My latest weekend edition of the International Herald Tribune has a brief profile on the aging Lee Kuan Yew, the "father of Singapore" who ruled the city state for 25 years and now holds the title of "Minister Mentor" to his Prime Minister son.
Despite Singapore's obvious rise from poverty to prosperity, Lee continues to come in for criticism - both abroad and, increasingly, at home - for his heavy-handed rule of Singapore. Lee, however, assures us that his heart has always been in the right place:
“I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” he said, “but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”
This seems to be a running theme in politics, whether in a dictatorship or democracy. Political leaders are experts at convincing themselves that they're doing the right thing for society, either because they really believe it or because they believe that doing the wrong thing is necessary in order to be able to do the right thing later. And that's the best that can be said of politics. All too often, political leaders are merely power-hungry narcissists who cloak their desire to rule in noble rhetoric.
But to give these fellows the benefit of the doubt, I suspect that even catastrophes like China's Great Leap Forward and the Cuban and Russian revolutions had as their seed some good intention, perhaps a desire to improve the lot of the local people. Trouble is, intentions don't matter, results do. Lee got results (i.e. widespread economic prosperity) in Singapore, as did Park Chung-hee in South Korea, whereas Mao and Castro ran their countries into the ground.
As I've written before, I wish I knew what it is that makes some dictators - like Lee and Park - use their power to push for economic development, while other autocrats simply wreak havoc. Something tells me the answer does not lie in "honorable purposes."