The eulogies to Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of the modern city-state of Singapore, are flooding in for good reason. Few world leaders stood astride as grand a sweep of history as Lee or represent as much to their nation as he did. Later this year, Singapore will mark its 50th anniversary of full independence — a half-century defined by Lee’s rule and vision.
Lee, who died at age 91, went from being an advocate of trade unionists and socialists to a state-building nationalist to a global paragon of good governance, credited with the transformation of his tiny country from a sleepy backwater to a wealthy First World entrepot. He is both an exemplary post-colonial leader and an almost post-national figure; in his later years, Lee became a seemingly endless font of soothsaying global wisdom, hailed by Western politicians and business management gurus alike.
But there will always be one shadow hanging over Lee’s incredible legacy: that of his views on democracy, and the draconian methods his government sometimes deployed to stifle it. Under Lee, Singapore was governed as a virtual one-party state. Freedom of speech, despite slow reforms, was strictly curtailed. Intense libel laws led to the bankrupting and marginalization of opposition politicians.