SINGAPORE — During a recent trip to visit relatives in Malaysia, I came to this city-state on the day of two significant events. One was an occasion for widespread celebration; the other — by coincidence and in stark contrast — plunged a nation into deep mourning.
In my hometown, just across the border of Singapore, they crowned a new sultan of the state of Johor, putting him in line to become king of Malaysia, under its unusual constitutional monarchy of rotating rulers. The Malay sultans, as well as the sitting king, play a largely ceremonial role, but like the British monarch, they are an integral symbolic part of the cultural landscape. Their coronations are observed with much pomp and pageantry. Palaces and public buildings are spiffed up, everybody wants an invitation to the lavish parties, and a holiday is declared.
I also arrived to the news of the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister and dominant public figure for about six decades. Much has been written about what Lee achieved for Singapore — how his governance lifted a sleepy 277-square-mile resource-poor place into the First World and dramatically improved his people’s lot, albeit with measures some found oppressive. Local media provided wall-to-wall coverage following his passing on March 23 at age 91. Half a million people waited in line for hours to pay their respects, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world — including former president Bill Clinton and former secretary of state Henry Kissinger — attended the funeral. The ceremonious send-off treated Lee like a popular king.
I observed Singaporeans’ mourning of their titan from my current perspective — as a friend and former neighbor. Had Singapore not been forced to break off from Malaysia in 1965, I would have been a fellow citizen. I saw adults weep openly. I saw pride, and adulation, too, as the tributes rolled in for their patriarch. Their vibrant nation of about 5.5 million people today is a global player, a significant business center with arguably the world’s busiest port, and one of the world’s highest standards of living.
But I didn’t always appreciate Lee. As a schoolboy who liked chewing gum, rock music, and pushing the limit on how long males could wear their hair, I dreaded taking the bus from Johor into Singapore to visit or shop. Lee’s edicts against so-called bad influences meant that crossing the border was a crapshoot. I was never denied entry, but I resented being made to feel like a recalcitrant pariah. Years later, when I chose journalism, I never thought to pursue my career in Malaysia or Singapore, where newspapers regularly need a permit from the government to publish.
But I felt the homeward tug eventually and did work in Singapore for six years in the 1990s — as a journalism teacher in a local university. By that time, Lee had stepped down as prime minister and handed the operational reins to younger leaders. Some of the government policies and social campaigns that I thought patronizing or cloying had eased, while others began making more sense to me.
I organized and helped launch a campus newspaper, and found myself not only teaching but also working alongside some talented students. They were the products of one of Lee’s legacies: a robust educational system that turns out capable, creative yet pragmatic thinkers who value learning and entrepreneurship and respect their elders.
There always was, and still is, an unspoken fear of running afoul of the government. But I believe many Singaporeans — who live in a country with low crime rates, a clean bureaucracy, and an infrastructure that works efficiently — would not trade it for the freedoms of a land with high felony counts, broken transportation systems, and a federal government that has degenerated into grandstanding and gridlock.
Lee’s greatness was in realizing early his vision for Singapore and seizing the day. Like the determined sheriff in an old Western, he brought order and stability to his town so it could prosper and its citizens were able to live without fear of those who would be outlaws. He took aim at corruption and was unforgivingly tough on crime, hanging drug traffickers and murderers, and routinely caning lesser offenders. One case in particular drew international condemnation and some cheers — in May 1994, Singapore’s government ordered American teenager Michael P. Fay caned for vandalizing cars.
Some might have suspected an anti-Western streak in Lee, given his early social campaigns and disdain for its unfettered press. I believe he merely sought to be understood and reflected accurately and in context, and went to great lengths to tamp out what he saw as untruths. He pushed for a US military presence in Southeast Asia from the time of Singapore’s nascent nationhood, and later counseled American and Chinese leaders on engaging each other.
Lee was British-educated, known to his peers by his English name, Harry. But he did not ape the West; he was of that generation of Asian leaders who saw Western colonial rulers overrun by the brutal Japanese military and became convinced it was themselves, not the Westerners, who would steer their nations into the future. Long before a certain Boston baseball slugger famously uttered his profane “this is our [bleeping] city” speech after the 2013 Marathon bombings, Lee was gaining legions of homegrown fans by telling enemies real or perceived to stop messing with his country.
As leery as he was of Western media, Lee also cultivated their understanding, if not support. Years ago, while he was a distinguished visitor at Harvard, he came to speak to the Globe’s editorial board and entertain questions. I was invited to attend. I don’t remember what I asked him exactly, but I will not soon forget his response.
Surmising that I grew up in his part of the world, he pushed up in his chair to lean forward and began his response with a question: “How long ago were you there?” That was vintage Lee Kuan Yew. He was taking my measure before providing an answer that would be appropriate to my level of understanding of his country, and thus less likely to be taken out of context. He was Mr. Singapore even into his twilight years, constantly probing and sifting through situations to champion The Singapore Story.
The times are different, and political changes may be inevitable after Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party lost significant ground in the last election. But in this educated, wired society — thanks to Lee — at least the battles can be fought in a well-lit arena. Singaporeans can also thank him for gracefully handing power, in 1990 after 31 years at the helm, to the next generation instead of latching on to it like a king wannabe. He did not build palaces during his era, amass a personal fortune, or sail in luxury. But no one will leave a bigger wake. To borrow from Kissinger’s eulogy, my world will miss him.