Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday offered the government and people of Singapore his condolences over the death of their former prime minister and founding father Lee Kuan Yew, a statesman believed to have been a role model of sorts for Cambodia’s own longstanding leader.
“Mr. Lee Kuan Yew … transformed [his] country into one of the most prosperous in the region and the world,” Hun Sen wrote in a letter to Lee’s eldest son and current Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, adding that the government offered its “deepest sympathy”.
Speaking admiringly of Lee at a hotel opening yesterday in Phnom Penh, the premier said he was considering attending the funeral of the late leader and ASEAN co-founder.
“If we observe his whole life, he worked until his death,” Hun Sen said.
Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled Singapore for 31 years, is viewed as the city-state’s prime mover. He led the country through many transitions upon becoming premier in 1959, first obtaining independence from Britain by merging with Malaysia in 1963 before being ejected from the federation two years later amid racial tensions.
From that low point, Lee transformed Singapore from a poor, ethnically divided port city into a modern financial powerhouse with a higher Human Development Index ranking than countries such as the United Kingdom, France and South Korea.
Hun Sen, who himself has ruled over the Kingdom of Cambodia for roughly 30 years, reportedly views Lee as an inspiration. Despite presiding over vastly different countries in dissimilar circumstances, the two autocrats both demonstrated a shared distaste for the Western democratic ideals espoused by former colonial masters and the international community alike.
“The general principle that individual democratic freedoms are less important than collective prosperity and personal harmony is a commonality,” Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia said. “From what I can tell, they both designed themselves in opposition to colonial exploitation and domination.… I’ve heard from many people who knew Hun Sen in the 1990s that [Lee] and [former Malaysian prime minister] Mahathir Mohammed were both economic models for Hun Sen.”
But many would argue Lee’s guiding vision for Singapore has come at a major cost, and is largely inapplicable elsewhere. Under Lee’s rule, press freedom was largely restricted in the city-state, and he cemented his iron-fisted rule using Singapore’s court system to take down his political rivals. His son has trodden a similar political path.
“I think Hun Sen has always sought to replicate Lee’s model here. But I don’t think it’s fair to compare [the two] since the contexts are so different,” Strangio said.
Ou Virak, an independent analyst and former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), agreed that Hun Sen “tries to compare himself to Lee Kuan Yew”, but said it would be a mistake for Cambodian leaders “looking at this model as a cause of economic development”.
“It’s a problem if we look at two things that happened at the same time and compare the two, as correlation does not imply causation,” he said. “People look at Lee Kuan Yew and how he ruled with an iron fist. But that’s not the root cause of Singapore’s economic development.”
Virak argued that while Lee’s ruling style has been viewed as somewhat of a necessary evil, his shortcomings as a potential reformer should not go unnoticed by leaders eyeing his legacy with admiration.
“I think what he did was necessary for the survival of Singapore. I think his only mistake was that he was in power too long. Afterward, he should have loosened up and began the transition to democracy.”
Longtime political observer Lao Mong Hay, who now serves as an adviser to opposition deputy leader Kem Sokha, was dismissive of any possible comparisons.
“They are not comparable. They have a different background and [a different] education. One [Lee Kuan Yew] is the builder of a nation, the other is not. One cares about the rule of law, the other does not.”
But while Hun Sen may have looked up to Lee, it doesn’t appear there was much mutual admiration.
In his 2000 memoir From Third World to First, Lee described Cambodia’s political leaders as “utterly merciless and ruthless, without humane feelings”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG