On Monday, the world lost one of the most prominent, controversial and arguably most effective political leaders of the last 60 years, Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. He passed away peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital at the age of 91.
Lee Kuan Yew wasn't just your ordinary garden-variety politician. In terms of his impact on a newly independent state of Singapore, he was more of a "Founding Father" like George Washington — with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin thrown in for good measure.
Lee Kuan Yew served as the leader of Singapore between 1959 and 1990, shepherding this former British colony through its own "declaration of independence" in 1965.
As the Wall Street Journal pointed out Monday, Lee "helped attract massive investment and many of the world's biggest companies to Singapore after he became prime minister in 1959, catapulting living standards to First World status from Third World levels in hardly more than a generation."
And although few Americans know much about Mr. Lee, he was an éminence grise in the global diplomatic community and universally admired across several political generations.
As I wrote nearly two years ago in The Global Guru, even former U.S. President Richard Nixon speculated that, had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have "attained the global stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone."
That said, Lee Kuan Yew was by no means universally loved, remaining a controversial figure throughout his lifetime.
On the one hand, Lee helped Singapore raise itself by its bootstraps to transform itself from a dirt-poor colony to a shiny, modern city-state.
On the other, Lee never ceased to raise the hackles of critics made uncomfortable by his interventionist methods that flew in the face of Western individualism and democracy.
Relentlessly Politically Incorrect
It was only after I read a book, "Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World," by Graham Allison, Robert Blackwill and Ali Wyne, that I learned to appreciate just how much Singapore owes its success to the vision and determination of a single man.
Via a jarringly honest and relentlessly politically incorrect combination of policies, Lee maintained a laser focus on non-corrupt, efficient government, business-friendly economic policies and often harshly meted out social order.
Lee Kuan Yew once defined himself as "a liberal in the classical sense of that word."
The libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek described himself in the same way.
Yet the two could be hardly more far apart.
Instead, Lee Kuan Yew was, I think, much more about pragmatism and "street smarts" than an overarching philosophy.
As Lee himself put it:
I am not fixated on a particular theory of the world or of society. I am pragmatic. I am prepared to look at the problem and say, all right, what is the best way to solve it that will produce the maximum happiness and well-being for the maximum number of people?