Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World

December 28, 2013

BOOK Review: Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World

Singapore: Straits Times Press Holdings, 2013. Pp. 352, photographs, index.

Reviewed by Nina Ong (12-13-13)


In March 2007, when the Australian National University conferred an honorary degree on Lee Kuan Yew, protestors gathered with placards that implied that ANU was wrong to honour a leader whom many considered a “dictator” for his repressive measures to rein in the Singapore media and opposition. The New Mandala blog archive includes a number of insightful posts on the issue. Lee Kuan Yew’s reputation in the eyes of “Western publications” is not helped by his fiercely protective attitude towards his own legacy, which has resulted in him winning lawsuits in Singapore courts for alleged defamation in articles published in The Far Eastern Economic Review and The International Herald Tribune.

Nevertheless, Lee’s admirers continue to wax lyrical about him, viewing him as a “grand master” who, despite his small stage (my own native country, Singapore), has managed to impress world leaders and influence the policies of even a major power like China. A case in point would be Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, which, Lee implies in this book, One Man’s View of the World, was in part inspired by Deng’s exposure to Singapore’s economic success during his 1978 visit to the city-state. In fact, the book is peppered with anecdotes of Lee’s encounters with world leaders and his opinions of them. Of former PRC president Hu Jintao, he writes, for example, “Behind the benign, avuncular appearance, I think there is iron in the man.” (p. 32).

It all leaves the reader with little doubt that Lee wrote One Man’s View of the World for people who regard him as a visionary leader whose analyses of international politics and perceptions of world leaders are to be taken seriously. The more critical reader, however, will hardly find comments like the one on Hu perceptive. The same might be said of a great number of politicians, including Hu’s predecessor Jiang Zemin or even the American Vice President Joe Biden.

At the same time, if we can look beyond the sweeping views that one reviewer from Singapore calls “more entertaining than alarming or illuminating”, it is possible to gain fresh insight from One Man’s View of the World. How much readers gain from the book will depend on how they choose to read it. Like all autobiographical narratives, One Man’s View of the World tells us more about the man who wrote it than about the world that he observed.

Although not strictly an attempt to glorify the achievements of the man – a purpose better served by the pictorial book Lee Kuan Yew – A Life in Pictures,  from the same publisher – One Man’s View of the World seems to be a publication whose timing betrays the intention further to justify the People’s Action Party’s response to the challenges that Singapore faces by emphasizing similar challenges faced by other countries. For example, it would be difficult for those familiar with politics in Singapore not to notice the parallels between the country’s struggle with low fertility rates and the matter of Japan’s ageing population, which is the focus of the book’s section on that country.

Either Lee or his editors chose to title that section “Japan – Strolling into mediocrity”. Lee’s warning for Japan echoes his warning for Singapore. Of the former he writes, “Unless decisive action is taken very soon to resolve the population problem, no change in politics or economics could restore this nation to even a pale shadow of its post-war dynamism” (p. 129). Of Singapore, he asks rhetorically, “Is there a country in this world that prospers on a declining population?”, and then adds, “If I had to identify one issue that threatens Singapore the most, it would be this one” (p. 222).

Despite the fact that geopolitical issues in East Asia might be of greater concern than demography, especially to an international audience, these issues are only addressed in the last four pages of the discussion of Japan, and in a “Question and Answer” format.* Lee’s “answers” are brief compared to his treatise on Japan’s population problems.

One Man’s View of the World is unlikely to satisfy Lee’s critics because it lacks (again) absolutely any attempt to engage with their criticisms of him. Those who have read Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going (also from the same publisher), a thick volume on the economic realities to which Singapore must face up to survive as a country, will find the persona that Lee has created for himself in One Man’s View of the World familiar.

Lee continues to style himself as the dispenser of “hard truths” – a pragmatic politician who is brutally frank and has no regrets about his past actions. Examples of this stance include his continued unapologetic embrace of the idea that a person’s capabilities are largely determined by his or her genes: “[India’s] caste system freezes the genetic pool within each caste” (p. 149). Or his revealing non-reply to a reporter’s question about the effects of privileges for Malaysia’s bumiputeras: “Where do you think the talent pool is?” (p. 170). Or his dismissal of the view that his “Stop at Two” policy might have contributed to the long-term low fertility rate in Singapore as an “absurd suggestion” (p. 218).

Previously criticized for being secretive about his family life, Lee (or perhaps his editors) now seeks to disarm critics by providing shockingly honest details, even when this does not seem terribly appropriate. The caption at the bottom of a page with a photograph of his family at the wedding of his eldest son, Singapore’s current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, to Ho Ching – no doubt a happy occasion – says little about the bride. Instead, it is revealed that the “flower girl is Loong’s daughter Xiuqi, whose mother Wong Ming Yang died of a heart attack in 1982 at the age of 31”. It is as if Lee is saying, “There, everything’s accounted for.” Judging from the responses to his book in Singapore, both on-line and off-line, it appears that he has mastered, in writing, the art of being frank to the point of political incorrectness, while deftly deflecting further discussion of thorny topics.

Nevertheless, his critics in Singapore should still read this book, not least because the book will provide them with an understanding of Lee’s perception of Singapore’s place in the global economy, which is crucial for anyone who seeks to offer a sound critique of Lee’s policies in Singapore, many of which are being continued by the current PAP government under his son, Lee Hsien Loong.

Younger Singaporeans, too, should read One Man’s View of the World, as should those interested in Singapore’s position on foreign policy issues. For the book does offer a broad perspective on world politics and quite successfully places Singapore in the context of an increasingly interdependent network of nation-states. Its succinct summaries of episodes in recent and not so recent history, such as Thaksin Chinnawat’s rise to power in Thailand or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, provide enough background information for readers unfamiliar with the regions discussed in the book. However, a lack of in-depth analysis of the multiple historical factors that shaped the regions discussed also characterizes the book. For instance, on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, British ambiguity in the 1917 Balfour Declaration is not addressed with Lee stating that the British “supported the settlement of Jews in Palestine with the view of eventually allowing them to form a Jewish state” and that the Balfour Declaration “formally set out this position” (p. 249). Yet it is relatively well known (indeed, it is in the ‘A’ levels History syllabus currently taught in Singapore’s schools) that the declaration, which Lee quoted, never mentions a “state” but a “national home” for the Jews.

Thus, those with a serious interest in learning more about international politics should still refer to other sources to supplement their knowledge. Readers who are wondering why regions such as Latin America and Africa are omitted from the book might want to flip to page 308. In his reply to a journalist’s question on his regular reading, Lee says, “I follow closely on the Internet news on Singapore, the region, China, Japan, Korea, America, India and Europe. The Middle East – occasionally, Latin America – almost zero, because it is not relevant to us. Too far away.” Readers invested in the growing trade links between Latin America and Singapore need not be alarmed, however, because Lee is no longer in charge of the government. He is very much a retired political leader speaking from his past experiences.

On a more personal note, when thinking of Lee Kuan Yew, as a Singaporean, I remember two moments. As a primary school student in 1990, I watched on television the National Day Parade and teared when Lee sang the National Anthem at the parade for the last time as Prime Minister after three decades in power. To a primary school student, that seemed like forever. Even at the age of nine, I had learnt at school and at home that Lee was an extraordinary man and that his stepping down from power could be a turning point for my country, for better or for worse. The second moment was when there was a palpable sigh of relief in Singapore, and the National Stadium erupted in the loudest cheers for a PAP leader since the General Elections of 2011, when Lee, frail but still walking on his own, appeared at NDP 2012, thus squashing rumours on the Internet of his passing.

Judged against a modern critical yardstick, One Man’s View of the World may fall short. It reveals Lee Kuan Yew as a man who remains steadfast in his convictions, despite the fact that those convictions are influenced by ideas that many readers now may regard as archaic. For readers interested in international politics, there will be points of disagreement on controversial issues regarding Asia, America and Europe. But, for historians interested in Singapore history, the book does offer rich insights into the man, insights that will gain value through study of the cultural milieu of his formative years.

Despite his prominence as a political leader, there is an unnatural dearth of academic writings on Lee Kuan Yew. One Man’s View of the World will certainly provide a rich source of information for future generations of scholars interested in analysing his leadership.

“Nina Ong” is the pseudonym of a graduate of the National University of Singapore who lives in her native country’s Bukit Merah neighbourhood. 


* We are told in a blurb that the Q&A sections of the book are “gleaned from conversations he [Lee} had with journalists from The Straits Times”. According to The Straits Times, the team of journalists and editors who helped to produce the book were also working together with Mr Shashi Jayakumar, the son of Singapore’s former Senior Minister, S. Jayakumar.


32 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew, One Man’s View of the World

  1. LKY is controversial, but there can be no doubt he was dedicated to Singapore. Look at the City State today and you can see his imprint everywhere. I salute this great Singapore and wish him continued good health in 2014.

  2. LKY main contribution to other nation and the world is that if you stick to basics- clean govt, free market, strong finances, and stop giving excuses, you can already get to where you need to rapidly. As to everything else, he offers little in terms of what humanity and the world need to solve some of the biggest human problems like global warming, affordable clean energy, income inequalities, religious conflicts. Singapore is not a model for the world. The world would be a disaster if every country is just like Singapore, in fact if China is just like Singapore, it would be disastrous ecologically.

  3. Unlike many leaders in the Third world who make precise calls on foreign countries but are weak when making an analysis of their own country LKY has been spot on when making his call for Singapore. His policy directions has uplifted a nation. Go to Singapore and walk around and you will understand what I am trying to say.

  4. I found Michael Barr’s book “Lee Kuan Yew: the Beliefs Behind the Man” very useful. Perhaps a little dated as it was published in 2000.

  5. When the world’s views on LKY and Singapore economic success story can be replicated on the developing nations, big or small, peace will be sustained, ; poverty, conflicts and wars lessen,
    the other man’s views matter less.

    Such is the impact of this great man, Lee Kuan Yew, on the world, that occurs once in a life-time.

  6. “Kami tiada timah, kami tiada getah, kami tiada balak, kami tiada minyak atau gas, kami juga tiada sawit – yang lebih penting lagi, kami tiada rasuah” – Lee Kuan Yew

  7. I always have high regards for this world statesman. He has not only dedicated his whole life to the country states of singapore, but he had also contributed his life tonthe world. More often than not his opinions are very well taken by many world leaders. Wish him long life and continue to contribute to the world.

  8. Lee Kuan Yew is not God. He is another politician with a lot of opinions. He certainly did an awful lot to make Singapore what it is. However, I would not recommend his modus operandi to other countries, least of all China.

  9. Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore is one of the world’s richest nations.

    Mahathir’s Malaysia? On the road to national bankruptcy and
    Nigeria-like “failed state” status.

  10. Somehow, I notice, Dato Din has a propensity to draw attention to stories about LKY. For 90% of the Malaysian Chinese, he is almost god. But for UMNO Malays, it is an opportunity to snipe at him.
    LKY, undoubtedly, has turned Singapore into a shining nation. But I am not those who have unreserved admiration for him.

  11. “…if you stick to basics, clean government, free market, strong finance, stop giving excuses, you can already get to where need rapidly”….. we may have to back-track for the next 40 years to go back to those principles that guided us in our early days of independence.

  12. /// The world would be a disaster if every country is just like Singapore, in fact if China is just like Singapore, it would be disastrous ecologically. ///

    I thought it is just the opposite. If China is more like Singapore, it would not be the ecological disaster that it is now. From day one, LKY knew Singapore’s limited land mass and controlled pollution assiduously. Polluting industries were banned, unless ant-pollution measures are in place. Pig farming was phased out because it was polluting. Shipyards around the Kallang river were relocated because of its pollution. The stinking Singapore river was cleaned up after decades of hard work and now fishes are able to thrive. City planning, urban planning, parks and recreation are drawn up. Green lungs and forest reserves, swamps are preserved.

    Now look at Beijing, Shanghai and all the major cities. The pollution indices are in the dangerous zones most of the time. And then look at the Tianjin eco-city developed jointly with Singapore.

  13. Jeffrey,
    Madhater studied medicine in NUS or University of Malaya, Singapore.

    Yes, he’s not God. In fact, he said so himself. Sorry, China’s in fact implementing LKY’s style of governance. Hahaha.

    One thing marked the difference between him & Madhater. He knew his limitation. He stood down to make way for GCT. GCT is not LKY’s blue eye boy. He felt that the best fellow to succeed after him is Tony Tan, the current President of Singapore.

    LKY has said so himself that singapore model should not be replicated elsewhere. Unfortunately, China is following some of the style set out by Singapore. Take note of the structured political transition starting from Jiang Zemin

  14. The quote from Rahim Ishak on the 27th May 1965. No wonder Tunku is extremely frightened on the prospect that UMNO may have lost the election

    Enche’ Abdul Rahim Ishak (Singapore):
    “Tuan Yang di-Pertua, nampaknya Ahli Yang Berhormat dari Johor
    Tenggara marah peri hal dalam P.A.P.ada orang2 Melayu. Bukan sa-takat itu
    sahaja kemarahan-nya, nampak-nya bahawa sa-sudah dua krisis masok
    krisis yang ketiga baharu2 ini, orang2 Melayu dalam P.A.P. tetap dan tegoh
    menyokong dasar2 P.A.P. Lagi2 dia marah. Sa-olah2 dia mahu saya masok
    UMNO. Tetapi, Tuan Yang di-Pertua, belum pernah lagi saya masok
    UMNO sa-hingga hari ini dan ada sebab-nya………Read the full text from the hansard”

    The quote from Lee Kuan Yee on the 27th May 1965

    “……Erti-nya oleh sebab kita belum mahir lagi tapi maseh belajar, kita
    mahu belajar bahasa kebangsaan, sesuai dengan aliran sejarah kita. Ertinya
    hak2 istimewa yang di-chatit dalam Article 153 chara melaksanakan-nya
    tidak sama di-Singapore. Kita menolong orang2 Melayu dengan chara
    demokratik sosialis, bukan dengan memberikan kepada mereka wang
    sahaja bagini. Sebalek-nya meninggikan kebolehan-nya, latehan-nya, pelajaran-nya supaya ia boleh hidup
    dengan sama taraf ‘dengan lain2 kaum di-Singapura. Jikalau kita betul menindas orang2 Melayu, 3 kawasan pendudok2-nya kebanyakan-nya Melayu—Pulau2 Selatan, Geylang Serai,Kampong Kembangan—bagaimana chalon2 P.A.P. boleh menang? Betulkah kita menindas orang2 Melayu?
    Jikalau tokoh2 UMNO betul sayang, kasehi ra’ayat jelata—bukan sayang hendak menahan kedudokannya, tetapi ra’ayat jelata—mari kita
    bertanding menunjokkan siapa yang ada ranchangan, atau dasar, atau
    policy yang boleh meninggikan kehidupan orang2 Melayu dan bumi
    putera lain saperti rakan2 kita dari Sarawak dan rakan2 kita dari Sabah.
    Mari kita bertanding menunjokkan hal ini……..”

  15. Harry has served his Purpose. He knows it and he understands that his place in history is secure. All he wants now is an epitaph that says “Harry Knows Best!”
    His methods may not apply well in this changing world, where the ignorant hordes are slowly overcoming their slumber of being ‘used’ and ‘monopolized’. As Harry always says: ‘What is the use of Liberty and Freedom, when you are too poor and stupid to exercise it?’ (err.., the quote is ad verbatim). But he did what he had too – even if it meant malcontent.

    Each one of us have a Purpose – but most here only know how to ‘Propose’. Some of you even invent PRC Fables and Fantasies – and quarrel over such. Gimme a break..!

  16. Perhaps not LKY’s modus operandi, definitely, his values of leaderships integrity and quality, meaning zero-tolerance of corruption for the leaders who are also highly capable and efficient, (for China, in particular, and other countries) .

  17. a great statesman but he did jail those oppose to him for years which was avoidable as lively debate does not exist at all Singapore.

  18. LKY deliberately did a “professional foul” and got a straight red card from the Tunku. By doing so he saved Singapore from being another Sabah.

  19. CLF,
    You may disagree with him but he does have his point on many things. You knew how Esau sell his birthright for meat to Jacob. So? Come on! People including you are combative in which very few really admit that one’s wrong. Perhaps, you are one of those seeking for that epitath. Hahahaha!
    Come on! If his method may not apply well. So did the Yingeland & Yankee’s methods. The Yankee saw his arse kenna whacked by asiatic folks. So does the so called high esteemed values propogated by the west.

    Guys & Gals,
    LKY has shown the way that we can be on our own feet. Well, you can disagree with the old man but it would be extremely sad if one got to swallow lock, stock & barrel from west just to get even with the old man

  20. You really want to know what i wish my epitaph to read, looes?
    It’s this: “He could not suffer brain damaged, literal, peasant mentalities!”
    Read carefully what i wrote. If you can’t understand it – ask Harry..
    Perhaps too many years served in the Lil Dot has been inimical to your libido. Ask the Durex Survey..
    And PRC is not adopting anybodies ‘policy’ except maybe the Kiasu-ness. Ask President Xi who is in the process of emasculating Premier Li.. Third Generation Curse?

    Anything else? If not, have an entertaining year ahead, and read carefully before you ‘Raca’ others.

  21. looes74:
    Mahathir was ragged when he was a freshman. As a man with superior memory – something few Malays possess if he is to be believed at all – he has made sure that one community, in particular, understand what pay-back means.

    Ragging was standard fare most of us received in institutions of higher learning in Singapore and Malaysia right till the late sixties.

  22. “if you stick to basics- clean govt, free market, strong finances, and stop giving excuses, you can already get to where you need to rapidly.” …good words of wisdom at the expense of foreigners can even riot in Spore, Spore men left with no choice but to marry foreigners (Viets esp).,

  23. Hi Nina,

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the book and the controversial opinions on Lee Kuan Yew.

    We are interviewing Ali Wyne, the co-author of the book “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” this week on our site. He researched Lee Kuan Yew extensively and has quite thorough knowledge of him. If you have any questions you would like to ask Ali, please submit them on the site — we will be accepting questions until tomorrow:

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