambodia. The newlyweds will be taking up residence in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

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