Reflections on Lee Kuan Yew

March 31, 2015 10:00 AM

In his eulogy for Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, who died on March 23, President Obama said that Lee was "hugely important in helping me reformulate our policy of rebalancing to the Asia Pacific." That was no exaggeration, as I can attest from personal experience. Lee in essence persuaded the President to reverse his initial policy of resisting trade agreements by entering into negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which is on its way to becoming the largest trade agreement in history, with major foreign policy and indeed national security as well as economic benefits for both the United States and most of Asia. I doubt that anyone else on the face of the planet could have achieved that outcome.

Lee's effort at persuasion was set in motion at the first event during his visit to Washington in October 2009, which was a small lunch hosted by David Rubenstein, cofounder and managing director of the Carlyle Group. As several of us listened, Lee described his plan to politely advise President Obama on the following day that the United States would have to take new economic initiatives in Asia or "cede the region to China." The problem was that the new President had taken no trade initiatives at all up to that time, and he fervently wanted to avoid those issues because they were so politically divisive (especially within his own party and constituencies, as we are now seeing so clearly). I urged the Prime Minister to be forceful rather than polite and leave no doubt about the alternatives facing the United States.

The next day, Lee did so and was hugely successful. Lawrence Summers, then the chief economic adviser in the White House, called immediately after the meeting to ask us to host a dinner for him at the Peterson Institute on the following day to discuss what a new US strategy could comprise. Our recommendation was to rejoin and thus relaunch the negotiations for a Trans-Pacific Partnership. The President announced his decision to do so in Tokyo, on the first stop of his first trip to Asia, a couple of weeks later.

The TPP will in fact be the culmination of a dream that Lee had nourished for almost 20 years. I first sought the counsel of the Senior Minister (as he was then called after stepping down as prime minister in 1990) during my initial trip to Singapore in early 1993 for the founding meeting of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) created by the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum to recommend an action program for that new organization (created in 1989). We immediately agreed that the ultimate goal should be free trade in the entire Asia Pacific region, and the former Prime Minister, unknown to me, decided to promote that idea by instructing his people to make sure that I became chairman of the new EPG; I was deeply honored to acquire such an esteemed campaign manager! Our group did indeed make such a recommendation, and the APEC member economies adopted it at their first two annual summits (which our EPG also proposed) in Seattle that fall and in Indonesia a year later. Today's TPP is the lineal descendant of the strategy inspired by the former Prime Minister almost a quarter century ago in pursuit of his bedrock long-term goal of maintaining an active US presence in Asia to balance the rise of China.

Some of my other memories of Lee are considerably less cosmic. On a later visit to Singapore, the Mentor Minister (as he was then called) became agitated when I told him that I had contracted an ear infection from swimming in the pool of my hotel. I later learned that he had called the manager of the hotel personally and instructed him never to let such a thing happen again, exhibiting both his famous micromanagement of the country and his unwillingness to leave any stone unturned to preserve its reputation. (I was thus enormously embarrassed when, upon returning home, I was told by my own doctor that no such infection had occurred; I dutifully relayed that correction to Lee and suspect that the local doctor rather than the hotel manager next felt his wrath.)

These vignettes underline the unique breadth of interest and, much more importantly, decisive actions of the former Prime Minister and father of his country. They range from the trivial to the world-shaking. There has been no one like him over the past half century and there may never be another.

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