Lee Kuan Yew: Asia’s Confucianist Edmund Burke
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Lee Kuan Yew: Asia’s Confucianist Edmund Burke

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Having achieved a measure of infamy notoriety, the Naval Diplomat receives the occasional unsolicited book for review … and sometimes actually reviews it.

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World came over the transom last spring. As the title implies, Lee Kuan Yew is a volume of commentary from the Singaporean eminence grise on, well, most anything relating to politics and culture in the Indo-Pacific region. That's an advantage of age (or so I hear): you can speak your mind. To his credit, Lee speaks his mind in more elevated fashion than, ah, certain equally outspoken wise man this side of the Pacific.

Harvard professors Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill assemble a sample of Lee's interviews, speeches, and published writings. They arrange the materials by theme, covering such topics as the futures of China, the United States, and India; future interactions likely to play out among Asian states, large and small; and the future of economic growth, globalization, and geopolitics. Yep, future is the common denominator among the chapters.

One small gripe. Allison and Blackwill reserve their compendium of "How Lee Kuan Yew Thinks" until the very end. It makes sense to grasp someone's worldview before asking him about the world. Why not let the elder statesman explain his political and philosophical leanings right up front?

And in any event, this is the best chapter in the book. Asked what strategic principles guide him, Lee sounds something like the Anglo-Irish conservative parliamentarian Edmund Burke (whom he doesn't quote) in his celebrated duel of words with Thomas Paine over the promise and perils of the French Revolution. Lee strikes a Hobbesian note, declaring that "human beings … are inherently vicious and have to be restrained from their viciousness;" proclaims that trying to foist abstract ideals like equality on reality begets "regression," not progress; and agrees with Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek that "powerful intellects" are capable of "unwisdom" when convinced that they "can devise a better system and bring about more 'social justice' than what historical evolution, or economic Darwinism, has been able to work out over the centuries."

Lee, then, portrays himself as a classical liberal — a pragmatist who, like Burke, favors progress through tinkering with socioeconomic arrangements. Improving regimes through incremental, reversible experiments is the best, least dangerous way to improve humanity's lot. Agree or not, that's bracing stuff.

To be sure, it strikes me that Lee's self-proclaimed Confucianism sits uneasily alongside his classical liberalism. It's one thing for everyman to strive to be a gentleman, a family man, and loyal to his emperor … if the emperor rules wisely and humanely, and if you know his successor will as well. But that's the kicker, isn't it? Commodus followed Marcus Aurelius, putting an end to the age of enlightened Roman emperors. Would Lee have maintained fealty to both rulers had he been a classical Roman rather than dwelling in modern Southeast Asia? That seems a tad illiberal.

At any rate, tackle this chapter first, then double back and read the chapters on various countries and phenomena will click for you. The same pungent — but oddly heartening for a red-blooded 'Mercan, like yours truly — commentary runs through the book. A few snippets: "China has more handicaps going forward" than most observers realize, including "cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity." The United States has its problems, but it "has demonstrated a great capacity for renewal and revival." India, alas, has "wasted decades in state planning and controls that have bogged it down in bureaucracy and corruption." Its "caste system has been the enemy of meritocracy," and thus of vibrant national life. Asia's future is far from predestined.

Clearly, this is someone who is no stranger to bold judgments. Last but not least, Lee Kuan Yew exhibits a wry streak of humor. He knows what his detractors say about him, and admits they have a point. Lee abjures the title of statesman while confessing that he had to do "some nasty things" such as "locking fellows up without trial." And history's verdict? "Close the coffin," he jokes, "then decide." And be sure the latch snaps shut. "I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me."

So might we all. Read the whole thing, as they say.

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