Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

March 29, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

by Terence Netto@www.malaysiakini.com

Asia’s generation of independence-gaining leaders knew little or nothing of how to get the economies of their countries going.

Lee-Kuan-Yew India’s Jawarharlal Nehru, Indonesia’s Sukarno, and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh succeeded in freeing their countries from the colonial powers, but their triumphs were Pyrrhic. The euphoria of independence turned out to as evanescent as morning dew, their countries falling away after gaining freedom, stymied either by the ethnic and religious hatreds that had long bedeviled them, or hobbled by the choice of growth-stifling economic systems, or worse, caught up as proxies in the Cold War rivalry between the West and the communist bloc.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore – the names are interchangeable as no founding leader has stamped his mark on his country like Lee did – avoided the fate of these countries and their larger-than-life progenitors.

From scratch in 1959 when Singapore became self-governing, Lee built up the city-state to become an an economic and technological cynosure. He did this through the practice of a capitalism that emphasised no corruption, hard work, meritocracy, low taxes and high savings. And he held the line on the utility of the English language for upward mobility.

The upshot was phenomenal: Singapore rose from an economy whose gross domestic product (GDP) was US$427 per capita in 1960 to US$55,000 in 2013. This increase is stupendous by any measure, more so considering Singapore is without natural resources save a good harbour.

Lee achieved this transformation via methods that scorned the Western view that democracy was the last word in human political development. He was harsh on opponents, jailing them without trial if not bankrupting them with libel suits, and his view of the press was that they should not presume to tell him how Singapore should be governed.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the historian Francis Fukuyama espoused the theory of the “end of history” owing to the triumph of “liberal democracy”. Fukuyama said that the natural wish of humans to be free from repression would eventuate in their choice of a liberal democratic system of governance.

Fukuyama saw that communism’s fall cleared the way for the flowering of a system that believed in limited government, respected individual rights, allowed for free and fair elections, and encouraged governance by informed consent of the governed.

That this theory does not enjoy traction in Confucian societies was suggested, first, by Park Chung-hee in South Korea and, then, by Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore, and, later still, by Deng Xiaoping in China.

A Preference for order over disorder

The reason why an authoritarianism that was not draconian fostered growth and order in these Confucian societies was because of the ethos inculcated by the ancient Chinese sage which instilled a preference for order over the disorder of uninhibited political competition, placed family and social obligations to the kin group above individual rights, and encouraged respect for authority if it was reasonably exercised.

In Confucian societies, a quasi-authoritarianism is no reason for resistance, provided there are opportunities for people to become rich, educated and industrious. Rights are secondary to obligations and order is valued more than individual fulfillment.

Lee Kuan Yew understood this ethos which was why he always maintained, in the face of criticism of his heavy-handedness, that he knew his society better than the critics of his methods. Implicit in Lee’s approach was his confidence that Singaporeans would  applaud his quasi-authoritarianism when they see its economic outcome: the transformation of a resource-bereft and vulnerable geographic crossroads into a world hub of transport and trade. Singapore’s GDP was US$1 billion in 1960; in 2013 it was US$298 billion.

SingaporeSingapore’s spectacular economic growth has made Lee’s advice on how to govern much sought after, especially among leaders of countries keen to transform their backward economies.

India has declared a day of national mourning and its Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, a devotee of the economic-growth-as-panacea school, will attend Lee’s funeral in the island-state today, surely a mark of his determination to emulate the Singaporean model of development.

Singapore’s phenomenal economic progress gave Lee the platform to advice even the big powers on matters of geopolitical and strategic interest, with the former US President Richard Nixon an admirer who wryly observed that the “engine was too big for the boat”, by which he meant Lee’s intelligence and ability ought to have had an impact on a widely beneficial scale than just the tiny island he led from obscurity to economic powerhouse.

This brings us to the inevitable question of the what-might-have-been had Lee and Singapore not been, in his words, “turfed out” of Malaysia in 1965. The whole question of Singapore’s merger and separation from its 1963 federation with Malaya and Borneo is so vexed a matter that even after a half-century the subject is suffused with emotion that hinders objective assessment.

It will require a historian of Olympian detachment to unpack the tangled strands and allow the judgmental chips to fall where they may. If history is the record of what one age finds worthy of note in another, that definition implies a changing standard which may not be as impressed with Lee’s achievements as they presently rate on history’s scales.

Late 20th century and early 21st century truisms about economic-growth-as-panacea may not hold for long as the idea of progress takes in a more comprehensive view of human beings finding fulfillment in civil society, unhindered by any idea that the state knows best.

If standards come to that, Lee Kuan Yew’s ratings will waver from its present lofty levels, but then he may contend that history’s scales are fairly bogus in any case and that what matters are the here and now.




17 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis

  1. Quote:- “Indeed, more than half a million grateful Malaysians work and study in Singapore and have benefited tremendously from Lee’s policies and scholarships, including my own family members”

    May I also add that on behalf of the thousands and thousands of non-Malaysian foreigners who couldn’t find hope, dignity and employment in their own countries but found it in tiny, tiny Singapore, “TQ Mr. Lee”

  2. A good article on LKY by Terence Netto. He has said it all and there is no need for others to repeat them. LKY was a genius, a brilliant man had to find in the future. If it had not been for LKY after Singapore withdrew from Malaysia in the mid 1960s, the island state would have remained static, dependent on an entrepot trade.

  3. There is no question that LKY and his team were patriots and more than anything else, that is the core anchor value that legitimized any flaws and ills of his work. BUT future generation, growing up in a materialistic setting, how reliable can that patriotisim be carried forward? Materialism is global and has no loyalty and hence that means Singaporean patriotism is anchored on delivering materialism which gets harder when they reached this stage. LKY final years, he thought the answer was culutral uplifiting, that if he imbued high culture, then his system would be more sustainable.. But he did it like he did everything else, imported, purchased, or learned. But culture is to be created, built and owned by the people.Not that there is any real danger anytime soon but If Singapore cannot turn into something else than a country club metropolis, its simply a matter of time before it does not mean that much..A nation have to built these things material or culture that is truly owned by the people in order for it survive when things don’t go their way. Its also a lesson in Malaysia many, the right-wingers especially don’t even want to learn, already decided..

  4. One of the better commentaries on the LKY legacy. Some tend to focus only on the so-called authoritarian style of governance of the late Singapore founding prime minister. Well, as pointed out, the end result is what counts as far as Singaporeans are concerned.

    Watching the thousands braving the rain to bid a final farewell to the Father of their nation and the emotions expressed by young and old while paying their last respects at Parliament House, coupled with the many past and present foreign leaders present at the State Funeral all demonstrate that the late LKY must have done something worth emulating. Not surprising of course was the absence of Malaysia’s Prime Minister (obviously the F1 race must have kept him busy) at the State Funeral of a world-renowned political leader. That was disappointing.

    His Majesty the Yang DiPertuan Agong was magnanimous in his presence to convey condolences on behalf of Malaysia. Yes, of course PM Najib did offer his condolences before going to China but wasn’t his presence at the State Funeral a must out of respect for his friend the current PM of Singapore who is LKY’s son? Or is there more than meets the eye – UMNO Baru politics?

    Imagine, Singapore’s GDP of US$1 billion in 1960 and a GDP of US$298 billion in 2013! Whew! Who wouldn’t be jealous? And ashamed too as we are so well-endowed with natural resources and the little red dot has nothing except the belief in meritocracy, hard work, incorruptibility and the will to achieve greatness.
    Rest in Peace Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

  5. Singapore’s position in Malaysia was never tenable given that meritocracy is the cornerstone of what LKY envisioned that Singapore was to be built on. Ergo getting the best talent to do it, performance and delivering results were not something LKY could compromise. The Tunku on the other hand was in no position to be rid of the ketuanan thing (not that the Tunku wanted to), even in its early form.
    It was good that LKY and the Tunku recognized this early and both countries spared a more vicious or violent separation. LKY was probably vindicated after Tun Razak further entrenched the ketuanan thing further in the guise of the NEP, even if the cause may have been noble.
    So the question of what if Singapore was never “turfed out” from Malaysia is moot. It was a question of when as long as LKY was in the driving seat.

    The more interesting what-if question, especially for our countrymen across the South China Sea, is: What if Tun Fuad Stephens and Tun Stephen Kalong Ningkan took a different path?

  6. A cleaner government in Malaysia + greater democracy in Singapore + a
    Malaysia-Singapore “economic uion” = greater heights for the peoples of
    both fraternal nations

  7. @Phua Kai Lit – 3 big IFs – 1) cleaner government in MY, 2) greater democracy in SG, and 3) economic union. 1) alone will ensure that hell has a greater chance of freezing over than the realization of this dream. But we can day-dream, cant we?

  8. “Lee Kuan Yew was sui generis”

    Yes indeed LKY was “sui generis”

    Ranapaul has a good comment on LKY’s funeral.

    LKY & Goh Keng Swee had to face Singapore’s trials and tribulations, experience pre & post Malaysia.constantly to find the successful solutions against all odds which gave them the edge.

    Also to share this aspect of the history of Singapore not mentioned in our history books…

    Just to share this…

    “I was thousands of miles away, studying. Although most overseas students had no hand in its formation, yet many of them were quite aware of the Great Malaysia Project and quite concerned of its possible impact on their lives.

    In 1962, Sardon Jubir of Malaya and Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Kheng Swee of Singapore were in New Zealand, to sell the Malaysia Concept to the students of Victoria University, urging them to support the formation of an enlarged federation in the British Commonwealth of Nations…”


    First non Singaporean Malay elected to the 1948 Singapore Legiative Council – http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/44e7b06b-05b0-4255-869f-1528a5ac35e7

    From this…

    singapore rejected – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41ND3U_9HgQ

    To this…

    singapore rejected 2 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbsLclYBdPw

    Republic of Singapore (1965) LKY the astute “Politician & Statesman” used Diplomacy with his handling of Confrontation with Indonesia & the hanging of the 2 Indonesian bombers…

    Dec 1965 – Days of Rage: Konfrontasi (Confrontation) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vYJP_-CztaU&list=PLszzgln9-ASzknq4vd83GWWXyvRy5uaVO&index=15

    LKY sent Goh Keng Swee to advise & assist the Chinese Government on many issues to make China like Singapore & today she is enjoying the fruits of China’s Economic boom…which he predicted in 1967…!

    1967 LKY Interview – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VexrmTacOAA

    A Tribute to Dr Goh Keng Swee Pt1/6 –

    A Tribute to Dr Goh Keng Swee Pt2/6 –

    A Tribute to Dr Goh Keng Swee Pt3/6 –

    Those interested to learn more, can watch up to Part 6…

    Farewell to Dr Goh Keng Swee – eulogy from … – YouTube –

    The best of Lee Kuan Yew – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8rPofi-AUw

    Finally to share this…

    “…Teh wrote

    I have been feeling very sad and depressed for the last two weeks.

    I feel responsible for the occurrence of this unfortunate incident and I feel I should accept full responsibility.

    As an honourable oriental gentleman I feel it is only right that I should pay the highest penalty for my mistake.[3]”
    1986 Teh Cheang Wan – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teh_Cheang_Wan

    “..T.he whole question of Singapore’s merger and separation from its 1963 federation with Malaya and Borneo is so vexed a matter that even after a half-century the subject is suffused with emotion that hinders objective assessment…”

    Try this one and have a good read…

    What Our HISTORY TEXT BOOKS did NOT teach us about our EARLY Cultural Relations, MERDEKA, and the TRUE MALAY DILEMA –

    LKY’s & Goh Keng Swee’s Legacy – The Pearl of the Orient in the 21st century…

    Rapat Hari Kebangsaan 2014 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0PanmOWE7Dg

    Whilst in Malaysia since 1965, we are still bogged down with scandals after scandals, the nation in Economic & Financial tatters, social unrest and still arguing about race & religion…!!!

    You be the judge.

  9. Singapore’s or Lee Kuan Yew’s (LKY) success has to be seen in context of the times.

    It is true that Nehru, Sukarno and Ho Chi Minh tiumphed in winning freedom for their respective countries from their Colonial Masters but failed thereafter to deliver good governance with sustainable economic development and growth that would have created huge number of jobs every year for their teeming millions of people. Their countries and populations were huge with overwhelming rural poor living in abject poverty. I used to think way back that for Mao and Nehru to run Singapore would have been a relatively easy task whereas LKY would have probably ended or given up as total failure in managing a China or India. The size and problems besetting them were and are so immense and complex that one will be at a loss to know where to get started.

    Island Singapore, by contrast, was tiny and compact with some 2 million people when LKY and his PAP took over power in 1959. By then it was already humming as a well known metropolis with entreport trade and functioning as gateway to the Far East and beyond. It was a peaceful city with no racila strife or tension between the majority Chinese and the minority Malays until it joined Malaysia and thereafter which racial riots errupted.

    LKY was a consumate politician. He could easily relate to people and work the ground to achieve set goals. His early background as legal adviser to many trade unions helped him in his political career. He could mobilise the people to his cause like no one else in the PAP could after the party-split. Dr Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye had no political base of their own and they were good in dealing with bureacrats and LKY had to tutor them as to how to be close with the people and win their support.

    LKY keeping his key political opponents under detention for some 10 to 30 years is a blot on his otherwise exceptional leadership. He should have released them by mid 1970’s when Singapore was flying high with booming economy. I still feel that during that era had he released them and fought them at any subsequent election even at a fare and sqauare level he and his PAP would have still won comfortably on account of their all-round achievements that brought propsperity and good life to its people.

  10. @Hawking Eye

    How about other small or island states? How about Sri Lanka (or Ceylon) before the ethnic strives due to politicians playing favourites? How about Jamaica or many other small former colonies? Where are they now?

    What about Penang? Smaller in size and population?

    If size leads to complexity, then break it down into manageable chunks. This is precisely how modern China took off. After Deng Xiao Ping’s Singapore visit, he experimented with ShenZhen. Then the coastal cities. Goh Keng Sui was the advisor for the coastal city development.

    As we speak, Singapore has just delivered the first of its 3 masterplans for a new capital city in Andhra Pradesh in India.


  11. Don’t forget! S Rajaratnam and Toh Chin Chye

    And sumpitan emas, I still prefer DR Seenivasagam than Tun Abdul Razak. Perhaps, the best UMNO leader was Tun Dr Ismail

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