Let me attempt to highlight three essences of what Lee Kuan Yew represent which I hope can help unite everyone’s views on him and his legacy.
Firstly, Lee showed the world that, despite someone living an extremely active political life, gaining numerous successes and prominence in the process, one can still chose to lead a virtuous and frugal life, to be a faithful and loving husband, a caring and guiding father, incorruptible in morality, discipline in fitness and diet, and contributive to society to the very late part of his life.
How many successful people out there in this world who have made a mark in history, a country’s success, or businesses can you find who have successful lived through a loving marriage with one lifelong spouse, have at least three well brought up kids, and do not have any personal scandal associated with them?
Mr. Lee showed people around the world that one can have them all – a successful public career and an exemplary personal life.
Secondly, Lee showed the world that the respects for races, genders, histories, languages, and religions are extremely important to the leadership of a nation or a community. To be able to lead and govern successful, one needed not only to respect and understand the importance of these diversities, but also, and more importantly, go beyond them to unit people in their shared values, spirits, and interests. Only then, will you find ingredients for happiness and safety for the people.
The shared values, spirits, and interests for Singapore are succinctly spelt out in his country’s national pledge: “We … pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language, or religion, to build a democratic society, based on justice and equality, so as to achieve happiness, prosperity, and progress for our nation.”
All the policies and actions of Lee and his government followed the essence of the pledge, from housing and education policies, to social and national development policies, and to how the Singapore’s Internal Security Act was used. No ideology was taken at face value. Pragmatism led the way. Those ideas which sounded good but did not work would be tossed out.
Lee has also built a country where people are free to worship their own religions. He understood the importance of religions in many people’s personal life and in building a moral society. His emphasis on inter-religious dialogues and harmony was ahead of his time. His government policies would support such convictions, such as the setting up of the Mosque Building Fund in 1975 to allow Muslims Singaporeans to help finance the building of community mosques in Singapore.
Another conviction of his that was ahead of his time was in the equal opportunity for women and the belief that women played just as important part in the nation building as men. His attitude towards women was one of respect and it set the tone for gender equality in a society, without which a society of limited resources like Singapore will not flourish.
Thirdly, Lee showed the world that with an iron will, strong determination, and unrelenting tenacity, even the impossible can be possible. Like the 50-year survival of the 760 sq km island of independent Singapore, with no natural resources, a large illiterate populations at its onset, an immigrant society of multiple races, languages, and religions, and whose political value system seemed to be out of place from those of its neighboring countries. Not only did it survived, it thrived and became a model of development in many parts of the world, including countries multiple times bigger than Singapore.
In life, things can go either way when one faces difficulties. Lee had demonstrated that fate and crisis before you that appeared to be insurmountable does not equate to one’s destiny.
When one reads the teachings of many religions, be it in Christianity, Buddhism, or Islam, it is easy to give critical feedbacks when one does not read those teachings in the context of when, where, and to whom those teachings are given. However, we know those critical feedbacks missed the point. The essences of the teachings are love, compassion, and forgiveness.
Similarly, when people speak about and make judgment about the legacy of Lee, it is important to understand the essence of what he represents. If it is just focused on what one agrees or disagrees with in terms of his policies, approaches, styles, and beliefs, I think it is not about the essences of what Lee Kuan Yew is and represents.