Few living leaders—Fidel Castro in Cuba, Nelson Mandela in South Africa, and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe come to mind—have dominated their homeland's national narrative the way Lee Kuan Yew has. Born into a well-to-do Chinese family in 1923, deeply influenced by both British colonial society and the brutal Japanese occupation that killed as many as 50,000 people on the island in the mid-1940s, the erstwhile "Harry Lee," Cambridge law degree in hand, first came to prominence as a leader of a left-leaning anticolonial movement in the 1950s. Firming up his personal power within the ascendant People's Action Party, Lee became Singapore's first prime minister, filling the post for 26 years. He was senior minister for another 15; his current minister mentor title was established when his son, Lee Hsien Loong, became prime minister in 2004.
Lee masterminded the celebrated "Singapore Model," converting a country one-eighth the size of Delaware, with no natural resources and a fractured mix of ethnicities, into "Singapore, Inc." He attracted foreign investment by building communications and transportation infrastructure, made English the official language, created a superefficient government by paying top administrators salaries equal to those in private companies, and cracked down on corruption until it disappeared. The model—a unique mix of economic empowerment and tightly controlled personal liberties—has inspired imitators in China, Russia, and eastern Europe.
To lead a society, the MM says in his precise Victorian English, "one must understand human nature. I have always thought that humanity was animal-like. The Confucian theory was man could be improved, but I'm not sure he can be. He can be trained, he can be disciplined." In Singapore that has meant lots of rules—prohibiting littering, spitting on sidewalks, failing to flush public toilets—with fines and occasional outing in the newspaper for those who break them. It also meant educating his people—industrious by nature—and converting them from shopkeepers to high-tech workers in a few decades.
Over time, the MM says, Singaporeans have become "less hard-driving and hard-striving." This is why it is a good thing, the MM says, that the nation has welcomed so many Chinese immigrants (25 percent of the population is now foreign-born). He is aware that many Singaporeans are unhappy with the influx of immigrants, especially those educated newcomers prepared to fight for higher paying jobs. But taking a typically Darwinian stance, the MM describes the country's new subjects as "hungry," with parents who "pushed the children very hard." If native Singaporeans are falling behind because "the spurs are not stuck into the hide," that is their problem.