Tuesday, 31 March 2015

The Disappearance of the Men-in-White

The Strange Disappearance of The Men-in-White

As long as I could remember as a little boy, they were always there.  One or two of them would come to our house almost every week to talk to my dad, and neighbours.  They asked him what issues he might have regarding anything really.  Whatever my dad raised, they would promise to do something about it and come back to him with some answers. They always returned. Most times, my dad seemed quite happy with whatever actions reportedly taken. 

I grew up accustomed to see them around the community. On some occasions, they would wear their all-white signature shirts and pants, or skirts for the ladies.  Later, a book would be written about these Men-in-White, or MIW, who belong to the People’s Action Party (PAP) who has formed the government of Singapore over the past 55 years since 1959.  
Just over a week ago on 23 March 2015, MM Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first Prime Minister (1965-1990) and the Founder of modern Singapore passed away at the age of 91 years old.  During the following National Mourning Week (23-29 March), I did not see any MIW.  Indeed, where did the MIW go as the nation engulfed in sorrow and grief?  He was one of the Founders of the PAP, and the longest-serving Secretary-General of the Party of MIWs; their Grandmaster, their Paramount Leader, their Mentor, Advisor and General of Generals who led the MIWs from victory to victory at every general election battle after battle over the past 50 years!

Did the MIWs scatter upon the death of their first leader Lee Kuan Yew? Lee’s son, Hsien Loong, is now the 3rd Prime Minister, after PM Goh Chok Tong.  Were the MIWs so devastated by the loss of MM Lee that they became dissipated, disorganised and disappeared?

I decided to investigate the strange disappearance last week of the ubiquitous Men-in-White members of the PAP rank and file.  Here’s the Report of the purportedly missing MIW.   

The first discovery was that the MIW did not disappear last week during the National Mourning Week.  It was such a relief and comfort.  Yes, their PAP Branches remained opened as per their weekly schedule from Monday to Friday.  Yes, the MIW were there as usual serving the residents who came to see them.  However deep their sorrows and grief over the death of MM Lee, the MIW remembered that the weekly Meet-the-People Session (MPS) were instituted by him to connect the PAP to the people regularly.  This Mission continues relentlessly even as MM Lee rested in state at the Istana’s Sri Temasek and Parliament House later. 

The people’s issues and grievances have to be heard; their petitions to appropriate government bodies advocated, and they have to be assured of being represented, so that the masses’ confidence in the “Party of the People” be always reinforced and sustained.  For the MIW, the PAP is always there to help lift up the poor, assist in the healing of the sick and the protection of the weak.  Overall, the continuing Mission of the MIW is to assure, ensure and create the greatest benefits, the greater good, for the largest number of Singaporeans for a more secure future and better society for them, their children and their children’s children. 

During the National Mourning Week, the MIW were in fact everywhere, somewhere and anywhere the observance activities were taking place.  And then some. The MIW were there among the people queuing up to 6-10 hours along Clarke Quay, UOB Plaza, One Fullerton and the Cavenagh Bridge on Wednesday, as well as the Padang over the next 3 days.  As always, the MIW enjoy no special privileges or special shorter queue, and they also help to ferry the old and elderly as well as distribute water to the people in the queue.

No, we did not see the MIW in their customary white attires. The Men-in-White had joined common cause with the People-in-Black united in the common painful sorrow of the death of the People’s Champion.  They were indistinguishable. Dressed in common black, the MIW and people entwined in painful grief as they comfort one another to make the transition easier to bear.  The pain grew deep and unbearable as to be intolerable at times during the funeral procession on Sunday.  Together, they were one; united in loss, side-by-side as one people, facing tomorrow as one nation and reaching beyond our grasp towards realizing the fuller vision of the remarkably extraordinary man who took us on the road of no return arriving at the Metropolis which he promised, and which he has now entrusted and bequeathed to us all – MIW and people – to be One People and One Nation forever.

The Mystery solved – the MIW did not disappear last week.  Perhaps, they are always with us and never left us under any circumstances.  In times like the mourning and passing of our Father of the Nation, it is refreshing to know that MM Lee has left behind his MIW to guide and lead Singapore through whatever challenges and prospects await us.  We shall know that MM Lee is always with us, his legacies our foundation and his words of wisdom our pillars, as long as the MIW are around. 

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew:

A Tribute to MM Lee Kuan Yew – by Dr Henry Kissinger

“The World Will Miss Lee Kuan Yew”
Dr Henry A. Kissinger was US Secretary of State, 1973 to 1977.
The Washington Post, 23 March 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was a great man. And he was a close personal friend, a fact that I consider one of the great blessings of my life. A world needing to distill order from incipient chaos will miss his leadership.

Lee emerged onto the international stage as the founding father of the state of Singapore, then a city of about 1 million. He developed into a world statesman who acted as a kind of conscience to leaders around the globe.

Fate initially seemed not to have provided him a canvas on which to achieve more than modest local success. In the first phase of decolonization, Singapore emerged as a part of Malaya. It was cut loose because of tensions between Singapore’s largely Chinese population and the Malay majority and, above all, to teach the fractious city a lesson of dependency. Malaya undoubtedly expected that reality would cure Singapore of its independent spirit.

But great men become such through visions beyond material calculations. Lee defied conventional wisdom by opting for statehood. The choice reflected a deep faith in the virtues of his people. He asserted that a city located on a sandbar with nary an economic resource to draw upon, and whose major industry as a colonial naval base had disappeared, could nevertheless thrive and achieve international stature by building on its principal asset: the intelligence, industry and dedication of its people.

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. By insisting on quality education, by suppressing corruption and by basing governance on merit, Lee and his colleagues raised the annual per capita income of their population from $500 at the time of independence in 1965 to roughly $55,000 today. In a generation, Singapore became an international financial center, the leading intellectual metropolis of Southeast Asia, the location of the region’s major hospitals and a favored site for conferences on international affairs. It did so by adhering to an extraordinary pragmatism: by opening careers to the best talents and encouraging them to adopt the best practices from all over the world.

Superior performance was one component of that achievement. Superior leadership was even more important. As the decades went by, it was moving — and inspirational — to see Lee, in material terms the mayor of a medium-size city, bestride the international scene as a mentor of global strategic order. A visit by Lee to Washington was a kind of national event. A presidential conversation was nearly automatic; eminent members of the Cabinet and Congress would seek meetings. They did so not to hear of Singapore’s national problems; Lee rarely, if ever, lobbied policymakers for assistance. His theme was the indispensable U.S. contribution to the defense and growth of a peaceful world. His interlocutors attended not to be petitioned but to learn from one of the truly profound global thinkers of our time.

This process started for me when Lee visited Harvard in 1967 shortly after becoming prime minister of an independent Singapore. Lee began a meeting with the senior faculty of the School of Public Administration (now the Kennedy School) by inviting comments on the Vietnam War. The faculty, of which I was one dissenting member, was divided primarily on the question of whether President Lyndon Johnson was a war criminal or a psychopath. Lee responded, “You make me sick” — not because he embraced war in a personal sense but because the independence and prosperity of his country depended on the fortitude, unity and resolve of the United States. Singapore was not asking the United States to do something that Singapore would not undertake to the maximum of its ability. But U.S. leadership was needed to supplement and create a framework for order in the world.

Lee elaborated on these themes in the hundreds of encounters I had with him during international conferences, study groups, board meetings, face-to-face discussions and visits at each other’s homes over 45 years. He did not exhort; he was never emotional; he was not a Cold Warrior; he was a pilgrim in quest of world order and responsible leadership. He understood the relevance of China and its looming potential and often contributed to the enlightenment of the world on this subject. But in the end, he insisted that without the United States there could be no stability.

Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery. This is not the occasion to debate what other options were available. Had Singapore chosen the road of its critics, it might well have collapsed among its ethnic groups, as the example of Syria teaches today. Whether the structures essential for the early decades of Singapore’s independent existence were unnecessarily prolonged can be the subject of another discussion.

I began this eulogy by mentioning my friendship with Lee. He was not a man of many sentimental words. And he nearly always spoke of substantive matters. But one could sense his attachment. A conversation with Lee, whose life was devoted to service and who spent so much of his time on joint explorations, was a vote of confidence that sustained one’s sense of purpose.

The great tragedy of Lee’s life was that his beloved wife was felled by a stroke that left her a prisoner in her body, unable to communicate or receive communication. Through all that time, Lee sat by her bedside in the evening reading to her. He had faith that she understood despite the evidence to the contrary.

Perhaps this was Lee Kuan Yew’s role in his era. He had the same hope for our world. He fought for its better instincts even when the evidence was ambiguous. But many of us heard him and will never forget him.

Original Washington Post Article:

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew:

MM Lee's Timeless Advice on East Asia

 Timeless Advice:
MM Lee Kuan Yew on “Peace & Progress in East Asia”

I am greatly honoured by your invitation to address this Joint Meeting of the United States Congress. It cannot be often that someone representing two and a half million people from a small country in the Third World is offered the opportunity to address the representatives of 240 million people who form the World’s most wealthy, and most advanced nation. America is a great nation not just because of its power and wealth, but mainly because it is a nation moved by high ideals. Only the elevating power of her idealism can explain the benign manner in which America has exercised its enormous power since the end of World War II and the magnanimity and generosity with which it has shared its wealth to rebuild a more prosperous world. This idealism which inspired the Founding Fathers of this nation has, down the ages, also affected and inspired free men and free women throughout the world.

Decisions made in this august chamber especially in the decades since 8 December 1941, have determined the course of human history and settled the shape of the contemporary world. If the era after the war has seen a world relatively at peace and accompanied by an unprecedented degree of human progress, much of the credit must go to American leadership.

At a time of domestic disquiet over large imports and the possible loss of jobs, the attention of America’s legislators has been drawn away from the fundamentals. These fundamentals, which successive administrations and congresses have successfully pursued for four decades from 1945 are: a world in which all peoples can seek to fulfil themselves without having to conquer or to dominate or to exploit other people.

America has encouraged a world which respects the sovereignty and the dignity of all, the great and the small, the mighty and the weak - a world which enables all to work and be rewarded for their efforts because what they produce is desired by others willing to pay for such goods and services under fair rules of exchange.

For many months now troubled voices are coming from the US Congress. I want to refocus your attention, distracted by the problems of trade imbalance, job loss, high value of the dollar, and budget deficits, back on the basic issues of war and peace.

Since World War II, the United States has been involved in two major wars, both in the Western Pacific: Korea, 1950-53; Vietnam, 1965-73. This was not accidental. East Asian societies are on the move, seeking to transform their ancient civilisations into modern industrial societies. All are seething with restless energy. Their people want to catch up with the rest of the world and have the better life. If Japan can do it, they believe they also can.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, trade with the US of all countries in the Western Pacific, except communist China, North Korea and North Vietnam, increased. Many received US investments. The US was the dynamo which hastened economic developments. By the late 1960’s, Japan had emerged as a second dynamo. The countries of East Asia, ASEAN, Australia and New Zealand list the US ad Japan as either their first or second most single important trading partner with 10 per cent to 45 per cent of their total trade.

I suggest that the 40 years of relative peace the world has enjoyed since World War II is not just because of the atomic bomb. The US had learnt the lessons of World Wars I and II, how the desire for the better life through industrialisation and trade had caused the squabbles over markets and the expansion of empires in order to build larger markets and acquire resources. The end of World War II and the emergence of the Cold War made the US put determined pressure on the European empires to decolonise.

More pertinent, when the war ended in 1945, the US set out, with her European allies, to establish an open and fair trading system under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) (in force since 1 Jan 1948), and a stable system of currency exchange under the original IMF Agreement at Bretton Woods. These agreements led to the huge growth in trade, banking and finance throughout the world.

Indeed, political leaders in the former colonial territories watched in wonderment as the British, French, Belgian, and Dutch governments dismantled their empires from 1945-65, and grew more prosperous in the 1960’s and 70’s. Their former subject peoples had expected them to decline into relative poverty after they lost their empires, like Spain and Portugal. The secret lay in GATT and the IMF which ensured that trade and investments continued and expanded after decolonisation.

The East Asian phenomenon of high growth has been well reported. As Japan took off, first South Korea, then Taiwan, then Hongkong followed in her trail, picking up steam in her wake. They supplemented the Japanese economy, and followed the Japanese into the American and European markets. With investments from both the US and Japan, they exported their manufactures to Europe. By the early 1970’s, the ASEAN countries also joined in this fast growth group.

These developments have had a most profound impact on the leaders of China after Mao. After nearly three decades of Maoist seclusion and self-sufficiency, Deng Xiaoping decided that closing China’s doors on the world was the cause of her stagnation. China needs to modernise. China has opened her doors to trade, investments, technology, and tourism. She wants to get the same economic uplift that Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hongkong and ASEAN have had from the free market economies of the West by plugging into their trading and investments power grid. In a few years after this decision, China’s trade with US and Japan has gone up many times, 13 times form US$0.5 billion in 1975 to a respectable US$6.4 billion to US$13.2 billion with Japan for the same period. China is seeking growth through trade, not territorial aggrandisement. Her quest for a better life for her people is through peaceful cooperation in trade, investments and transfer of technology and knowhow, not the use of force for territorial conquests and the carving out of a sphere of influence or a trading bloc.

The North Koreans too have been impressed by the market economies of the West. They want to emulate the transformation of the South Korean economy. They have borrowed an estimated US$1.4 billion from Japanese/Western banks in the 1970’s. The investments were not successful and their debts had to be rescheduled.

China’s decision is a most significant factor for peace, stability and growth in Asia. For nearly 30 years, form 1949 until Mao died in 1976, a poor but ideologically fervent China was a ceaseless spoiler of other countries’ economic plans as she undermined their stability. She was an exporter of revolution. She provided arms ideology and radio support to guerilla insurgencies in Southeast Asia. China has, for the present, discontinued such support.

Every Chinese schoolboy knows how China’s civilisation began: through the unification, over 2000 years ago, of the seven warring states by the Emperor Qin Shihuang. China knows from her own history, that the time-proven method for a dynamic, vigorous people to achieve greater economic power is to carve out a larger territory with a larger population to form a greater base on which peace and order are established. Then with a wide range of soil and climates and peoples, there will be more wealth from a greater diversity of goods and services for exchange.

The Vietnamese also know this. Fortunately for Asia, Vietnam’s attempt to carve out Cambodia and Laos for herself, has resulted in Vietnam’s economic stagnation. Vietnam gets no investments from the West. Her trade is negligible. She is bogged down in guerilla war in Cambodia and will be worn down in a clash of wills on the Sino-Vietnamese border with an immensely larger neighbour.

A younger generation of Americans may not know that it was the carving out of empire that Japan undertook when in 1931 she set up the state of Manchukuo in Manchuria. In fact, Japan had embarked on a modern empire earlier in 1895 when she annexed Taiwan, and in 1905 when she annexed Korea.

The success of the countries in East and Southeast Asia has caused much of the Third World to rethink their policies. Once infatuated with socialist economic policies of nationalisation and autarchy, Third World nations have now come to see that stagnation and decay have followed these policies. More and more Third World nations are seeking a better life for their peoples by opening their doors to trade and investments.

Putting up barriers to America’s markets would halt the economic advancement of the free market-oriented developing countries. It would send a signal that the model provided by the countries of East and Southeast Asia is no longer an available option. It could set off a chain reaction which would result in a downward spiral of the world economy.

China was a founder member of GATT. The present government of the PRC abandoned its membership in 1950. Recently, it has sent out feelers for readmission as a developing country member of GATT. If the US cuts down China’s growing trade with her, then China has to rethink her economic strategy. Shutting out China’s products, especially textiles, from America’s markets, will have far-reaching implications. China must then look for other ways of getting foreign exchange to pay for modernisation. If, as is likely, she cannot get enough alternative markets to make up for the loss of America, her modernisation will slow down. She will become restive.

A Japan squeezed in such a protectionist trap, has few attractive options. After thrashing around looking for market extensions in Latin America, Africa and West Asia, Japan will turn back to her two major options: closer economic links with the Soviet Union, or closer ties with China. She could try to do both and reconcile or postpone the conflicts inherent in the two options. In the end, she has to choose one of these two. Either choice conjures up disquieting consequences for the rest of Asia, and the world.

Singapore has been an independent country for only 20 years. Whether it will be allowed to remain so, to work hard to thrive and prosper, depends on the rules under which the big and the small states are allowed to compete and to cooperate in trade and finance. Forty-four years ago the British could not prevent the Japanese from capturing and occupying us and our ASEAN neighbours. We were incorporated as part of Japan’s “Greater East Asia Coprosperity Sphere”. The present multi-lateral economic cooperation offers so much more to Singapore.

The irony is that it was the US and Europe that forced a reluctant China and a hermit-like Japan to open up their countries to trade with the West. They were two oriental societies happy to be self-sufficient and to keep out the outside world. It seems preposterous that because America has temporary difficulties with her balance of trade, due in part to an overvalued dollar, resulting from high interest rates and a budget deficit, that the US should begin to close her markets.

And now it is the Japanese and the Chinese instead who have to come knocking at America’s door to get in to trade. What a bitter-sweet irony of role-reversal. Whatever might have been the position had American policies been different since 1945, the rapid changes in the Western Pacific are already in train. It is the result of a resurgence of dynamism in these societies as they recover their balance and forge their will to compete and get on the move. They are societies capable of organising themselves, of implementing and achieving high standards of universal education, of mastering the skills and knowledge of the industrial societies, of acquiring new technology, of improving product design and marketing, and of carrying out research and development. They have strong cultural bases to build a modern technological society upon.

There are two scenarios for the 21st century. The first is bleak: if, because of domestic problems, the US loses the will to maintain free trade. There are over 300 bills in Congress dedicated to the protection of the US market. Protectionism and retaliation will shrink trade and so reduce jobs. Is America willing to write off the peaceful and constructive developments of the last 40 years that she had made possible? Does America wish to abandon the contest between democracy and the free market on the one hand versus Communism and the controlled economy on the other, when she has nearly won this contest for the hearts and minds of the Third World? Never in its history has the peoples of the world enjoyed such high standards of living. For 40 years the maintenance of political boundaries was made possible because thrusting, and usually aggressive, peoples have been able to fulfil their drive to better their lot through trade. If this method for adjustment and accommodation between societies moving at different speeds is no longer possible, then a return to the traditional ways of conquest or influence is likely.

Therefore America will find that the putting up of tariff barriers is not enough. She will have to go one step further: she will have to be the policeman, to enforce order over her sphere of influence, of the world outside the Soviet bloc.

After World War I the US left the league of Nations and withdrew into isolationism. Nevertheless, inexorably, she was again drawn into the vortex of war by December 1941.

The Soviet Union, since World War II, dominates her allies as satellites in
Comecon. The Soviets also maintain the balance between them and the other aspiring communist societies like Cuba, Vietnam and Ethiopia. In like manner, without adjustments through open and fair trade, the US must enforce some kind of dominance on her own allies in Europe and Japan. And America and Europe together must police and keep the peace between the other jostling and contending societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The more dynamic countries, prevented from thriving through trade, must be prevented from rechanneling their energies towards expansion of their territory or of their influence to get assured markets. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for the rest of the world, the US Constitution enshrines a system of open government which does not allow its leaders to exercise such dominion over other countries and governments in the same way that leaders of totalitarian states can.

Let us not forget that protectionism and less trade mean less growth for the
developing countries. This means debt burdens cannot be discharged. Defaults may be unavoidable, with incalculable consequences for the international banking system. Even if the banks survive the upheavals, these developing countries will have to abandon all thoughts of liberalisation towards plurality and more democratic freedoms. Severe or repressive government is the other side of austere or negative economic growth.

An over-strong dollar has caused the huge trade deficits. A volatile and speculative foreign exchange market has exaggerated the factors working towards a strong dollar. The recent meeting in New York of the G5, Finance Ministers of five largest industrial nations, has given grounds for optimism that the over-valued dollar can be brought down by concerted action of the G5 Finance Ministers and their Central Banks. Congress should stay its hand and allow these efforts time to work.

In case lobbyists for the Japanese believe they are going to be joined by one from Singapore who ought to register his interests, let me add that I do not suggest that the Japanese should not be cajoled, and if necessary coerced, with all the powers at America’s command, to open up their markets. America can legitimately and justly use all means to knock down Japanese barriers and obstacles to imports. There was a time in the 1950’s and 60’s when America looked with amusement and tolerance at the ingeniousness of Japanese obstacles to imports. But, after Japan has become the second largest economic power, as a result of open and fair trade, it is right that she should be made to abide by the rules that have brought her to her present unprecedented prosperity.

The rest of Asia will cheer with joy, for then their goods will also get intoJapan without going through an obstacle course. Let me add that 96 per cent of US goods enter Singapore duty free and quota free. And for 14 out of the last 15 years, the US has enjoyed trade surpluses with Singapore. But for America to put tariffs or barriers to Japanese goods, instead of tearing down Japanese barriers to American exports, will hurt the rest of Asia twice over, first by having these same tariffs and barriers to overcome to sell to America, and second, by not being able to sell to Japan because Japan cannot sell to America.

It is right to compel the Japanese, and others, to help the system function better. And if threatening retaliation for unequal access to markets is part this process towards open and fair trade, then so be it. America has the right to also ask that those who have benefited from America’s markets, open up their markets. Some countries, like ASEAN, have supported the US initiative to have GATT being a new round of discussion for lowering barriers to trade in goods and perhaps also regularise trade in services. The answer to job losses is more, not less trade.

America can upgrade her declining low value-added industries or they will
continue to decline whether America goes protectionist or not, just as the ancient agricultural societies of pre-industrial China and Japan, with their self-sufficient, subsistence economies base on buffalo power and manpower, had to change with the advent of the industrial age. Rapid and profound change is the kind of world Americans have created by their inventiveness. American legislators have the awesome responsibility of deciding under what rules the peoples of so many different countries should undergo rapid changes in their ways of making a living, and yet avoid violent conflicts.

In every age, the leading power has to carry the burden of encouraging the
peaceful acceptance of the status quo. This is done by punishing aggression and rewarding peaceful cooperation. The British carried this burden for over 100 years after they pioneered the Industrial Revolution. This responsibility passed to America after World War II.

It is inherent in America’s position as the pre-eminent economic, political
and military power to have to settle and uphold the rules for orderly change and progress. Americans are leaders in a marathon for technological change and product innovation. American enterprise is blazing the trail into the microchip and computerised world of tomorrow. In the interests of peace and security America must uphold the rules of international conduct which rewards peaceful cooperative behaviour and punishes transgressions of the peace. A replay of the depression of the 1930’s, which led to World War II, will be ruinous for all. All the major powers in the West share the responsibility of not repeating this mistake. But America’s is the primary responsibility, for she is the anchor economy of the free market economies of the world.  In your hands therefore lies the future of the world.
Full Transcript:
US Joint Congress, Washington, 9 October 1985

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew:

Monday, 30 March 2015

Talking to MM Lee Kuan Yew

 A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew
Meeting The Minister
March/April 1994 Issue, Foreign Affairs
"One of the asymmetries of history," wrote Henry Kissinger of Singapore’s patriarch Lee Kuan Yew, "is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries." Kissinger’s one time boss, Richard Nixon, was even more flattering. He speculated that, had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have "attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone." This tag line of a big man on a small stage has been attached to Lee since the 1970s. Today, however, his stage does not look quite so small. Singapore’s per capita GNP is now higher than that of its erstwhile colonizer, Great Britain. It has the world’s busiest port, is the third-largest oil refiner and a major center of global manufacturing and service industries. And this move from poverty to plenty has taken place within one generation. In 1965 Singapore ranked economically with Chile, Argentina and Mexico; today its per capita GNP is four or five times theirs.

Lee managed this miraculous transformation in Singapore’s economy while maintaining tight political control over the country; Singapore’s government can best be described as a "soft" authoritarian regime, and at times it has not been so soft. He was prime minister of Singapore from its independence in 1959 (it became part of a federation with Malaysia in 1963 but was expelled in 1965) until 1990, when he allowed his deputy to succeed him. He is now "Senior Minister" and still commands enormous influence and power in the country. Since his retirement, Lee has embarked on another career of sorts as a world-class pundit, speaking his mind with impolitic frankness. And what is often on his mind is American-style democracy and its perils. He travels often to East Asian capitals from Beijing to Hanoi to Manila dispensing advice on how to achieve economic growth while retaining political stability and control. It is a formula that the governing elites of these countries are anxious to learn.

The rulers of former British colonies have been spared the embarrassment of building grandiose monuments to house their offices; they simply occupy the ones that the British built. So it is with Singapore. The president, prime minister and senior minister work out of Istana (palace), the old colonial governor’s house, a gleaming white bungalow surrounded by luxuriant lawns.  The interior is modern, light wood paneling and leather sofas. The atmosphere is hushed. I waited in a large anteroom for the "SM," which is how everybody refers to Lee. I did not wait long. The SM was standing in the middle of a large, sparsely furnished office. He is of medium build. His once-compact physique is now slightly shrunken. Still, he does not look 70.

Lee Kuan Yew is unlike any politician I have met. There were no smiles, no jokes, no bonhomie. He looked straight at me, he has an inexpressive face but an intense gaze, shook hands and motioned toward one of the room’s pale blue leather sofas (I had already been told by his press secretary on which one to sit). After 30 awkward seconds, I realized that there would be no small talk. I pressed the record button on my machine.

FZ: With the end of the Cold War, many Americans were surprised to hear growing criticism of their political and economic and social system from elites in East Asia, who were considered staunchly pro-American. What, in your view, is wrong with the American system?

LKY: It is not my business to tell people what’s wrong with their system. It is my business to tell people not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work.

FZ: But you do not view the United States as a model for other countries?

LKY: As an East Asian looking at America, I find attractive and unattractive features. I like, for example, the free, easy and open relations between people regardless of social status, ethnicity or religion. And the things that I have always admired about America, as against the communist system, I still do: a certain openness in argument about what is good or bad for society; the accountability of public officials; none of the secrecy and terror that’s part and parcel of communist government.

But as a total system, I find parts of it totally unacceptable: guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public, in sum the breakdown of civil society. The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society. In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.

Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it? It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. It pays for helicopters, defoliating agents and so on. And when it is provoked, it captures the president of Panama and brings him to trial in Florida. Singapore does not have that option. We can’t go to Burma and capture warlords there. What we can do is to pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously, leading him to suspect the person is under the influence of drugs, can require that man to have his urine tested. If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America if you did that it would be an invasion of the individual’s rights and you would be sued.

I was interested to read Colin Powell, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that the military followed our approach because when a recruit signs up he agrees that he can be tested. Now, I would have thought this kind of approach would be quite an effective way to deal with the terrible drug problem you have. But the idea of the inviolability of the individual has been turned into dogma. And yet nobody minds when the army goes and captures the president of another state and brings him to Florida and puts him in jail. I find that incomprehensible. And in any case this approach will not solve America’s drug problem. Whereas Singapore’s way, we may not solve it, but we will lessen it considerably, as we have done.

FZ: Would it be fair to say that you admired America more 25 years ago? What, in your view, went wrong?

LKY: Yes, things have changed. I would hazard a guess that it has a lot to do with the erosion of the moral underpinnings of a society and the diminution of personal responsibility. The liberal, intellectual tradition that developed after World War II claimed that human beings had arrived at this perfect state where everybody would be better off if they were allowed to do their own thing and flourish. It has not worked out, and I doubt if it will. Certain basics about human nature do not change. Man needs a certain moral sense of right and wrong. There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the result of being a victim of society. You are just an evil man, prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them. Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed possible.

FZ: Is such a fundamental shift in culture irreversible?

LKY: No, it is a swing of the pendulum. I think it will swing back. I don’t know how long it will take, but there’s already a backlash in America against failed social policies that have resulted in people urinating in public, in aggressive begging in the streets, in social breakdown.


FZ: You say that your real concern is that this system not be foisted on other societies because it will not work there. Is there another viable model for political and economic development? Is there an "Asian model"?

LKY: I don’t think there is an Asian model as such. But Asian societies are unlike Western ones. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts, when I say East Asians, I mean Korea, Japan, China, Vietnam, as distinct from Southeast Asia, which is a mix between the Sinic and the Indian, though Indian culture also emphasizes similar values, is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family. He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society. The ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides.

In the West, especially after World War II, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family. This approach encouraged alternative families, single mothers for instance, believing that government could provide the support to make up for the absent father. This is a bold, Huxleyan view of life, but one from which I as an East Asian shy away. I would be afraid to experiment with it. I’m not sure what the consequences are, and I don’t like the consequences that I see in the West. You will find this view widely shared in East Asia. It’s not that we don’t have single mothers here. We are also caught in the same social problems of change when we educate our women and they become independent financially and no longer need to put up with unhappy marriages. But there is grave disquiet when we break away from tested norms, and the tested norm is the family unit. It is the building brick of society.

There is a little Chinese aphorism which encapsulates this idea: Xiushen qijia zhiguo pingtianxia. Xiushen means look after yourself, cultivate yourself, do everything to make yourself useful; Qijia, look after the family; Zhiguo, look after your country; Pingtianxia, all is peaceful under heaven. We have a whole people immersed in these beliefs. My granddaughter has the name Xiu-qi. My son picked out the first two words, instructing his daughter to cultivate herself and look after her family. It is the basic concept of our civilization. Governments will come, governments will go, but this endures. We start with self-reliance. In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.

FZ: What would you do instead to address America’s problems?

LKY: What would I do if I were an American? First, you must have order in society. Guns, drugs and violent crime all go together, threatening social order. Then the schools; when you have violence in schools, you are not going to have education, so you’ve got to put that right. Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can be productive. I would start off with basics, working on the individual, looking at him within the context of his family, his friends, his society. But the Westerner says I’ll fix things at the top. One magic formula, one grand plan. I will wave a wand and everything will work out. It’s an interesting theory but not a proven method.


FZ: You are very skeptical of government’s ability to solve deeper social issues. But you’re more confident, certainly than many Americans are, in the government’s ability to promote economic growth and technological advancement. Isn’t this a contradiction?

LKY: No. We have focused on basics in Singapore. We used the family to push economic growth, factoring the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning. We have tried, for example, to improve the lot of children through education. The government can create a setting in which people can live happily and succeed and express themselves, but finally it is what people do with their lives that determines economic success or failure. Again, we were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.

There is, of course, another reason for our success. We have been able to create economic growth because we facilitated certain changes while we moved from an agricultural society to an industrial society. We had the advantage of knowing what the end result should be by looking at the West and later Japan. We knew where we were, and we knew where we had to go. We said to ourselves, "Let’s hasten, let’s see if we can get there faster." But soon we will face a different situation. In the near future, all of us will get to the stage of Japan. Where do we go next? How do we hasten getting there when we don’t know where we’re going? That will be a new situation.

FZ: Some people say that the Asian model is too rigid to adapt well to change. The sociologist Mancur Olson argues that national decline is caused most fundamentally by sclerosis, the rigidity of interest groups,  firms, labor, capital and the state. An American-type system that is very flexible, laissez-faire and constantly adapting is better suited to the emerging era of rapid change than a government-directed economic policy and a Confucian value system.

LKY: That is an optimistic and attractive philosophy of life, and I hope it will come true. But if you look at societies over the millennia you find certain basic patterns. American civilization from the Pilgrim fathers on is one of optimism and the growth of orderly government. History in China is of dynasties which have risen and fallen, of the waxing and waning of societies. And through all that turbulence, the family, the extended family, the clan, has provided a kind of survival raft for the individual. Civilizations have collapsed, dynasties have been swept away by conquering hordes, but this life raft enables the civilization to carry on and get to its next phase.

Nobody here really believes that the government can provide in all circumstances. The government itself does not believe it. In the ultimate crisis, even in earthquakes and typhoons, it is your human relationships that will see you through. So the thesis you quote, that the government is always capable of reinventing itself in new shapes and forms, has not been proven in history. But the family and the way human relationships are structured, do increase the survival chances of its members. That has been tested over thousands of years in many different situations.


FZ: A key ingredient of national economic success in the past has been a culture of innovation and experimentation. During their rise to great wealth and power the centers of growth, Venice, Holland, Britain, the United States, all had an atmosphere of intellectual freedom in which new ideas, technologies, methods and products could emerge. In East Asian countries, however, the government frowns upon an open and free wheeling intellectual climate. Leaving aside any kind of human rights questions this raises, does it create a productivity problem?

LKY: Intellectually that sounds like a reasonable conclusion, but I’m not sure things will work out this way. The Japanese, for instance, have not been all that disadvantaged in creating new products. I think that if governments are aware of your thesis and of the need to test out new areas, to break out of existing formats, they can counter the trend. East Asians, who all share a tradition of strict discipline, respect for the teacher, no talking back to the teacher and rote learning, must make sure that there is this random intellectual search for new technologies and products. In any case, in a world where electronic communications are instantaneous, I do not see anyone lagging behind. Anything new that happens spreads quickly, whether it’s superconductivity or some new life-style.

FZ: Would you agree with the World Bank report on East Asian economic success, which I interpret to have concluded that all the governments that succeeded got fundamentals right, encouraging savings and investment, keeping inflation low, providing high-quality education. The tinkering of industrial policies here and targeting sectors there was not as crucial an element in explaining these countries’ extraordinary economic growth as were these basic factors.

LKY: I think the World Bank had a very difficult job. It had to write up these very, very complex series of situations. But there are cultural factors which have been lightly touched over, which deserved more weightage. This would have made it a more complex study and of less universal application, but it would have been more accurate, explaining the differences, for example, between the Philippines and Taiwan.

FZ: If culture is so important, then countries with very different cultures may not, in fact, succeed in the way that East Asia did by getting economic fundamentals right. Are you not hopeful for the countries around the world that are liberalizing their economies?

LKY: Getting the fundamentals right would help, but these societies will not succeed in the same way as East Asia did because certain driving forces will be absent. If you have a culture that doesn’t place much value in learning and scholarship and hard work and thrift and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain, the going will be much slower.

But, you know, the World Bank report’s conclusions are part of the culture of America and, by extension, of international institutions. It had to present its findings in a bland and universalizable way, which I find unsatisfying because it doesn’t grapple with the real problems. It makes the hopeful assumption that all men are equal, that people all over the world are the same. They are not. Groups of people develop different characteristics when they have evolved for thousands of years separately. Genetics and history interact. The Native American Indian is genetically of the same stock as the Mongoloids of East Asia, the Chinese, the Koreans and the Japanese. But one group got cut off after the Bering Straits melted away. Without that land bridge they were totally isolated in America for thousands of years. The other, in East Asia, met successive invading forces from Central Asia and interacted with waves of people moving back and forth. The two groups may share certain characteristics, for instance if you measure the shape of their skulls and so on, but if you start testing them you find that they are different, most particularly in their neurological development, and their cultural values.

Now if you gloss over these kinds of issues because it is politically incorrect to study them, then you have laid a land mine for yourself. This is what leads to the disappointments with social policies, embarked upon in America with great enthusiasm and expectations, but which yield such meager results. There isn’t a willingness to see things in their stark reality. But then I am not being politically correct.

FZ: Culture may be important, but it does change. The Asian "model" may prove to be a transitional phenomenon. After all, Western countries also went through a period in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when they were capitalist and had limited participatory democracy. Elites then worried, as you do today, that "too much" democracy and "too many" individual rights would destabilize social order. But as these societies modernized and as economic growth spread to all sections of society, things changed. Isn’t East Asia changing because of a growing middle class that demands a say in its own future?

LKY: There is acute change in East Asia. We are agricultural societies that have industrialized within one or two generations. What happened in the West over 200 years or more is happening here in about 50 years or less. It is all crammed and crushed into a very tight time frame, so there are bound to be dislocations and malfunctions. If you look at the fast-growing countries, Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore, there’s been one remarkable phenomenon: the rise of religion. Koreans have taken to Christianity in large numbers, I think some 25 percent. This is a country that was never colonized by a Christian nation. The old customs and religions, ancestor worship, shamanism, no longer completely satisfy. There is a quest for some higher explanations about man’s purpose, about why we are here. This is associated with periods of great stress in society. You will find in Japan that every time it goes through a period of stress new sects crop up and new religions proliferate. In Taiwan, and also in Hong Kong and Singapore, you see a rise in the number of new temples; Confucianist temples, Taoist temples and many Christian sects.

We are all in the midst of very rapid change and at the same time we are all groping towards a destination which we hope will be identifiable with our past. We have left the past behind and there is an underlying unease that there will be nothing left of us which is part of the old. The Japanese have solved this problem to some extent. Japan has become an industrial society, while remaining essentially Japanese in its human relations. They have industrialized and shed some of their feudal values. The Taiwanese and the Koreans are trying to do the same. But whether these societies can preserve their core values and make this transition is a problem which they alone can solve. It is not something Americans can solve for them. Therefore, you will find people unreceptive to the idea that they be Westernized. Modernized, yes, in the sense that they have accepted the inevitability of science and technology and the change in the life-styles they bring.

FZ: But won’t these economic and technological changes produce changes in the mind-sets of people?

LKY: It is not just mind-sets that would have to change but value systems. Let me give anecdotal evidence of this. Many Chinese families in Malaysia migrated in periods of stress, when there were race riots in Malaysia in the 1960s, and they settled in Australia and Canada. They did this for the sake of their children so that they would get a better education in the English language because then Malaysia was switching to Malay as its primary language. The children grew up, reached their late teens and left home. And suddenly the parents discovered the emptiness of the whole exercise. They had given their children a modern education in the English language and in the process lost their children altogether. That was a very sobering experience. Something less dramatic is happening in Singapore now because we are not bringing up our children in the same circumstances in which we grew up.

FZ: But these children are absorbing influences different from your generation. You say that knowledge, life-styles, culture all spread rapidly in this world. Will not the idea of democracy and individual rights also spread?

LKY: Let’s not get into a debate on semantics. The system of government in China will change. It will change in Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam. It is changing in Singapore. But it will not end up like the American or British or French or German systems. What are we all seeking? A form of government that will be comfortable, because it meets our needs, is not oppressive, and maximizes our opportunities. And whether you have one-man, one-vote or some-men, one vote or other men, two votes, those are forms which should be worked out. I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best. We practice it because that’s what the British bequeathed us and we haven’t really found a need to challenge that. But I’m convinced, personally, that we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30. But we haven’t found it necessary yet. If it became necessary we should do it. At the same time, once a person gets beyond 65, then it is a problem. Between the ages of 40 and 60 is ideal, and at 60 they should go back to one vote, but that will be difficult to arrange.


FZ: Change is often most threatening when it occurs in multiethnic societies. You have been part of both a multiethnic state that failed and one that has succeeded. Malaysia was unwilling to allow what it saw as a Chinese city-state to be part of it and expelled Singapore from its federation in 1965. Singapore itself, however, exists peacefully as a multiethnic state. Is there a solution for those states that have ethnic and religious groups mixed within them?

LKY: Each state faces a different set of problems and I would be most reluctant to dish out general solutions. From my own experience, I would say, make haste slowly. Nobody likes to lose his ethnic, cultural, religious, even linguistic identity. To exist as one state you need to share certain attributes, have things in common. If you pressure-cook you are in for problems. If you go gently, but steadily, the logic of events will bring about not assimilation, but integration. If I had tried to foist the English language on the people of Singapore I would have faced rebellion all around. If I had tried to foist the Chinese language, I’d have had immediate revolt and disaster. But I offered every parent a choice of English and their mother tongue, in whatever order they chose. By their free choice, plus the rewards of the marketplace over a period of 30 years, we have ended up with English first and the mother tongue second. We have switched one university already established in the Chinese language from Chinese into English. Had this change been forced in five or ten years instead of being done over 30 years, and by free choice, it would have been a disaster.

FZ: This sounds like a live-and-let-live kind of approach. Many Western countries, particularly the United States and France, respectively, have traditionally attempted to assimilate people toward a national mainstream, with English and French as the national language, respectively. Today this approach is being questioned, as you know, with some minority groups in the United States and France arguing for "multiculturalism," which would allow distinct and unassimilated minority groups to coexist within the nation. How does this debate strike you as you read about it in Singapore?

LKY: You cannot have too many distinct components and be one nation. It makes interchangeability difficult. If you want complete separateness then you should not come to live in the host country. But there are circumstances where it is wise to leave things be. For instance, all races in Singapore are eligible for jobs and for many other things. But we put the Muslims in a slightly different category because they are extremely sensitive about their customs, especially diet. In such matters one has to find a middle path between uniformity and a certain freedom to be somewhat different. I think it is wise to leave alone questions of fundamental beliefs and give time to sort matters out.

FZ: So you would look at the French handling of their Muslim minorities and say "Go slow, don’t push these people so hard."

LKY: I would not want to say that because the French having ruled Algeria for many years know the kind of problems that they are faced with. My approach would be, if some Muslim girl insists on coming to school with her headdress on and is prepared to put up with that discomfort, we should be prepared to put up with the strangeness. But if she joined the customs or immigration department where it would be confusing to the millions of people who stream through to have some customs officer looking different, she must wear the uniform. That approach has worked in Singapore so far.


FZ: Let me shift gears somewhat and ask you some questions about the international climate in East Asia. The part of the world you live in is experiencing the kind of growth that the West has experienced for the last 400 years. The West has not only been the world’s great producer of wealth for four centuries, it has also been the world’s great producer of war. Today East Asia is the locus of great and unsettling growth, with several newly rising powers close to each other, many with different political systems, historical animosities, border disputes, and all with ever-increasing quantities of arms. Should one look at this and ask whether Europe’s past will be East Asia’s future?

LKY: No, it’s too simplistic. One reason why growth is likely to last for many years in East Asia, and this is just a guess, is that the peoples and the governments of East Asia have learned some powerful lessons about the viciousness and destructiveness of wars. Not only full-scale wars like in Korea, but guerrilla wars as in Vietnam, in Cambodia and in the jungles of Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines. We all know that the more you engage in conflict, the poorer and the more desperate you become. Visit Cambodia and Vietnam; the world just passed them by. That lesson will live for a very long time, at least as long as this generation is alive.

FZ: The most unsettling change in an international system is the rise of a new great power. Can the rise of China be accommodated into the East Asian order? Isn’t that kind of growth inevitably destabilizing?

LKY: I don’t think we can speak in terms of just the East Asian order. The question is: Can the world develop a system in which a country the size of China becomes part of the management of international peace and stability? Sometime in the next 20 or 30 years the world, by which I mean the major powers, will have to agree among themselves how to manage peace and stability, how to create a system that is both viable and fair. Wars between small countries won’t destroy the whole world, but will only destroy themselves. But big conflicts between big powers will destroy the world many times over. That’s just too disastrous to contemplate.

At the end of the last war what they could foresee was the United Nations. The hope was that the permanent five would maintain the rule of law or gradually spread the rule of law in international relations. It did not come off because of Stalin and the Cold War. This is now a new phase. The great powers, by which I mean America, Western Europe as a group if they become a union, Japan, China and, in 20 to 30 years time, the Russian republic, have got to find a balance between themselves. I think the best way forward is through the United Nations. It already has 48 years of experience. It is imperfect, but what is the alternative? You can not have a consortium of five big powers lording it over the rest of mankind. They will not have the moral authority or legitimacy to do it. Are they going to divide the world into five spheres of influence? So they have to fall back on some multilateral framework and work out a set of rules that makes it viable. There may be conflicts of a minor nature, for instance between two Latin American countries or two small Southeast Asian countries; that doesn’t really matter. Now if you have two big countries in South Asia like India and Pakistan and both with nuclear capabilities, then something has to be done. It is in that context that we have to find a place for China when it becomes a major economic and military power.

FZ: Is the Chinese regime stable? Is the growth that’s going on there sustainable? Is the balancing act between economic reform and political control that Deng Xiaoping is trying to keep going sustainable after his death?

LKY: The regime in Beijing is more stable than any alternative government that can be formed in China. Let us assume that the students had carried the day at Tiananmen and they had formed a government. The same students who were at Tiananmen went to France and America. They’ve been quarreling with each other ever since. What kind of China would they have today? Something worse than the Soviet Union. China is a vast, disparate country; there is no alternative to strong central power.

FZ: Do you worry that the kind of rapid and unequal growth taking place in China might cause the country to break up?

LKY: First, the economy is growing everywhere, even in Sichuan, in the heart of the interior. Disparate growth rates are inevitable. It is the difference between, say, California before the recession and the Rust Belt. There will be enormous stresses because of the size of the country and the intractable nature of the problems, the poor infrastructure, the weak institutions, the wrong systems that they have installed, modeling themselves upon the Soviet system in Stalin’s time. Given all those handicaps, I am amazed that they have got so far.

FZ: What about the other great East Asian power? If Japan continues on the current trajectory, should the world encourage the expansion of its political and military responsibilities and power?

LKY: No. I know that the present generation of Japanese leaders do not want to project power. I’m not sure what follows when leaders born after the war take charge. I doubt if there will be a sudden change. If Japan can carry on with its current policy, leaving security to the Americans and concentrating on the economic and the political, the world will be better off. And the Japanese are quite happy to do this. It is when America feels that it’s too burdensome and not worth the candle to be present in East Asia to protect Japan that it will have to look after its own security. When Japan becomes a separate player, it is an extra joker in the pack of cards.

FZ: You’ve said recently that allowing Japan to send its forces abroad is like giving liquor to an alcoholic.

LKY: The Japanese have always had this cultural trait, that whatever they do they carry it to the nth degree. I think they know this. I have Japanese friends who have told me this. They admit that this is a problem with them.

FZ: What if Japan did follow the trajectory that most great powers have; that it was not content simply to be an economic superpower, "a bank with a flag" in a writer’s phrase? What if they decided they wanted to have the ultimate mark of a great power, nuclear weapons? What should the world do?

LKY: If they decided on that the world will not be able to stop them. You are unable to stop North Korea. Nobody believes that an American government that could not sustain its mission in Somalia because of an ambush and one television snippet of a dead American pulled through the streets in Mogadishu could contemplate a strike on North Korean nuclear facilities like the Israeli strike on Iraq. Therefore it can only be sanctions in the U.N. Security Council. That requires that there be no vetoes. Similarly, if the Japanese decide to go nuclear, I don’t believe you will be able to stop them. But they know that they face a nuclear power in China and in Russia, and so they would have to posture themselves in such a way as not to invite a preemptive strike. If they can avoid a preemptive strike then a balance will be established. Each will deter the others.

FZ: So it’s the transition period that you are worried about.

LKY: I would prefer that the matter never arises and I believe so does the world. Whether the Japanese go down the military path will depend largely on America’s strength and its willingness to be engaged.


FZ: Is there some contradiction here between your role as a politician and your new role as an intellectual, speaking out on all matters? As a politician you want America as a strong balancer in the region, a country that is feared and respected all over the world. As an intellectual, however, you choose to speak out forcefully against the American model in a way that has to undermine America’s credibility abroad.

LKY: That’s preposterous. The last thing I would want to do is to undermine her credibility. America has been unusual in the history of the world, being the sole possessor of power, the nuclear weapon, and the one and only government in the world unaffected by war damage whilst the others were in ruins. Any old and established nation would have ensured its supremacy for as long as it could. But America set out to put her defeated enemies on their feet, to ward off an evil force, the Soviet Union, brought about technological change by transferring technology generously and freely to Europeans and to Japanese, and enabled them to become her challengers within 30 years. By 1975 they were at her heels. That’s unprecedented in history. There was a certain greatness of spirit born out of the fear of communism plus American idealism that brought that about. But that does not mean that we all admire everything about America.

Let me be frank; if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn’t have got out of our backwardness. We would have been a backward economy with a backward society. But we do not want all of the West.


The dominant theme throughout our conversation was culture. Lee returned again and again to his views on the importance of culture and the differences between Confucianism and Western values. In this respect, Lee is very much part of a trend. Culture is in. From business consultants to military strategists, people talk about culture as the deepest and most determinative aspect of human life.

I remain skeptical. If culture is destiny, what explains a culture’s failure in one era and success in another? If Confucianism explains the economic boom in East Asia today, does it not also explain that region’s stagnation for four centuries? In fact, when East Asia seemed immutably poor, many scholars, most famously Max Weber, made precisely that case, arguing that Confucian-based cultures discouraged all the attributes necessary for success in capitalism. Today scholars explain how Confucianism emphasizes the essential traits for economic dynamism. Were Latin American countries to succeed in the next few decades, we shall surely read encomiums to Latin culture. I suspect that since we cannot find one simple answer to why certain societies succeed at certain times, we examine successful societies and search within their cultures for the seeds of success. Cultures being complex, one finds in them what one wants.

What explains Lee Kuan Yew’s fascination with culture? It is not something he was born with. Until his thirties he was called "Harry" Lee (and still is by family and friends). In the 1960s the British foreign secretary could say to him, "Harry, you’re the best bloody Englishman east of the Suez." This is not a man untouched by the West. Part of his interest in cultural differences is surely that they provide a coherent defense against what he sees as Western democratic imperialism. But a deeper reason is revealed in something he said in our conversation: "We have left the past behind, and there is an underlying unease that there will be nothing left of us which is part of the old."

Cultures change. Under the impact of economic growth, technological change and social transformation, no culture has remained the same. Most of the attributes that Lee sees in Eastern cultures were once part of the West. Four hundred years of economic growth changed things. From the very beginning of England’s economic boom, many Englishmen worried that as their country became rich it was losing its moral and ethical base. "Wealth accumulates and men decay," wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1770. It is this "decay" that Lee is trying to stave off. He speaks of the anxious search for religion in East Asia today, and while he never says this, his own quest for a Confucian alternative to the West is part of this search.

But to be modern without becoming more Western is difficult; the two are not wholly separable. The West has left a mark on "the rest," and it is not simply a legacy of technology and material products. It is, perhaps most profoundly, in the realm of ideas. At the close of the interview Lee handed me three pages. This was, he explained, to emphasize how alien Confucian culture is to the West. The pages were from the book East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, by John Fairbank, an American scholar.

“Foreign Affairs” is published by the US Council of Foreign Relations
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