The Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew

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The Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew has been called the “Kissinger of the orient.” As he turns 90 this year, he presents an interesting perspective on geopolitics.

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?”

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.