Book Review: FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST LEE KUAN YEW

Friday, March 01, 2019

Lee Kuan Yew was arguably the best statesman of the 20th Century. Lee’s claim to the title of best statesman of the 20th Century rests on his transformation of Singapore from a third world country into one of the world’s richest and most civilized countries and into a new type of political entity. But this obvious transformation in some ways masks his two larger contributions to statesmanship.

Everybody loves multiculturalism, but the dirty little secret of the multicultural society is that no one has any idea how to govern one. Lee’s Singapore is the first attempt to create a system of governance that seriously attempts to deal with the problems associated with a multi-racial/ethnic/religious society (hint: the answer is not more democracy). Lee’s solution is particularly interesting, since Singapore was a British colony and thus has the same basic legal foundations of other common law countries. To manage life in a diverse society, Singapore eliminated certain cornerstones of common law – including trial by jury and a free press. In short, many of the principles that we believe “protect liberty” may only do so in a homogenous society – jury trials and a free press, for example, in a diverse society may serve mainly to manufacture or highlight racial strife.

Lee’s second important contribution to statesmanship is that his Singapore served as a specific and very important purpose in the rise of China under Deng Xiaoping. Lee’s Singapore is wealthier than many Western countries (and it grew much more quickly). Lee had seemingly found a way to take the good bits of Western governments – particularly their economic dynamism – without taking the bad parts – particularly the high and unsustainable levels of welfare payments and the consequent moral degradation and disorder of society. In short, Singapore took a bunch of illiterate Chinese fishermen and created one of the wealthiest countries in the world and it did so without undermining values that are important to Chinese (and other) cultures. Deng saw something worth emulating, and China has subsequently grown at a dizzying rate. In Lee’s own words:

‘Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family. Many in the West believe that the government is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when it fails, as with single mothers. East Asians shy away from this approach. Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and learning.

I stressed that freedom could only exist in an orderly state . . . In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum. Parts of contemporary American society were totally unacceptable to Asians because they represented a breakdown of civil society with guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, and vulgar public behaviour. America should not foist its system indiscriminately on other societies where it would not work.’

Very little of Lee, the man, emerges from this book – all we hear about is Singapore. There is a bit on his family in the beginning and the end, but he breezes through these sections as if he was required to write them by his editor. Throughout the book, Lee might take a few subtle jabs at Western political correctness – I couldn’t quite tell. For example, in the introduction he notes that the editor “also made me politically gender correct. Wherever I wrote ‘man,’ he has become ‘person’ or ‘people.’ I thank her for making me appear less of a male chauvinist to Americans.” Is this just a statement of fact? Is he making fun of Americans for being so sensitive? I’m guessing the latter because there are several statements like this throughout the book, but it’s subtle enough that I can’t tell.

Lee took power in the largely-Chinese Singapore at a time when it was merging and then later splitting with Malaysia. Soon after the split, the British pulled out hastily from Singapore. Lee inherited a piece of land that was not really a country, that was populated by a mix of Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, that was Confucian and Muslim, and that was precariously positioned in a region that was succumbing to pressure by Communist forces. Other than that, everything was pretty good though!

The first thing Lee did when he took over was build a defence force. To do this, Lee turned to Israel and Switzerland for examples of how a small country should go about defending itself. The next think he did was ensure the safety and security of the country and provide a stable legal system.

Then next thing he did was introduce protectionism:

‘In 1965, a few months after independence, an economic planner whom the Indian government had seconded to us presented me with a thick volume of his report. I scanned the summary to confirm that his plans were based on a common market with Malaysia. I thanked him, and never read it again.’

Lee had no intention of trading freely with anyone at first. He wanted everyone in Singapore employed (so they wouldn’t riot, among other reasons) and he didn’t want them competing with low-cost Malaysian labour. Singapore specifically protected cars, appliances, consumer electronics and other consumer goods. The protections were all phased out later, as national industries matured, the population got richer and better educated and other sources of employment became available.

Lee’s economic positions are hard to describe using labels. For example, he refers to himself as socialist several time: “We believed in socialism, in fair shares for all” (“Fair, not welfare”). Yet he goes on:

‘Watching the ever-increasing costs of the welfare state in Britain and Sweden, we decided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that when governments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the head of a family, the drive in people weakened. Welfare undermined self-reliance.’

‘For nearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed to assume that the creation of wealth came about naturally and that what needed government attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. . . . We have used to advantage what Britain left behind: the English language, the legal system, parliamentary government and impartial administration. However, we have studiously avoided the practices of the welfare state. We saw how a great people reduced themselves to mediocrity by levelling down.’

‘The foundations for our financial centre were the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a stable, competent, and honest government that pursued sound macroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year. This led to a strong and stable Singapore dollar, with exchange rates that dampened imported inflation [the Singapore Dollar was always backed by 100% foreign currency reserves].’

From there, Lee’s goal was to create the best organized country in the region:

‘Visiting CEOs used to call on me before they made their investment decisions. I thought the best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from the airport to their hotel and to my office were neat and spruce, lined with trees and shrubs. . . . Without a word being said, they would know that Singaporeans were competent, disciplined, and reliable, a people who would learn the skills they require soon enough.’

Indeed, Lee’s descriptions of the places he visits are often limited to the trip from the airport to his hotel room. By the time he gets to his room, he knows everything he needs to know about the country he’s visiting. Lee’s vision is still in effect in Singapore. In Singapore, you exit the plane, take short walk through an airport that looks brand new to a very efficient immigration counter, you get right in a cab that moves quickly down a beautiful road (the road looks impossibly well-maintained and the plants around the road look impossibly well-groomed yet I’ve never seen anyone maintaining either the roads or the plants – the city is also incredibly safe and I never saw a policeman or heard a siren).

Next, Lee dealt with the press. Around the time that Singapore separated from Malaysia, there were some race riots in Singapore. From then on, Lee was wary of the media. He seems to have believed that a totally free media would stir up racial animosity while providing little benefit. The Communists were particularly active in sowing discord across groups, so he banned their publications.

A Singapore with a totally free press would have in the best case scenario been plagued by ethnic or racial or religious violence and in the worst case become an actual Communist country. Instead, it became what it is today and everyone is immensely better off.

Lee defends his policies by noting that totally free presses are highly over-rated. Lots of countries with free presses still have high levels of corruption. He also noted that in his dealings with the press, USG (specifically State) would get involved quickly. This made his suspicious.

One of the reasons Lee was so successful was that he changed his mind quickly if something he tried didn’t work. For example, he instituted several programs to try to scatter people of the same race. However, no matter what he tried, the groups eventually recongregated. Instead of mandating desegregation, the Singapore government eventually changed election laws so that some minority representation was required and, for similar reasons, got rid of jury trials. This system combined with some geographic quotas on concentrations seemed to work.

The rest of the book turns to foreign policy, another area in which Lee was particularly adept. Lee seemed to find the US a frustrating ally. At times he seems to be openly mocking the apparent randomness of American foreign policy. He was also frustrated by American heavy-handedness. He sums up his view of Americans as follows:

‘I viewed Americans with mixed feelings. I admired their can-do approach but shared the view of the British establishment of the time that the Americans were bright and brash, that they had enormous wealth but often misused it. It was not true that all it needed to fix a problem was to bring resources to bear on it. Many American leaders believed that racial, religious, and linguistic hatreds, rivalries, hostilities, and feuds down the millenia could be solved if sufficient resources were expended on them.’

‘They [i.e. American professors] were too politically correct. Harvard was determinedly liberal. No scholar was prepared to say or admit that there were any inherent differences between races or cultures or religions. They held that human beings were equal and a society only needed correct economic policies and institutions of government to succeed. They were so bright I found it difficult to believe that they sincerely held these views they felt compelled to express.’

‘I learned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi-experts, especially academics in the social and political sciences. They have pet theories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideal, especially how poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.’

Lee supported US involvement in Vietnam. Even following the war, he defended it, since it bought time for other Asian nations to build up their own defences against the Communists.

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in the book are Lee’s comparisons between Singapore and other countries. There are two that I will particularly remember: Ceylon and Hong Kong.

Ceylon and Singapore became independent Commonwealth countries and both are island nations. Anyone looking at the two countries at independence would have bet that Ceylon had the brighter future. However, both countries had diverse populations and Ceylon pursued a more democratic route following its independence. Lee sums up the results: “During my visits [to Ceylon] over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did not solve its basic problem,” which was ethnic conflict.

Lee’s contrast of Hong Kong and Singapore was also interesting. Hong Kong was in a position that prevented it from becoming an actual nation – doing so would have threatened China. Singapore, on the other hand, had no choice but to become a nation to avoid being swallowed by Malaysia. And it certainly did become a nation.

Singapore today might in many ways be bland in the opinion of travellers to rougher and more unpolished parts of the world, but Lee — who died in 2015 — remained proud of his achievements: “If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one,” he wrote.

Lee was rather prolific, writing seven books in later life; From Third World to First is the second of his two-volume memoirs, covering the period from 1965 to the late 1990s (the book was published in 2000). It’s a big book, but a fascinating read by a leader who kept careful notes and drew on unpublished papers to round out his recollections.

You might not agree with his philosophical outlook (or maybe you do), but either way his perspective will throw light on why Singapore is, well, Singapore. He describes the total transformation of the country, as well as how it came to punch above its weight internationally. While his approach to human rights certainly has reason to be criticised, the nation’s achievements certainly have a reason to be praised (perhaps while remembering those whose rights have been trampled on over the years, thus contributing to the rise of the state in very real ways).

Lee’s writing is far more refreshing, honest and forthright than other political memoirs we’ve read. It’s not a generalist read, but anyone with more than a passing interest in Singapore and Southeast Asian politics will find it compelling. Whether it really casts much light on other parts of the world is an interesting point for debate.

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