16 January 2019
Deng Xiaoping (right) visited Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in 1978 to see what China could learn from how Lee ran the city state. Photo: internet
Deng Xiaoping (right) visited Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore in 1978 to see what China could learn from how Lee ran the city state. Photo: internet

Why China saw Lee Kuan Yew as a friend and model leader

China is mourning the death of Singapore founding father Lee Kuan Yew as a close friend and model leader, almost as if he were one of their own.

“Singapore has lost a great man, Lee Kuan Yew” the Global Times announced Monday on its front page above a picture of three women bowing before a photograph of him.

The Beijing Youth Daily had a similar picture on its front page, next to a tribute by President Xi Jinping.

“He was both the founder of the Republic of Singapore and a strategic politician who enjoyed broad respect in international society,” Xi wrote.

“He was an old friend of the Chinese people and the founder and pioneer of relations between China and Singapore.”

Inside, the newspaper devoted several pages to Lee’s life, including photographs of him with Mao Zedong in May 1976 and Deng Xiaoping in November 1978 and of Lee sitting in his office with a statue of Confucius.

He visited China 33 times and met five generations of Communist leaders.

In summary, the newspaper lauded Lee’s “Singapore-style democracy, rule by law, clean government, balanced diplomacy”.

The Foreign Ministry announced that a national leader would attend his funeral.

There are many reasons why Beijing admired and respected Lee.

First, he achieved an international status and authority no ethnic Chinese leader achieved before him.

He knew presidents and prime ministers, and his advice and opinions were sought by them long after he stepped down as prime minister in 1990; his books and articles were widely read around the world.

The leaders of China, Republican and Communist, ruled over a country that was far more important than Singapore; but none has had the western education, fluent English, intellectual sharpness and self-confidence to bring them access to the corridors of power around the world.

Second, Lee was one of the earliest foreign leaders to introduce China to the world after the three closed-door decades of the Maoist era.

His first visit was in May 1976, when he met Mao. His next visits were in 1980, 1985 and 1988. Deng Xiaoping went to Singapore in November 1978.

Many leaders in Asia and the West did not know how to react to this enormous country ruled by a Stalinist-style Communist Party that was following a capitalist model.

Lee, who had been a bitter enemy of communists in Singapore and Malaya in the decades after World War II, did not hesitate to engage with the waking giant, seeing a great economic and diplomatic opportunity for his country.

“For 5,000 years, Chinese have understood that only with a strong central government will the country have security,” he wrote.

“When the center is weak, there will be chaos and unrest. Every Chinese understands this.”

Lee said: “People in the West hope that China will become a western-style country. This will not happen.

“China is a great nation with 1.3 billion people. Its culture and history are different to those of the west. It has its own way.”

This is exactly what the leaders in Beijing believe and want to hear.

They also admired his pragmatism and willingness to adjust policy as circumstances change, just as they have done.

In 1979, Lee launched the Speak Mandarin campaign in Singapore. He wanted his people to be equipped to work in and communicate with the new power.

As a result, Mandarin has become the second language of the country, after English, replacing the Hokkien dialect as the most widely spoken form of Chinese.

In the 1980s, Singapore dropped the traditional characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong in favour of the simplified ones used in the mainland. These have since then been used in school textbooks, the media and other public fora.

During his visits to the West, Lee spoke of the importance of China and the need to engage with it.

Given his credentials as the leader of a non-communist country and fast developing free-market economy, his hosts listened to what he said.

Third, Singapore has become a model of development from a low base; it has become one of the richest economies in Asia on a per capita basis.

Hundreds of mainland delegations have been sent to Singapore to study and learn from the different elements of its success – including its industrial development zone, financial system, low crime rate and low corruption and public housing system.

It is both a democracy and a de facto one-party state – a model for what the Communist Party in China could become.

Taiwan is the example not to follow – the Kuomintang allowed universal suffrage and lost power, opening the door to possible independence.

Lee also invested time and energy in fostering relationships with different generations of Chinese leaders, something they appreciated.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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