DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Let's look back on the life of a man who helped to shape Asia as we know it today. Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore, has died at age 91. During more than a half-century as leader, he helped turn Singapore from a sleepy British colony into an important trading enclave. He was also criticized for running an authoritarian regime that muzzled critics and hounded political rivals. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Lee Kuan Yew became the father of the nation in 1965, but the birth of that nation was painful for Lee. Two years earlier, Singapore had merged with its neighbor Malaysia and severed its colonial ties with Great Britain. But in 1964, riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays broke out and Singapore left the union. At a press conference in 1965, Lee predicted he would always look back on this moment in anguish.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
LEE KUAN YEW: This is the whole of my adult life.
KUHN: He paused, bit his lip and dabbed the tears from his eyes.
(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)
YEW: I have believed in merger and the unity of these two territories and people connected by geography, economics and ties of kinship.
KUHN: Two threats from that era shaped Lee's views and policies. The first was the specter of communist insurgencies that shook Malaysia and Indonesia. The other was the threat of racial conflict. In a 1985 speech, Lee talked about how Singapore's race riots of the 1950s and 1960s threatened the young republic's survival.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
YEW: Communal riots - we've again fought for our lives. That's why the generation that's alive and can remember '65 must know how fragile, how delicate this whole creation is.
KUHN: Malaysia supports ethnic Malays through affirmative action policies. Lee always rejected that approach. Instead he advocated meritocracy. Michael Barr is a Singapore expert at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. He says this had to do with Lee's views on race and culture.
MICHAEL BARR: In his view, meritocracy in Singapore would always result in the Chinese rising to the top. He regarded the Malays as being at the bottom of a hierarchy of races, with Indians and especially Chinese above them.
KUHN: Chua Beng Huat is a sociologist at the National University of Singapore. He says Lee Kuan Yew always argued that one-party systems are more efficient and more compatible with East Asian societies than Western-style democracy.
CHUA BENG HUAT: The East Asian societies are family-minded, education-minded and much more collectivist in their attitudes. So this got reformulated as Asian values in Singapore.
KUHN: Lee was culturally a Chinese-foreign hybrid. He studied law at the University of Cambridge in England. He didn't start to learn Chinese until he was in his 30s. Political scientist Bridget Welsh at National Taiwan University says that along with his hard work and intelligence, Lee had a streak of intolerance towards his political opponents. And she says this turned Singapore into something of an exception.
BRIDGET WELSH: A developed country that is, in fact, very authoritarian. You've had one party in power since '65. And the opposition, while making gains that were important in the 2011 election and winning almost 40 percent of the electorate, still actually only has a handful of seats in parliament.
KUHN: Singapore's model of a developed economy ruled by an autocratic government has attracted many admirers in China and the rest of Asia. But Welsh points out that while Singapore has the most millionaires per capita in Southeast Asia, it also has the most unequal distribution of wealth. and addressing that inequality is one of the biggest challenges faced by Singapore in the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
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