In the heyday of post-colonialism in 1963, Lee Kuan Yew sought to safeguard tiny Singapore’s newfound independence from Great Britain by proposing a federation with Malaysia. Though “economics, geography and ties of kinship” logically dictated such a sensible arrangement, it came undone within two years over ethnic tensions and nationalist intrigue. In 1965, Malaysia cut loose its neighbor.
As a forlorn Lee put it after the split, Singapore would now have to figure out how to survive as “a heart without a body.” The city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula had few resources to prosper on its own. Literally, it had no hinterland.
Lee had the imagination to reconceptualize Singapore with a new metaphor: the first globalized nation. The Cambridge-trained barrister made the obstacle the way by turning the world at large into the island nation’s hinterland.
Within 30 years, he raised Singapore from a third to a first-world country through policies of open trade, investment and finance where global companies could be assured of the rule of law and the absence of corruption. He settled ethnic tensions by ensuring rights and opportunity for all Chinese, Indians and Malaysians, including the provision of housing, which cemented the allegiance of diverse citizens to the system. He made English the common language, tying Singaporeans together while connecting them to the world dominated then by the Anglo-Saxon powers.
Lee paid attention to the smallest detail, insisting when he was prime minister on a weekly report on the cleanliness of the bathrooms at the airport where foreigners gained their first impressions upon landing. Relentlessly innovative, Lee always sought to learn how others did things in order to adapt best practices. Part socialist, Confucian, Victorian and free marketeer, he harbored no theory beyond the pragmatism of what worked.
As a statesman, he would finely balance American influence in the Pacific and the power of rising China, both hosting the U.S. Navy at Singapore’s ports while at the same time advising Deng Xiaoping on how to achieve an opening to the West while preserving “the Asian way.” Western leaders avidly sought out Lee’s views on how China works, just as the Chinese listened to his critical insights about the West. He became a key interlocutor of civilizations at odds.
Kissinger saw Lee as both a statesman and a prophet who “invented Singapore from his vision of the future and wrote its history as he went along.”