- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 24, 2000

NEW YORK CITY. Some of us can't get used to the fact that the Vietnam war, the defining moment in the lives of a generation now feeling old and going gray, is already grist for the historians.

Only yesterday the Americans stood almost alone in Asia, athwart the spreading tide of communism and trying to save freedom for the South Vietnamese and for Southeast Asia.

Almost alone, but not quite. The other allies, Australia, New Zealand and Thailand, South Korea and the Philippines, had reluctantly succumbed to LBJ's arm-twisting and seemed not quite sure they were in on an honorable cause.

One strong voice, not as an ally with troops on the ground but as a friend of freedom, was that of Lee Kuan Yew, the prime minister of the tiny republic of Singapore, "a small frame of an island of some 224 square miles at low tide." He believes today that America gave Southeast Asia crucial breathing room.

Lee Kuan Yew is retired now, insofar as a founding father is allowed to retire, the "senior minister" of his government. He was in New York the other day on his way to Boston to lecture at Harvard. Singapore is not much on the American mind now, and when it is most people recall it as a place where the newspapers are careful not to be disrespectful, where you can get Officially Spanked for misbehaving, and where chewing gum is contraband (because it was used to gum up the doors on the subway cars).

Lean, fit, and going a little gray, he greets an early morning visitor without the prickliness, the inability to suffer fools (and other critics) that once intimidated critics. He has a new book, "From Third World to First" (HarperCollins, 729 pages, $35), telling the heroic story of forging a thriving nation out of a piece of rock at the end of the hostile Malay peninsula, and it's a story to warm a lot of the cockles of the heart of a small-d democrat. "Every American leader who has dealt with Lee Kuan Yew," writes Henry Kissinger in a foreword, "has benefited from the fact that on international issues, he has identified the future of his country with the fate of the democracies."

With the revolutionary fires now banked, he can ponder the question that troubles thoughtful people in both East and West: Are great leaders born or made by circumstance, by crisis or revolution? More to the point, where have the great leaders gone? No one could confuse Bill Clinton with FDR, or Tony Blair with Winston Churchill, nor, judged solely on size and presence, Boris Yeltsin or Vladimir Putin with Stalin, or the succession of Chinese leaders who followed him, with Mao Tse-tung.

Like any good diplomat with impeccable manners, the senior minister cannot be drawn into judging Al or George W. against these earlier worthies. But he follows the American campaign via satellite television from Singapore, and is "amazed" by the skill of the spinners and pollsters who transform candidates into new personalities to fit the perverse whims of the voters. "From such a process," he tells the students at Harvard, "I doubt if a Churchill, a Roosevelt or a de Gaulle can emerge."

The difference between Churchill and Tony Blair is the difference between the societies they led, one in a struggle for survival, the second unthreatened by anything more unpleasant than the bureaucrats of the European Union.

"Revolutionary situations throw up great leaders who demand blood, sweat and tears," he says. "Comfortable circumstances produce leaders who promise people an even easier life. But when the British felt Britain was slipping they voted for a conviction politician in Margaret Thatcher… . . When Americans feared their country had become weak during the Carter years … they voted for Ronald Reagan for two terms."

These "comfortable circumstances" pose a risk as well for Singapore, once regarded as a poor risk for survival and now a place where everyone can aspire to a cozy home on Easy Street. The dilemma is a universal one. "New forces are at work," he says, "The present generation of leaders grew up in a Singapore that was stable and growing year by year. The people have got accustomed to the comforts of a modern affluent society, and expect life to be better every year… . Leadership now means shaping a policy so that it can carry a majority, and, if not, then a plurality, in the hope of expanding it to a majority by the next election. I view this with mixed feelings."

As well he might. Singapore politicians, even founding fathers, are subject to the question constituents ask everywhere: "What have you done for me lately?" We get who we deserve. It's enough to make a founding father long for the hard early days, when the going was tough and only the tough got going. It's in the book.

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