Lee Kwan Yew 1923-2015

Lee Kwan Yew-1955


The founder of the independent city-state of Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, who has just died at 91, was undoubtedly the most intelligent and capable world leader of the past half-century.

So says Theodore Dalrymple, and I concur.

How many people in history manage to found a state? Since the days of Greek heroes of near mythology few men could rightfully say, “I founded a state”. Theseus and Athens? Oliver Cromwell tried, but was too early, and could not solve the succession problem. George Washington succeeded, with the assistance of an brilliant cadre of fellow founders. MacDonald in Canada? There are not many men of this illustrious calibre.

Let me tell my little story about Lee Kwan Yew. He had retired as Prime Minister of Singapore ten years before; it was the year 2000, though in the Chinese way he was retained as “Senior Minister”. I was reading the Singapore Straits Times in the lounge at Bangkok Airport, about 2 a.m., one of the best newspapers in the world.

On the inside front page was a report of a speech by Lee Kwan Yew to a Singapore business club. In it, Kwan Yew was basically saying that every major economic development policy he had imposed on Singapore was wrong, and needed to be changed. Singapore had made it through a nimble fingers approach to working up the production chain to ever higher value-added goods, with a significant measure of cultural repression.

Lee Kwan Yew had just then returned from California, and he had seen the future, and it worked. It involved making an economy work on brains, and it therefore involved policies that would attract talent. These policies would be tolerant and welcoming to a multi-ethnic citizenry.

I am not concerned with whether Singapore has managed such an about-face; I like to think it has. My point is that for Lee Kwan Yew to say this, he would have had to take stock fundamentally of where the world was going and had both the wit and the courage to see where his beloved and successful policies were no longer sufficient. Then he declared them to be insufficient, and called for new approaches to wealth development in Singapore.

Imagine if Harper or Chretien had said, at any time, that policies to which they had been personally committed were no longer sufficient? Not Harper criticizing Chretien, or the converse, but Harper or Chretien criticizing in public his own decisions: official bilingualism, multiculturalism, free trade.

We Canadians need to see the way the world is working out, and if we had leadership like Lee Kwan Yew’s, there would be little to stop us. Then again, maybe we do have leadership like Lee Kwan Yew’s in the current PM: unlovable, but possibly great.

Dalrymple again:

Lee Kwan Yew had no problems with elitism, provided it brought about an elite of intelligence and ability (not always quite the same thing); the fashionable theories of liberal educationists had no attraction for him. No politician has ever defended more fiercely than Lee Kwan Yew the importance for a society of fostering high intelligence….

He was educated in London and Cambridge, and he recalled admiringly the way evening newspapers were piled in the street in London and people paid for them by leaving their money without any compulsion to do so and without ever stealing what others had left. This, he thought, was a well-ordered and disciplined society, and he resolved to bring such good order and discipline to his own society.


I saw a mother with three young daughters out walking around the snow-covered park near me the other day. One was in a pram, the other children were about three and five years old. Mum had a plastic bag hanging from the pram, and one of her children was spotting waste paper left in the park, which they were encouraged to pick up and take home, as a matter of civic duty and pride. I felt that Canada had a great future if such values were being inculcated in young children. Just a little bit of Singapore and Japan, please. We do not want to live in mental strait-jackets, but we can always manage with high levels of civic engagement, trust, and public cleanliness.


lee kwan yew-2015