Lee Kuan Yew, 1923-2015

We note the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, who died Monday at the age of 91. More than merely a political figure, Mr. Lee was revered as a founding father of the tiny island nation, transforming it from a third-world outpost to a modern, affluent nation-state with a streamlined economy and a remarkably low rate of corruption.

His influence, though, was not confined to the small island nation he helped lead to prosperity and international importance. As was demonstrated in the influential 2013 book Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Lee – or LKY, as he was often known – was an international thinker of the first order, a counselor to every US president from Nixon to Obama, as well as to a long list of other political and business leaders the world over, from Tony Blair to Helmut Schmidt to Rupert Murdoch. A glance at their commentary on Lee makes clear that this was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant strategic thinkers to appear on the world stage in modern times. Particularly with regard to Asia, there was simply no better-informed analyst and observer of geopolitical issues.

“Will China displace the US and become the dominant power in Asia?” asked one of the authors, Graham D. Allison of Harvard’s Belfer Center, at a talk on the book. “Will a rising China, which rivals the ruling China, inescapably end in Conflict? Will a China that has risen to a position of the greatest economy in the world behave like the China of times past, in which China thought of itself as the center of civilization and other states related to it only as vassals? The answer to those questions is, nobody knows. But if you said, ‘Who in the world might have an opinion about this that’s worth listening to?’ I would say it’s Lee Kuan Yew.”

Nobody knows, either, what his death betokens for the future of Singapore itself. But his legacy will not be forgotten.