the imaginative conservative logo

Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

Imagine a modern free country in which aspiring politicians, before the most prominent political party lets them run for office as its nominees, must pass interviews and psychometric tests evaluating their knowledge and skill, commitment to public service, humility, honesty and morality. Will America’s Republicans or Democrats dare to try it? As the actor and philosopher Mister T might say, “In yo’ dreams, fool!”

Imagine a nation where a low-tax free-market is the default position; where senior statesmen explain, say, the harmful effects of a minimum wage with the succinct clarity of a Walter Williams or a Milton Friedman. Imagine a nation where immigration is welcome but controlled carefully; where government has gently integrated a potentially incendiary melting-pot, not to enforce sameness but to ensure mutual understanding, tolerance and the shared responsibilities of nationhood. Imagine a fast-growing country that is among the richest, with neither private nor public debt problems. Imagine a government dedicated to strengthening civic and personal morality as best it can; where public and private corruption remain freak occurrences.

That place is Singapore, which within living memory went from being as poor as the worst nations in Africa to surpassing American per capita income. There virtue and economic growth still thrive thanks overwhelmingly to its founder and still-revered senior statesman, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew. He is the greatest and most successful leader of the 20th Century, and the wisest senior statesman in the 21st. In conventional terms of politics and policy he has been traditional without being hidebound, and innovative without ideology; meanwhile he remains, above all else, the most Imaginative Conservative to head any nation within a century.

These pages recently cited management guru Peter Drucker claiming the title for Winston Churchill. Churchill may well be the greatest wartime leader of the past century, and our debt to him is vast, but we focus almost exclusively on Westerners, ignore other cultures, and often associate greatness with massive invasions, fleets of tanks, and squadrons of bombers. Asian cultures reserve special admiration for leaders who made war unnecessary and let prosperity flourish.

Hardly any modern Americans remember the names of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, or his Treasurer Ludwig Erhard, or their economist Wilhelm Roepke (a friend of America’s foremost modern conservative, Russell Kirk). They created the post-war German Economic Miracle even more than did the Marshall Plan. Few Americans, but all educated Asians from Pakistan to the Pacific, know Lee Kuan Yew; and all whom I ever met, without exception, wish that his or her country had its own version. When the 1980s Premier Deng Chao Ping brought capitalism to China, Mr. Lee was his most trusted foreign advisor.

Japanese_occupation_of_HainanBorn in 1923, Lee recalls his most pivotal moment when he was eighteen, delayed from going to Oxford as the Japanese invaded Singapore. Shocked that the British colonists could be defeated; appalled at the brutality of the invaders; they helped to beget his Hobbesian views. Human beings are barbarians, he has said, incapable of being reformed forever and altogether, but able to be trained as individuals and groups: he says our Stone Age survival instincts need to be contained, disciplined and refocused in the Space Age. On diplomacy and strategy he is likened to Metternich and Kissinger, and he readily admits to a world view influenced by 19th Century European liberal notions of balance of power; as well as gentlemanly Confucian virtues of duty, dignity and public humility which he admits are eclipsed in the modern individualistic West.

His second great awakening happened as a post-war law student at Oxford, when he became more familiar with great Western thinkers, especially 19th Century European statesmen, at a time when Britain was nationalising industries at its most self-destructively socialist. His challenge began in the mid-1960s: Singapore was part of newly independent Malaysia in 1959 but soon broke away. Lee’s island had been poor, polyglot, and corrupt, and the free-marketeer’s first paradoxical acts included creating government-owned enterprises because, he recalls, Singapore’s economic leaders were almost exclusively merchant traders who lacked the money to build, and experience to run, the larger firms that a nation requires, such as ports and utilities. As soon as the new state firms ran effectively, his government sold them to private investors because, he asks rhetorically, “who’ll still be working at his desk at 2 a.m. when the company is owned by the government?” The comment shows his, and Singapore’s, commitment to hard work best enshrined in entrepreneurship.

He tackled corruption just as vigorously and unconventionally. By the 1980s, someone asked Lee why his Minister of Justice was paid the unheard-of sum of US $350,000 a year. He answered, “That’s what the head of Coca Cola Singapore earns. Is Rule of Law less important than fizzy drinks?” Their head of state now earns four times that of the U.S. President, but woe betide the corrupt. In the same era, Lee summoned in the respected top civil servant of a major department, pointed to a manila file beside the man’s chair and murmured “We know everything. Look if you like.” The corrupt official thanked him, said no more, went home and blew his brains out: better than a public trial, loss of everything, and family disgrace. An advisor told me: “Within hours every bureaucrat in Singapore knew about it.” In Lee’s era and now, Singapore is ranked as having the most honest and incorruptible government on earth, and populace too.

Colonial Singapore was a polyglot melting-pot of local Straits Chinese and Malays, plus immigrants from China and India, Sri Lanka and Java and Britain, and couples occasionally intermarried in every configuration. Their religions were Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim, from doctrinaire to disinterested. Like other empires historically, the British governed by keeping the groups as separated as possible. The young Oxford-educated lawyer agitated for independence because, as Lee said, “we could solve our own problems better than outsiders could.” But he foresaw that what worked for British colonialists would fail spectacularly under self-rule if nationhood was not embraced by each of Singapore’s constituent cultures, and instead governance became a greedy tussle of vastly different clans and castes, ethnicities and faiths.  Such rapidly shifting tectonic plates characterise the politics of many troubled multi-ethnic democracies today, especially in the Third World.

Lee was soon proven correct by neighbouring Malaysia. Today Malaysia still lacks a national language even in its schools, the majority culture is Malay and the centuries-old population of ethnic Chinese remain a ghettoized minority, albeit usually rich from hard-work and mutual support which inspire jealousy. That nation has suffered many lethal race-riots and pogroms, some launched by ethnic Chinese but most by Malays. Next door in peaceful Singapore, Lee swiftly established English as the national language, even though most people there spoke Chinese. Today, high-rise apartment-house populations each replicate the city-state’s ethnic demographics. By no means does it eliminate preferences to work or worship or socialise among one’s own kind, Lee explains, but whatever their forbearers or their faith, they grow up knowing members of every group. Thus stereotyping and bigotry are diminished.

From the 1960s, Lee worried that increased national wealth would spawn complacency, replacing Singapore’s hard-working spirit, in which a poor man had been asked why he was wrapped in a blanket on a hot day and he answered: “my cousin borrowed my trousers to go to work”—they only had one pair between them and dressed in shifts. When Lee first became Prime Minister and saw a butler fetching balls hit by his children, he and his wife moved the family out of the official residence before the youngsters were spoiled. Besides, he could clearly see the decadence thriving upstream in richer Western nations.

Lee’s government began projects to strengthen conservative values where it could, and not all succeeded. People are required to save a stipulated percentage of their incomes. Respect and tidiness are encouraged by fierce fines against littering or even chewing gum in public. Hooligans and vandals are given corporal punishment: Lee recalls his schooldays, getting “three of the best” with a rattan cane for tardiness, and said it “did nobody harm.” Today Singapore remains virtually devoid of street crime and even graffiti. Conversely, he says that homosexuality is a responsibility for “society, not government.”

youthNoticing that educated women marry later, or often not at all, he introduced mild pro-family incentives. In 1980s experiments, educated young single civil servants were invited on “mixers” ranging from cocktails to weekend cruises. Young ladies giggled when they recalled going, but only with their girlfriends, and told me they’d never dare follow up with the young men they met there, lest their friends thought them “desperate.” No doubt that ended swiftly.

Lee controlled the tenor, but not the content, of national politics by responding to personal accusations with civil litigation. Slander him or a colleague and you’d find yourself in court defended by expensive lawyers; criticise policy even in savage terms and your charges would be answered with grace and candour. In this way Lee averted the incremental loss of civility that can eventually cripple democracies and turn policy discussions into personality warfare. Similarly, aspects of free speech are curtailed selectively: in 2007 three violently racist bloggers were convicted of sedition.

Lee was Prime Minister from 1959, stepped down and was made Senior Minister in 1990, and left Cabinet to serve as Minister Mentor in 2011. If asked whether he succeeded or failed overall, Lee would probably think the question foolish but he would be too polite to say so. Traditional values, diligence, culture and integrity are everyday battles, never won or lost once and for all, and Singapore’s Sage is more than conservative enough to know it. He takes gratification in seeing that many signs of global decadence are kept at bay; that respect and prudence survive for now among his country’s young. Yet he worries aloud that, generation by generation, although his people have remained hard-working and honest, they are slowly losing their “edge” because life has become easier. “We survive on a narrow margin,” he keeps warning, meaning the need to renew education and infrastructure on their small island, and their competitiveness, and their law-abiding and civilised traditional values.

Western rating agencies, and Lee’s domestic opponents who altogether never command more than 25 percent of the vote, accuse Singapore of having a de facto single-party state. Even accepting their individual objections at face value, it seems difficult to imagine smaller fractious parties challenging anything so inclusive and well run. Lee has long argued that the Western democratic model, often combative for its own sake or the careers of its politicians, is unsuitable to Singapore’s size, ethnic complexity, and Asian desire for order. Even if it is a self-perpetuating despotism few can dispute that it is benign, while many Asians think it is an improvement over the stagnating fratricidal politics plaguing, say, democracy as interpreted by India and the West.

Lee has neither stifled social change, nor even Leftist and Progressive calls for change. But he has slowed a voracious decadence by which a greedy and populist media encourages personalised, politicised, and irresponsible accusations. By keeping the tone civilised and analytical, he helps the quieter voice of Prudence to get a fair hearing, and discourages the Cult of Change for the sake of change alone. By gently raising the amplification of normalcy, he has weakened the attractions of the abnormal and discouraged ideological fantasy. Hence, four successive generations of Singaporeans have overwhelmingly agreed on how to change, whose model to follow, and who to lead them; and near the end of Lee’s long life they show no willingness to abandon his lessons of success. His lasting gift is progress protected by perspective. He has found a way in which to make modernity walk beside The Permanent Things, at least more often than not. His success is enough to at least make Western conservatives reconsider some of their core concepts of liberty and order, whatever they decide. Moreover, Lee’s accomplishments reversed the decline of his nation and took but one lifetime, albeit with vast public support.

This writer has watched him shrug off Western charges of authoritarianism; Singapore’s moral and economic achievement is unrivalled, and like Russell Kirk in The Roots of American Order, Lee knows that different civilisations are rooted in different traditions and hierarchies of values.

His gratitude and admiration for America remains firm, if not for its internal permissiveness then for its role in balancing competing Asian powers. The understandable emergence of China, he thinks, will be the biggest global shake-up in many centuries. He dismisses predictions of American collapse, yet said upon President Obama’s re-election that the U.S. had but a few years left to tackle its debt problems “seriously.” One wonders to what degree even Singapore’s Sage falls prey to vain hope, but few dare to contradict him without thinking twice.

Now age 90, and as bright as ever, Mr. Lee still won’t surrender to egotism. Besieged for advice by world leaders and journalists, he dismisses his obvious wisdom with humility, and says they only use him “as a sounding board” because he’s “been around a long time.” Asked about his recently deceased wife, and her integral role throughout his career, he goes one better and declares that he was “a house-husband, because for a long time she earned more than I did!” When she was incapacitated by strokes but still lucid, for years Lee went every night to her bedside, recounted his day, held her hand, and read aloud her favourite poems learnt in her childhood and over her years as an English teacher. He talks openly about death and his increasing frailty, and how he fights insomnia by meditation taught to him by a Catholic friend. Lee remains an agnostic impressed by Christianity, with a Confucian’s analytical assessment of how much good he did for those under his care. He takes solace in even his mistakes, because he says they were made for honourable reasons. But still wary of error, he humbly cites a Chinese proverb warning “never evaluate a man’s life until after you shut the lid on his coffin.”

Aware of his legendary successes but ostensibly unimpressed by them; worried and protective of his legacy but not unseemingly so; the aged Mr. Lee exhibits no detachment, but rather he possesses a deep serenity that is fully attached and fully aware. It is as if the Oxford Oriental of generations ago has acquired, standing invisibly on either side of him, the wise ghosts of the West’s Marcus Aurelius and the East’s Confucius.

His books are many, and lectures by and on him are readily available online. If Mankind’s future will be peaceful and prosperous, free and stable, it will increasingly resemble the vision, values and methods of the magnificent Mr. Lee Kuan Yew.

Books mentioned in this article may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

Print Friendly
"All comments are subject to moderation. We welcome the comments of those who disagree, but not those who are disagreeable."
4 replies to this post
  1. Excellent! Thank you for sharing. For my part, I was in Singapore very briefly (and neighboring Malaysia as well) and the difference between the two was quite visible. But, that said – Singapore surprised me most for having… the largest Christmas decorations I’d ever seen at an airport. The last thing I expected to see was Singapore of all places having larger Christmas decorations than ostensibly Western, Christian countries.

  2. A thought-provoking piece. Interesting to see “call no man happy until he is dead” cited by a modern leader: “never evaluate a man’s life until after you shut the lid on his coffin.” There are indeed Permanent Things.

Please leave a thoughtful, civil, and constructive comment: