FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST, THE SINGAPORE STORY
LEE KUAN YEW
Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having led
Singapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in a
few decades. As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and then
Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. So
it is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- The
Singapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book lays
out how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations with
bigger and threatening neighbors as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact,
the latter part takes up most of the book.
been one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had a
traumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of a
federation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differences
and racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraught
by this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resources
and hinterland. But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and his
government made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantial
manufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations.
first chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup with
Malaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fight
against the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomatic
battles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance against
Singapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain,
while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. It
is fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over from
Britain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaotic
and tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under Deng
Xiaoping in the eighties.
relationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighbors
Malaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days of
Singapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towards
Vietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invading
Cambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a little
unreasonable. 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, which
lasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as a
community, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” It
is an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daring
entrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lack
leadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makers
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
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.
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:
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.
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 behavior. American should not foist its system indiscriminately
on other societies where it would not work.
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. If he is making fun of
Americans, he also has a sense of humor similar to my own.
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!
first 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 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.
next thing he did was introduce protectionism:
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.
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 labor. 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
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:
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.
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 leveling down.
foundations for our financial center 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
there, Lee’s goal was to create the best organized country in the region:
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
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 congregated. 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
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:
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 millennia could be solved
if sufficient resources were expended on them.
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.
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.
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 defenses
against the Communists.
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.
and Singapore became independent commonwealth 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.
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
conclusion, Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic and
ruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianism
which was exemplified in media restrictions and heavy-handed libel rules which
saw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents. But he
also genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy,
which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, and
diversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing and
gas processing. Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-party
rule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky to
have had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic and
international politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions.