The Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew


Befitting an individual who will be turning 90 this year, Lee Kuan Yew is increasingly reflective these days—about his life, the memories that he shared with his wife of 60 years, and the lives that their three children have led.  Unlike most his age, however, he is also preoccupied with the challenges that his country will confront when he is gone.  And Singapore truly is his country: he served as its founding father, its prime minister (1959-90), its senior minister (1990-2004), and its minister mentor (2004-11).  As Nicholas Kristof observed in a review of Lee’s 2000 memoir, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, “[o]ther leaders have reshaped nations—Kemal Ataturk in Turkey, Lenin in Russia, Deng Xiaoping in China—but no one left a deeper imprint on his people than Lee.”

Lee is concerned that future leaders of Singapore may take for granted the peace and prosperity that it now enjoys.  The further removed one is from the struggles that made them possible, after all, the more likely one is to act as though they are organic conditions rather than fleeting ones; and, it follows, the less urgency one is likely to demonstrate in striving for their preservation.  He also fears that Singapore may be squeezed amidst growing strategic distrust between the Asia's two giants, China and India.   

Interestingly, though, for someone who cuts as complex and contentious a figure, Lee is not that concerned about how others appraise him and his policies.  “I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls,” he once said, echoing a sentiment that he has conveyed throughout his career.  “I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.”  As for his legacy, he insists on being remembered for the virtues that he embodied, not the positions that he attained.  He told a group of journalists from the Straits Times that he is “determined, consistent, persistent.  I set out to do something.  I keep on chasing it until it succeeds.  That is all….Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.”

Lee’s policies have elicited great criticism over the decades, as has the determination with which he has pursued them; as a quick Google search will reveal, some hail him as a visionary while others denounce him as an authoritarian.  Regarding the breadth of his perspective, however, there is far less debate.  As Seth Mydans noted in a September 2010 profile, when his conversation with Lee shifted “from introspection to geopolitics…he grew vigorous and forceful, his worldview still wide ranging, detailed and commanding.”  I was able to catch a glimpse of that worldview in December 2011 and March 2012, when I accompanied Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill to meet with him in Singapore.  Here are some of the questions on which he meditated at length:

 - “Are Chinese leaders serious about displacing the United States as the number one power in Asia?”

 - “Is the United States in systemic decline?”

 - “How should U.S. policies and actions adjust to deal with the rise of China?”

 - “Will India rise to become a great power, and if so, on what timeline?”

 - “What are Russia’s long-term prospects?”

 - “What lessons have you learned from the global financial crisis?”

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. 

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief