AN ASIAN LEADER RECEIVES
COVETED AMERICAN AWARD
“If they push too hard, China
They honored the controversial,
though increasingly appreciated, Asian statesman Lee Kuan Yew at the
historic Ford Theater in Washington recently, and frankly I wish I had
been there. Exceptional leaders are hard to find anywhere on the globe,
including Asia. Until his recent retirement, this tough-as-nails guy – now
89 – had helped organize and run tiny Singapore almost like nobody has
ever run anything. He certainly didn’t do things 100% the American way.
This made this U.S.-led award event all the more extraordinary and
They call it the Ford Theatre’s
Lincoln Medal. Recipients are said to somehow exemplify the legacy of old
Abe himself. So now modern Singapore’s founding prime minister find
himself in the same category as past awardee Desmond Tutu, the legendary
anti-apartheid crusader and 1984 Nobel laureate. And Lee becomes the first
Lincoln awardee ever from Asia.
Who would have thought?! Western
human rights organizations must be rolling over furiously on their bed of
staunch principles. They so hated his control over the opposition and
dissent. But Singapore, under Lee, never much cared for what rights
ideologues thought. Singaporeans did it their own way: They wanted
nation-building results – and fast. And, within decades, this is precisely
what they achieved.
The Lee speed-demon era is almost
over, of course. Yes, his son is the prime minister and so the
results-first legacy will endure for a time. But a new generation is
moving into power and things will begin to change. This is as it should
be. Nothing that is dynamic can stay the same.
In fact, in accepting the Lincoln
Award, Lee made exactly that point about China. The 1.3 billion people
question is whether some sort of evolution toward democracy, however
defined, is in the cards for what in an earlier time was called the Middle
The precise Lee handled this
monumental question this way: “The Chinese know their shortcomings. But
can they break free from their own culture? It will mean going against the
grain of 5,000 years of Chinese history. Can China become a parliamentary
democracy? This is a possibility in the villages and small towns. This
will be a long evolutionary process, but it is possible to contemplate
such changes. One thing is for sure: The present system will not remain
unchanged for the next 50 years.”
One listens to Lee about China
with more than passing care because of his track record for correct
assessments. Though a staunch and unyielding anti-Communist, he accepts
the inevitability of China’s historic rise in this century, and rates Deng
Xiaoping as the greatest leader he has personally met in his long career.
When one considers the parade of stars in Lee’s illustrious life, that
assessment is significant.
They had been calling him
Minister Mentor until his recent retirement. It was an apt title. My own
gratitude to Lee for his assistance to my journalism dates back to 1996,
the year when my op-ed column on Asia was launched in The Los Angeles
Times (four years later it morphed into the syndicated version that you
are now reading).
It was a typically torrid October
day in Singapore when Lee greeted me in his office. I had heard of him but
had never met him. The interview had been scheduled to last about 20
minutes but rolled on for an hour. I asked him to focus on a rising China
and how it might all backfire.
He said he hadn’t been asked that
before and, uncharacteristically, took a dozen seconds before speaking.
“Where could China go wrong?
Impatience; wanting to make faster progress than circumstances allow;
pushing too hard; taking short cuts that could set them back.”
This he is saying in 1996!
Continuing: “The natural ability
is there…. but that doesn’t mean they can do what France and Germany can
do…. All the elements aren’t yet in place…. For instance, putting an
object into space is not the same thing as getting a 747 airline accepted
by the commercial airlines of the world. They lack this depth, and if they
push too hard, they will stumble….”
Lee warned China against
irritating smaller countries in Asia: “They have so much to do at home,
they need their neighbors’ cooperation. Look at this [erupting back then,
as again right now] row over Senkaku, which the Chinese call Diaoyudao….”
In that 1996 flare-up, however,
China showed commendable restraint. So he pointedly added: “They could
have made it a very big deal. China has been very cool, firm but no
histrionics. That [should] sum up their policy for the next 10-20 years.”
China’s neighbors argue that it
hasn’t – that China has been pushing too hard in the South China Sea (…If
they push too hard, they will stumble….). Perhaps China should inaugurate
a Deng Xiaoping Award. Lee could be its first recipient. Then he could
give a speech and China’s leaders would listen. It might do them some
major good. A properly and peacefully developing China is a gigantic plus
for the world, not to mention for China itself.