Robert Mugabe and Lee Kuan Yew: two leaders with very different legacies

Both were non-ideological in their approach to government but will be remembered very differently

Honour guards march following the funeral service for Singapore’s former prime minister during his funeral. Tens of thousands of mourners braved torrential rain, howitzers fired a 21-gun salute and jet fighters screamed across the skyas Singapore staged a grand funeral for its founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew. Adek Berry/AFP
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Robert Mugabe's mixed legacy was reflected in his funeral on Saturday, where the national stadium set aside for the event was near-empty and South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa was booed as he made his address.

The contrast between his death and that of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of Singapore, and how their nations mourned them is instructive.

Today marks the birth date of Mr Lee, another major figure in the post-colonial developing world. When he died in 2015, he was synonymous with the city-state’s history and success.

Lee Kuan Yew's death prompted a week of national mourning with 450,000 people lining the streets and a million people visiting tribute sites. Mohd Fyrol / AFP

His death was a matter of genuine national mourning in Singapore. As his country's leader from 1959 to 1990, he was widely credited with steering it From Third World to First, as the title of his second volume of memoirs put it. When he stepped down as prime minister, he remained omnipresent, first as senior minister, then minister mentor, until 2011. Was he steely-minded, even semi-authoritarian? Perhaps. But Singaporeans still recalled with affection his unapologetic insistence that he knew best, epitomised in his oft-quoted remark: "Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me into the grave and I feel something is going wrong, I will get up."

At Mr Mugabe's funeral, conversely, one attendee told the Guardian newspaper: "I just came here to make sure the old man was really dead."

Members of the presidential guard transfer the coffin bearing the remains of late former Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe to a hearse upon arrival by helicopter at his Kutama village residence, Zimbabwe, on September 16, 2019. The remains of former Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe were taken to his village for a wake on September 16, a family member said, as his final burial is prepared in about a month. Mugabe died a week ago aged 95 in Singapore, nearly two years after he was ousted in a 2017 coup that ended nearly four decades of increasingly autocratic rule. After a state funeral on September 14 in the capital Harare attended by African leaders, his body went to his rural village of Kutama, 90 kilometres (55 miles) to the west, to allow villagers to pay tribute and bid farewell. / AFP / Jekesai NJIKIZANA

Earlier on, decades ago, it might have seemed as though the two had some things in common. Both were highly intelligent and well-educated. Both were anglophiles, although this was accompanied by some justified and bilious resentment on Mr Mugabe’s part.

Both were at least nominally men of the left: as well as being an African nationalist, Mr Mugabe was a Marxist-Leninist while Mr Lee’s People’s Action Party was a member of the Socialist International until 1976. But both Mr Lee and – initially – Mr Mugabe were non-ideological in their approach to government. Singapore’s finance minister Goh Keng Swee famously instructed his staff to find him a factory to open every day while Mr Mugabe eased the fears of Zimbabwe’s white minority on taking office, appointing some as ministers and impressing outsiders with his budgetary restraint, at the same time as making big investments in education and healthcare.

Lee Kuan Yew is hoisted by supporters after leading his People’s Action Party to a landslide victory in the elections in Singapore in the 1960s. AP Photo

If Mr Mugabe had left office in 1987, he would have been remembered very differently: as a liberation hero who had done a good job, mostly – despite his government’s killing of up to 20,000 “dissenters” in Matabeleland, which the West by and large overlooked, relieved that nothing worse had happened and to protect against a backlash against white Zimbabweans.

As much as Mr Lee may have been controlling, it was always because he thought that a small island with no natural resources had to have a firm direction

But that was when he took a turn for the worse. He changed the constitution to give himself dictatorial powers, allowed the expropriation of white-owned farms by so-called war veterans and cronies and presided over a disastrous deterioration of the economy, which led to living standards being lower in 2000 than they had been in 1980 and to the country’s parlous state today.

In the end, Mr Mugabe pushed even his own supporters over the limit when he attempted to position his second wife, Grace, as his successor. The army mounted a coup and installed one of his former vice presidents, Emmerson Mnangagwa, in his place.

All of which would have been inconceivable under Mr Lee. It is true that Singapore’s current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong is his son, but a Lee dynasty has not been established. Just as well, as political dynasties in other developing countries, such as the Nehrus and Gandhis in India, have not fared well in the long term.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaks during a press conference at the 32nd ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Summit in Singapore on April 28, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / ROSLAN RAHMAN

The younger Mr Lee’s designated successor is not from the family and there is no possible heir apparent currently in politics. As much as Mr Lee may have been controlling, it was always because he thought that a small island with no natural resources needed a firm direction. He may have enjoyed his power but power was not an end in itself: the success of the state was.

The Singaporean academic and diplomat Kishore Mahbubani puts this achievement down to three factors: meritocracy, pragmatism and honesty. Mr Lee wanted the best minds to serve government because there were no riches to fall back on. His socialism involved a great deal of government regulation of society and planning of industry but he had no qualms about accepting foreign investment. And he knew how corruption had held back so many developing countries that seemed to have much more promise of independence than Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew speaking to a packed lunchtime rally crowd at Fullerton Square in Singapore on December 20, 1976. Jerry Seh / New Nation / AFP

It is no wonder that administrations around the world have sent groups to study Singapore’s example – among them the 22,000 Chinese officials who visited the island between 1990 and 2011 following the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s exhortation to “borrow from their experiences”.

Mr Deng also praised Singapore’s social order. Western commentary is always laced with caveats about the island’s restrictions on civil liberties and political activity. That does not trouble Beijing but it should be born in mind that a state that had witnessed race riots both at home and in neighbouring Malaysia (of which Singapore was a part from 1963 to 1965) was always likely to prize stability over unfettered free speech. That is still a concern today in many countries and were Mr Lee still around, not only would he be as unapologetic as ever, he would continue to maintain the validity of the “Asian values” democratic model.

Hospital staff of the Singapore General Hospital mourn the death of Lee Kuan Yew. Suhaimi Abdullah / Getty

Is it perfect? Of course not. But it is telling to note where Mr Mugabe went for his medical treatment and where he died earlier this month. It was not to his capital, Harare, where electricity now runs a mere six hours a day, but Singapore, home to some of the best hospitals in the world. Would that his fellow Zimbabweans had the means to do so too. And they might, had they been blessed by a Lee Kuan Yew and not the monster that Robert Mugabe became.

Sholto Byrnes is a commentator and consultant in Kuala Lumpur and a corresponding fellow of the Erasmus Forum