MERCYMUKAMI644242FALL2017 TITLE:FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST, THE SINGAPORE STORYAUTHOR:LEE KUAN YEWPUBLISHER:CRITICALANALYSIS LeeKuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having ledSingapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in afew decades.
As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and thenSenior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. Soit is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- TheSingapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book laysout how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations withbigger and threatening neighbors as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact,the latter part takes up most of the book.Havingbeen one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had atraumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of afederation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differencesand racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraughtby this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resourcesand hinterland.
But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and hisgovernment made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantialmanufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations. Thefirst chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup withMalaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fightagainst the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomaticbattles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance againstSingapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain,while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. Itis fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over fromBritain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaoticand tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under DengXiaoping in the eighties.
ASEANrelationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighborsMalaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days ofSingapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towardsVietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invadingCambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a littleunreasonable. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong also feature. With Hong Kong,he had a very interesting insight in that the British rule of Hong Kong, whichlasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as acommunity, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” Itis an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daringentrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lackleadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makersbut managers. LeeKuan Yew was arguably the best statesman of the 20th Century. Lee’s claim tothe title of best statesman of the 20th Century rests on his transformation ofSingapore from a third world country into one of the world’s richest and mostcivilized countries and into a new type of political entity.
But this obvioustransformation in some ways masks his two larger contributions tostatesmanship.Everybodyloves multiculturalism, but the dirty little secret of the multiculturalsociety is that no one has any idea how to govern one. Lee’s Singapore is thefirst attempt to create a system of governance that seriously attempts to dealwith the problems associated with a multi-racial/ethnic/religious society(hint: the answer is not more democracy). Lee’s solution is particularlyinteresting, since Singapore was a British colony and thus has the same basiclegal foundations of other common law countries. To manage life in a diversesociety, Singapore eliminated certain cornerstones of common law – includingtrial by jury and a free press.
In short, many of the principles that webelieve “protect liberty” may only do so in a homogenous society –jury trials and a free press, for example, in a diverse society may servemainly to manufacture or highlight racial strife.Lee’ssecond important contribution to statesmanship is that his Singapore served asa specific and very important purpose in the rise of China under DengXiaoping. Lee’s Singapore is wealthier than many Western countries (and it grewmuch more quickly). Lee had seemingly found a way to take the good bits ofWestern governments – particularly their economic dynamism – without taking thebad parts – particularly the high and unsustainable levels of welfare paymentsand the consequent moral degradation and disorder of society.
In short,Singapore took a bunch of illiterate Chinese fishermen and created one of thewealthiest countries in the world and it did so withoutundermining values that are important to Chinese (and other) cultures. Deng sawsomething worth emulating, and China has subsequently grown at a dizzying rate.In Lee’s own words:Confuciansocieties believe that the individual exists in the context of the family,extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot andshould not take over the role of the family.
Many in the West believe that thegovernment is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when itfails, as with single mothers. East Asians shy away from this approach.Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep societyorderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respectfor elders and for scholarship and learning.Istressed that freedom could only exist in an orderly state . . . In Easternsocieties, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so thateveryone can enjoy freedom to the maximum.
Parts of contemporary Americansociety were totally unacceptable to Asians because they represented abreakdown of civil society with guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, andvulgar public behavior. American should not foist its system indiscriminatelyon other societies where it would not work.Verylittle of Lee, the man, emerges from this book – all we hear about isSingapore. There is a bit on his family in the beginning and the end, but hebreezes through these sections as if he was required to write them by hiseditor. Throughout the book, Lee might take a few subtle jabs at Westernpolitical correctness – I couldn’t quite tell. For example, in the introductionhe notes that the editor “also made me politically gender correct.Wherever I wrote ‘man,’ he has become ‘person’ or ‘people.
‘ I thank her formaking me appear less of a male chauvinist to Americans.” Is this just astatement of fact? Is he making fun of Americans for being so sensitive? I’mguessing the latter because there are several statements like this throughoutthe book, but it’s subtle enough that I can’t tell. If he is making fun ofAmericans, he also has a sense of humor similar to my own.
Leetook power in the Largely-Chinese Singapore at a time when it was merging andthen later splitting with Malaysia. Soon after the split, the British pulledout hastily from Singapore. Lee inherited a piece of land that was not really acountry, that was populated by a mix of Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, thatwas Confucian and Muslim, and that was precariously positioned in a region thatwas succumbing to pressure by Communist forces.
Other than that, everything waspretty good though!Thefirst thing Lee did when he took over was build a defense force. To do this,Lee turned to Israel and Switzerland for examples of how a small country shouldgo about defending itself. The next think he did was ensure the safety andsecurity of the country and provide a stable legal system.Thennext thing he did was introduce protectionism:In1965, a few months after independence, an economic planner whom the Indiangovernment had seconded to us presented me with a thick volume of his report. Iscanned the summary to confirm that his plans were based on a common marketwith Malaysia. I thanked him, and never read it again.Leehad no intention of trading freely with anyone at first. He wanted everyone inSingapore employed (so they wouldn’t riot, among other reasons) and he didn’twant them competing with low-cost Malaysian labor.
Singapore specificallyprotected cars, appliances, consumer electronics and other consumer goods. Theprotections were all phased out later, as national industries matured, thepopulation got richer and better educated and other sources of employmentbecame available.Lee’seconomic positions are hard to describe using labels.
For example, he refers tohimself as socialist several time: “We believed in socialism, in fairshares for all” (“Fair, not welfare”). Yet he goes on:Watchingthe ever-increasing costs of the welfare state in Britain and Sweden, wedecided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that whengovernments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the headof a family, the drive in people weakened. Welfare undermined self-reliance.Fornearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed toassume that the creation of wealth came about naturally, and that what neededgovernment attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. We haveused to advantage what Britain left behind: The English language, the legalsystem, parliamentary government and impartial administration. However, we havestudiously avoided the practices of the welfare state. We saw how a greatpeople reduced themselves to mediocrity by leveling down.
.. .Thefoundations for our financial center were the rule of law, an independentjudiciary, and a stable, competent, and honest government that pursued soundmacroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year.
This led to astrong and stable Singapore dollar, with exchange rates that dampened importedinflation the Singapore Dollar was always backed by 100% foreign currencyreserves.Fromthere, Lee’s goal was to create the best organized country in the region:VisitingCEOs used to call on me before they made their investment decisions. I thoughtthe best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from the airport totheir 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 requiresoon enough.Indeed,Lee’s descriptions of the places he visits are often limited to the trip fromthe airport to his hotel room. By the time he gets to his room, he knowseverything he needs to know about the country he’s visiting. Lee’s vision isstill in effect in Singapore.
In Singapore, you exit the plane, take short walkthrough an airport that looks brand new to a very efficient immigrationcounter, you get right in a cab that moves quickly down a beautiful road (theroad looks impossibly well-maintained and the plants around the road lookimpossibly well-groomed yet I’ve never seen anyone maintaining either the roadsor the plants – the city is also incredibly safe and I never saw a policeman orheard a siren).Next,Lee dealt with the press. Around the time that Singapore separated fromMalaysia, there were some race riots in Singapore. From then on, Lee waswary of the media.
He seems to have believed that a totally free media wouldstir up racial animosity while providing little benefit. The Communists were particularlyactive in sowing discord across groups, so he banned their publications.ASingapore with a totally free press would have in the best case scenario beenplagued by ethnic or racial or religious violence and in the worst case becomean actual Communist country. Instead, it became what it is today and everyoneis immensely better off.
Leedefends his policies by noting that totally free presses are highly over-rated.Lots of countries with free presses still have high levels of corruption. Healso noted that in his dealings with the press, USG (specifically State) wouldget involved quickly.
This made his suspicious.Oneof the reasons Lee was so successful was that he changed his mind quickly ifsomething he tried didn’t work. For example, he instituted several programs totry to scatter people of the same race. However, no matter what he tried, thegroups eventually congregated. Instead of mandating desegregation, theSingapore government eventually changed election laws so that some minorityrepresentation was required and, for similar reasons, got rid of jury trials.This system combined with some geographic quotas on concentrations seemed towork.Therest of the book turns to foreign policy, another area in which Lee wasparticularly adept. Lee seemed to find the US a frustrating ally.
At times heseems to be openly mocking the apparent randomness of American foreign policy.He was also frustrated by American heavy-handedness. He sums up his view ofAmericans as follows:Iviewed Americans with mixed feelings. I admired their can-do approach butshared the view of the British establishment of the time that the Americanswere bright and brash, that they had enormous wealth but often misused it.
Itwas not true that all it needed to fix a problem was to bring resources to bearon it. Many American leaders believed that racial, religious, and linguistichatreds, rivalries, hostilities, and feuds down the millennia could be solvedif sufficient resources were expended on them.Theyi.
e. American professors were too politically correct. Harvard wasdeterminedly liberal. No scholar was prepared to say or admit that there wereany inherent differences between races or cultures or religions.
They held thathuman beings were equal and a society only needed correct economic policies andinstitutions of government to succeed. They were so bright I found it difficultto believe that they sincerely held these views they felt compelled to express..
. .Ilearned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi-experts,especially academics in the social and political sciences. They have pettheories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideal, especiallyhow poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always tried to becorrect, not politically correct.
Leesupported US involvement in Vietnam. Even following the war, he defended it,since it bought time for other Asian nations to build up their own defensesagainst the Communists.Perhapsthe most interesting chapters in the book are Lee’s comparisons betweenSingapore and other countries. There are two that I will particularlyremember: Ceylon and Hong Kong.Ceylonand Singapore became independent commonwealth Commonwealth countries and bothare island nations. Anyone looking at the two countries at independence wouldhave bet that Ceylon had the brighter future. However, both countries haddiverse populations and Ceylon pursued a more democratic route following itsindependence.
Lee sums up the results: “During my visits to Ceylon over theyears, I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did notsolve its basic problem,” which was ethnic conflict.Lee’scontrast of Hong Kong and Singapore was also interesting. Hong Kong was in aposition that prevented it from becoming an actual nation – doing so would havethreatened China. Singapore, on the other hand, had no choice but to become anation to avoid being swallowed by Malaysia.
And it certainly did become anation.Inconclusion, Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic andruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianismwhich was exemplified in media restrictions and heavy-handed libel rules whichsaw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents.
But healso genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy,which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, anddiversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing andgas processing. Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-partyrule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky tohave had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic andinternational politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions.