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.
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.
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.