Essays & Reviews

Resources on Lee Kuan Yew, The Sage of Singapore

Lee Kuan Yew is often referred to as “the Sage of Singapore.” The Cambridge University-educated Lee was the founding father of that modern independent city-state. He served as its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, overseeing its rise as the first of the Southeast Asian “tigers.” He was also one of the region’s most influential international statesmen, renowned for his geopolitical acumen as well as his far-sighted economic vision. When Harry Lee spoke, people listened.

That is not to say that everyone always agreed with Lee. He approved of American involvement in the war in Vietnam, which in his view helped to balance power in Asia and stem the tide of Soviet and Chinese-supported Communist regional insurgencies. This did not endear him to those Americans and Europeans who believed that the war was both immoral and strategically unwise, although it won him friends in the Johnson and Nixon administrations.

After the end of the Cold War, Lee warned against assuming the universal applicability of Western values and political forms.  He famously defended “Confucian” values (often referred to as “Asian values,” although Lee refused to conflate the two) as a better standard by which to judge political behavior and regimes in his part of the world. This argument earned him the ire of those who contended that “Confucian values” was code for authoritarian government and the suppression of individual rights, of which Lee himself was accused of doing in Singapore. Lee’s defense of non-Western value systems as a guide to understanding foreign regimes won him plaudits in the region as well as in the multicultural intellectual community, which generally rejected his strategic insights.

This recent essay in The Diplomat briefly summarizes Lee’s foreign policy views specifically as they informed Singapore’s foreign policy. The author, Ang Cheng Guan, Head of Graduate Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, has published Lee Kuan Yew’s Strategic Thought (2013).

Also in 2013, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs published a book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, edited by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, two heavy-hitters at Harvard with high-level experience in the U.S. government. The editors offer no explicit commentary but let Lee speak for himself, through quotations taken from Lee’s writings and interviews over the past several decades. The editors themselves interviewed Lee on several occasions in 2011. The quotations are organized into ten chapters on various topics, including geopolitics and globalization and Islamic extremism, but as the book’s title suggests, the editors focus on the future of Sino-American relations. “Between these two great powers,” they note, “Lee sees confrontation: ‘There will be a struggle for influence. Competition between them is inevitable.’ But,” the editors are quick to tell their readers, “contrary to pessimistic realists, he does not judge conflict inevitable if leaders of both nations exercise reasonable judgment.” I offer my take on that book here. Lee published his own book of reflections on current events, One Man’s View of the World, that same year.

We would also call your attention to Lee’s memoirs, one of the best and most detailed of those written by statesman in the twentieth century.