They honored the controversial, though increasingly appreciated, Asian statesman Lee Kuan Yew at the historic Ford Theater in Washington recently, and I wish I had been there.

Exceptional leaders are hard to find anywhere on the globe, including Asia. Until his recent retirement, this tough-as-nails guy — now 89 — had helped organize and run tiny Singapore almost like nobody has ever run anything. He certainly didn’t do things 100 percent the American way. This made this U.S.-led award event all the more extraordinary and noteworthy.

They call it the Ford Theatre’s Lincoln Medal. Recipients are said to somehow exemplify the legacy of old Abe himself. So now modern Singapore’s founding prime minister finds himself in the same category as past awardee Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-apartheid crusader and 1984 Nobel laureate. And Lee becomes the first Lincoln awardee ever from Asia.

Who would have thought?! Western human rights organizations must be rolling over furiously on their bed of staunch principles. They so hated his control over the opposition and dissent. But Singapore, under Lee, never much cared for what rights ideologues thought. Singaporeans did it their own way: They wanted nation-building results — and fast. Within decades, this is precisely what they achieved.

The Lee speed-demon era is almost over, of course. Yes, his son is the prime minister and so the results-first legacy will endure for a time. But a new generation is moving into power and things will begin to change. This is as it should be. Nothing that is dynamic can stay the same.

In accepting the Lincoln Award, Lee made exactly that point about China. The 1.3-billion-people question is whether some sort of evolution toward democracy, however defined, is in the cards for what in an earlier time was called the Middle Kingdom.

The precise Lee handled this monumental question this way: “The Chinese know their shortcomings. But can they break free from their own culture? It will mean going against the grain of 5,000 years of Chinese history.

“Can China become a parliamentary democracy? This is a possibility in the villages and small towns. This will be a long evolutionary process, but it is possible to contemplate such changes.

“One thing is for sure: The present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years.”

One listens to Lee about China with more than passing care because of his track record for correct assessments. Though a staunch and unyielding anti-Communist, he accepts the inevitability of China’s historic rise in this century, and rates Deng Xiaoping as the greatest leader he has personally met in his long career. When one considers the parade of stars in Lee’s illustrious life, that assessment is significant.

They had been calling him Minister Mentor until his recent retirement. It was an apt title. My own gratitude to Lee for his assistance to my journalism dates back to 1996, the year my op-ed column on Asia was launched in the Los Angeles Times (four years later it morphed into the syndicated version you are now reading).

It was a typically torrid October day in Singapore when Lee greeted me in his office. I had heard of him but had never met him. The interview had been scheduled to last about 20 minutes but rolled on for an hour. I asked him to focus on a rising China and how it might all backfire.

He said he hadn’t been asked that before and, uncharacteristically, took a dozen seconds before speaking.

“Where could China go wrong? Impatience; wanting to make faster progress than circumstances allow; pushing too hard; taking shortcuts that could set them back.” This he said in 1996!

Continuing: “The natural ability is there … but that doesn’t mean they can do what France and Germany can do. … All the elements aren’t yet in place. … For instance, putting an object into space is not the same thing as getting a 747 airline accepted by the commercial airlines of the world. They lack this depth, and if they push too hard, they will stumble.”

Lee warned China against irritating smaller countries in Asia: “They have so much to do at home, they need their neighbors’ cooperation. Look at this [off and on] row over Senkaku, which the Chinese call Diaoyudao.”

In the 1996 flareup, however, China showed commendable restraint. So he pointedly added: “They could have made it a very big deal. China has been very cool — firm but no histrionics. That [should] sum up their policy for the next ten to 20 years.”

China’s neighbors argue that it hasn’t — that China has been pushing too hard in the South China Sea.

Perhaps China should inaugurate a Deng Xiaoping Award. Lee could be its first recipient. Then he could give a speech and China’s leaders would listen. It might do them some good. A properly and peacefully developing China is a gigantic plus for the world, not to mention for China itself.

Tom Plate is Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the author of the “Giants of Asia” series. The most recent volume is “Conversations with Thaksin.” © 2011 Pacific Perspectives Media Center

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