Few politicians have garnered as many effusive public tributes after their death as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founder and long-serving former prime minister.
Yet there is something extraordinary about the adulation of Lee. Other leaders who held similar views were not treated as great sages, let alone as giants of history. The Chilean military strongman Augusto Pinochet, for example, imposed his own version of capitalism with an iron fist, and, though Margaret Thatcher and Friedrich von Hayek admired him, hardly anyone reveres him today. Why Lee, and not Pinochet?
For starters, Lee did not come to power in a military coup, and his opponents were not massacred in football stadiums. Dissidents in Singapore were often locked up and maltreated, but no one was tortured to death. Lee’s government, while still allowing elections as a token of democratic rule, preferred to crush opposition through intimidation and financial punishment: brave men and women who stood up to him were bankrupted in ruinously expensive lawsuits; Lee could generally rely on a compliant judiciary.
But Lee’s stellar reputation has to do with culture, too. He was very good at playing to that ancient Western stereotype of the Wise Man from the East. Even though 'Harry' Lee, as he was known when he was a student at Cambridge, imbibed much from Western civilisation, including a peculiar admiration for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, he was always careful to stress the Asian provenance of his political ideas.
Lee never claimed that liberal democracy in the West was a mistake. All he said was that it was not suitable for 'Asians'. His argument was that Asians were used to putting the collective good above individual interests. Asians were naturally obedient to higher authority. These traits were rooted in Asian history: they were deep 'Asian values'.
There are good reasons to doubt this thesis. First of all, who are these 'Asians'? Most Indians would surely disagree that they are culturally unsuited to democracy – as would modern Japanese, Taiwanese, or South Koreans. It makes a certain sense to speak of Asian values in Singapore, because it would be disrespectful to the Malay and Indian minorities to justify their subservience by invoking Chinese values.
But there are plenty of Chinese as well, not just in Taiwan and Hong Kong, who would take issue with Lee’s cultural defense of authoritarianism. Even Singaporeans are beginning to get a little restless.
Is it true at least to say that more democracy would have made Singapore a less efficient, prosperous, and peaceful society? Many Singaporeans might believe so. But whether they are right is by no means certain, because the question was never put to the test. South Korea and Taiwan went through democratic transformations in the 1980s, following the end of their versions of authoritarian capitalism, and are thriving more than ever. Democracy certainly did the Japanese economy no harm.
Lee’s premise, from which he never departed, was that, especially in a multi-ethnic society like Singapore, a meritocratic elite must impose social harmony from above. In this sense, he was indeed rather Chinese. By richly awarding the elite, Lee minimised the scope for corruption. It is to his credit that he made this work in Singapore, though at some cost. Singapore may be efficient, and relatively free of corruption; but it is also a rather sterile place, with little room for intellectual or artistic achievement.
What might work for a time in a small city-state can hardly be a useful model for larger, more complex societies. China’s attempt at capitalism with an iron fist has created a system of gross corruption, with huge disparities in wealth. And Putin has to resort to ever more belligerent nationalism to cover up the social and economic deficiencies of his rule.
So, by all means, let us admire the smooth highways, towering office blocks, and spotless shopping malls of Singapore. But, when assessing Lee’s legacy, we should also heed the words of Kim Dae-jung, who was jailed and almost killed for opposing South Korea’s dictatorship, before becoming the country’s democratically elected president in 1998. “Asia should lose no time in firmly establishing democracy and strengthening human rights,” he wrote in response to Lee. “The biggest obstacle is not its cultural heritage, but the resistance of authoritarian rulers and their apologists.”
Ian Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.