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All the world was his stage

23 Mar All the world was his stage

In 1967, when Singapore was two years independent and he was a young Premier of only 44, a report described Mr Lee Kuan Yew giving a talk at Harvard University. As he spoke about the escalating Vietnam War and the role of the United States, the Crimson university newspaper suggested: “Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of the city-state of Singapore, is a Mayor who talks as though he may one day be a world statesman … His concern for the fate of South-east Asia, fortified by his spectacular economic successes and his ambitious style, makes Lee a potential international strongman.”

Five decades on, this description seems prophetic. Mr Lee is to be credited with leading Singapore’s early transformation from Third World to First, as reflected in the title of the first volume of his memoirs. More than any other member of the founding generation of local politicians, he shaped politics and ensured continuity. Singapore’s survival and success are his touchstones.

Yet, more than this, Mr Lee is remembered not only as the first Prime Minister of Singapore; his influence has transcended our city-state.


Mr Lee came to power in a generation of nationalists who sought independence from the Western powers in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Jawaharlal Nehru of India. These charismatic leaders captured the headlines of that tumultuous era and live on in their national histories. Not all, however, have enjoyed the same longevity or continued to enjoy standing and relevance.

Yet Mr Lee was never an idealist nor a demagogue of Third World ideology and utopian theories. One might even say that he does not leave behind a coherent, theoretical framework or populist slogan. He was famously pragmatic to focus on what works. But this did not mean he had no regard for principle. Rather, he blended the two.

In a recent assessment, Ambassador-at-Large and former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Bilahari Kausikan remarked: “He understood that international order is the prerequisite for international law and organisation. So while you may work towards an ideal and must stand firm on basic principles, you settle for what is practical at any point of time, rather than embark on quixotic quests.”

A major factor that shaped Mr Lee’s world view was his experience of the Japanese occupation, as he himself has alluded to on several occasions. The illusion of colonial superiority and of Singapore as the “impregnable fortress” was so suddenly and savagely torn apart that the experience anchored Mr Lee to an unsentimental view of human nature and a focus on power. This was reinforced by events in the early history of Singapore: Konfrontasi with Sukarno’s Indonesia, the exit from and tensions with Malaysia, and the withdrawal of the British bases in 1971.


These experiences drove Mr Lee to be a shrewd and nimble diplomat to ensure stability and security for Singapore in a difficult world. A key part of Mr Lee’s foreign policy can in this context be understood as efforts to engage with the powerful and especially with the US. During the Cold War, Mr Lee and Singapore made every effort to befriend America as the dominant superpower in Asia in the post-WWII world and bulwark against communism.

Survival was moreover not only accepting American protection and, while Singapore did not become a US ally, Mr Lee emphasised a broader engagement. As Dr Chan Heng Chee, former long-serving Ambassador to the US, recounted: “For Lee Kuan Yew, the US role in Asia was not just a military one. The US offered markets, technology and investments to the region that no other power could match. This was essential for the emergence of the four Asian tigers and the ASEAN (Association of South-east Asian Nations) countries.”

Another important dimension in Mr Lee’s foreign engagements arose as he developed a close relationship with China. Beginning from Deng Xiao­ping’s historic visit to Singapore in 1978, Mr Lee made every effort to engage the reforming China, politically and economically.

Yet as he developed this relationship with China, Mr Lee was not one to indulge in the idea that China and Asia’s future could be separated from the American role. Instead, with his knowledge and access to the reforming China, Mr Lee played a major role in helping America and the West better understand China.

When the Tiananmen incident on Jun 4, 1989, triggered US threats of sanctions and boycotts, Mr Lee articulated a view of human rights and “Asian values” that responded to Western criticism. While not the only Asian spokesman with such views, then and now still controversial, his testimony held weight among world leaders not only because of his innate understanding of China, but because he had built up long-standing ties and trust.

Conversely, Mr Lee also shared other somewhat less welcome insights into China. This was never easy. He believed that China and the rest of Asia would benefit from the continued presence of the US. In his keynote address after receiving a lifetime achievement award from the US-ASEAN Business Council in Washington, DC, in 2009, Mr Lee said: “The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance.”

His comments were misconstrued by some netizens and commentators in China. But throughout, Chinese leaders — from Mr Deng Xiaoping and Mr Jiang Zemin to Mr Hu Jintao and Mr Xi Jinping — have understood that this and Mr Lee’s other remarks were always intended to be in their country’s interest. This combination of insight, access and credibility with both Chinese and Western leaders allowed Mr Lee to play a significant role in one of the most important issues in the world: The evolving US-China relationship.


Some might think a statesman should be above politics and controversy, something of a popular and secular saint spouting about world peace. But Mr Lee was never afraid of controversy. He did not court headlines deliberately, but neither would he self-censor if it meant his views were less sharply focused and expressed. As a 32-year-old, Mr Lee said: “I have been accused of many things in my life, but not even my worst enemy has ever accused me of being afraid to speak my mind.”

This was one of his key strengths, in Mr Kausikan’s view: “The disciplined clarity of his thought and expression was one of the primary sources of the influence Mr Lee wielded, disproportionate for the leader of a small country like Singapore. His views were valued because they were unvarnished and gave a fresh and unique perspective. He said things that leaders of much larger and more powerful countries may well have thought and may have liked to say, but for one reason or another, could not themselves prudently say. And so he made Singapore relevant.”

Speaking in 2009, Mr Lee had said of Singapore’s foreign policy fundamentals: “Independence was thrust upon Singapore. The fundamentals of our foreign policy were forged during those vulnerable early years. They remain relevant because small countries have little power to alter the region, let alone the world. A small country must seek a maximum number of friends, while maintaining the freedom to be itself as a sovereign and independent nation. Both parts of the equation — a maximum number of friends and freedom to be ourselves — are equally important and interrelated.

“Friendship, in international relations, is not a function of goodwill or personal affection. We must make ourselves relevant so that other countries have an interest in our continued survival and prosperity as a sovereign and independent nation. Singapore cannot take its relevance for granted. Small countries perform no vital or irreplaceable functions in the international system. Singapore has to continually reconstruct itself and keep its relevance to the world and to create political and economic space. This is the economic imperative for Singapore.”

Yet Mr Lee also forged close personal friendships with world leaders, amity that has helped Singapore in many areas, from security to economics. His personal ties with regional leaders such as late Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and Indonesian President Suharto smoothed the way for the founding of ASEAN in 1967. His friendship with members of United Kingdom Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s government helped delay the British troops’ withdrawal to late 1971, buying Singapore time to build up its own defence forces. He also held long-term friendships with world leaders and senior officials such as British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

Said Dr Chan Heng Chee: “He put great store in developing personal relationships. These relationships bought Singapore space. It was not just a question of bonhomie and sociability, though I have seen Mr Lee charm his hosts in the US. They sought his company for his strategic insights, his understanding of the region and his take on the world. He had a way with words: He put things succinctly and with the right nuance.”

Despite his personal friendships with world leaders, he was not afraid to stand up to a greater power where needed. There were famous instances, such as in 1968, when he turned down a direct appeal by Indonesian President Suharto to pardon two Indonesian marines for the MacDonald House bombing; and in 1994, when, as Senior Minister, he refused American appeals against the caning of Michael Fay. In widely reported comments on local television, he had said of the US: “The country dares not restrain or punish the individuals, forgiving them for whatever they have done… That’s why the whole country is in chaos. Drugs, violence, unemployment and homelessness, all sorts of problems in its society.”

Former President S R Nathan also recalls how Mr Lee declined a gift from late Chinese Premier Hua Guofeng on his first visit to China in 1976. The gift was a book by Australian academic Neville Maxwell on the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and Hua told Mr Lee that it was “the correct version of the India-China war”.

Mr Nathan said: “When PM took the book, he looked at the front and back cover and then handed it back to Premier Hua, saying, ‘Mr Prime Minister, this is your version of the war. There is another version, the Indian version. And in any case I am from South-east Asia — it’s nothing to do with us.’ Hua showed no reaction, but a silence fell in the room.

“Even to this day, I sometimes get asked about this incident (by) people who cannot bring themselves to believe that the PM of a small country like Singapore would have dared to incur Chinese displeasure by such a response.”


Another related strength was his ability to command the world stage — as few others could. When Mr Lee requested an audience, he got it — whether it was an interview with CNN and other international media, a personal audience with Chinese leaders or tete-a-tete discussions in the capitals of the West.

Among testaments to his strategic insights was being called The Grand Master by eminent American strategic thinkers. Former US President George H W Bush once said: “In my long life in public service, I have encountered many bright, able people. None is more impressive than Lee Kuan Yew.”

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger has also said: “There is no second Lee Kuan Yew in the world. Normally one would say that the leader of a country of the size and population of Singapore would not have a global influence … But precisely because Singapore can survive only by competition with much more powerful neighbours, and precisely because its well-being depends on stability and progress in the area, his views were always in a much larger context than the technical problems of the Singaporean economy and so he always had a tremendous influence on us.”

Mr Lee himself said at the age of 89 in One Man’s View Of The World: “I continue to make appointments to meet people. You must meet people, because you must have human contact if you want to broaden your perspective. Besides people in Singapore, I meet those from Malaysia, Indonesia, and, from time to time, China, Europe and the United States. I try not to meet only old friends or political leaders, but people from a variety of fields, such as academics, businessmen, journalists and ordinary people.”

Asked how he wished to be remembered, he said: “I do not want to be remembered as a statesman … I do not classify myself as a statesman. I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That is all … Anybody who thinks he is a statesman ought to see a psychiatrist.”

His was a role and reputation built not on any single statement or thought. Mr Lee was valued on the world stage because of his decades of engagement across the region and the world at the highest level, and his ability and effort to analyse and present what he saw in the clearest, unvarnished way. He spoke and acted in a way that was unique to him, valued by so many and of continuing relevance to world affairs.

In doing this, Mr Lee lived up to the imperative he set for Singapore’s survival: Make Singapore relevant to others, so it is in their interest to have Singapore around.

His departure leaves the international stage empty in a way that no one in Singapore or indeed across Asia can readily fill.


Associate Professor Simon Tay is Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Relations (SIIA), and Denyse Yeo was formerly Editor at the SIIA and is now a Partner at Unicorn Publishing LLP. This commentary was originally published online in TODAY under the title “All the world was his stage” and by Channel NewsAsia under the title “A look back at: Mr Lee Kuan Yew on the international stage”, as part of special coverage on Mr. Lee’s legacy on 23 March 2015.

Excerpts from the commentary were also quoted by The Standard (Hong Kong) on 23 March 2015, under the title “(Lee Kuan Yew 1923-2015) The Grand Master”.

Photo: Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mrs Lee with US President Ronald Reagan and Mrs Reagan, 1985.

Photo Credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library