A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew

MEETING THE MINISTER

"One of the asymmetries of history," wrote Henry Kissinger of Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, "is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries." Kissinger’s one time boss, Richard Nixon, was even more flattering. He speculated that, had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have "attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone." This tag line of a big man on a small stage has been attached to Lee since the 1970s. Today, however, his stage does not look quite so small. Singapore’s per capita GNP is now higher than that of its erstwhile colonizer, Great Britain. It has the world’s busiest port, is the third-largest oil refiner and a major center of global manufacturing and service industries. And this move from poverty to plenty has taken place within one generation. In 1965 Singapore ranked economically with Chile, Argentina and Mexico; today its per capita GNP is four or five times theirs.

Lee managed this miraculous transformation in Singapore’s economy while maintaining tight political control over the country; Singapore’s government can best be described as a "soft" authoritarian regime, and at times it has not been so soft. He was prime minister of Singapore from its independence in 1959 (it became part of a federation with Malaysia in 1963 but was expelled in 1965) until 1990, when he allowed his deputy to succeed him. He is now "Senior Minister" and still commands enormous influence and power in the country. Since his retirement, Lee has embarked on another career of sorts as a world-class pundit, speaking his mind with impolitic frankness. And what is often on his mind is American-style democracy and its perils. He travels often to East Asian capitals from Beijing to Hanoi to Manila dispensing advice on how to achieve economic growth while retaining political stability and control. It is a formula that the governing elites of these countries are anxious to learn.

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