Lee Kuan Yew and the nation-builders

March 19 2015

Lee Kuan Yew is the last great living twentieth-century nation builder, if he is alive.

Who were the others? What defines them? They have to have created a nation where none before existed – and yet one can’t leave out Mandela.

They must have done it through a personal struggle. They must have a certain stature. Their achievement must be solid. One can’t leave out Herzl, although he died forty-four years before the birth of Israel.

At one level, Lee was a reluctant builder. He did not, at least as it appears, wish to leave the Malaysian Federation in 1965.

Norway, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, Moldova, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, the central Asian “stans”, Mongolia were, before the twentieth century, merged or submerged nations, but when they became independent did not have famous fathers, unless you count Piłsudski. Or de Valera? They already, in a sense, existed, especially Poland.

But, then, so did the Czech nation, and I am counting Masaryk, even though the nation he founded was later divided into two. (One can’t exactly call Haakon VII a nation-builder, even if he was a father-figure.)

Ukraine is a half-formed nation. Why am I implying less formed than the other Ruthenia, Belarus? At any rate, no builder.

Hungary achieved nationhood in the nineteenth century.

The Philippines’ founders did their work before, not after, American colonisation. Aung San died before Burmese independence, and his legacy is unclear. So are Ho Chi Minh’s and Sihanouk’s. Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia had once contained powerful states. Burma is the most ethnically fragmented. Thailand was never colonised, so the question of nation-building does not arise.

The Republic of China was declared in 1912, but Taiwan became its last stronghold long after Sun’s death. Sun was the father of a nation that, as a geographical entity, doesn’t even recognise itself, and as a wider entity is China – not a new nation.

So I am including him uneasily – or do we believe in the permanence of Taiwan? I can’t leave out Sukarno even if I want to.

Not everyone who led a colony into independence qualifies. In fact, not a single leader from the main years of decolonisation is in my list. I can’t bring myself to include Bourguiba, for example. Or, in a short list, Nkrumah or Kenyatta or Nyerere or Kaunda. Is that because black African countries are, or were, not nations, but tribal or ethnic hegemonies and coalitions? But so are others. So is Burma. So was nineteenth-century Hungary.

Mahathir is a smaller figure than Lee. He did not become prime minister until 1981.

In theory Singapore is a coalition of three ethnic groups, like its one-time role-model Switzerland.

Here is my list, in chronological order of the nation’s birth or the builder’s accession to power if later:

Sun Yat-sen 1912

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk 1918

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk 1923

Ibn Saud 1932

Sukarno 1945

Mahatma Gandhi 1947

Muhammad Ali Jinnah 1947

Theodor Herzl 1948

Lee Kuan Yew 1965

Nelson Mandela 1994

Lee’s funeral or public memorial will be as big as Mandela’s and deservedly. [Postscript: I was wrong on that.] You don’t need to have loved someone to feel grief.

The Blairs will be there, collecting cards.

IMG_9663

1946, Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge

Picture source: Lee Kuan Yew, Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going via mustsharenews.com

4 Responses to “Lee Kuan Yew and the nation-builders”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Written when rumours of his death were rife.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The Balkan states which achieved nationhood in the nineteenth century are Greece (1821-32), Montenegro (de facto 1858, de jure 1878), Romania (de facto 1859, de jure 1878), Serbia (de facto 1867, de jure 1878) and Bulgaria (1878).

    Neither the Karađorđević kings of Yugoslavia nor Tito were nation-builders. Their achievements were too transitory.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    None of the twentieth-century Arab inheritors of the Ottoman Empire (beyond the Hejaz) qualifies. The smaller Gulf countries are all pre-twentieth century regimes.

    If Tunisia survives as a civilised country, will it be partly the legacy of Bourguiba?


  4. […] Lee Kuan Yew and the nation-builders […]


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