Rethinking Confucius: Lee Kuan Yew recants
January 28, 2001
By Michael Hirsh NEWSWEEK WEB EXCLUSIVE
Forget what I said about "Asian Values", declares the sage of Singapore
BEFORE the Asian financial crisis hit, there was no more brilliant champion of "Asian values" than Lee Kuan Yew, the near-legendary senior minister who transformed Singapore from a mosquito-ridden backwater into an economic paradigm.
Journalists seeking insight into what was then known as the Asian miracle regularly beat a path to his door, hoping for Delphic soundbites on what made Asian economies perform so well. And Lee was only too happy to oblige: In a famous 1994 interview in Foreign Affairs, he lectured Americans on the failures of their society. "We use the family to push economic growth," Lee said. "We were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop: the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty and the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning."
Today Lee takes a somewhat different view. At a session on Asia on Jan 27, the white-haired sage repudiated a good deal of what he said back then. "Confucian" values - the term he now prefers - have become all but obsolete under the demands of the global economy, Lee asserted with exactly the same soft-spoken serenity he displayed in 1994. Indeed, Singapore and Hong Kong performed best in weathering the financial crisis not because of Asian values but because of British colonial ones, especially transparency and the rule of law, Lee said. In much of East Asia, Confucian values "led to excesses," especially family cronyism - in other words, investing on the basis of whom one knows rather what they can do with the money. And in most of those countries, investment flows are only back to between 40 and 60 percent of pre-crisis levels, whereas Singapore has fully recovered "because we aggressively went out to meet global standards." That's especially true of the banking sector, which was pressed into a Western-style regime of financial disclosure, Lee said. Lee's about-face is hardly limited to finance. He cast a cold eye on even that most cherished Confucian value, filial piety. Respect for elders, he said, doesn't seem to cut it in the information age. Succeeding in information technology requires "fresh, powerful minds at the peak of their afflorescence," Lee said. "Father does not always know best; grandson may know better." For evidence, he pointed to the American example he once castigated. Smiling impishly, Lee told of sitting next to Michael Dell, the computer magnate, at a Davos dinner and asking him whether it was true that he was the first CEO ever to make the Fortune 500 before the age of 30. Yes, Dell replied diplomatically, but he's now much older: he's 35. Respect for scholarship is nice, but "in the age of IT, youth and an uncluttered brain is a great advantage," Lee said. "In our countries, where we have 75-year-olds making decisions, they're going to be slow and they're going to miss the bus."
Does Lee's apostasy mean that we've heard the last of Asian values? Hardly. Lee concluded by saying they can work, but only if "tempered" by the global system. And it's not as if Singapore is about to become a Western-style democracy. Transparent economics, Lee appears to think, doesn't require transparent politics. And many Asian politicians - not just anti-globalization firebreathers like Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohammad - haven't given up on a separate value system. At Jan 27's forum, Asian values got an endorsement from none other than the next head of the World Trade Organization, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Supachai Panitchpakdi. All in all, he said, they've been "a net gain for Asia," especially when it comes to Asian frugality, which led to the region's chart-topping savings rates. "I don't think Asian values will be much affected by globalization," he said. How he will square that view with his leadership of the much-criticized WTO, which was built on Western standards, remains to be seen. Perhaps he should ask Lee Kuan Yew.