Friday, 3 April 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grandmaster's Insight

A Wise Man for the World
Singapore's philosopher-king on an ascendant China, the threat of Islamism and America's entitlements crisis.
By Karen Elliott House
Feb. 25, 2013 4:19 p.m. ET

China already dominates Asia and intends to become the world's leading power. The United States is not yet a "second rate power," but the inability of its political leaders to make unpopular decisions bodes poorly. Russia, Japan, Western Europe and India are, for the most part, tired bureaucracies. If Iran gets the bomb, a nuclear war in the Middle East is almost inevitable.

These are among the many frank forecasts laid out in a slim volume based on the experiences and insights of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and Asia's ranking philosopher-king for much of the past half-century. Tiny Singapore has always been too small a stage for a leader of Mr. Lee's intellect and ego. His interests have extended across the globe, as has his influence. For decades, world leaders, corporate CEOs, scholars and journalists have made the pilgrimage to Singapore to seek his views.
 "Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World" forms a kind of last testament of the ailing, 89-year-old Mr. Lee. It is based on interviews with Mr. Lee by the authors—Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard's Kennedy School, and Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. diplomat—to which the authors add a distillation of Mr. Lee's speeches, writings and interviews with others over many years.

The book focuses forward on Mr. Lee's prognostications, not backward on his accomplishments. Messrs. Allison and Blackwill refrain from commentary on the man and his ideas, letting readers interpret for themselves. The downside of such restraint is that "Lee Kuan Yew" doesn't truly convey Mr. Lee's combative candor or the exceptional subtlety of mind that I was privileged to experience in my own interviews with Mr. Lee over two decades. It was his combination of penetrating brilliance about the wider world and prickly pettiness in his own Singaporean laboratory (e.g., banning two Dow Jones publications for the sin of free expression) that made him so fascinating.

Beyond Singapore, China has always been Mr. Lee's primary focus. China, he says, is determined to be "the greatest power in the world," and it expects to be accepted on its own terms, "not as an honorary member of the West." Yet despite China's progress over the past 30 years, Mr. Lee says, it has multiple "handicaps" to overcome, chief among them an absence of the rule of law and the presence of widespread corruption. The biggest fear of China's leaders, he says, is popular revulsion at the corrosive effects of graft. The Chinese language itself—which "is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by its society"—is another obstacle to China's great-power aspirations. So is a culture that does not "permit a free exchange and contest of ideas." (Mr. Lee adopted English as Singapore's national language; he never fully adopted free expression.)

While competition between the United States and China is inevitable, Mr. Lee argues, confrontation need not be. (We, of course, might view China's widespread computer hacking as a form of confrontation.) The U.S. shouldn't expect a democratic China: "China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse." In China's 5,000 years of recorded history, he notes, the emperor has ruled by right, and if the people disagree, "you chop off heads, not count heads."
Despite America's political gridlock and excessive debt, Mr. Lee remains optimistic about the future of the United States and its role in the world. In his view, America's "creativity, resilience, and innovative spirit will allow it to confront its core problems, overcome them and regain its competitiveness." Americans believe that they can "make things happen," and thus they usually do.

Still, Mr. Lee worries about the breakdown of civil society in the U.S.—individual rights (not paired with individual responsibility) run amok—and about a growing culture of entitlements. Sociologists, he says, have convinced Americans that failure isn't their fault but the fault of the economic system. Once charity became an entitlement, he observes, the stigma of living on charity disappeared. As a result, entitlement costs outpace government resources, resulting in huge debts for future generations. In the meantime, America's political leaders kick the can down the road to win elections. As so often is the case, Mr. Lee starkly says what others think.

Mr. Lee bluntly blames Saudi Arabia for encouraging the growth of Islamist extremism by financing mosques, religious schools and preachers world-wide to spread its "austere version of Wahhabist Islam." What the West can do, he says, is to give Muslim moderates the confidence to confront extremists for control of the Islamic soul. But, he warns, if moderates continue to be intimidated by extremists, they will find themselves living in repressive theocracies like Iran. And if Iran gets the bomb, other Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt will do so as well, unleashing the specter of regional nuclear war.

Mr. Lee's three political heroes are Charles de Gaulle,Winston Churchill and Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who launched economic reform in the 1980s. The reason for Mr. Lee's admiration: Each held a weak hand at a critical moment in history and, through guts and determination, managed to win. Mr. Lee is a firm believer that leaders are born, though managers can be made, and that leaders should be judged by their accomplishments. "The acid test is in performance, not promises." As with his three heroes, Mr. Lee began with a weak hand in Singapore but, by playing it to maximum effect, made himself a wise man for the world.

Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is the author of "On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future."
Comments in WSJ:
Dixie Swanson1, Mar 3, 2013
I've been to Singapore and read other bios of Lee Kwan Yew. It is the Switzerland of Asia. With 4 million people on a small island, they have built transshipment on a global scale with discipline and hard work. They also have to buy their fresh water from Malaysia and live (secularly) in a sea of Islamic countries such as Indonesia. It is no paradise (and the year 'round heat and humidity put Houston to shame). Right on the Equator, they have built an impressive nation.
They are smart enough to import talent, knowing that 1% of 4 million is too small a talent pool to help them expand into centers for education and medicine, the cognitive industries they are building.
As to repression, Lee was interned in WWII by the Japanese and found that people did not break the rules if punishment was swift, sure and brutal. He felt that for Singapore to flourish, the populace must exhibit some discipline. The (clearly excessive) caning of a foreigner over chewing gum had a rationale.
95% of the people are Han Chinese and not so long ago, they believed that you shouldn't swallow your saliva, thus they spit all the time. Lee hated it, so he banned spitting, thinking it spread disease. (I don't know if it does or does not). Singapore is very clean, unlike other cities, and they take pride in their cleanliness. So it is the spitting of the gum, not the gum that is bad. (By the way, I think gum is not sold in some US Airports as it creates too much mess.)
Their laws are strict. If you are an expat and have a STD, you are deported. They don't like videos of children sent into or out of the country to prevent child pornography.
As a result, they have almost no crime. If you don't like the rules, you leave.

But they have a vigorous defense force, are strong American allies and their Sovereign Wealth Fund was able to bail out Citigroup.

I live in Houston, the population of Singapore, and we can pay our bills, but we sure as heck don't have a Houston Municipal Wealth Fund bailing out banks and making billions off it. But we do have gum on our streets and freedom of expression tagged on our bridges and walls.

Dixie Swanson,
Author, The Accidental President Trilogy: A Political Fable for Our Time

James M. Smith, Feb 26, 2013
Pretty sycophantic "review". Apparently the only thing Lee ever did wrong was to kick the WSJ out of Singapore.
"if the people disagree, "you chop off heads, not count heads."
In Asia, where human life is cheap, that is a standard model of governance.

Steven Hoskins, Feb 26, 2013
There is no doubt that he is/was a dictator. However once every few hundred year a benevolent dictator actually arises who improves his country and makes it a far better place than when he arrived.
Lee was not perfect, but no one in the modern era has a better track record of improving the lot of his people than Mr. Lee.

James M. Smith, Feb 26, 2013
I am thankful to not be one of "his people".

Steven Hoskins, Feb 26, 2013
I guess if you can't appreciate low taxes, low regulations and freedom far greater that what we have here in America, I can't make you like the guy. Personally I think he's a hero and everyone but the communists and socialists in his country loved him.
Do you have something personal against Mr. Lee?

Mary Childs, Feb 26, 2013
Thanks for your post. Most Americans have no idea what the rest of the world is actually like, and they don't bother checking , although the summaries of all countries are on the internet via the annual "Index of Economic Freedom" where Hong Kong and Singapore top the list.....Part of their success is because they are small, like Switzerland. The other has to do no doubt with their being introduced to freedom and the rule of law by Britain.

Joe Hanko, Feb 26, 2013
Sounds like Lee would be a dramatic upgrade for us in the White House. All he needs is a birth certificate from Hawaii, and POOF!, we have a fixer instead of a faker.

Gary Gill, Feb 26, 2013
Great thoughts by an Elite Fascist. Truly rare.

James M. Smith, Feb 26, 2013
Elite fascists abound.

Steven Hoskins, Feb 26, 2013
He's an elitist and a dictator, but he is far from a fascist. A fascist is one who through force of arms or law takes over the countries businesses and uses them to forward his own political agenda. (i.e. The Bushes, the Clintons and Obama)
Mr. Lee has done the opposite and made Singapore the most economically free nation in the world (with the possible exception of Hong Kong)

Remembering MM Lee Kuan Yew:

Classic MM Lee:

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