Lee Kuan Yew: Measure of the man
Eastern Economic Review
September 28, 2000
The Sage of Singapore ASIAWEEK
By David Plott
A STORY MADE THE ROUNDS in Singapore a few years back that went like this: Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew returned from a private visit to India with a small bolt of silk of extraordinary design. He consulted his tailor immediately, who assured him there was just enough fabric to fashion a suit that would fit him perfectly.
Ecstatic, he dashed off to an official meeting in Hong Kong with Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, bringing the silk with him. Following the meeting, he couldn't resist sharing his excitement with Tung, and asked if he could see his tailor for a second opinion. Tung's tailor was flabbergasted at the beauty of the silk, took Lee's measurements, and told him he could easily make him a suit and an extra pair of trousers.
Although Lee was perplexed, he said nothing because he was already late for a flight to Washington, where he was scheduled to see US President Bill Clinton. Following the meeting, he asked to see Clinton's tailor, who took his measurements, and confidently told him he could make two suits and an extra pair of trousers from the bolt of Indian silk.
"What is it about your tailors," Lee later asked the American president, "that makes them so much better than tailors in Singapore and Hong Kong? Mine said he could make me a suit out of this bolt of silk. Tung's tailor said he could make me a suit and an extra pair of trousers. Your tailor, Mr President, can make me two suits and an extra pair of trousers. Is it your technology? Your superior productivity?"
"Certainly not, Senior Minister," replied Clinton. "It's simply that the further away you are from Singapore, the smaller you become."
The joke may be a gentle sideswipe at Lee Kuan Yew's pretensions, but it also neatly captures the paradox of his reputation--the man who founded the tiny Republic of Singapore in 1965 has gone on to become a statesman whose counsel is sought, and often followed, by leaders around the world.
In Lee's case, the paradox has also carried with it a fierce debate over his political and cultural values. This is because Lee, and Singapore itself, are a provocation to those who argue economic progress, social stability, and political influence in the modern world can only be achieved through Western-style democracy. Part Confucius, part Calvin, Lee has argued that a country needs discipline more than democracy, and must have the former before it can hope for the latter.
This second volume of Lee's memoirs, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000, will add immeasurably to that debate, particularly at a time when countries in the region such as Indonesia find their experiments with democracy stalked by chaos.
From Third World to First differs from his first volume, The Singapore Story, in two important respects. It is written around themes, rather than as a historical narrative, and it deals more with other countries and their geopolitical relations with Singapore than with Singapore itself. A consequence of this is that Lee's role as a thinker, political philosopher, pragmatist and social observer emerges far more strongly than in his first volume, where the abiding impression is of a cold-blooded political tactician battling communists and Malay communalists.
The greatest challenge Lee's critics have always had is in trying to explain away the success of Singapore long enough to engage him in a debate about democracy. But what Lee demonstrates in his book is that economic development, not Western-style democracy, was always his priority in transforming Singapore from a backwater to a bellwether. That's not to say he argues against democracy. On the contrary, Lee has always understood the importance of governing with the consent of the people, which is perhaps why he has proven to be so prickly, and inclined to file lawsuits, when criticized publicly. "If we do not stand up to and answer our critics from the foreign media, Singaporeans, especially journalists and academics, will believe that their leaders are afraid of or unequal to the argument, and will lose respect for us," he writes.
What he unfortunately never questions is whether public debate, and Singaporean democracy, would be better served if those criticisms were answered more often in the court of public opinion than in the law courts. Still, those who accuse Lee of being an autocrat with no regard for his people profoundly misunderstand what he has accomplished, how, and why.
Indeed, the first third of this book is a compelling record of the values that lay behind Singapore's transformation. First and foremost, the need to forge a political culture that could accommodate different races, religions and cultures--at a time when neighbouring Malaysia was establishing a nation built on the domination of Malays over ethnic Chinese and Indians. "Both governments recognized that there were such fundamental differences of policy on race, language and culture that what was orthodoxy in Singapore was sedition in Malaysia and vice versa," Lee writes.
But equally important was the need to establish clean government, to rid the country of the dark side of Confucianism--the corruption and nepotism that come with looking after one's own. In a region awash with cronyism, that may be one of Lee's greatest legacies. Ironically, Lee takes exception with observers who attribute the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s to a lack of clean government in many of the afflicted countries. "Western critics have attributed this collapse to what they term 'Asian values': cronyism, guanxi, corruption, backdoor or under-the-counter business practice," Lee writes. "There is no question that these contributed to the crisis and aggravated the damage incurred. But were they the primary causes? The answer must be 'no' because these flaws had been present, almost endemic, since the beginning of the 'Asian miracle' in the 1960s, more than 30 years ago."
Where this book breaks new ground for those who follow Lee's career and the history of Singapore is in the ample, vivid and often startling accounts of Lee's numerous dealings with other world leaders. It is a veritable portrait gallery of statesmen, rogues, nationalists, and political ingénues. There is almost no major leader from 1960 onward with whom he didn't have some encounter. His thumbnail sketches--some of them scalding in their precision--reveal Lee's uncanny ability to size up his political counterparts and weigh how best to deal with them. Indira Gandhi was "practical and pragmatic, concerned primarily with the mechanics of power, its acquisition and its exercise," while her son Rajiv, who succeeded her after her assassination, "was a political innocent who had found himself in the middle of a minefield."
Surely the most controversial assessment Lee provides is of former Indonesian President Suharto. Here again, he takes on the conventional wisdom in the West and defends Suharto for having provided Indonesia, and southeast Asia, with 32 years of peace, stability and prosperity. "I cannot forget that," Lee said at a press conference in Singapore on September 14, recalling the threat Indonesia posed to its neighbours under Suharto's predecessor, Sukarno. Lee neither denies nor defends the corruption rampant under Suharto--and indeed, is withering in his criticism of Suharto's children and their ill-gotten wealth--but insists the prosperity the region enjoyed under Indonesia's stability cannot be taken out of the balance in judging Suharto's legacy.
As for Singapore's future, Lee acknowledged at his press conference: "We are going to change, whether we like it or not." Wishful as it may seem, one cannot help glimpsing in that statement the vision of a gentler democracy in Singapore and an embrace not just of commerce, but of culture as well. That, despite himself, will be Lee's final legacy.