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.

Comments
18
papa john
August 14, 2013 at 10:38

You should say in a little more respectful in a civilized way so Mr. Holmes might listen for a few seconds and don't forget your grammar usage as well as spelling. Babbling nonsense doesn’t make you look good. 

Bankotsu
August 13, 2013 at 15:44

"Anybody who look at Harry Lee or LKY himself see only Chinese."

Harry Lee is peranakan. Don't confuse peranakan with chinese. They are different from chinese.

See:

THE BABAS OF SINGAPORE

http://www.managementtoday.co.uk/news/648273/

Errol
August 13, 2013 at 03:52

The curse of bureaucracy. Sometimes to break thru the red tape and get things done, a system needs a leader that will break the rules and to hell with the critics.

Errol
August 13, 2013 at 03:49

For the nth time, modern China is not a true communist state. Case in point is how Mao would react if he were to see what has become of the China he left behind. Elite families have become the mainstays in the CCP and they hold the most wealth. People run businesses and they keep their profits. What we have in China is a ultracapitalism, without the regulations that would at least guarantee quality for products and services.

Little Helmsman
August 13, 2013 at 02:26

dear Admiral,

What China practice today is fascism not communism.  I don't think you even know what the theoretical doctrine of fascism or communism.  If you think China will continue to grow and overtake the West is wishful thinking and one day you will have to face with reality.  Building an economy through investment and exporting cheap goods to the world is not sustainable.  You're in for quite a surprise!

KIASUKING
August 12, 2013 at 21:05

LKY is god and is Chinese. NOT peranakan. lol

Liang1a
August 12, 2013 at 13:43

Bankotsu wrote:

August 12, 2013 at 11:18 am

"Lee is smart and honest."

That's BS. lol.

http://singaporerebel.blogspot.sg

"Singapore is endangered most by Malaysia and Indonesia because these two countries are anti-ethnic Chinese."

Singapore also suppresses chinese. Don't think that Singapore doesn't suppress chinese. The ruling group in Singapore is peranakan, not chinese. Harry Lee is peranakan.

———————-

Peranakan are just Chinese who have lived in Malaysia for a long time and have "gone native".  Genetically they are still Chinese.  Anybody who look at Harry Lee or LKY himself see only Chinese.  And the Malays certainly see LKY and Harry as Chinese, peranakan or not.  Maybe it is just the "Chineseness" in Harry to deny his own ancestry.  That is, many Chinese can't wait to turn into Americans or Japnese or Australians even.  But in the end, nobody in the world will see the Chinese except as Chinese.

In the end, China will rise again because most of the Chinese are still proud of their long and glorious history.  China still has the most potential to become the greatest power on earth.  China will rise on its own efforts.  Those Chinese who are ashamed of being Chinese can leave.  China can still become great without them.

Kanes
August 12, 2013 at 13:25

Yet another dictator.

It will be interesting to see post-LKW Singapore which is just a couple of years away.

Bankotsu
August 12, 2013 at 11:18

"Lee is smart and honest."  

That's BS. lol.

http://singaporerebel.blogspot.sg

"Singapore is endangered most by Malaysia and Indonesia because these two countries are anti-ethnic Chinese."

Singapore also suppresses chinese. Don't think that Singapore doesn't suppress chinese. The ruling group in Singapore is peranakan, not chinese. Harry Lee is peranakan.

Tikitonko
August 12, 2013 at 09:36

Lee has been basically a dictator in a country with one party rule for decades. He has been praised just because he has made Singapore a wealthy city state.

NerdyQ
August 12, 2013 at 00:07

Hey Holmes, you again? You sure what you are talkin about? LKW and Burke? Lkw is a statesman? Liberal? Good grief. Don't u know what young people's action party boys in spore are doing? Spying! U hav some kinda position there and say sthg bad about Lkw or his son or wife or those highly paid cronies and if those spies hear that, u are out! Won't get tortured but surely can't stay in spore any more. That's how Lee Kingdom of Spore is being run.

Liang1a
August 11, 2013 at 17:35

Little Helmsman wrote:

August 10, 2013 at 6:33 am

He is one the most eminent wise men of Asia. His influence was not only in Asia but he also was an influential and respected voice in the West. Asia is largely free of the communist cancer was because of strong and committed Asian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew. Asian communists like Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, etc. look stupid compare to what he has accomplished versus the track record Asian communists. The world should remember this field marshal of the Cold War.

—————————–

Lee is "admired" in the West only because he is pro-America.  Let him side with China and he will be condemned and denigrated like Marcos and Saddam Hussein.  Singapore is endangered most by Malaysia and Indonesia because these two countries are anti-ethnic Chinese.  But China itself cannot protect Singapore due to its own weakness.  Therefore, Lee had to turn to America for protection like supplying F-16's, etc.  But as America's power and influence wane, Singapore must turn to China for protection.  Then Lee whether he likes it or not must turn to China as the new protector.  Then, the West will say something else about Lee.

Of course, Lee has done remarkably well for Singapore.  I have always said that he is a good example for the Chinese leaders to emulate.  Lee is smart and honest.  These are qualities that Chinese leaders just don't seem to possess.

geoff spencer
August 10, 2013 at 15:10

Good. You fixed it!

9 dashes, 4 dishes, 1 soup
August 10, 2013 at 12:58

I am not a fan of LKY. But he is right about this: 

" India, alas, has "wasted decades in state planning and controls that have bogged it down in bureaucracy and corruption."

— 

The most dangerous enemies India faces today are not outside its borders. They are working in the Indian government bureaucracy. And they are bringing destruction and ruin to one of the world's greatest civilizations. 

 

I love India. But today, it is the home of ugly architecture and bureaucratic paralysis. 

 

  

admiral Cheng
August 10, 2013 at 11:45

"Asia is largely free of the communist cancer was because of strong and committed Asian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew" Little Helmsman.

How sure are you?? With Communism China has reached the top to a point that even the leader of the Capatilists are waiting in line to seek Communist China's help to stay afloat. Asia would have been better off with Communists with China givinga better economic guidence.

Cathal McInerney
August 10, 2013 at 11:42

Another book worth reading on Asian Statesmen, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel.

geoff spencer
August 10, 2013 at 10:25

Hey, you have misspelled his name throughout.

Little Helmsman
August 10, 2013 at 06:33

He is one the most eminent wise men of Asia.  His influence was not only in Asia but he also was an influential and respected voice in the West.  Asia is largely free of the communist cancer was because of strong and committed Asian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew.  Asian communists like Mao, Pol Pot, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il Sung, etc. look damn stupid compare to what he has accomplished versus the track record Asian communists.  The world should remember this field marshal of the Cold  War.  

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