By the time of his death on Monday at age 91, Lee Kuan Yew had been out of the Western limelight long enough that some people may wonder why his passing deserves such notice.
I'd offer these reasons:
• A post-colonial leader who lasted. Fifty-five years ago, when a slew of former European colonies were gaining independence and other nations were taking modern form, the landscape was full of charismatic leaders. Kwame Nkrumah was president of Ghana. Jomo Kenyatta was in detention but would become the president of Kenya. Ben Bella led Algeria. Patrice Lumumba became (briefly) prime minister of Congo. Julius Nyerere was about to become prime minister of Tanganyika, which was about to become Tanzania. Nasser was president of Egypt and (briefly) of the United Arab Republic. Tunku Abdul Rahman was head of Malaya, which had not yet become Malaysia and at the time included Singapore. And on down a long line—including of course Mao Zedong, then a decade-plus into his control of China.
Within a few years most of them were gone, because of coups, corruption, assassination attempts or successes, or other challenges. But not Lee Kuan Yew. In 1960 he had already been elected prime minister of Singapore, which a few years later would separate from Malaya/Malaysia to become an independent state. He stayed in that role until 1990. The few early leaders who lasted as long as Lee Kuan Yew, notably Fidel Castro in Cuba and Félix Houphouët-Boigny in Cote d'Ivoire, increasingly shielded themselves from real democratic accountability. Lee Kuan Yew's version of democracy for Singapore was a "guided" one, as I'll mention below. But I can't think of another figure from that era whose power and reputation were as durable.
• A practitioner and a theorist. The Western world knows its statesmen, nation-builders, and political leaders. Churchill, de Gaulle, and Mitterand. FDR and—whichever Americans you'd choose after that. And not just the Western world: Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping, Ho Chi Minh.
Then as a separate category we have the big thinkers. George Kennan or Hans Morgenthau for an earlier generation of Americans. Henry Kissinger, for better or worse, in this niche now.
Lee Kuan Yew is the rare person to come close to being recognized in both realms. (Richard Nixon aspired to this status, but that's for another day.) While in office, he cultivated leaders from around the world who turned to him for his big-picture strategic guidance. At the moment I can't think of any particular piercing insight he provided, which I don't mean in a dismissive way. (Early and often he counseled Western leaders about the importance of coping with China, and also its possible menaces.) But time and again foreign leaders sought his judgment on big strategic questions, and outside scholars and journalists pored over his comments in interviews. Not many practicing politicians can present themselves simultaneously as geostrategists, and he managed to be taken that way.
• A man equipped and ready to debate the Western world on its own terms. Lee Kuan Yew's original first name was Harry, and English was his native language. His renown in Singapore included the fact of his having earned a "double first" in law studies at Cambridge University and then having gone into legal practice in England.
Through Lee Kuan Yew's era as leader of Singapore and in the decades since then, a remarkable trait of this tiny country's political culture has been its willingness, even eagerness, to take on outside critics and prove, prove, prove why it is completely right to do things exactly the way it chooses to. Anyone in the international press who has worked in Southeast Asia, including me, is likely to have run afoul of official Singapore's sensitivities at some point. When I was living in Malaysia in the late 1980s, I observed the beginning of a long-standing feud over press freedoms between William Safire, a former Nixon aide who was then an influential New York Times columnist, and Lee Kuan Yew's government. (You can see a later ripple of the feud here.) I never was vouchsafed the opportunity to interview Lee Kuan Yew directly, but I saw him speak at many events in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan, and I received starchy notes from Singaporean officialdom when I wrote anything they thought incorrect in any detail.
At the time, the thin-skinnedness of Lee's government seemed noteworthy. (In their prime, they might well have served me with a libel action for the preceding sentence. Or at least submitted a 5,000-word letter to the editor with a demand that it be run with not a single word changed or cut.) But from a distance, the yet more remarkable fact is a non-Western state assuming that it could and should engage the world's opinion machine on its own terms, in its own language, and in its own forms of debate. This really is something we have not seen anywhere but Singapore.
Lee Kuan Yew's form of government had its clear strengths and limitations. When we would take trips to Singapore from our home further up the Malay peninsula in Kuala Lumpur, we would know that everything could be done more efficiently in Singapore, but that you would have to watch your step in various ways. It was and is the best possible version of an authoritarian guided democracy. Family ties have mattered a lot in Singapore: the current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is Lee Kuan Yew's eldest son, and happened to become the youngest brigadier general in his country's history at age 31. But an America that is contemplating a possible Bush-Clinton run for the presidency can't act too shocked when meritocracy takes this form.
Lee Kuan Yew certainly changed history, and from my perspective he changed it mainly for the better. Fuller assessments will follow from more-informed sources (and see Matt Schiavenza's assessment here), but on the occasion of his death that is the note I choose to strike.