Essays & Reviews

Lee Kuan Yew: Some Resources & Perspectives

CSD posted a list of resources by and about Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of the modern nation-state of Singapore and a statesman whose views about international politics were valued for decades by his counterparts around the globe. Harvard’s Graham Allison praised Lee as “one of two certifiable grand masters of international strategy in the last half century (Henry Kissinger being the other), and a wise counselor to the world.”

Such favorable views were not universal.  Lee was criticized as being the founder of a form of autocracy based on a pernicious distinction between Western and Asian (Confucian) values, which has inspired the development of repressive regimes in Russia, China, and Turkey, among others.

With Lee’s recent death, we thought we would add to the collection of resources about such a notable world-historic figure.  In particular, we call your attention to his two-volume set of memoirs: The Singapore Story, which covers his view of Singapore’s history until its separation from Malaysia in 19650; and From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, which gives his account of Singapore’s subsequent transformation into a developed nation.  At the time, Ian Baruma offered a critical take of Lee and his memoirs; Nicholas Kristof, no friend of autocracy, gave a slightly less critical assessment.

In 2013, Lee published two new books, The Wit and Wisdom of Lee Kuan Yew and One Man’s View of the World.  The former contains hundreds of quotations which provides a summary of his views on a wide range of topics on Singapore and the world. In One Man’s View of the World, Lee offers his views on today’s world and what it might look like in 20 years.  (For a compendium of Lee’s strategic views over the past four decades, see my assessment.)

Henry Kissinger provided his personal reflections on Lee, whom he considered a close friend. In Kissinger’s view, Lee represented the highest form of statesmanship:  “great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. . . . A great leader takes his or her society from where it is to where it has never been — indeed, where it as yet cannot imagine being.”  This included Lee’s unsentimental recognition that the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States; that U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.”  Equally unsentimentally, Lee had long recognized the relevance of China and its looming potential.

Among the sampling of less favorable views of Lee and the effect of his views on global politics: Ishaan Tharoor. The bottom line:  Lee was not only the founder of modern Singapore but of the myth of “an intellectual cult built around the idea that not all autocrats are bad; they can be enlightened philosopher-kings too, leading their countries to prosperity and power without the hassle of liberal democracy.”

I found this summary of Lee’s core principles for success in international politics, by Frank Lavin, U.S. Ambassador to Singapore from 2001 to 2005, to be quite on point, insofar as they capture Lee’s views:  (1) the utility of force; (2) the balance of power; (3) the necessity of self-determination; (4) the requirements of economic growth, best achieved through a market economy; and (5) stable domestic politics, in whichorder and predictability assume precedence over experimentation and individualism.  Lee’s understanding of how to bring about domestic stability, as Lavin notes, put him at odds with his critics in the United States.