On March 28 Singapore, a cosmopolitan metropolis of 7 million people, laid to rest arguably the world’s greatest modern leader – Lee Kuan Yew. Earlier in the same week, I shed my Republican Party allegiance. Believe it or not, those two events are inextricably linked.
Lee singlehandedly dragged Singapore, a resourceless tropical nation with a racially divided society, into the modern era. When he started, Singapore had a GDP (gross domestic product) per capita hovering around $2,500. His nation had been expelled from Malaysia, itself having just recently gained independence from Great Britain.
Lee was not without his own deficiencies. His island nation suppressed free speech and human rights, earning the nickname “Disneyland with the death penalty” among its detractors. Singapore’s version of law and order included incredibly harsh punishments for seemingly innocuous activities like chewing gum and smoking cigarettes.
Indeed, Singapore can hardly be called democratic. The ruling party, the People’s Action Party, has won a near autocratic mandate. (For years the party didn’t have a single challenger).
But Lee’s dogma throughout his 49-year tenure as the head of Singapore was marked not by a mantra of democracy, but rather pragmatism.
He had no real ideology, no ivory tower to climb. Lee took the best aspects of each individual whether it be a person or an idea, and cobbled them together through sheer determination.
Perhaps nowhere was this more apparent than in Singapore’s infrastructure. I witnessed Lee’s vision first hand when I visited the island nation in July 2013.
Rising out of the Straits of Malacca were three skyscrapers linked by a long spaceship-like metal bridge. This is the Marina Bay Sands (MBS), Lee’s attempt at creating a Vegas-like oasis for the global gambling elite. Lee built MBS into an immensely profitable development, in order to directly compete with other Asian gambling meccas.
Infrastructure didn’t escape Lee’s eye. He created the Marina Bay Barge, damming up Singapore’s original trade artery (the Singapore River) as soon as commercial trade had moved to a new state-of-the-art complex on the western side of the country. Likewise, the Changi International Airport because of his promotion became one of the most prominent hubs of transit in Asia.
Lee wasn’t afraid to copy what had worked in other places and bring them home, a true case of pragmatism.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lee was his unapologetic nature. When his critics railed against him, Lee famously responded, “I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes. If I did not, had I not done, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Lee did not mince words or actions. He often behaved more like Karl Marx or Mao Zedong than Bill Clinton or George Washington. His favorite justification was that the West had chosen determining a future (democracy) over creating a better one (benevolent autocracy).
If you know me, then you know that I’m a proponent of democracy. I wholeheartedly supported the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. But what is happening today in Washington, D.C., isn’t a case of the people’s voice, but rather mere political gamesmanship.
A few weeks ago, I decided of my own accord to abandon my Republican Party loyalty. I realized that I have little more in common with John Boehner than I do with President Obama. Rather both sides are at fault.
We don’t need an ideologue to “fight for the middle class” or to “make the rich pay their fair share.” We need someone to stand up and deliver results.
Perhaps one of the greatest follies of modern American politics is the two-party system. Because one side is in favor of one issue, the other is automatically vehemently opposed to it. Lee Kuan Yew was a brilliant statesman because he abandoned all ideologies besides “Do what works.”
That is precisely why over 1.5 million Singaporeans stood outside on the streets of their city through a torrential downpour yesterday to say goodbye to the man who built Singapore – to the man who got them results.