Testament to power: remembering Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

‘We start with self-reliance,’ said the late Lee Kuan Yew in a 1994 interview. ‘In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.’

On 22 March 2015 Lee passed away at age ninety-one. The end of his remarkable life offers a sobering reflection on what it takes to actually build an economic pie and not just cut it up – a practice many of today’s democratic practitioners appear exceptional at.

Singapore now thrives alongside the Silicon Valleys and Tel Avivs of the world. Back in the 1960s, however, Malaysia effectively dusted its hands of the small nation by forcing it to break away.

A future of poverty and desperation appeared likely until Lee, warding off communist subversion and the revolving emergence of security threats, turned Singapore’s slim fortunes around. ‘He did not just pilot Singapore to prosperity,’ added Margaret Thatcher, ‘he became the most trenchant, convincing and courageous opponent of left-wing Third World nonsense in the Commonwealth.’

In his revealing memoir The Singapore Story Lee admits to flirting with socialism and Marxist theories of development – a legacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, of his Cambridge years. When taking the reins of Singapore, however, at just 35 years of age, he shed the vogue fascination of government-sponsored egalitarianism. He came to ‘realise’, unlike his post-colonial African peers, that individual self-agency and not government largesse was the true ‘driving force for progress throughout human history.’

‘That realisation had to wait until the 1960s,’ he wrote, ‘when I was in charge of the government of a tiny Singapore much poorer than Britain, and was confronted with the need to generate revenue and create wealth before I could even think, let alone talk, of redistributing it.’

His template for success had two planks – stability then education. ‘First, you must have order in a society,’ he reflected. ‘Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent and knowledgeable people.’ Lee, of course, meant a real education and real skills – more engineers and entrepreneurs, for example, versus flower-arrangers and personal fitness trainers.

Armed with an uncomfortable frankness Lee never shied away from cultural or racial explanations for Singapore’s Confucian-inspired success. As a young boy, observing the sweating Indian and Chinese labourers building Singapore, Lee recorded his own cross-cultural comparisons. ‘One Chinese would carry one pole with two wicker baskets of earth,’ he told Australian journalist Paul Sheehan, ‘whereas two Indians would carry one pole with one wicket basket between them. Now that’s culture.’ This kind of steely resolve, welded to a good education and a commitment to family, meant Singaporeans developed in leaps and bounds.

Lee could deliver equally blunt comparisons of Singapore’s neighbours, especially when it came to stability and his assessment of conflict as a drag on development. Nations like Cambodia and Vietnam, he said, were simply ‘passed by’ due to their conflict-ridden pasts. ‘Allowing Japan to send its forces abroad,’ he said of the World War Two aggressor, ‘is like giving liquor to an alcoholic.’

Today, of course, no leader can be given such latitude in their public comments. But Lee never seemed to deliver these blunt observations with a stuffy elitism, especially when it came to giving people the keys to prosperity. At his core, I believe, he carried that classic conservative sense of compassion – dignity is not achieved by hand-outs but by hand-ups. People, not government, ultimately deliver progress and Western safety nets, increasingly unaffordable, undermine rather than enhance progress.

He was eclectic about the West by tugging at its good parts – capitalism, innovation, education, rule of law, English – while leaving others behind – crime, family disintegration and entitlement. But in his cultural assessments one could detect subtle chinks in Lee’s armour. It seems he never quite understood some aspects of Western culture in the way he forensically understood his own 4,000 years of Confucian heritage.

I can think of two examples, which both apply to neighbouring Australia. First, Lee did not ‘get’ Australia when it came to cultural aspects like egalitarianism. In his memoir he reveals a small example from World War Two where he silently cheered the ‘unbroken and doughty’ marching of captured Scottish and Ghurka soldiers compared to the rag-tag nature of the Aussies.

But, by looking more closely at Australian culture, we see that excessive pomp and ceremony have generally not translated well from Britain onto Australia. During World War Two, in particular, it was observed that Australian forces enjoyed a flat and almost non-formal atmosphere relative to other Allied forces. Having ‘the lowest saluting rate in the world’, in the words of Donald Horne, does not inspire ‘unbroken and doughty’ marching. What counted was impeccable fighting capabilities and boundless sacrifice – accolades fused into Australia’s cultural DNA.

Second, Lee’s famous warning that Australia risked becoming ‘the poor white trash of Asia’ if it did not open its economy seemed to be delivered with a hint of low expectations. He may have thought Australia’s truculent parliamentary democracy, with its noisy oppositions and expanding welfare state, did not have the endurance to make tough and necessary macroeconomic changes in the interests of long-run prosperity.

Perhaps this was inspired by his belief that Western governments simply try too hard to solve everyone’s problems ‘through popular mandate’. Granted, burdensome government and obsessive debt-financing now seem to be chiselled features of the Western landscape – elements of decline that Lee warned to stay away from. But there is clearly more depth to culture in the West, or at least more variations, that Lee did not always seem to appreciate.

This inspires the ultimate question we will continue to ask for some time. Would Singapore be where it is today if Lee adopted strict Western parliamentary democracy? Probably not, reflects Robert Kaplan. ‘Had Lee,’ writes Kaplan in Warrior Politics, ‘… subscribed to America’s doctrine of individual liberties, the meritocracy, public honesty, and economic success fostered by his mild authoritarianism might have been impossible.’

Ultimately, there are great lessons to pass onto the next generation of leaders from Lee’s great life. Thrift, hard work and frugality are not the sole domain of skin colour or complexion but accessible values for anyone seeking to do well. And power, when used wisely, is not always something to be sceptical of. ‘Power is essential,’ said the late American Senator Edward Brooke, ‘power is what gets things going.’ In Lee we found a decent example.

Published at Menzies House

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