While his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has been busy meeting up with former US President George Bush, Singapore’s ever so feisty and sprightly 86 year old Minister Mentor1 Lee Kuan Yew has gone halfway around the globe to meet US President Barack Obama in Washington ahead of his debut Asian tour that will include China, Japan, South Korea and Singapore. Lee’s tour also saw him meeting two key Cabinet members of the Obama administration – Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
In his various meetings rubbing shoulders with very important minds, the sage-like Lee who has often been counted on to interpret Asia to the west did not hesitate to tell the Americans what he saw in his crystal ball.
“The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific because that’s where the growth will be,” said Lee. “If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific you cannot be a world leader.”
Prior to his meetings with Obama and Clinton, Lee received a lifetime achievement award from the US-ASEAN Business Council in a high profile event witnessed by the likes of Henry Kissinger. In his keynote address delivered at the gala dinner last Thursday in Washington, Lee urged the US to remain engaged in Asia:
The size of China makes it impossible for the rest of Asia, including Japan and India, to match it in weight and capacity in about 20 to 30 years. So we need America to strike a balance.
Those comments had the effect of rubbing up Chinese netizens the wrong way. Within a few hours of the Global Times 《环球时报》report hitting the interwebs, Lee’s comments attracted the fury of hundreds of Chinese netizens, but wait a minute, there’s more.
In building any new East Asian architecture, Lee said the United States must be “an important part” of it, adding that “it would be a serious mistake for the region to define East Asia in closed or, worse, in racial terms.”
Many of those who responded were upset and said that Lee had treated the Chinese as outsiders although they had treated Singaporeans as “among their own”.
“Lee Kuan Yew spoke for the feeling of those in the West who fear China’s rise would harm their vested interests,” said one netizen.
Another described Lee as “a political animal”, saying that while he “relies on China to develop his country’s economy, he is ushering wolves here to deal with China”.
A third posting said: “Just because he has achieved some success in Singapore, he dares to play the guiding light that shows US the way. If he has the stuff, he should go to Africa and offer tips on how to shake off poverty and achieve wealth.”
Another posting brushed off his comments as insignificant as Singapore was a small country.
“Lee Kuan Yew had made such comments likely because Singapore is a small country that needs an interplay of balances in the international arena,” said the netizen.
“However, what significance do his words carry when the reality is that for a voice to be heard and the views realised, one needs to be truly powerful,” the netizen asked.
A few highly vitriolic essays written by netizens have been given prominent positions in the blog sections of mainstream media portals. Here are just two of them:
“Lee Kuan Yew’s comments reveal that Singapore is but a pawn of the US in countering China”
“Shameless dreams: Lee Kuan Yew wants Singapore to rule ASEAN like an Israel!”
The response by the Chinese mainstream media has been somewhat more measured. Most reports underscored the online fury among netizens, and then weighed in on political scientists to reflect sentiment on the ground. Here are a few headlines:
李光耀谈话显示东盟信任美国胜过中国 [China News Agency]
“Lee Kuan Yew’s comments show that ASEAN trusts the US more than it trusts China”
石齐平：李光耀为何建言美国制衡中国 [Phoenix TV]
“Shi Qiping (political commentator): Why Lee Kuan Yew wants the US to counterbalance China”
李明波：李光耀说啥不必太在意 [Guangzhou Daily]
“Li Mingbo (Guangzhou Daily columnist): No need to pay any heed to what Lee Kuan Yew says”
李光耀亲美言论激怒中国网民 新加坡多家媒体辩解 [Guangzhou Daily]
“Lee Kuan Yew’s latest comments anger Chinese netizens, Singapore media offer an explanation”
1 Prior to this appointment, Lee Kuan Yew held the title of Senior Minister when he passed over the prime ministership to Goh Chok Tong. In 2004, when Lee Kuan Yew’s son Lee Hsien Loong became the nation’s third prime minister, Goh Chok Tong became the Senior Minister and the new title of Minister Mentor was created for Lee Senior. Together, the three are often referred to as the “Father, Son and Holy Goh” of Singaporean politics.