By Donald Kirk,

When it comes to judging the performance of deceased national leaders under the icy glare of historical research, strongmen go down in collective memory as tough guys who defeated their enemies and built up their countries. Weak leaders are often regarded as mediocrities, especially if they were overthrown.

Of course, strongmen also come in for criticism after they’ve disgraced themselves and their countries in humiliating defeat, as in the case of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini. While Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong of China managed to survive, they are remembered with extremely mixed feelings — tens of millions died under their harsh rule.

All of which leads to a few thoughts – and memories — of the late Lee Kuan Yew. He’s credited with having been the “founder” of modern Singapore and having turned the city state into a cleanly governed beehive of commercial success. He’s also credited with having ruthlessly suppressed the least criticism, with having jailed political foes and outlawed political groupings that might challenge his long-ruling People’s Action Party, and with having stifled creativity.

Nonetheless, Singapore is so prosperous, so vital as a major port city at the crossroads between the Indian and Pacific oceans, as a manufacturing and shipping hub, that people tend to overlook the downside of the decades of Lee’s rule. They forget that Singapore these days is culturally sterile, that no one dares say a bad word about the man who took on the title of “minister mentor” while bequeathing power to his son.

But who’s really complaining? Leaders around the world have sent condolences for the man whose passing at the age of 91 would seem to have marked the end of an era in Asian history. Statesmen and politicians, scholars and analysts revere him. Journalists may carp about his dictatorial rule, but really, when you look at the mess that some leaders make of their countries, it’s difficult to take too critical a view of the Lee Kuan Yew era in Singapore.

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Lee Kuan Yew
Lee Kuan Yew
"Park Chung Hee" by Jacques Beaulieu.CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr
“Park Chung Hee” by Jacques Beaulieu.CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr

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