The ringmaster

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000
By Lee Kuan Yew

If Singapore has been Asia’s most successful tiger, then Lee Kuan Yew has been the region’s greatest ringmaster. The second volume of Lee’s memoirs further consolidates Lee’s singular view of the world and Singapore’s place in it, making for compulsive reading.

Lee Kuan Yew will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest leaders in Southeast Asian history. As Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990 and “senior minister” thereafter, he was the driving force behind the transformation of Singapore from a reluctantly independent and Third World city-state – an “island without its hinterland, a heart without a body” – to one of the biggest economic success stories in Asia, if not the world.

As such, Lee’s version of the Singapore story – and this second volume of his memoirs clearly reveals that much of the Singapore story is his story – is an important and compelling read.

Lee has led a life of political passion. It would be tempting but also patronising to say that the irony is he’s created a city lacking much of that passion. He has fought on the big issues such as communism and capitalism, but has been just as devoted to personal and sometimes seemingly trivial issues as well, such as the length of men’s hair, female graduates choosing to remain unmarried, and the sale of chewing gum to Singapore’s three million people.

(Australian foreign correspondent Greg Sheridan reports that when the latter drew particular derision in the Western press, the head of Singapore’s Foreign Affairs Department retorted: “In most American cities you can buy crack cocaine easily, in Singapore you can’t buy chewing gum. Which of these two social realities ought to excite the moral indignation of world opinion?”)

All of these issues are covered in detail in this 691-page book. The first section charts the transformation of Singapore from its 1965 independence from Malaysia to the present year. It shows how Lee almost single-handedly managed “to build a nation out of a disparate collection of immigrants from China, British India, and the Dutch East Indies, or how to make a living for its people when its former economic role as the entrepot of the region is becoming defunct”.

Each chapter recounts the period from 1965 to 2000 following the development of a certain aspect of the nation, so some repetition is unavoidable. Lee documents his party’s struggle with defence, economic, social and political issues. It’s all here: efforts to build up the Singapore Armed Forces as it became clear that the withdrawal of the British was inevitable; the method in which the Singaporean economy was strengthened; the strong-handed manner in which communal problems were dealt with; the way in which income was redistributed without resorting to the creation of a welfare state, and so on.

Lee likes to think he strived to maintain Singapore as a neutral state, not unlike Switzerland in Europe. For instance, as the Vietnam War worsened in 1967, he made his memorable speech to the British Labour Party about not wanting “to sound like a hawk or a dove. If I have to choose a metaphor from the aviary, I would like to think of the owl. Anyone looking at what is happening in Vietnam must have baleful eyes.”

Lee’s almost absolute power in the People’s Action Party and Singapore is evident in the language he employs. Rarely is the term “we” used in place of “I”. Take the Singaporean banking system in the late 1990s, when Lee was no longer prime minister: “I concluded they were not awake to the dangers of being inbred … [so] I decided in 1997 to break this mould … I believed the time had come for the tough international players to force our Big Four to upgrade their services or lose market share … I concluded that Koh … was not keeping up with the enormous changes sweeping the banking industry.” However, Lee writes, “I did not want to revamp the MAS [Monetary Authority of Singapore] myself”. As he very well could have if he’d wanted to.

Lee is a leader who has appealed to convenient “traditions” to help mould a harmonious multi-racial society. But this appeal can be a double-edged sword. In the 80s, for instance, he set about reviving Confucianist values in a population which is three-quarters ethnic Chinese. Yet some scholars argue (Lee doesn’t mention this) that Confucianism is compatible with the people protesting against leadership they are unhappy with, something the state in Singapore hasn’t allowed much civic space for. (Yet in one breathtaking line Lee writes “Without much of an opposition in Parliament, I missed a foil to project issues.” He and his party’s policies were in no small way responsible for this state of affairs.)

But while traditions convenient to the PAP’s hold on power have been promoted, other traditions such as letting off firecrackers around Chinese New Year have been banned: “When we live in high-rises 10 to 20 storeys high, incompatible traditional practices had to stop.”

The second and lengthier part of the book will appeal to any reader with an interest in world events, as it focuses on Lee’s relations with world leaders, Singapore’s relations with other countries, the rise and fall of international institutions (Asean, the Commonwealth) and events with global effects (the 1997 economic downturn, Tiananmen Square). Lee isn’t shy about giving his opinion on anything, and many of his descriptions are illuminating.

Singapore’s bitter and turbulent relationship with Malaysia is a story well told, from Mahathir calling Lee in 1965 “insular, selfish and arrogant”, to Lee maintaining that “a multiracial society of equal citizens of was unacceptable to the Umno leaders of Malaysia in 1965 and remained unacceptable in 1999.” If Lee is ever smug about his contributions towards Singapore’s success, it shows when he writes that “This [success] was not what Malaysia’s leaders thought would happen when they asked us to leave in 1965.”

It’s difficult to think of a major twentieth century leader that Lee doesn’t describe in his book: Of Sukarno, Lee was “disappointed by the insubstantial conversation”; Suharto was “a careful, thoughtful man, the exact opposite of Sukarno … I would not classify Suharto as a crook”; Thailand’s Thanom was “not a complex man”; Vietnam’s Pham Van Dong was “arrogant and objectionable”; Taiwan’s Lee Teng-Hui was “self-confident, well-read and well-briefed on every subject that interested him”; George Bush was “an exceptionally warm and friendly man”; Margaret Thatcher was “an intense person, full of determination and drive”; and so on.

(He avoids mentioning directly what he thinks of Australia’s two most recent prime ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, preferring instead to focus on Robert Menzies – perhaps he confuses ultra-conservative Howard with the Menzies of the 50s – it could happen to anyone.)

There are plenty of anecdotes thrown in. For instance, Habibie complained that Singapore took four days to send its congratulations to him after he took office. “It’s okay with me, but there are 211 million people [in Indonesia],” Habibie said. “Look at the map. All the green [area] is Indonesia. And that red dot is Singapore.” Prime Minister Goh responded in a speech that “Singapore had only the resources of three million people and there were limits to what ‘a little red dot’ like Singapore could do for its neighbours.”

Whether you respect Lee for his Herculean efforts in Singapore, or harbour misgivings at his patriarchal attitudes and strong-handed methods of handling the people he has led, this book will give you further insights into the man’s way of thinking. He certainly isn’t shy when it comes to singing his own praises; but it’s a rare person indeed who has managed to accomplished what Lee has.

And the Lee Kuan Yew story is far from over yet – senior minister Lee continues to play an active role in Singapore’s politics and international affairs. As recently as last weekend comments made by Lee about the elite in Indonesia led to Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid suggesting that Indonesia and Malaysia could band together to teach Singapore a “lesson” by cutting its water supplies. But as Lee points out, this is an eventuality that Singapore began preparing for decades ago.

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