Singapore and the Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew

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Singapore and the Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew

The thinking of its former prime minister has profoundly shaped Singapore’s foreign policy.

Singapore and the Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew
Credit: REUTERS/Tim Chong

The “Great Man Theory of History” most eloquently articulated by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1797-1881) is perhaps not very fashionable with historians today. It was Carlyle who penned the memorable quote – “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle might have exaggerated the role of great men and undervalued the social, economic and other forces that shaped his “heroes,” but I do not think we should completely disregard the importance and influence of certain individuals. Rather, a more nuanced approach is warranted. Indeed, as the American psychologist and philosopher William James argued in his October 1880 lecture to the Harvard Natural History Society, great men do have the capacity to influence and shape the thoughts of society.

Thus, I believe it is not out of place to approach the study of Singapore’s foreign policy through the perspective of Lee Kuan Yew. According to S. Rajaratnam, the first and longest serving foreign minister of Singapore, Singapore’s foreign policy was shaped principally by him and Lee Kuan Yew, with contributions from Dr. Goh Keng Swee (the first defence and finance minister) when there were economic implications. Indeed, historians who have perused the archival documents, both in Singapore and abroad, would attest that it is impossible to re-construct the history of Singapore’s foreign policy without constant reference to Lee because he figures so prominently in most of the documents. Lee’s influence owed to both his strong character and longevity is without doubt. Rajaratnam died in 2006 at the age of 91 and Goh in 2010 at the age of 92. Both had been inactive politically for many years prior to their passing. Although he retired as prime minister in 1990, Lee assumed the position of senior minister and later minister mentor until 2011. Second-generation leaders like Goh Chok Tong (who became Singapore’s second prime minister) gained much from Lee’s “mentoring sessions” – usually over lunch. Goh recalled that the lunches were always “serious affairs,” where “we didn’t discuss light topics. It was always political… what was happening in the region and how (these events) would affect us.” In the words of another mentee, Lim Chee Onn (Minister and NTUC Secretary-General), Lee Kuan Yew “passed on a lot of his experience, his way of thinking, his way of analysis and of course, his own interpretations and assessments of situations. Not just the related facts, but also the way you look at things.” Indeed, Asad Latif in his 2009 book described Lee as still a guiding force in Singapore’s foreign policy.

In explaining a state’s foreign policy, international relations scholars adopt what is described as “levels of analysis”: (a) the characteristics/mindset of the individual leaders (“agency”), (b) the state’s domestic political system (“structure”), (c) the external environment (“international context”), or some combination of the three. Here, I have chosen to focus on “agency,” in this case Lee Kuan Yew, and the intellectual assumptions underlying Singapore’s approach to world affairs under his leadership and guidance, rather than documenting the execution of foreign policy or diplomatic exchange – an explanation of the evolution of Singapore’s foreign policy rather than its application. Bearing in mind Raymond Aron’s dictum that strategic thought “draws its inspiration each century, or rather at each moment in history, from the problems which events pose,” Lee’s tenure as prime minister coincided with the period of the Cold War. His time as senior minister (a title that he assumed after stepping down as prime minister in November 1990) and minister mentor (August 2004-May 2011) fell rather neatly into the post-Cold War period. Anyone following Lee’s strategic thinking and its evolution from the 1950s, when he first embarked on a political career, to the present will discover that he had a very well developed sense of history and a dynamic grasp of geostrategic reality.

As Alexander George noted, “… the way in which leaders of nation-states view each other and the nature of world political conflict is of fundamental importance in determining what happens in relations among states… The foreign policy of a nation addresses itself not to the external world, as is commonly stated, but rather to “the image of the external world” that is in the minds of those who make foreign policy.” As Lee is so influential in the making of Singapore’s foreign policy – indeed one cannot miss the echoes of Lee’s thinking in every single foreign policy speech and interview given by the second and third generation Singapore leadership – an understanding of his beliefs and premises is imperative for anyone interested in understanding and analyzing Singapore’s foreign policy, because they serve as “a prism” that shapes “his perceptions and diagnoses of international politics and also “provide norms, standards and guidelines” that influence Singapore’s choice of “strategy and tactics, structuring and weighing of alternative courses of action.”

While much have been written about Lee and his leadership role in the development of Singapore, almost all have focused on his domestic policies and on issues of governance, with very little on his foreign policy thinking. This is somewhat surprising considering that Lee is generally acknowledged as Asia’s leading strategic thinker, one who does not flatter but “who is known, from time to time to, to speak bluntly,” and someone who helps “us find direction in a complicated world.” Former U.S. President Richard Nixon recalled Lee as one of the ablest leaders he had met, comparing him to Winston Churchill. The link between the two may appear on the surface tenuous. Yet in his political career, Lee would indeed become Churchillian in his own right, a “big man on a small stage,” a leader “who, in other times and places, might have attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.” Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who did not share all of Lee’s views, particularly with regards to China, described him as “undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished practitioners of statecraft.” And former U.S. President Bill Clinton described Lee as “one of the wisest, most knowledgeable, most effective leader in any part of the world for the last 50 years.”

Lee has been described as one “known for his outspoken views” and “one of Asia’s most candid commentators on regional and security issues.”In fact, Lee has indirectly given some advice on how to interpret his political speeches and related statements. In his speeches, talks and interviews, Lee said he needed to strike a balance between (a) “maintaining confidence and stability” with “the need to alert people” and (b) being polite and also truthful (“I have to be polite but also don’t want to be untruthful”). In an interview not long after the fall of Saigon, Lee said that any person in office in Southeast Asia, any minister, any person carrying responsibilities, had to weigh on the one hand, what he says for his internal and international audience so as not to shake confidence and, on the other hand, if he says that all was well when everything was not well, risk being discredited in a few weeks or months. Historians seeking to make use of Lee’s public statements to understand his thinking should bear this in mind.

Pragmatist, Not Ideologue

Lee had this uncanny ability to foresee the political trends that helped Singapore to be so nimble in the conduct of its foreign relations. On more than one occasion, Lee has said that he is not an ideologue but a pragmatist and that his thinking and worldview were not shaped by any particular theory but “the result of a gradual growing up from a child to adolescent to a young student to a mature adult.” In this sense, he is rather Lockean in affirming that knowledge comes from experience. In his conversation with Tom Plate, he said, “I am not great on philosophy and theories. I am interested in them, but my life is not guided by philosophy or theories, I get things done and leave others to extract the principles from my successful solutions. I do not work on a theory. Instead I ask: what will make this work?…So Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, I am not guided by them. I read them cursorily because I was not interested in philosophy as such. You may call me a ‘utilitarian’ or whatever. I am interested in what works.” In response to a question that his views were quite Darwinian, Lee’s reply was “it’s not quite Darwinian. It’s something that I’ve observed empirically. I didn’t start off with any theory. I didn’t start off with Edward Wilson. Wilson just gave me an intellectual basis and an example, but I’ve observed this.” Note that Lee did not deny that he held certain Darwinian views. It is worth noting the similarity of his March 24, 1965 speech and what he said in 2008-9 in reply to a question about the overarching framework which shapes his understanding of international relations: “It’s always been the same from time immemorial. A tribe wants more space, wants to take over the territory of other tribes, they fight and they expand. Even when it is part of them and they become a different unit, they still fight, for supremacy….” Bringing this to its logical conclusion, Lee predicts that by the 22nd century, China and the United States would either have to learn to co-exist or would destroy each other. Although Lee claims that he does not adhere to any theory or philosophy of foreign policy, and while he might not have started off with any theory in mind, his overall thinking does resemble that of a “soft realist.”

Lee’s life-long preoccupation was the survival of Singapore. This was his perennial foreign policy challenge – How to “seize opportunities that come with changing circumstances or to get out of harm’s way.” In his view, to achieve this would require “a prime minister and a foreign minister who are able to discern future trends in the international political, security and economic environment and position ourselves (Singapore) bilaterally or multilaterally to grasp the opportunities ahead of others.” While foreign ministry officers or diplomats can give insightful recommendations, “it is ultimately the prime minister and other key ministers who decide on change in policies.”

In his late 80s, Lee remained concerned “that a younger generation of Singaporeans no longer regarded his views with the same weight and relevance as older citizens who had rallied around him unwaveringly in the country’s tumultuous journey to nationhood.” He felt an urgent need to find a way to “engage” the younger generation. The result was a third book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, culled from sixteen 16 lengthy interviews he gave between December 2008 and October 2009. The book adopted a question-and-answer format that presumably would appeal to younger readers. Two years later, in 2013 and in the 90th year of his life, Lee published One Man’s View of the World, his last book. Utilizing a hybrid of the narrative-interview approach, One Man’s View of the World brings his views on foreign affairs and global issues such as the international economy, energy and climate change up to-date.

It is noteworthy that even before Singapore became independent, Lee Kuan Yew had formed a broad strategic outlook of international affairs, forged by his experience of the Japanese occupation during World War II, and his observation of the postwar developments and British response to the Cold War division of Europe and the formation of the U.S.-led military blocs to counter and contain the Soviet-led communist bloc. While Lee noted the positive impetus that the Soviet challenge to European imperialism gave to the decolonization of British and French colonies, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, he also saw how the nationalist struggle for independence in the colonies were driven by the competing appeals of communism and communalism. He was also keenly aware of how communal conflicts underpinned regional conflicts over disputed territory such as that of India-Pakistan.

Psychological Dimension

Lee was attuned to the psychological dimension of international events and big power politics, for example, the U.S. intervention in Indochina and the U.K. military withdrawal from east of Suez. He was prescient in projecting the shifting balance of power from a European-Western dominance of the period from the 1500s to the 1900s, to one in which China and India, and Asia in general, would become dominant once again in the 2lst century. By 1985, he already foresaw the rise of Asia in the 21st century, anticipated the inexorable rise of China, and to a lesser extent India, with the relative reduction of influence of the Western world.

Lee was impressed by the realities of power behind the formalism in the United Nations and other international organizations and the importance of having the ability to enforce sanctions to uphold international law. He saw the need for small states to arrange relationships with bigger countries to ensure their independence and to exercise indirect influence. At the same time, he had a clear vision of the possibilities and limits of multilateral organizations such as the Afro-Asian Solidarity Organization and Movement of Non-Aligned Nations and the Commonwealth of Nations. While acknowledging the need for Singapore to join these organizations to gain acceptance, Lee was realistic about their ability to protect and promote the interests of members against the efforts of the superpowers to divide and patronize them. He always stressed the need for Singapore to be nimble and alert to ensure that in any arrangement or shifts in the balance of power it had the preponderant force on its side.

Lee was equally conscious of the important nexus between economics and politics. He addressed this issue as early as 1966 and did so again on various occasions throughout his political career. Many of his speeches and interviews particularly after the end of the Cold War were on the international political economy. He has also shown an interest in technological change and its implications for global politics. In the post-Cold war period, he has also addressed, albeit briefly, on non-traditional security issues such as climate change.

Almost fifty years after his first speech (in March 1965) on the future of Malaysia, Lee Kuan Yew has continued to espouse a clear vision of global trends and geostrategic developments in an ever-changing world. Starting from first principles, he saw the survival of small states like Singapore as being intertwined with the stability and well-being of their regional neighborhood and the dynamic balance and economic interaction of the global powers.

Finally, Lee Kuan Yew has been very committed to the fundamentals of his philosophy of foreign policy. He has also been remarkably consistent in his views about the balance of power, the inter-relationship between economics and politics, and the role of the great powers in the international system. He certainly had the ability to sense change, for example, the need to cultivate the Americans when the British could no longer be counted on, or the rise of China. But for all the accolades that have been heaped on him, he professed that he did not know when he started his political life in the 1950s that he would be on the winning side of the Cold War and that Singapore would be what it is today – an implicit reminder of the role of contingency in the study of history, even though this essay has focused on the perception and role of one man.

As Louis Halle said, “what the foreign policy of any nation addresses itself is the image of the external world in the minds of the people who determine the policy of that nation.” In the case of Singapore, it is surely the worldview of Lee Kuan Yew that has been most influential.

Ang Cheng Guan is presently Head of Graduate Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of numerous books, including Lee Kuan Yew’s Strategic Thought (London: Routledge, 2013). He is currently working on two book projects: Southeast Asia and the Cold War, 1945–1991: An International History and its sequel, Southeast Asia and the Post-Cold War: The First Thirty Years.