Visionary, perhaps, but Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew was not democracy's friend
A self-described 'knuckle-duster' streetfighter, Lee's long rule was admired in Beijing
Among all the tributes to Lee Kuan Yew as a "statesman" and "visionary," nothing quite captured the essence of the late leader of Singapore as a remark he made about himself in 1994.
"Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac," he said. "If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try."
Admitting in his somewhat quaint Cambridge English that he was a ruthless political street-fighter, Lee went on to say something even more revealing: "There is no other way to govern a Chinese society."
To prove the point, Lee was admired nowhere more than in Beijing, where the Communist Party shared his conviction that Chinese society is somehow so uniquely pesky as to require an iron fist.
Throughout his dominance of Singapore for almost 50 years, China's leaders were mesmerized by Lee's ability not only to run an efficient authoritarian one-party state, but his finesse in making that respectable in Western capitals with a confection of Confucian ideas and what he called "Asian values."
As Deng Xiaoping was launching the dramatic economic changes that rescued China from the catastrophic misrule of Mao Zedong, he was impressed by what was being called the "Singapore model" during a visit to the city-state in 1978.
Later, in 1992, jump-starting the frenetic Chinese development that continues to this day, Deng reassured hardline colleagues who feared losing control by pointing again to Singapore.
"The social order in Singapore is quite good," he said, "They run things strictly, and we should borrow from their experiences, and run things even better than they do."
No gum chewing
Of course the tens of thousands of Chinese officials who have been sent to study Singapore in the past 20 or so years are aware that the place is smaller than a city district in Beijing, and that many of the things that make it work cannot conceivably be replicated in the vastness of the Chinese mainland.
Still, it is the idea of Singapore, more than the reality, that resonates.
Although Lee was a devout anti-communist, the structures of his People's Action Party and the Communist Party of China are almost identical because both were based on Lenin's Vanguard Party as vehicles to gain power, stay in power and decide everything.
They share the autocratic instinct to order the minutest details of peoples' lives.
Chewing-gum is famously banned in Singapore, and there are fines for not flushing a public toilet.
Move over to China and this month alone there have been edicts from Beijing ordering that the characters in video role-playing games must obey the country's single-child policy; and that the public dancing that is a favourite form of exercise for elderly Chinese "will no longer vary from community to community but will instead become a nationally unified, scientifically arranged all-new activity that brings positive energy to the people."
The party even extended its grip to the afterlife. When the Dalai Lama mused that he might not reincarnate after his death, Beijing ruled that would be illegal, ordering him to reincarnate, or else.
In Singapore, Lee locked up opponents without trial, and used the courts to bankrupt critics and defamation suits to bully the international press into silence.
In 1994, the New York Times issued a grovelling apology to avoid colossal damages after suggesting that the Lee family was one of Asia's political dynasties.
Lee had insisted that his son became prime minister, which he is still, and his daughter-in-law head of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund not through nepotism, but because they just happened to be the best candidates.
Publications that do not have local offices to sue have been braver, describing Singapore as "Disneyland with the death penalty" and "Pyongyang with broadband."
But for all his authoritarian ways, Lee was not murderous, was not an egomaniac and he does not make it to the major leagues of dictatorship where cruelty and kleptomania abounds.
Gift of prosperity
Lee's extraordinary economic legacy is not in doubt. As Prime Minister Steven Harper put it: "His memory will live on in the stability and prosperity of the peaceful and dynamic Southeast Asian nation to which he contributed so much of his life."
Canadian politicians can only dream of being as popular as Lee was in Singapore.
Of course they might be if Canadians' incomes had increased by almost 10,000 per cent in 50 years. The average income in Singapore, $500 a year in 1965, is more than $50,000 today.
In my view, Lee would have been re-elected time after time, had he not indulged his arrogant and vindictive streak.
In fact, the truly negative side of his legacy is his contempt for his fellow Chinese.
Lee's assertion that "there is no other way to govern a Chinese society" is simply another way of saying that Chinese people do not deserve the same human rights as others, that they are unworthy of democracy.
Such ideas may be popular in Beijing, but they are hardly visionary or statesmanlike.