Lee Kuan Yew – the Singapore story

I love a good book. Good books are rare. Lee’s book was pretty good. Probably because all signs point towards he having written it himself, instead of hiring a ghost writer.

Lee Kuan Yew is a bit of a reactionary hero, even though, in the words of Spandrell, he is much more a Chinese legalist than a reactionary shitlord. I come away with a similar conclusion.

Lee’s story is great. The man single-handedly stamped Singapore as an independent state out of the ground, protected it against its enemies and without many natural resources made it the most prosperous city-state in Asia, if not the world. How’d he do it?

My take is, he outclassed his opponents in a complex political situation, that situation being Singapore decolonizing from British rule. The question on everyone’s mind was who is to rule post-colonization? Many contenders. The official plan was merger with Malaysia. After all, Singapore is a tiny island surrounded by Malays. It does not have much going for itself. But Malaysia is inhabited by Malays, while Singapore has a different ethnic make-up: besides Malays and Indians, most importantly: a Chinese majority.

The thing about the Chinese and the Malays is that the Chinese tend to be much better at civilization. Malay are kind of lazy, while the Chinese grind. So the to-be ruler of Malaysia is very hesitant to take in the Singaporeans, rightly fearing a Chinese infiltration.

Meanwhile, domestically, what do the Singaporeans want? Well, many things. Every ethnic side wants to look out for their interests. Many Chinese want a communist revolution. It is the 1950’s after all; Mao Zedong had just taken power in China and communism looked mighty fashionable. So in between dealing with the Malays, the British, the Chinese and government reform, Lee was facing commies as well.

But, like I said, in the end Lee outclassed them all. Lee was well-spoken, smart, and listened to the people. He talked with the British, he talked with his own constituency, with the Malays and with the commies. He learned his constituents’ different languages: English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and Hokkien Chinese. When he was uncertain of his next move, he’d retreat and play golf for a week and think the situation over. He was pragmatic. In dealing with commies, he believed neither violence nor weakness on its own was enough. Since the commies were popular he cooperated with them, sometimes giving them an inch, sometimes taking it. The guy had a real knack for feeling the political sentiment and playing into that, and similarly, knowing when his opponents misjudged political sentiment.

An example. During the early years of his political career, he teamed up with the communists. How could he not? Commies were popular. But at some point the more liberal minded Lee had to break with them or else they’d take over the party. But he had to break with them in such a way that he maintained popularity with the crowd. So he waited… Until news reached him of a secret rendezvous between the British and the communists. Aha! The communists betray their principles to make secret deals with the colonial oppressors! Lee grabbed the opportunity and split his party from the communists.

To illustrate how close of a shave this was: the split had to be voted on internally, and as Lee tells it, the vote on his continued leadership was so close that it came down to a single member being chauffeured in from the hospital, a member whom Lee didn’t even expect to vote for him. But she did, and Lee’s popularity and power grew.

Another interesting thing is how Lee dealt with the media. Essentially, he took their role as tellers of the narrative for granted. At every crossroad he was thinking of how the media would represent him, or how he could use the media to represent himself. At some point he wrote a twelve-hour long twelve-part speech explaining his fight against the communists and broadcasted it on the radio (this is before most people had TV). Which of course he did not read once, but three times, in three different languages!

So Lee beats the commies, wins the heart of the Singaporeans, and gains independence because, as Lee puts it, the Malayans could not bribe, seduce or otherwise get dirt on Lee’s cabinet.

At the end of the day, these things go a long way in explaining Lee’s success. Of course, as Lee himself points out, no man stands alone. But if history is a combination of great events and great men, Singapore illustrates how a great event (an island of ethnically divergent Singaporeans among a mainland of Malays) may meet a great leader (Lee Kuan Yew).

Now of course I was not going to end this all positive. After all, Lee is not a reactionary hero. Spandrell calls him a legalist, which I understand is an anti-Confucian stream of thought that emphasizes obedience to state laws. Makes sense: Lee was all about designing a functional state apparatus that he expected people to obey. He was pretty good at that.

I’ll add that my impression of Lee is that he was an authoritarian liberal. Like, if you’d give the idea of liberal democracy to a capable Chinaman, Singapore is what would happen. And that works, but only in the short term. What goes wrong in the long-term? Brain drain for short term gain. But let me explain with a Lee related story that he does not mention in his book.

What is it that Lee almost never mentions? His three kids. Now perhaps he does not find it fitting to mention them in a political biography, although he mentions his wife plenty times. But I walk away with the distinct impression that Lee cared more about politics than about his family. Nothing wrong with that, some men are just like that, but that sort of thing is going to bite you in the ass sooner or later. In Lee’s case: a much-publicized feud between his children surrounding their inheritance, up to the point where the two youngest are not speaking with the eldest. Bad blood. I blame that sort of thing on the father; it was Lee’s responsibility to make sure his family stuck together. But of course, the liberal way of life is that far is more important than near. And of course there is his daughter, who has a shining career as hospital director, but no children let alone a man to call her own. Again, the liberal way of life. So I summarize Lee as follows: successful in his career, failure as a father. Typical liberal track record.

Suck lack of attention for family matters bites a country in the ass as well. Total Fertility Rate in Singapore dangles around a depressing 1.2. To my eyes, that’s what a nation committing suicide looks like.

2 Comments

  1. He had a 12 hour speech broadcasted? Is that a typo? Even considering that attention spans have deteriorated in that last few decades that sounds excessive. Hard to believe that anyone listened to the whole thing.

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