The Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew (Page 2 of 2)

Drawing on his answers to these and many other questions, Lee’s own writings and speeches, and other publicly available sources, we tried to distill his most important strategic insights into a book that was published February 1st, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).

Given the respect that Lee commands among leaders in the U.S. and China, his observations about the dynamics between those two countries are of particular interest.  He does not subscribe to the declinism that is increasingly common among U.S. commentators, emphasizing America’s regenerative capacities as well as the myriad challenges that China confronts in trying to sustain a robust rate of growth.  At the same time, he argues, given China’s historical experience and present momentum, one should not be surprised that it eventually aspires to be the world’s preeminent power.  It is accustomed to a Sino-centric international system in which its neighbors pay it tribute, it will soon have the world’s largest economy, and it is making it harder for the U.S. military to operate in the Asia-Pacific. 

These trends, among others, have crystallized a strategic competition between the U.S. and China.  Unlike most observers, however, Lee was discussing the inevitability of such a competition in the 1990s, when it was common to hear that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had yielded a unipolar international system.  In 1993, for example, in an essay for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Kristof cited Lee’s observation that the international system would have to reconfigure itself to accommodate the China of 30 or 40 years hence.  “China,” Lee noted, “is [not] just another big player.  This is the biggest player in the history of the world.”  Three years later, he ventured that China might be able to contest U.S. preeminence in three decades.

In a nod to his panoramic worldview, Arnaud de Borchgrave dubbed Lee the “Kissinger of the orient” (incidentally, Henry Kissinger has stated on many occasions that no world leader has taught him more than Lee).  One of the limitations to that analogy, of course, is that while Kissinger has had the opportunity to shape the foreign policy of the world’s preeminent power, Lee has been constrained to implementing his vision in one of its smallest countries: with an area of 697 square kilometers, Singapore is only about 3.5 times as large as Washington, DC.  That he emerged as one of the world’s leading strategic thinkers is further remarkable given his responsibilities; while the leader of a stable, secure, and prosperous country might have more time to contemplate trends in international order, he was consumed with far more exigent tasks: creating a country amidst hostile conditions and then preventing it from collapsing.

Given the gravity of those tasks, it is not surprising that Lee has grown accustomed to speaking honestly, succinctly, and forcefully—not as an idle provocateur, but as one who believes that candor is essential to developing prudent policies.  In a January 1950 address to Malay students in England, he stated that “between platitudes and personal convictions…it is my duty to state my convictions vigorously,” and warned against “ignoring unpalatable facts and avoiding unpleasant controversy.” 

It is doubtful that any observer would agree with all of Lee’s judgments (indeed, he would probably be disappointed if one did), especially concerning governance.  Given his success in modernizing Singapore as well as his criticisms of democratic excess—he famously argued in 1992 that the “exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development”—he is often characterized as an enlightened authoritarian who advocates “Asian values.”  He is not, however, a reflexive supporter of the “Beijing Consensus”: essentially, a fusion of authoritarian governance, state capitalism, and incremental reforms.  Indeed, Lee increasingly discusses the challenges that the information revolution will pose to Chinese governance.  Above all, then, he is not an ideologue, but a pragmatist: he does not see governance as the process of executing policy in accordance with principles, but rather, of developing principles by using trial and error to determine which policies work.  This judgment will doubtlessly frustrate those who believe that certain values are intrinsically superior, even universal; given the challenges that presently confront both East and West, however, it has much to recommend it.

Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat.

February 19, 2013 at 20:12

He took what he could from the better aspects of the British administration and threw out the rest. If you look at Singapore closely, you will find a clear Confucian Bureacratic Authoritarian regime just like almost all Chinese dynasties of the past.

There is a strong civil service which selects best candidates from the national (or even Imperial haha) examinations, a strong one party state where the State decides the path and the people/citizenry follow, a state which assumes the function of civil institutions, leading to a comparatively much weaker Civil movement/groups. It does not get more Chinese than that. To top it off, he is a Lee, the same surname as the Tang Dynasty Emperor Lee Shi Min (~700 AD), Prime Minister Li Su of the State of Qin (China, ~3BC), Tang Dynasty poet Li Bai. Hell even his great grand father was a 7th  grade official in the Qing Dynasty in China. He is also Hakka btw, not Hokkien like me. Famous Hakkas include General Guan Yu from the Three Kingdoms Era (200-300 AD) of the State of Shu Han, a historical and literary figure.

We Chinese can do anything to survive and during that era of a bullying drug peddling British Empire, the only way to do so was to study English. We learn from our enemies and be willing to bear great humiliation and subsequently outpower and outperform them. This has been the strategy of Emperor Liu Bang of the Han Dynasty (200BC to ~200 AD) in dealing with the Xiong Nu barbarians to the Northwest, and so it is now.

And yes this is coming from a Singaporean, in case you are wondering.

[...] The Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew ( [...]

February 12, 2013 at 19:34

No one – except PAP politicians – will claim Singapore is a democracy.

February 11, 2013 at 14:05

The malays would finish Harry Lee Kuan Yew off.

February 11, 2013 at 13:47

 "Salute to Lee Kwan Yew!"

Salute this racist crackpot? No

February 11, 2013 at 13:46

Michael Barr on the backward and racist views of Harry Lee Kuan Yew:

Harry Lee Kuan Yew: Race, Culture and Genes 


…This article has described in detail the character of Lee Kuan Yew's racial views 
substantially using his own words as evidence.
After a lifetime of being circumspect 
on the question of race, Lee has finally spoken openly, revealing himself as 
doctrinaire racist.
Yet it would be a mistake to condemn Lee as a hard line racist in 
every sense of the word. Such a characterisation of his views would be a distortion of 
both his logic and his natural disposition.

There can be no doubt that Lee is a racist in 
the sense that he believes that some races and some ethnically-based cultures are 
inherently superior to others.

His own words leave no doubt about this assertion, 
though it should be recognised that this in itself hardly makes him remarkable in Asia…


February 9, 2013 at 22:54

kim's uncle

well said :)

February 9, 2013 at 13:53

"So labelling Singapore not real democracy is overkill."

It's just the facts. Singapore is a one party dictatorship under the control of Lee family and his peranakan clique.

It's not overkill. Don't harbour illusions about Singapore. 

Zhang Jun-lin
February 9, 2013 at 07:20

Whether you like him or not because of his style of politics and governing, Singapore is the best ever leader of a developing country, a visionary, a socially responsible leader, a man who cares for the future of his small country bereft of resources bar human beings. People of neighbouring developing countries are craving for such a leader! Alas, there is none so far ………. ! Salute to Lee Kwan Yew!

February 9, 2013 at 06:35

Uncle Kim,you are exactly liek LKY,bring out the worst and compare to Singapore,that is why in his whole life,LKY only compared Singapore to Bangladish and Africa,or the Phillipno for their maids,an example,to voters,if you dont follow my policy,your mother an sisters will have to work as maids like the Philippines,HaHaha,of course Ang Mohs (The whites) like him because he does not give them economic problems and help to enrich their MNCs,unlike commies but do watch up that commis are getting their inspiration from him,Chairman Xi sent a big delegation to Singapore after taking office on how to get support without democracy,this is going to be the challenge to th Ang Moh Yanks who go around the world claiming that democracy is the ONE!Chairman Xi still wants to prove that it is not with support from Lee KY.

Kim's Uncle
February 9, 2013 at 03:28

Love him or dislike him, the results speak for themselves! Singapore is neither a crappy commie dictatorship or an economic backwater. Under his leadership little Singapore is a 1st world country compare to the mess the commies made everywhere else !

February 9, 2013 at 01:23

Really, all peranakan? Where is the proof besides a silly comment.  Lee Kuan Yew had the support of one critical part of the sinkeh community, the business community and heads of clan associations. 

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