Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of the city-state of Singapore, is a mayor who talks as though he may one day be a world statesman.
The 44-year-old prime minister is an imposing figure who gives the impression that he is both competent and sure of himself. He speaks with a mild British accent, but, before a Harvard audience, he frequently used American idioms and seemed to have read everything published in the United States--from daily newspapers to the texts of Presidential speeches.
Lee's Singapore is the fifth largest port city in the world. Though plagued by severe unemployment and racial problems, it still has the highest standard of living in Southeast Asia. The tiny country with a predominantly Chinese population is walled in by four Muslim nations. And co Lee must try to maintain Singapore's delicate relations with Malaysia, increase Singapore's trade with both Eastern and Western powers, and prevent a new wave of Communist uprisings in neighboring Southeast Asian nations.
His concern for the fate of Southeast Asia, fortified by his spectacular economic successes and his ambitious style, make Lee a potential international strongman. The prime minister has traveled around the world talking about the Vietnam war and other Southeast Asian affairs. "I've got a very deep interest," he explains, "in my own survival."
Lee reportedly told a Harvard audience Friday that he has no right to tell America or Americans what to do. But he also said that the United States could have sharply limited its Vietnam operation in 1954, 1956, or even 1961, but now it is too late. On those occasions, he thought, the United States could have "drawn a line west of Mekong and said it will defend no more than that."
Now, the prime minister believes, the United States owes it to the Thais in particular and Southeast Asia in general to maintain a "military shield" behind which South Vietnam can build industrially.
Lee thinks there's some point to buying time with a shield because he believes in the great-man theory of history. And the great man is none other than Lee Kuan Yew, who thinks that because of his own competence and shrewdness Singapore has succeeded where South Vietnam has failed. "If you can find the group of men who could do it," Lee said in Dunster, "Saigon can do what Singapore did." In fact, the prime minister boasted, "If one looked at Saigon and Singapore in 1954, one would have said Singapore was the goner, not Saigon."
Because he believes one great man makes the difference, Lee blames the Eisenhower administration for America's present dilemma, because Eisenhower "permitted Diem to systematically eliminate all alternatives to him." South Vietnam no longer had a pool of talent from which a hero-ruler might emerge. "You can't go talent-scouting for leaders like in a telephone directory," Lee points out; "the British didn't create me."
The British may not have created Lee, but they did provide him with a Cambridge education and later bolstered him when his political machine began to sputter. Lee was the head of the ruling People's Action Party, and in 1962, British officials decided his power was eroding so quickly that his three-year old nation left alone would soon become another Cuba. The British decided that the best way to preserve Lee's power over Communist obstructionists was to unite Singapore and Malaysia, an ideal for which Lee had been striving for a decade. With British support, such a federation was effected in 1963. It was unstable from the outset and dissolved two years later, but observers believe that Lee has emerged a stronger Asian figure as a result of the temporary coalition.
Lee's strength probably has derived, in part, from his shrewdness. At Dunster House, he was the complete politician--deftly dodging embarrassing questions about the absence of political opposition in Singapore, humbly reiterating that it is not his place to order Americans around, and mentioning his accomplishments in Singapore just often enough to establish his credentials. The prime minister spoke into what looked like a microphone but was actually an attachment to his private tape recorder, "so I can check back and make sure I wasn't misquoted," he explained.
There is no doubt that Lee has done much for Singapore. The tiny island republic has a per capita income of $500 per year, the highest in the area. From 1961 to 1965, Lee spent $315 million on economic development, focusing on power plants, water facilities, roads and other precursors of industrial growth. Singapore has negotiated trade agreements with the Soviet Union, Hungary, Bulgaria, Great Britain, the United States, and several other nations.
Lee still must tackle an acute unemployment problem. It is estimated that 20,000 more jobless youths emerge from the schools in Singapore each year, and there seems to be no immediate solution in sight.
Perhaps a more important problem, and one Lee refused to discuss in Dunster House, is the lack of political opposition in his country. There is no opposition to speak of at present, except an underground Communist movement. In three of the past four by-elections, all the candidates in Lee's party ran unopposed. Lee said last year that he would like to see a "good, lively, opposition" but he doesn't seem to act with that idea in mind. Newspapers are strictly licensed, and leading Communists who happen to bob above the surface are frequently jailed.
These internal problems, however, are dwarfed by the Vietnam war, which brought Lee to see President Johnson. Lee is not the kind of man who would admit that his future rests entirely in America's hands. On the contrary, he told his Harvard audience, "If you leave, we'll soldier on. We'll try. I'm only telling you the awful consequence which withdrawal would mean." One gets the feeling that Lee believes those "awful consequences" would not mean his downfall. It would take more than the blunders of a misguided super-power to accomplish that.