Jean-Jacques Cornish

Lee Kwan Yew a successful mix of nation-building and despot

By Jean-Jacques Cornish

Singaporeans engaged in mourning their founding leader have vast differences of opinion about Lee Kwan Yew’s premiership.

It is common cause that he is a towering figure of post-colonial Asia who left the city state much better off than it would have been without his 30-years at the helm.

Lee died of pneumonia early this morning, aged 91, having been on life support for some time

Iron-willed, sharp-tongued and quick-witted he devoted his life to transforming Singapore from a swampy, backwater port to one of the wealthiest societies on the planet.

Lee achieved this in a manner that would be envied by any would-be authoritarian . He denied his compatriots personal freedoms and muzzled their media.

The Cambridge trained lawyer born the fourth generation of a Chinese family in Singapore believed if his nation-building project was to succeed there was no alternative to absolute rule.

He admired the models of Japan – even though he narrowly escaped execution by Japanese soldiers occupying Singapore in the Second World War – and Britain.

When Malayasia expelled Singapore, Lee was clearly heartbroken.

He feared Singapore would not survive and was in tears when he made the public announcement.

Tapping into the national fear of communism, he promulgated draconian laws to underpin his unquestioned leadership.

Singaporeans, and visitors, knew full well they would pay fines or even suffer corporal punishment for falling foul of these.

He told his people that he was holding a hatchet that he was not afraid of wielding.

Prioritising development and investment, he achieved what is generally accepted as an economic miracle through the successful partnership of state funding and private investment , turning Singapore from a colonial entrepot into an international financial hub.

When I met him at the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Melbourne 24 years ago, his counterparts were preoccupied with apartheid in South Africa.

He was entirely focused on extolling the values of thrift, hard work and discipline – what he called Asian values – over the liberalisation being advocated in the West.

Lee remained active even after stepping down.

He spoke passionately and eloquently about his concerns about Singapore’s falling birth rate as he did about China’s economic advancement and expansion.

This article first appeared on the website



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Jean-Jacques Cornish is a journalist and broadcaster who has been involved in the media all his adult life.

Starting as a reporter on his hometown newspaper, he moved briefly to then Rhodesia before returning to South Africa to become a parliamentary correspondent with the South African Press Association. He was sent to London as Sapa’s London editor and also served as special correspondent to the United Nations. He joined the then Argus group in London as political correspondent.

Returning to South Africa after 12 years abroad, he was assistant editor on the Pretoria News for a decade before becoming editor of the Star and SA Times for five years.

Since 1999 he’s been an independent journalist writing and broadcasting – mainly about Africa – for Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape
Talk, Radio France International, PressTV, Radio Live New Zealand, Business Day, Mail & Guardian, the BBC, Agence France Press,
Business in Africa, Leadership, India Today, the South African Institute for International Affairs and the Institute for Security Studies.

He has hosted current affairs talk shows on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk. He appears as an African affairs pundit on SABC Africa and CNBC Africa.
He lectured in contemporary studies to journalism students at the Tshwane University of Technology and the University of Pretoria.

He speaks on African affairs to corporate and other audiences.
He has been officially invited as a journalist to more than 30 countries. He was the winner of the 2007 SADC award for radio journalism.

He’s been a member of the EISA team observing elections in Somaliland, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Zimbabwe, Egypt and Tunsiai.

In October 2009 he headed a group of 39 African journalists to the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Peoples’ Republic of China.

In January 2010 he joined a rescue and paramedical team to earthquake struck Haiti.

He is immediate past president of the Alliance Francaise of Pretoria.

Jean-Jacques is a director of Giant Media. The company was given access to Nelson Mandela in his retirement years until 2009.
He is co-producer of the hour-long documentary Mandela at 90 that was broadcast on BBC in January 2009.