The pragmatic idealist

Idealists are not known to be pragmatic, and vice versa. But the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew bridged the divide admirably.

It was his hard-nosed pragmatism and instinct for survival that defined him in the eyes of the world. Very few observers noticed his idealistic traits.

To mark his birth anniversary centenary on Sept 16, tabla! looks at the legacy of independent Singapore’s founding father, who died eight years ago at the age of 91.

Mr Lee was Singapore’s first prime minister, holding office from 1959 to 1990, and is credited with transforming a rather shabby former British colony into a flourishing global hub of commerce, innovation and progress.

Paying tribute to Mr Lee’s achievements, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on X: “His visionary leadership played a key role in Singapore’s transformation. His foresight and relentless pursuit of excellence are testament to his personal greatness. His work continues to inspire leaders worldwide.”

Way back in 1963, the consensus was that Singapore was too insignificant to be a nation by itself. It had no natural resources, no hinterland – just a deep-water port – so it merged with the Federation of Malaysia.

Two years later, Singapore was booted out.

The Vietnam War was then raging amid the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Russia-China blocommunist countries such as the Soviet Union and China.

Given these circumstances, it would have been more logical and pragmatic for Mr Lee to align Singapore towith one of these sides rather than risk trying to survive on its own.

But he realised his dream ofled the newly independent nation successfully by combining his ideals with a uniquely Singaporean blend of very pragmatic social and political measures.

Mr Lee believed that people don’t pine for democracy. Rather “they want homes, medicine, jobs, schools”, he said in the 1998 book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas.

So he and his team of stalwarts that included Dr Goh Keng Swee, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr E.W. Barker and Dr Toh Chin Chye focused on economic development.

Together, they built a world-renowned port, a famous airline and an excellent education system, and attracted a host of multinational companies to invest here.

Living standards rose and the government built extensive public housing, where about 80 per cent of Singaporeans now live – the vast majority in their own homes.

Mr Lee also realised that Singapore needed the means to defend itself.

His government introduced compulsory conscription and made a military career appealing even to the Chinese community that lived by the proverb: “Don’t waste good iron for nails or good men for soldiers.”

All the while, he tempered his idealism with practical considerations and found that good intentions could be costly and have unintended consequences.

For example, he said this of welfare: “I soon realised that before distributing the pie, I had to first bake it. So I departed from welfarism because it sapped a people’s self-reliance and their desire to excel and succeed.”

As I was born here in 1953, I grew up when Mr Lee was at the helm. I attended the highly-subsidised schools and the hospitals were excellent. I also enjoyed the peace and prosperity ensured by what some people called the government’s authoritarian policies.

I did run afoul of the ban on long hair for males that was implemented in the 1960s.

The campaign was to stem the growing popularity of the hippie movement that the government considered as a bad foreign influence.

I was 17 years old and was returning by train from Kuala Lumpur. Although it was about 8pm, there was a government officer waiting in ambush at the Tanjong Pagar railway station.

He decided that my hair was too long and marched me off to get it trimmed at the station’s barber shop. To add insult to injuryOh, and I had to pay for the haircut.

Other penalties for defying the long-hair ban included fines and being served last at government offices and facilities.

The rule even applied to foreigners and famous bands, such as Bee Gees and Led Zeppelin, which who cancelled performances in the city state.

The campaign lost steam in the late 1980s with the gradual acceptance of long-haired men and the disappearance of the hippie culture.

To be fair, Mr Lee did not do all these single-handedly. There were others who shared similar ideals and helped him.

But there is no doubt that Mr Lee is the main author in crafting the Singapore brand.

Perhaps the best proof of his idealism is his admission that Singapore was an “improbable, unlikely nation”.

He also said: “My greatest satisfaction comes from… mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races – and that it will endure beyond me.”

Thank you, Sir, for making it all happen.

“My greatest satisfaction comes from… mustering the will to make this place meritocratic, corruption-free and equal for all races – and that it will endure beyond me.”
Mr Lee Kuan Yew

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