Unlikely Hero for Liberty: Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the city-state of Singapore, passed away on March 23rd. He is widely hailed as bringing a small area of land from a state of destitution and ethnic conflict to a prosperous city featuring one of the world’s most important ports. Like I explained in previous articles on George Carlin and Mikhail Gorbachev, Lee Kuan Yew held many beliefs that go against the principles of liberty, nonetheless his accomplishments achieved greater liberty for many, and his life’s work continues to impact many around the globe.

Raised in Singapore during the Great Depression and World War II, Yew witnessed the Japanese invasion that coincided with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the submission of British troops to Japanese prison camps. The latter opened Yew’s eyes to the failures of colonialism and ignited his passion for independence. After World War II, Singapore fell back under British rule. With a mixed Chinese, Malaysian, Indian, and other primarily Asian population, Singapore was a melting pot with frequent ethnic conflict. After attending law school at Cambridge in 1950, Yew returned to a Singapore that was plagued with high unemployment and inflation. With China under Mao Zedong nearby, authoritarian socialism carried wide appeal in Singapore.

However, Yew wanted to prevent Maoist socialism from spreading to Singapore. Through his own People’s Action Party (PAP), Singapore eventually became an independent country under his tutelage. His obsession with cleanliness resulted in the clearing of slums and rivers, the elimination of food vendors from sidewalks, and even the penalization of those who spat on the ground. This focus on making his country presentable and accessible to foreign investment was effective, attracting investments from prominent U.S. tech firms and causing Singapore’s GDP to skyrocket by a tenfold margin from 1965 to 1980.

Although a strong proponent of economic liberty, Yew has been criticized by many for his self-proclaimed “nanny state” policies. He went as far as to say, “If Singapore is a nanny state, then I am proud to have fostered one,” a remark he justified by saying, “I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” In response to censorship of and requiring a license for newspaper vendors, Yew asserted, “Freedom of the news media must be subordinated to the overriding needs of Singapore, and to the primacy of purpose of an elected government.”

This combination of economic liberalization with suppression of civil liberties was emulated by major world leaders like Deng Ziaopeng, the then-Vice-Premier of China. He met with Yew in order to better work with small Southeast Asian nations in containing the Soviet Union. Yew, however, remarked that many Asian nations feared the “China dragon” more than the “Russian bear.” Taken aback, Deng asked Yew what he wanted of China, which surprised Yew as the leader of a much smaller country. As a result of the talks, relations improved and China emulated many of Yew’s reforms, which are seen to this day. China has had impressive GDP growth during the 21st century and has slowly liberalized its economy from the Mao era, even as many of the civil liberties restrictions remain in place.

Also at odds with most libertarians, and rare for most non-American world leaders, Yew supported an American military presence in Asia as a deterrent against aggression. He permitted U.S. warships to dock in Singapore, supporting the global presence of the U.S. military. He stated that the Vietnam War contained Communism by preventing it from spreading to nearby countries like Thailand and Laos, which provided these other countries in the area with time to develop capitalist economies and ward off Soviet influence.

While his positions on civil liberties and military intervention are disappointing from a libertarian perspective, his turnaround of Singapore turned a once-trivial and miniature slice of land in Southeast Asia into one of the world’s most important cities for business and trade. His inspiration of economic liberalization in China has helped a country of over a billion move away from stagnation and poverty, and his influence will continue for years to come.

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