August 9 is the National Day of Singapore. On this day, Singapore commemorates its independence from Malaysia.
Singapore is a most prosperous country, and, without a doubt, its founding leader Lee Kuan Yew played a key role in the Singapore miracle.
I admire Lee Kuan Yew for what he did for his country. Mr. Lee became prime minister of Singapore in 1959 when the city-state, won its independence from Britain. Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia, but after a few years, in the wake of “race riots,” Malaysia severed ties with Singapore.
Singapore, upon its independence from Malaysia, had very few resources. It was very Third World. A New York Times writer described it then as “malarial.”
By 1994, it had the world’s busiest port, was the third-largest oil refiner, and was a major center of global manufacturing and service industries. From less than $100 million in its coffers, it is today one of the world’s economic powers with perhaps the biggest sovereign wealth funds globally. Singapore does not disclose the amount, but Temasek, an investment company, manages funds worth more than $220 billion (as of March 2018).
How enviable then is Singapore as a neighbor in the ASEAN region. Minister Lee’s leadership mattered in accounting for Singapore’s success.
Even before Deng Xiaoping made China an economic success story, there was Lee who trailblazed the path that Singapore and, later, China and others followed.
Not without his critics who lambasted and lampooned him for his micro-management, curtailment of civil liberties, laws banning chewing gum and spitting, and lack of entrepreneurship, among others, Minister Lee conceptualized, engineered, and imposed a social order that has translated into material well-being enjoyed by his people. When questioned, Minister Lee replied: “These are my choices. I go by what is good governance. What are the things I aim to do? We have now a healthy society that gives everybody the chance to achieve his maximum.”
Many times I have thought that we (the Philippines) need a Lee Kuan Yew, or someone with his attributes as a visionary, firm, and sophisticated leader; a strong but benevolent leader. I personally experienced a thin slice of life in Singapore. During a respite from education for the stretch from 2002 -2005, I made a few visits to Singapore, and my business then exposed me to entrepreneurship and Singaporean entrepreneurs.
Being an advocate of children’s rights, I admire Mr. Lee for what he had done for education. Singapore was a backward and remote 700 sq. m fishing village and a populace born and raised in this meager setting composed of multiracial and multicultural Chinese, Malays, and Indians. By 1995, Singapore placed No. 1 in math and sciences in the celebrated and reliable TIMMS or Trends in Math and Science Study (www.nces.ed.gov/timss/) and has stayed consistently on top of the world rankings till today.
Mr. Lee brought Singapore to first-world status, mindful of the Confucian values of discipline and hard work, perseverance, value for learning and scholarship, thrift and the deferment of present enjoyment for future gain.
Even though he was revered as “The Father of Singapore,” Mr. Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, assuming the role of “senior minister.” In 2004, he assumed the role of “Mentor Minister” which he held until 2011.
Minister Lee was the leader’s leader; the statemen’s stateman. First amongst firsts. From CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, I learned Richard Nixon once compared Minister Lee to legendary statesmen Disraeli, Bismarck, and Churchill. Former US President George Bush enthused: “Mentor Minister Lee Kuan Yew is one of the brightest, ablest men I have ever met. All of us who have worked with him have benefitted from his wisdom, insight, and dedication.”
In October 2009, Minister Lee received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the US ASEAN Business Council attended by top US foreign policy bigwigs. On this occasion, Henry Kissinger paid tribute to Minister Lee: “He is a seminal figure for all of us. As I have said I have known him for 40 years. I have not learned as much from anybody as I have learned from Lee Kuan Yew.”
But nothing impressed me more than an answer of his during one interview. The interviewer, clearly starstruck, asked him: “So Minister Mentor, is there anyone in this world that you look up to?” I am certain that the interviewer actually meant: “Being Lee Kuan Yew, is it at all possible that you can even look up to someone?” His answer was: “Yes, Deng Xiaoping.”
Surprised, the interviewer asked: “But what about the Tiananmen Incident of 1989?” I had a flashback of the image of that lone man, slight in physique, undaunted by a column of formidable tanks. It is a scene still indelible in my mind and perhaps in the minds of millions around the world. Minister Lee replied: “I cannot judge, because I did not have his information.”
I cannot start to explain why his answer blew my mind, but it did and my feeling, my instinct, my emotion then, albeit not totally devoid of reason, was: “That is a leader.”
Rayla Melchor Santos is the co-founder of I am Sam Foundation, which promotes the development of self-worth in the context of nation-building. She is the recipient of the 2019 Global Woman Summit Awardee.