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 www.jjcornish.com