The era’s last great statesman
“One of the asymmetries of history is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries,” Henry Kissinger once wrote of late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Kissinger was alluding to the fact that Lee, a great statesman, had the ability to rule a nation much larger than the city-state of Singapore.
Around the same time, U.S. President Richard Nixon gave an even more flattering assessment, adding that had Lee lived in another time and in another country, he could have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”
The Singapore that Lee built and left is a small, but strong nation, with the world’s eighth highest - and Asia’s highest - per capita GNP of $56,000.
After becoming the founding prime minister in 1959, Lee ruled the country for 31 years until 1990 and built its per capita GNP from $400 to $12,750. The economic prosperity of Singapore today was realized based on his longtime dictatorship-driven development.
When Asia faced a foreign exchange crisis in 1998, Lee’s development model, based on Confucian capitalism, received special attention. In early March that year, Hong Seok-hyun, who was then the president of the JoongAng Ilbo, sat down with Lee for an interview.
“Some argued that the new paradigm Korea must accept under the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is handing over the place of East Asia’s Confucian capitalism to the capitalism based on Judeo-Christian tradition. Do you agree with the argument?” Hong asked.
“I do not agree with it,” Lee replied simply.
In 1994, Lee engaged in a famous debate with Kim Dae-jung, before Kim became president, on the Asian values. In his March 1994 interview with Fareed Zakaria, a reporter for Foreign Affairs magazine, he said that culture was destiny, and that the concepts of Western democracy and human rights were not applicable to East Asia.
Kim’s response to Lee was published in Foreign Affairs in November of that year. He directly challenged Lee’s argument by saying that it was a justification to deny democracy. Arguing that the traditional philosophies of the East are based on the ideas of democracy, Kim wrote that Mencius promoted the philosophy that sovereignty rests with the people, and that Donghak preached the equality of all people 2,000 years ahead of John Locke. Although their debate ended there, the topic is often revisited whenever the pros and cons of a dictatorship-led development are discussed.
During their interview, Hong asked Lee how Asian countries should deal with China, as Lee had said the Pacific region would face a renaissance within two to three decades, and that China would emerge as a grand market in the 21st century. “China will become an extremely large economy 30 to 50 years from now, but catching up with the technologies of the United States, Japan and Western Europe will take more than one generation,” Lee responded.
Lee met with China’s Deng Xiaoping and visited the country frequently, serving as a mentor for China’s reform. Come to think of it, Lee’s interest was focused so much on the economy that he did not foresee the security situation in 21st century East Asia, where China’s military is closely chasing that of the United States and exercising diplomatic pressure in the East China and South China seas.
The competition for dominance between the United States and China was, indeed, not in Lee’s sights. His accomplishment was presenting a new development model to the developing world by transforming a small city-state with no natural resources into the world’s eighth-largest economy based on transparency and unparalleled ethics.
The JoongAng Ilbo’s Global Focus on March 14, 1998, showed the level of Lee’s ethical standards. In 1972, the consulate-generals of both Koreas were fiercely competing to be the first to meet with Lee. At the time, the Little Angels Children’s Folk Ballet of Korea performed at the Singapore National Theater.
The South Korean consulate-general attempted to invite Lee’s parents, and provided them the front-row seats. The theater, however, sat them in the fifth row. After the consulate-general complained, the theater said the prime minister’s parents were merely ordinary citizens.
Let’s imagine an event attended by the parents of a Korean president. Lee also stated in his will that his family home be demolished after his death, a gesture that is extremely touching.
In return for highly ethical conduct by public servants, Lee decided that their salaries be 115 percent of their counterparts in the private sector. It was an unprecedented call at a time when it was common for public servants in developing nations to receive wages just 30 to 70 percent of those afforded by private businesses. Lee was a studious leader. He visited Harvard University every year and had discussions with scholars. He sent young, talented officials with scholarships to study in the United States and Europe. History will evaluate his authoritarian dictatorship, but we still feel a great sense of loss for the passing of the last great statesman of our time.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 27, Page 31
*The author is a senior columnist for the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Kim Young-hie