Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore, died on March 23 2015. He was an iconic leader who transformed a small backward Asian island fishing village to become one of the most advanced and prosperous nations on earth. He spearheaded the creation of a world class education system with a strong emphasis on math and sciences.
The strong math foundation given to school students in Singapore known as Singapore math has been adopted in some countries or has spawned copycats in some others. Who was this man and how did he transform this sleepy backwater to become an Asian tiger?
Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923 as Harry Lee Kuan Yew to a family of ethnic Chinese on the island of Singapore then ruled by Britain. He worked as a translator for the Japanese during the Japanese occupation of the island from 1942-1945.
He did not initially display academic promise but worked hard coming in top in the school certificate exams and adjudged the best student in Singapore and Malaysia. We recall that the territories that form today’s Malaysia were also then British colonial territories just like the Island of Singapore which is separated from peninsular Malaysia by the Johor straits.
He made his way to Britain after the war and studied in Cambridge graduating with a double first class in Law. A double first meant that he got a first class in his two comprehensive examinations for the Laws Tripos. This was a rare feat. The English felt they had molded a loyal comprador slave of the empire. In fact he was once told by George Brown foreign secretary of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson that, “You’re the best bloody Englishman East of Suez.”
Lee Kuan Yew returned to Singapore in 1950 in his own words “an Anglicized Chinaman”. His grandfather who was thoroughly convinced that the white man was superior had given him the name Harry. But Lee Kuan Yew went through a transformation and dropped his English name Harry to become simply known as Lee Kuan Yew. He in his 30’s began to learn his own native Chinese.
It reminds us of another great leader Kwame Nkrumah who also dropped his English name Francis and became simply known as Kwame Nkrumah. Lee Kuan Yew began to espouse Asian values much like in the mold of Kwame Nkrumah espousing African values and the African personality.
A far cry from the comprador classes in Africa who get westernized and get alienated from their own societies to the extent of even rejecting their African citizenship in favor of western passports. We know what history thinks of people like that.
Lee Kuan Yew established his socialist People’s Action Party on Marxist principles. He was not a Marxist but understood that the discipline and cellular organization of Marxist-like parties could be borrowed to achieve his political aims. He led Singapore to internal self-rule in 1959 as part of the British Commonwealth and became Prime Minister of Singapore.
Thinking initially that Singapore was too small to survive on its own, he led it into a federation with Malaysia which however proved to be short lived lasting from 1963 to 1965. But the Malaysians fearful of political dominance of the Malay dominated country by the ethnic Chinese majority of the island of Singapore expelled Singapore out of the Malaysia federation. Lee Kuan Yew then declared the independence of Singapore in 1965. Thus set the stage for this man’s remarkable transformation of this poor island city state into a prosperous country.
He ruled for 31 years; formally a democratic process, but in elections which his party made sure they always won, Lee was able to maintain continuity in his transformative work. In those 31 years he invested in education, health care and industrialization transforming. In the span of a single generation, a poor country where GDP per capita in 1965 was $400 to one, rose to over $55000 to one in 2014.
The discipline he imposed on society and his no nonsense approach to corruption paid off in creating a disciplined and highly developed society where canning as a means of corporal punishment for crimes was the law of the land. In fact as regards battling corruption, this is what he said:
First of all, start from arresting three of your friends who are involved in corruption. You know for sure the reason for their arrest and they also know for sure why they are been arrested.
In fact Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was inspired by the Singaporean miracle that he begun his own reforms and the transformation of China. Deng said he had passed through Singapore as a young man on his way to study in France and it had been a poor village.
When Deng visited Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore in November 1978, he was so shocked. He did not recognize the Singapore he had remembered as a young man. Going back home to China, he started the reform of the Chinese economy which has catapulted China to become the largest economy in the world by purchasing power parity.
Lee Kuan Yew always espoused strong Asian values. When asked about democracy, this is what he had to say:
“Democratic procedures have no intrinsic value. What matters is good government.”
He then went on to say:
Democracy is one way of getting the job done, but if non-electoral procedures are more conducive to the attainment of valued ends, then I’m against democracy. Nothing is morally at stake in the choice of procedures.
Let us now talk about Lee Kuan Yew’s interactions with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana with whom they shared a lot in common as visionary leaders committed to the transformation of their countries. He visited Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana and was present at the inauguration of the Akosombo hydroelectric dam which was geared to spearhead Ghana’s industrialization.
Let us remember that this was in 1966 when Singapore was barely coming out if it’s union with Malaysia and had become independent. Ghana was meanwhile forging ahead. But the pathetic and intellectually weak comprador classes in Ghana who could not see Ghana or Africa being independent of the west and backed by the west, overthrew Kwame Nkrumah in 1961.
This is what Lee Kuan Yew wrote to Kwame Nkrumah after those fateful days of 1966:
I have taken two weeks to compose my thoughts to tell you how disturbed I was at the shocking news of what took place in Accra so soon after we last met.
I visited Ghana twice and I do not believe that political changeover has written finish to the chapter of what has gone before. I do not know what exactly happened nor how things will turn out, but I am sure you know that there are many people who wish Ghana and you all the best. The Ghanaians are a vigorous and lively people and they deserve all the vision and leadership which you strove to give them, to make Ghana into a strong, modern part of an Africa whose unity you have always espoused.
My colleague, Rajaratnam, and I remember your kindness to us and your support for Singapore and would like to express our sympathy for you in your moment of distress. May what you stand for, a united Africa and a great Ghana, triumph and flourish.
Here was one visionary’s heartfelt reaction to another visionary’s unfortunate tragedy.
The comprador classes in Ghana whose only greatest asset and achievement is how to accumulate degrees and titles set out to follow the prescriptions of their western masters. While Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore forged ahead espousing Asian values, the comprador classes in Ghana and Africa set out to slavishly follow western values. We know where that has lead us. To a mocked and despised continent and funnily more despised by the western countries that our comprador classes worship.
As we reflect deeply on the passing of this remarkable man, western mass media pathetically harps on his repression of human rights and authoritarianism and not on his transformative rule of his country. I have followed some of the discussions of our African comprador classes on social media and all that they say is how he repressed human rights! I was not surprised after all they can only regurgitate from the fountain of their western masters. They are incapable of independent thought.
We in Africa should learn from the lessons of this man Lee Kuan Yew and his transformation of Singapore. There is no universal road to achieving political consensus and prosperity in society. Western values whatever they might mean is not a universal panacea for nations to follow. Africa should espouse African values and seek a method of political consensus rooted in our culture and history to lead us out of the current mouse trap of poverty and western democracy.
If we look at China, China’s current political structure mimics the political structure of China throughout its history. China has always been ruled by dynasties throughout its 5000 year history. The Communist Party of China ruling since 1949 is just but the latest dynasty ruling China. Russia has always had a Czar the defender of the people’s interest against the elite.
Putin is just but the latest incarnation of the Russian czars. Japan has always had an emperor and still has one. The liberal democratic party of Japan has been in power for most of Japan’s post World War II history providing Japan’s prime ministers. What is the most suitable political structure for Africa that would deliver consensus, development and prosperity? That suitable structure lies in our culture and history. We must find it. Lee Kuan Yew and other Asian countries found it in their own cultures. We must do the same.