3 leaders who shaped Mr Lee's evolution

INDIA'S FIRST PRIME MINISTER: Mr Nehru and Mr Lee were both trained in law in Britain and could empathise with each other's pain in not possessing a strong command of their own mother tongue.
3 leaders who shaped Mr Lee's evolution

FORMER US SECRETARY OF STATE: Mr Kissinger had complimented Mr Lee's shrewd observations of world affairs and Mr Lee, in return, had more than once spoken highly of the German-born American.
3 leaders who shaped Mr Lee's evolution

LATE TAIWAN PRESIDENT: Many Taiwanese commentators suggested that Mr Chiang and Mr Lee got along well because both embraced the Chinese sort of "authoritarian government".


    Apr 13, 2015

    3 leaders who shaped Mr Lee's evolution

    THERE is a Chinese saying, "wu yi lei ju, ren yi qun fen", which means similar objects are grouped together just like kindred souls would click.

    In the three weeks since Lee Kuan Yew's death, acres of news reports from the world over have reminded us of the wealth of foreign ties the founding father of modern Singapore cultivated throughout his lifetime for the benefit of the country.

    Among these, his friendship with three figures stands out.

    The trio, some may say, reflect the evolution of Mr Lee as a politician and state builder from the 1960s till 1990, when he stepped down as prime minister.


    First to be mentioned, in chronological order, is India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

    When Mr Lee died, many news reports from India that mourned him were tinged with self-reproach, re-quoting his already oft-quoted remark that the subcontinent had been a disappointing let-down, a "nation of unfulfilled greatness".

    Even Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when here for Mr Lee's funeral, was quoted as saying by India's Zee News: "Yew believed in India's potential more than any of us did. People of India share Singapore's grief over the loss of the founding father and leader."

    But back in 1959, when Mr Lee first became prime minister of Singapore, his model for development was none other than India - a post-colonial democracy governed by law and tending towards socialism.

    To many, it represented a renascent Asia.

    In 2009, Mr Lee recalled the fascination with Mr Nehru's India that swept many in Singapore's English-speaking community during the 1940s and 50s: "First, India and Indian nationalists, the Congress Party, and the writings of Nehru and people like Pannikar.

    "We used to get all the books and pamphlets that came out."

    Mr Lee and Mr Nehru were both trained in law in Britain, eloquent in English, deeply influenced by the ideas of the British Fabian Society, and could empathise with each other's pain in not possessing a strong command of their respective mother tongues: Chinese and Hindi.

    It is said that in those years, whenever Mr Lee travelled to London, which was usual, he would make it a point to stop by in Delhi to pick up some advice from Mr Nehru.

    While ideology and nationalism bonded the two as good friends, there were also practical considerations on the part of Mr Lee.

    As Mr Nehru remained the uncrowned leader of the then recently "liberated" Afro-Asian community in the early 1960s, it helped to have his support for Singapore's bid to join the planned Federation of Malaysia.

    But soon after Mr Nehru's death in 1964, Mr Lee became disillusioned with India's socialist experiment, which failed to lift India out of poverty and eradicate its traditional ills.

    He believed that India's incompetent bureaucracy was largely to blame.

    When Mr Lee himself faced the task of economic planning for Singapore, he allowed capitalism to play a big role.


    A same-age friend of Mr Lee who survives him and is hugely pained by his death is former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who attended his wake last month.

    "He meant a lot to me. It was not a friendship of doing things for each other, it was of learning from each other, but it was not a friendship in which you ask favours," Mr Kissinger told the local media while here.

    Some may find it ironic that what bonded the two world-class politicians was something in the tradition of Machiavelli, something coldly calculative that is more likely to attract makeshift friendships than lasting ones.

    According to the school of "realpolitik" expounded by Mr Kissinger, which Mr Lee heartily endorsed, the best way to reduce the chances of war is for international relations to be governed by a balance of power while righteous impulses are to be checked, as these could lead to disasters.

    Armed with this philosophy, Mr Kissinger, who was then US national security adviser, assisted president Richard Nixon in re-connecting with China in the early 1970s, which Washington had cold-shouldered since 1949.

    The successful diplomacy resulted in a three-way balance of power which permanently delinked China from the Soviet Union and set the stage for the latter's disintegration 18 years later.

    What must have surprised Mr Kissinger as he formulated the strategy was that it found a ready listener and backer in the leader of a tiny country.

    Mr Lee's reading that the pragmatism of the Chinese people would always prevail over their lapse into fanaticism, as had happened so many times in Chinese history, must have also strengthened Mr Nixon's belief that courting Maoist China could not be a wrong bet.

    Mr Kissinger had complimented many times Mr Lee's shrewd observations of world affairs since they met, and Mr Lee, in return, had more than once spoken highly of the German-born American.

    In one interview, he described Mr Kissinger's expressiveness with words as marked by a German style of "free-flowing, colourful, contrapuntal balance".


    Perhaps it is not surprising that Mr Lee's three best foreign politician friends should include an ethnic Chinese.

    While most Singaporeans could vividly remember the few instances Mr Lee had teared up in public, ached by some national matters, the people of Taiwan also have their own memory of his tearful moments - all of which had to do with his ties to their late president, Chiang Ching-kuo.

    One instance was revealed recently by former Taiwan foreign minister Fredrick Chien, who was once sent to Singapore, ahead of a visit by Mr Lee to Taiwan just to convey to the latter the Taiwan leader's regrets that the president would not be able to welcome the prime minister at the airport, as he had always done before, due to a surgical operation arranged earlier.

    "Tears seemed to well up in Mr Lee's eyes upon realising what my errand was, and he kept saying 'He need not do this,' " Hong Kong-based magazine Yazhou Zhoukan quoted Mr Chien as saying.

    The story of Mr Lee shedding tears upon being informed of Mr Chiang's death in 1988 - the news of which was reportedly delivered to his office by Mr Chiang's son, Hsiao-wu, then Taiwan's trade representative in Singapore - is also famous in Taiwan.

    Mr Chiang was president of Taiwan from 1978 to 1988.

    The ties of the two began to solidify in 1973 after Mr Lee approached Mr Chiang, then Taiwan's president of the Executive Yuan, for his consent to allow Singapore troops to train on the bigger island as the new republic severely lacked space.

    The two then took to each other, although Mr Lee was not fluent in Mandarin then and Mr Chiang spoke it with a heavy Zhejiang accent.

    Many Taiwanese commentators suggested that they got along well because both embraced the Chinese sort of "authoritarian government", promoting it as a precondition for economic growth and social stability, never mind if freedom of speech would suffer.

    "Lee tried to entrench Confucianism in Singapore so as to perpetuate the rule of his party, while Chiang dictated that Taiwan must reunite with China, disregarding the feelings of his people," commented the pro-independence Taiwan People News in comparing them.

    But Taiwanese seeing paternalistic rule as the only thing uniting the two have overlooked the depth of their relationship, which went beyond politics.

    Should it be just a convenient bromance, Mr Lee would have found more agreeable souls in the mainland.

    The highly contrastive backgrounds of Mr Lee's closest foreign friends testifies to his extraordinary gift in cultivating deep ties wherever he found a sympathetic chord.

    These, in turn, contributed to his singular and broad world view.