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More than just a former leader, Lee Kuan Yew is the father of Singapore. When he became prime minister in 1965, the country had a per capita gross domestic product of just $500; 25 years later, when Mr. Lee stepped down, this tiny island state of four million people had become an Asian economic powerhouse, with a per capita GDP of $12,200. As leader, Mr. Lee helped attract large amounts of foreign direct investment, fostered a famously clean civil service, and established strong constitutional governance.
His achievements on the world stage were no less impressive. When relations between the United States and China first started warming in 1972, Mr. Lee acted as a consultant to then U.S. President Richard Nixon. And when China took its first steps toward opening in the late 1970s, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping actively sought Mr. Lee’s advice. Mr. Lee, always a vocal advocate of what he called “Asian values,” often stressed, “Freedom only exists within order.”
As such a prestigious figure, Mr. Lee’s recent visit to Korea attracted a lot of attention. In a lecture given at Korea University on May 17, Mr. Lee lauded Korea’s technological prowess. He also had high praise for Korea’s corporate development, saying that such major Korean firms are starting to outpace their U.S. and European competitors. Yet Mr. Lee also forecast that in 20 years time, many of Korea’s industries will have relocated to China, a remark that perturbed many Koreans. By the mid-21st century, Mr. Lee said, China’s economy will be Asia’s largest, and five times bigger than Japan’s. In order not to be submerged by China, he continued, Korea must continuously develop new industries and products and try to find and train world class chief executives. Recent clashes between workers and police here were a particular worry to Mr. Lee, who asked how much energy was being squandered by such frequent social upheaval. For Korea to remain successful, he said, it needs outstanding leadership, stable government and consistent policies. Not everything Mr. Lee says should be seen as a silver bullet for our country. In geography, security, ethnicity and national characteristics, Korea and Singapore are very different. Yet Mr. Lee is a leader of world renown and friendly to Korea, so we should listen closely to his advice.
In reality, Korea is losing its competitiveness because of incessant conflict between companies and labor unions, an aversion to certain types of work, and constant political strife. Industries are hollowing out as domestic firms choose to invest overseas, if at all. A sluggish economy has worsened the plight of the unemployed, exacerbated economic polarization. Against this backdrop, ideological conflict has sharpened. I cannot but worry about Korea’s fate in 10 or 20 years.
Korea’s authorities and public alike should heed Prime Minister Lee’s advice with an open mind and use it as an opportunity to move forward.

by Kim Hwan-tae
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