Lee Kuan Yew was quite simply, and unquestionably, one of the outstanding national leaders of the last hundred years. He worked on a small canvas, but what he achieved in tiny Singapore not only transformed the lives of his own people profoundly, but had an immense impact beyond Singapore in shaping the Asia of today.
Affectionately known as Harry Lee, he was perhaps the last of that generation of leaders who guided their countries through the drama and turmoil of decolonisation to independence. It is hard now to recall how difficult and dangerous those times were in Southeast Asia. He brought Singapore into being as a sovereign independent state against the background of the fight against communism in the Malayan Emergency, the contest with Sukarno’s Indonesia in Confrontation, the bitter split from the union with Malaysia, and Britain’s strategic withdrawal from Asia.
He found himself leading a country deeply divided on religious and ethnic lines, surrounded by powerful potential enemies, with a weak economy and no natural resources at all. Those who criticise the paternalistic and at times authoritarian style of government he developed to deal with all this might pause to consider the scale of the challenges he faced.
Lee offered the people of Singapore an implicit deal: in return for accepting his system of politics, he offered them stability, security, clean government and prosperity. He delivered on that deal beyond anyone’s wildest dreams — including perhaps his own.
Just take one extraordinary measure. Singapore today has the third highest per capita GDP in the world, measured in PPP terms, behind only Qatar and Luxembourg. It is 50 percent higher than Switzerland’s, and not far from double Australia’s. That is the scale of his achievement.
There can be few examples in history of such an outstandingly successful nation created so completely by the vision, will and leadership of a single individual.
His achievement extended far beyond Singapore itself. He was a key architect of ASEAN, and through that made a central contribution to the emergence of Southeast Asia as a model to the world of effective regional cooperation and integration. No one did more than Lee to make our nearer region as stable and harmonious as it is today.
Perhaps even more importantly, Lee had a profound impact on the wider Asian region through his remarkable influence on China. He understood, perhaps before anyone else outside China, and perhaps even before Deng Xiaoping himself, just what China could achieve if it found a way to harness market economics and an open trading and investment regime.
Deng himself acknowledged Lee as his mentor, after a famous visit Deng paid to Singapore in 1978 the year before he launched the economic reforms that have made the largest economy in the world. Lee explained to Deng how to apply the Singapore model on a much larger scale in China. The rest is history. Of those outside China, perhaps only Nixon and Kissinger had a comparable role in shaping China’s path to wealth and power.
Lee was also immensely influential in Washington, where generations of US leaders admired him as a strategic thinker of great depth, and a master of old-fashioned statecraft. He understood much more clearly than many Americans’ just how important America’s role in Asia was, and how to sustain it. After the Cold War he was central to America’s decision to stay engaged in Asia, and he was a key supporter of my efforts through the creation of APEC to create a framework through which that could happen.
More recently, he has been among the most prescient and influential in urging America to respond and adapt intelligently to the new realities created by China’s rise. He urged Americans to remain an active regional strategic player, but he also urged them to recognise that it needed to take a new role, one that recognised and to a degree accommodated China’s growing power and aspirations for a greater role of its own. We may all regret not hearing his statesmanlike voice in Washington.
More particularly, Lee Kuan Yew was a great friend of Australia’s, if at times an outspoken one. He had a great influence on this country, and on my own approach to my task, here as Prime Minister. In the early 1980s, around the time I took office, Lee famously remarked that unless it reformed Australia was in danger of becoming the ‘poor white trash of Asia’. I thought he was right, and his harsh but fair comment helped galvanise my determination to undertake the reforms that would save us from that fate and set us on a better path.
Remember, Harry Lee was good company. He was formidably bright and sharp in argument, but kindly gracious and charming too. I doubt that I ever enjoyed more intellectually stimulating conversations with a fellow leader, and games of golf with him on his private course in Singapore were among the most enjoyable I have known. He was a great bloke, and, by any standard, a great man.