Lee Kuan Yew, or LKY for short, belonged to a generation of “strongmen” in Southeast Asia who ruled their societies with iron fist and got together to bind the ten nations of Southeast Asia in friendship almost half a century ago. Was their authoritarian leadership style justified or not? LKY’s passing today revives that debate.
From Third World to First
Under LKY, Singapore progressed from Third World to First. He led Singapore after it was expelled from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965. Singapore stood its ground against occasionally difficult, even violent, relations with its two bigger neighbors – Malaysia and Indonesia.
For many years now, Singapore remains among the top most competitive economies in the world according to the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness reports. It has a GDP per capita higher than all countries in Southeast Asia combined, minus Brunei. Singapore is the only city in ASEAN belonging to the top 25 best cities in the world based on a report by Economist Intelligence Unit using data from worldwide cost of living and liveability surveys.
Despite his many achievements, LKY’s leadership is always associated with illiberal politics. Global leaders, including from civil society, are divided in their opinion of this Asian leader who strictly guarded his reputation at home while unapologetic for the way he led Singapore to where it is today. He ruled for more than three decades and had little tolerance for political opposition. He is also accused of elitism.
This debate has outlived him and will continue to be relevant both for each nation of Southeast Asia as well as for ASEAN as a group in their collective efforts to build a political and security community based on common norms.
Procedure or performance?
The East-West Center published in the mid-1990s a study on political legitimacy in Southeast Asia looking into the cases of the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam. The study concludes that there are several sources of legitimacy from procedure to performance. It observes that legitimacy is an interactive process between rulers and the ruled and, therefore, should be analyzed in the context of specific society at a specific time.
In the case of LKY, he firmly believed that what matters most was performance. He once said that, the existence of Singapore leadership depended on performance, “extraordinary performance.”
In the case of the Philippines, interrupted only during the period of Martial Law under Ferdinand Marcos, our political and constitutional tradition seems to prefer procedures associated with popular sovereignty as the primary source of legitimacy.
We are where we are today because of that choice. Not that that choice was inherently bad, but because of what we have made of that choice.
We have a procedural democracy that is chronically violated by greedy and corrupt leaders both from government and business sectors. We have a procedural democracy which is incapable of unleashing our economic potential for the benefit of the majority, especially the poor. Ours is a soft state that is incapable of sustaining a reform agenda.
The East-West Center study states that legitimacy could determine the effectiveness of governance, the scope, pace, and method of political change, and the conduct of the state abroad. It is both cause and effect. In the end, therefore, both procedures and performance are important. They could mutually reinforce each other toward a durable and stable basis of authority.
Today, many nations of Southeast Asia have transitioned towards constitutional democracy. While this may not necessarily indicate “the end of history” or the final form of human government, as put by Francis Fukuyama, it probably means that it is robust enough to be able to adapt or have various forms for different societies and times.
For example, a parliamentary system of government, which is common in the ASEAN region, has the advantages of both keeping the right of suffrage during elections and of running a unified and strong government in between. Whether or not this is good for us depends of course on the quality of those elected and the ability of the electorates to make the right choices.
LKY has shown to all developing countries what is possible under an effective and visionary leadership. We may or may not like his style, but what he has achieved should inspire us to work harder for our own nation building and to find our proper place in the community of nations.
Jun Abad is Senior Fellow of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS) in the Philippines and former director of the ASEAN Regional Forum Unit at the ASEAN Headquarters in Jakarta. He is the author of “The Philippines in Asean: Reflections from the Listening Room.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations of his affiliation.