By XIANG WANG
BOLOGNA — Richard Nixon described Lee Kuan Yew as “a big man on a small stage”; Henry
Kissinger identified him as “one of the asymmetries of history” and Xi Jinping praised him as “old friend of Chinese people.” The news of the 91-year-old founding father of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew’s passing has saddened thousands around the globe. This British-educated leader of Chinese descent transformed Singapore from a small fishing village into an “Asian Tiger.” For three decades of leadership, Lee’s pragmatic actions bringing some of the best policies from the West – a free market economy, zero tolerance towards corruption, the rule of law, and universal public education – helped him achieve a remarkable milestone and showed the rest of the world how a natural resource-impoverished island state can flourish. Singapore’s GDP per capita was around $400 in 1959 and it has increased to over $56,000 today. In fact, Lee’s influence was not limited to the stage of Singapore, but influenced its neighbor China. The story goes beyond the one we often hear, in which Deng Xiaoping was astonished by how Lee had transformed the country in such a short period during his visit to Singapore in 1978. “How did you do that?” Deng asked Lee during their meeting. Lee Kuan Yew recollected his memory of this meeting in his book, One Man’s View of the World.
“China can do much better than us. Many Singaporeans are descendants of farmers from southern China who do not have land. China has scholars, scientists and experts. China will do better than us in the future. ” Lee remembers that after this response, his guest stared at him and then moved on to the next
topic. It was in 1992, and Deng went on his famous tour of southern China. He said, “We should learn from Singapore’s experience, and we should do a better job than they do.” Lee wrote in his book that Deng did not forget he had told him.
The rest of the story is familiar: Deng’s visit to Singapore came at a turning point for China. The Chinese economy took off, and never looked back. China continues to send government officials and scholars to Singapore to learn the “Singapore Model” and Lee himself was also a frequent visitor to China. The bond between him and Chinese leaders was known to be close. Chinese state-owned media like CCTV spent a great amount of time mourning Lee and reminded viewers of his contribution to and influence on China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a statement on the day of his death calling him “a uniquely influential statesman in Asia and a strategist embodying oriental values and international vision.”
China did not just want to learn about the successful experience of a developing country’s economy from him, but more importantly, they wanted to learn from Singapore’s unique authoritarian governance structure. The Washington Post even called Lee “ the democratic world’s favorite dictator.” For three decades of his leadership, even though the country allowed for elections, his People’s Action Party held power since Singapore’s independence in 1959. On one hand, he adopted the open market approach from the West to develop the country’s economy. On the other hand, this “soft” authoritarian country did not adopt the pluralistic democracy and the freedom of speech.
How did Lee do this? This might be the question Xi and other Chinese officials desire to master today. As Singapore is also known as one of least-corrupt countries in the world, Xi’s anti-corruption campaign hunting down the rampant corruption domestically can indeed to learn from Lee’s clean governance experience. But the question is, what’s next after the father of Singapore’s passing? China is watching Singapore closely, but uncertainty remains high. Can this authoritarian capitalism continue? Is Singapore’s way of governance transferable to China? And lastly, how will China change? As Lee said during an interview with the Foreign Affairs back in 1994, “the government in China will change. It will change in Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. It is changing in Singapore. But it will not end up like the American or British or French or German system. ”