Lee Kuan Yew, educated in the UK and called Harry Lee for the first part of his life, led Singapore to independence when it was flung out of Malaysia in the 1960s. At the time, observers wondered how the small country, formerly a British colony, could ever survive.
It did, however, with Lee being in large part responsible for its emergence as a well-housed, well-educated and productive nation, an example of how things can be done.
To be sure, Lee was sometimes heavy-handed. In fact when I first visited I was rather afraid of what I might see in the way of repression. But the cabbies groused to me about the government the way they do most places, and there was a notable absence of uniformed police or military on the streets. Shortly afterwards I made my first trip to Paris and was shocked to see soldiers with machine guns in the Métro. My conclusion was that there are a lot of ways to control a population, and since Singapore worked so well, perhaps Lee had some good solutions to complex problems.
Indeed, Nicolas Kristof, the New York Times columnist and specialist on Asia, called Lee Kuan Yew a “philosopher king” in his review of Lee’s memoirs.
Plato, you'll remember, recommended philosopher kings as the best rulers since they combined both wisdom and power for the betterment of their countries. The world has had exceedingly few of them. When one emerged he all too often was corrupted by power. He was told what he wanted to know. His wisdom turned to caprice. He frequently became a tyrant. He would be tempted to overstay his welcome.
Lee Kuan Yew, however, stepped down in 1990, having carefully planned his succession. He was sixty-eight and in apparent good health, and a few days before he retired he spent part of a Sunday planting a tree in a recently refurbished park along the city’s waterfront The event was nothing new—he’d inaugurated this annual Tree Planting Day nearly twenty years earlier. But this day he didn’t like what he saw. He squatted down and held his hand above the new pavement, telling reporters and dignitaries that he could feel just how much heat was still radiating from the ground even though the sun was setting. The trees, he said, should be planted closer together so that when they were full grown the canopy they formed would shade the pavement.
It was a small detail. Not one you would think a philosopher king would be concerned about. But it was symptomatic of the care and thought that have gone into making Singapore an example for green cities all over the world.
Too bad there are not more like him around.
(The photo is of Palm Valley in the Singapore Botanical Garden: my first trip there was to research it for my book Recreating Eden: A Natural History of Botanical Gardens. I visited there again in 2006 because I wanted to include it my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places.)