In years past, Lee Kuan Yew's office was famous among visitors for its arctic air conditioning and Spartan furnishing. A few Chinese scrolls apart, there was little decoration and sometimes barely a sheet of paper to be seen. Singapore's founding father first moved into the office on the second floor of the former British governor-general's residence in 1971, having already served six years as Prime Minister. He retired in 1990 to become Senior Minister and later Minister Mentor, but still works out of the same rooms.
The L-shaped office may have changed little over the years, but at a recent meeting there were small but telling signs that the formidable 82-year-old leader has mellowed a little. For one thing, the temperature has crept up noticeably. And while most surfaces are still bare, the table behind Lee's computer is covered with untidy piles of books. Lee says that his current favorite isn't one of the stacked tomes on terrorism or economics but the sprawling 17th-century Spanish novel Don Quixote. "A new translation," he enthuses. "Very good." It's something of a shock that the man best known for his cold-eyed pragmatism is reveling in a book whose hero spent his time tilting at windmills and gave his name to an English adjective meaning impractical and idealistic.
Still, despite his more relaxed demeanor, when Time spoke to him for nearly five hours over two days this fall, it was clear that neither age nor heart surgery 10 years ago have changed Lee's basic personality: sharp intelligence allied with an unsentimental, almost clinical rationality and supreme confidence in his own judgment. But there is another side to Lee that has been blossoming in recent years that of the geopolitical thinker and analyst, a role he clearly relishes. The man who once concerned himself with every aspect of Singaporeans' lives right down to who they should marry and how many children they should have now seems to be less obsessed with the fate of the island state, and more concerned with China's "peaceful rise" and the threat of militant Islam. Asked about Singapore's future development over the next 10 years, Lee shrugs. "My son will do what he wants to do with his team," he says, referring to Singapore's current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. "Let him decide," the elder Lee adds later. "It's his call."
Lee can be forgiven for lifting his eyes to the horizon. Once the subject of withering criticism from human-rights groups for his authoritarian ways and intolerance of dissent, he is now widely acknowledged as Asia's most respected senior statesman. Others may pen lengthy memoirs and seek to use their years on the world stage to tout their punditry and powers of prediction. Some can even lay claim to having guided far larger countries or served as leaders for longer than Lee. But Lee is unique. It is not just that his cold-eyed, totally nonideological analysis has set him apart from other observers of Asia. There is another factor that is just as important an explanation of Lee's influence. From his days as a clerk and a black-market broker during the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore which he was lucky to survive through his years as an agitator for independence from Britain, from his time spent talking to the Americans during the Vietnam years to his role as a confidant of China's leadership, Lee has seen it all. He has been a participant observer of the most significant historical shift of our times the steady ascent of Asia, home to 60% of the world's population, from the twin shames of Western colonialism and poverty to its coming economic and political dominance. Everyone who lives in Asia today thinks they are watching history being made; Lee Kuan Yew is one of those who can say, without fear of contradiction, that he helped make it.
Now, with his own son and a hand-picked team of technocrats in place in Singapore, Lee has time to turn his thoughts outward, to Asia and beyond while trying to divine the forces that will confront a new generation of leaders. It is an opportune time for such musings, a moment of balance when the critical observer can look back and forward and see the region on the cusp of profound change. Symbolic of a new order has been a string of summits and conferences in Asia. The parade of presidents, prime ministers, princes and their attendant ministers began with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in mid-November at South Korea's seaside city of Pusan. And it will end with the opening on Dec. 14 of the first East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur.
The summit may not live up to its hype; few such gatherings do. But it is not unreasonable to see the meeting in Kuala Lumpur as a punctuation mark in the 60-year-long progress of Asia. The leaders of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet together with those of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand and China. The U.S will not be present. Some of the more breathless commentary on the summit sees parallels to the meeting of European leaders in Messina in 1955, which laid the foundations for what has become the European Union. Lee, characteristically, takes a view which is more hardheaded yet fully aware of the historical significance of the meeting. "I see the first stage as an ever-enlarged series of free-trade areas, [leading to] one big free-trade area within 10 to 15 years," Lee told Time. "The next step would be a kind of low-key European economic community, 20 to 30 years down the road, because [Asia is] at very different stages of economic development." Lee recognizes that bringing India and China into the fold marks a moment of profound significance. The revival of these "two ancient civilizations," he says, is a double-edged sword. "It would mean great prosperity for the region, but could also mean a tussle for power."
After nearly 50 years in government, Lee is more than qualified to speak about power and its dangers. But it is not only years of experience and his dispassionate intelligence that have led to his eminence. Lee also embodies a uniquely Asian approach to governance that has often been at odds with the democratic principles espoused by many Western politicians. For decades, he has spoken in favor of what has come to be termed "Asian values" (he prefers "Confucian values"), a political philosophy that might be loosely summed up as respect for authority and order, while putting the good of society above that of the individual. His criticisms have focused on the excesses of unfettered democracy particularly freedom of speech and the impact they have on the search for economic growth.
In the past, Lee has not been shy about singling out those nations (the Philippines has been a favorite target) in which an excess of democracy's messiness as he might put it has tempered steady economic progress and the betterment of the life chances of ordinary folk. But the strength of his argument does not rest only on other nations' failures. Above all, it is bolstered by Singapore's success. For as any visitor can attest, the scale of what Lee and his colleagues have achieved by applying his principles in what Singaporean academic and fiction writer Catherine Lim has described as "an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner which has little use for sentiment" is simply astonishing.
When Singapore was ejected from Malaysia in 1965, it had no natural resources save for the enterprise of its largely Chinese population and its port's position astride one of the world's major shipping lanes. It possessed little industry or infrastructure besides a naval base and ship-repair facilities left behind by Britain's shrinking navy. Most of the population lived cheek by jowl in ramshackle two-story shophouses or traditional village houses fashioned of rattan and bamboo. It was poorer than Mexico. Today, the city is one of Asia's most modern metropolises, the business district bristling with skyscrapers and ringed by highways. Over 90% of the population own their own homes, most of them well-maintained and scrupulously clean apartments in government-built blocks. Singapore's cultural life a phrase that was once oxymoronic is now at least as vibrant as those of other cities in Southeast Asia, with a sparkling new performing-arts center and some of the best restaurants in the world. After decades of strong economic growth, per-capita income last year was $24,220, about the same as Italy. As they trip around Asia, popping off to Bali or Perth for the weekend while dressed in Prada and Gucci, wealthier Singaporeans could be forgiven for pitying their former European masters, whose day in the sun they will sometimes tell you is now all but over.
It is an almost miraculous achievement, and one in which Lee and his colleagues take justifiable pride. It is, moreover, something that has been much admired, to the point of imitation, around the region. Asian leaders like Malaysia's Mahathir Mohamad, Thailand's Thaksin Shinawatra and Indonesia's Suharto may rarely have chosen to admit it, but their "economy first" strategy owes much to the intelligence of a Cambridge-educated lawyer who he admits was himself "distraught" when his island state found itself independent and alone. Above all, with their horror of chaos, luan, China's leaders have for three decades come to Singapore to listen, to learn, and to admire. Progress coupled with order and limited freedoms has been the maxim of those who have ruled China since Mao Zedong's death; it is a philosophy whose modern origins have their wellsprings in Singapore.
Yet for all Singapore's success, there remains a feeling that it has come at a price. Lee's methods which despite a deliberate attempt to soften the image of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) remain at the core of his successors' approach to governing have found plenty of critics at home and abroad. The reaction of ordinary Singaporeans when questioned about politics or Lee and his family is telling. Without them quite knowing it, there is often an instinctive lowering of the voice and a glance over the shoulder. "People are still too frightened to talk about the taboo subjects," Catherine Lim wrote in a lengthy essay published in the Straits Times in May. There is no effective political opposition to the PAP, and few voices prepared to speak out in favor of wider democratic debate. "I think [Lee] taught us fear," says theater director Ong Keng Sen. Lim argues that the stress on order and discipline, arguably essential to an earlier stage of Singapore's development, may harm it now. "A model of governance that has no place for political openness carries with it the seeds of its own decline or even demise," she wrote. "For it will have bred a politically naive, dependent, manipulable people who ... can be compared to artificially nurtured hothouse plants, unable to survive if thrown among the sturdy plants in the wild."
For his part, Lee acknowledges that there is a need to make Singaporeans less dependent on the government and to encourage more open debate. He insists that the PAP can absorb and benefit from dissenting voices. "Anybody can join the PAP and change the policy from within," he says. "If you've got a better idea, you come in, you convince us, you take over." But he is adamant that Singaporeans are not yet ready for the vociferous free market of ideas that typifies, for example, politics in the U.S. "I see the marketplace of ideas, as in the Philippines, and I see chaos," he says, while adding: "Gradually, we will loosen up."
Those who wish Asia well will hope that Singapore does so. This is not just because modern Singaporeans deserve the chance to show that they are sufficiently talented to hold their own in any clash of ideas and ideologies (which they most certainly are.) It is because Singapore's achievements, and Lee's influence, extend far beyond the shores of an island of just 700 sq km and 4 million people. Lee's little nation is a testimony to what hard work and discipline can do to improve lives. That, perhaps, is legacy enough. But what a place in history there would be for Lee if his successors prove that Singapore can marry continued economic prosperity to a more open, tolerant, creative, and, yes, messy society and hence create a new miracle, from which other nations, bigger, more powerful and more potentially frightening than Singapore, could one day learn anew.