Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew’s Enduring Legacy

To understand and emulate Singapore’s success, other countries must try to understand the mind of its visionary leader.

By Manish Gyawali

April 02, 2015

In Nepal, prime ministers often do not rule for long, and their reign is often chaotic, and in the end, inconsequential. But they often begin with grand proclamations. In particular, many have begun their terms with a promise to turn their country into the “next” Singapore. And Nepal is not alone. Throughout Asia, Singapore’s success has long fascinated and inspired leaders and visionaries. And one man embodies that success – Singapore’s first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Indeed, few Asian leaders are as revered as Lee. Witness the outpouring of praise for him upon his death. Fewer still have made such an impact on Asia’s rulers by ruling over a tiny city-state. Because of Lee, Singapore has, like America, like Japan, transcended boundaries to become an idea that stands for something unique and powerful – an oasis of peace, stability and prosperity in a neighborhood that is often racked by turmoil. Lacking any significant natural resource, Singapore instead turned towards educating its population and cleverly exploiting its unique geostrategic location. Lee was a visionary, but he was also a pragmatist. He understood the limitations of his tiny country just as well as he understood its potential for greatness. He saw clearly the trend towards globalization, and how his country was uniquely situated to take advantage of it. All it needed was the right infrastructure – and he helped to develop it. He opened the economy and made Singapore a notable financial center. He developed its port – until recently the busiest in the world. He built an international airport that has long been considered the world’s most efficient and hassle free.

Lee would remain a pragmatist throughout his life. In this, he much resembled another leading figure: China’s most towering post-Maoist leader Deng Xiaoping. In fact, for Deng, tiny Singapore provided a sort of blueprint for developing his own country. During the Maoist era, China was often messy and violent. Singapore, by contrast, worked smoothly. Its people were prosperous and there were no disturbances. Lee, whose grandparents came from Guandong in Southern China, seemed to have created a perfectly harmonious society in Singapore, one that even Confucius might admire.

Singapore is far from a perfect society. Its harmony can seem a little forced. But to his credit, Lee was unafraid to admit that his country, like many others, needed a guiding hand. Lee never tried to claim that he had developed the perfect democracy. At heart, he was a conservative who believed that family, above and beyond anything else, was the true building block of society – certainly more than the individual. Family provided the support to the individual and the moral fiber of society. In an interview he gave Fareed Zakaria in 1994, Lee deplored the erosion of the “moral underpinnings” of society in the West. This happened partly because in the West, the individual became removed from family and society. Yet, even as he retained a deep faith in familial values, and in the power of culture and society to restrain aggressive individualism, Lee was willing to allow changes to occur in society if that seemed to improve overall welfare. A very good illustration of this was his decision to allow casinos to operate in Singapore. As a traditionalist and a strict disciplinarian, he was fundamentally averse to gambling. Yet, with his blessing, they were finally allowed to open in the city state – albeit under tightly regulated conditions. The objective, as always, was to find a pragmatic, middle path. Gambling can bring in needed revenues, but it could have severe social costs on Singaporeans themselves. But the compromise that Singapore devised was to pass laws that do not explicitly bar natives from visiting casinos, but to impose significant costs on them so as to discourage them from the habit. The compromise attitude towards gambling contrasts with the uncompromising attitude towards drugs. Singapore has one of the world’s harshest drugs policies – even small amounts can be used as evidence of intent to distribute. In fact, Singapore has long had one of the highest per capita execution rates of any country on earth, and the majority of these are related to drug trafficking. Visitors to the country are told in no uncertain terms that the punishment for drug trafficking is death. Punishments for other crimes are also relatively harsh. In fact, severe punishments for violations of norms begin in schools. Caning, for instance, is permissible and even encouraged in schools as a method of controlling unruly children. Lee wanted to impress order and discipline into the very fabric of his society. To do that, he needed to start with the young.

Above all, Lee deplored chaos. And having developed in Singapore an ordered, even conformist society, he was not afraid to prescribe similar solutions to other countries that faced the threat of chaos – countries often vastly larger and more complex than his. Had anyone other than he done that, it would have been considered overreach. Which other leader of a country of a few million tucked in one corner of the world is taken seriously? But under Lee, the success of Singapore had been so striking that there was almost no option but to listen. Herein lay his claim to greatness – that his “model” was applicable not just to his city state – but to the world at large. And his model essentially was a pragmatic alternative to the Western democratic ideal. In an interview he gave to the German magazine Der Spiegel in 2005, he stated that he could not base “his system” on Western democratic norms, but had to “amend” to suit “his people.” He noted especially how in a multiethnic society like his, Western democracy was bound to result in stalemate and foster chaos. Thus, in such a society, there was no alternative to strong leadership that would guide democracy in the desired fashion. That was why he so often discarded the notion that India would be able to catch up with China. India was a multiethnic state where the people often identified less with the state than their own ethnicities or communities, leading to fractiousness and political paralysis. For this reason, Lee greatly admired Indira Gandhi, considering her to be a more forceful leader than Margaret Thatcher. Given his disdain for India’s messy political system, it seems natural that he would support a strongly authoritarian leader like Gandhi who could bring order to the chaos. Moreover, in an interview with the conservative American journalist William Safire in 1999, Lee deplored the sudden collapse of the USSR, arguing that the power vacuum there gave rise to chaos and widespread crime. One could thus argue that he wasn’t a mere “pragmatist.” Clearly he believed that society had to be restrained – by the family at the individual level and by the strong hand of the state at the larger level.

Of course, Lee was not the only one in Asia who thought that Western-style democracy brought more problems than solutions. Many leaders in the region believe that the kind of “guided democracy” that Lee implemented in Singapore is especially appropriate to their societies. Many think that Western models of democracy are neither appropriate nor applicable in Asia. Yet, for all their enthusiasm for the Singapore model, few leaders have been able to emulate its successes. Singapore’s success owes to Lee Kuan Yew’s exceptional ability to control and guide his small country in the direction he wanted to. With the very noticeable exception of Deng Xiaoping, Lee’s admirers and followers have been unable to follow his lead.

Meanwhile Lee himself became aware of the shortcomings of his model when applied to more complex societies. Where once he had looked at India’s messy politics with a measure of disdain, he began to show some respect for what the world’s largest democracy had accomplished. And he was put off by questions of nepotism – never quite managing to explain why in a meritocracy his children held such powerful governmental positions. When William Safire asked him if his son, Lee Hsien Loong, could have deputy prime minister if he was just an ordinary citizen, Lee wittily replied that he would have been the prime minister instead. The fact that his son was deputy prime minister, he further added, was entirely due to his own merits. It was a clever, but unsatisfying answer.

Even more unsettling was the social unrest that occurred in 2013. Because it was quickly put down and was not repeated, that particular case of rioting was deemed an isolated incident by the authorities – yet it may be a sign that it is not enough for a country to have law and order alone. Singapore’s new leaders may have to deal with new problems, and look with new eyes at old problems. Lee’s reputation is secure, but new leaders will have to add to his achievements and perhaps do things differently. Lee has left behind a monumental legacy, but time does not stand still, and his successors will have to adapt to newer times, problems and circumstances. They have to show themselves to be as flexible and perceptive as he was. Singapore’s success began in an era in which globalization was only beginning. Today, it is a much more potent force. If the dynamics of globalization are correctly understood and harnessed, this force could lead the little city-state to ever greater heights; if not, it could lose its luster as the “next” Singapore emerges, perhaps in the most unexpected of places.

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.

[Some insights, but some cookie-cutter analysis at the end - like the Little India riot was "social unrest"? And "it may be as sign"?... Yeah. It MAY BE a lot of things. Innuendo and sly almost-accusations based on a wink and a nod is not analysis. It is gossip at best beneath the thin veneer of scholarship. But it was the last para. He was probably tired.

Compare with the analysis below, which I though was more insightful and incisive. Or maybe it just uses bigger words.]


Singapore and the Worldview of Lee Kuan Yew

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

By Ang Cheng Guan

March 04, 2015

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 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.

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