Lee Kwan Yew, Singapore and the Power of Filial Piety

03/26/2015 09:56 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2015
Peter Charlesworth via Getty Images

The death of Singapore's founder and guiding force, Lee Kwan Yew, saddened this prosperous, pragmatic city-state in ways most Westerners fail to grasp. In response to a note of condolence I sent to J. Walter Thompson's Singapore-based staff, one our of IT professionals wrote back, "Today, the world has lost a great man. Singapore has lost her founding father and I have lost my hero."

My colleague, a father of three, is no old timer. An avid marathon runner, his turf is technology. His loss is nonetheless profound.

North Americans and Europeans know that Mr. Lee orchestrated a miracle. Under his visionary watch, a backwater rump of the Malaya Federation blossomed into one of the wealthiest and most dynamic places on Earth. He was also a "people's prime minister," a leader who provided affordable housing and education through a far-sighted public welfare scheme. He also opened the windows of a tiny city-state onto the world. Modern-day Singapore is more international and branché than sister-city and entrepôt Hong Kong or democratic Taiwan, two other manifestations of "modern China."

These accomplishments made Mr. Lee a giant on the world stage.

But they still do not explain the almost bottomless reservoirs of affection practically every Singaporean, even those who bristle against "nanny-state" regimentation, has for their patriarch.

Obituaries that discount Singaporeans -- a "docile" people slavishly obedient to an "authoritarian" or "repressive" government -- are culturally tone deaf.

Despite prominent Indian and Malay minorities, Singapore is predominantly Chinese. It is a profoundly Confucian society. The individual does not exist independent of his responsibilities to other elements of society. Even in 2015, the elemental productive unit of society remains the clan. Relationships are organized according to the wu lun -- five fundamental relationships that constitute a naturally ordered society: between father and son, husband and wife, older brother and younger brother, friend and friend, and ruler and ruled.

But Singaporeans are not passive or compliant.

They are as pragmatic and clear-eyed as Mr. Lee himself was. He fulfilled, spectacularly, the Confucian obligations a father has for his children, even as those children matured into economic adulthood. In an uncertain, shape-shifting world threatened by disorder, Lee Kwan Yew offered stability, the platform on which progress is constructed. The Chinese, individually and societally ambitious, cherish progress. As he created order from chaos, the Singaporean people forged national success. On Facebook, a co-worker posted a final tribute written by his young son: "I am grateful for the many things you have done for Singapore such as building our nation and making us independent. You also created jobs for people. I am proud to be Singaporean."

Pride, independence and security are the gifts a self-sacrificing father provides to his family. In return, the younger generation offers filial piety, loyalty and love that transcend time.

Should the relationship between Singaporeans and their government evolve? Of course. As children become adults, bonds with parents mature. As the increasingly expressive voices on social media platforms attest, the people demand transparency, dialog and institutionally responsive governance. But Western-style representative democracy is not the probably not the way forward for this city-state, the prosperity of which is more fragile -- and the social fabric more traditionally Chinese -- than outsiders realize.

No matter how Singapore develops, however, its citizens' love for a modest man with a lion's heart will stand the test of time.