Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew

The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World

Interviews and Selections by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne

Review by John E. Wade II



What is so amazing about this book is the breadth and depth of this extremely successful and wise leader of the Singapore, during the time that it was a state within the British Commonwealth through its full independence and the formation of the Republic of Singapore.  Lee was the Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990 and is considered the founding father of modern Singapore.  When Lee assumed office, per capita income was about $400 per year and it is now more than $50,000.

Leaders including Richard Nixon, Barrack Obama, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and a host of others have recognized Lee’s wisdom.

The book answered the question, “Who is Lee Kuan Yew?”  Lee is described as “a strategist’s strategist, a leader’s leader and a mentor’s mentor.”  In international affairs, no individual has been more eagerly sought out, more regularly consulted, and more carefully listened to by a generation of American, Chinese, and other world leaders than “the sage of Singapore.”

He points out that China intends to be “. . . the greatest power in the world.”  But he has the same view as I—this scenario need not lead to any military conflict, only economic competition.  He also thinks as I do that globalization is a good thing and will uphold world peace.

He makes a very good point that China can penalize any country simply by not allowing access to its market of 1.3 billion people.  But it is in China’s interest to have stability, concentrating on educating its young people, “. . . . selecting the brightest for science and technology, followed by economics, business management, and the English language.”

Lee explains that the United States should have established a free trade zone thirty years ago in Southeast Asia, prior to China’s rise.  One very important observation is that Chinese is a very difficult language, one that can be learned conversationally in a few years but very difficult to read.  Thus, China will have difficulty recruiting talent unless it does what Singapore did—make English the primary language.

Lee approves of the current China government.  However, he believes that in a couple of decades down the road, with cell phones, Internet and satellite television resulting in a much more urbanized, well-informed population, the present system won’t work.  I agree.

Some of China’s problems are the lack of the rule of law, cultural habits inhibiting creativity, conformity and their language with epigrams and 4,000 years of texts.  Lee said he once advised a Chinese leader to make English the first language, to no avail.

Lee thinks China can keep growing at ten to twelve percent per year due to the low (GDP – Gross Domestic Product) base for 1.3 billion people.  He also thinks a stable evolution toward a parliamentary democracy is possible.

Lee does not believe the United States will become a second class power, but he is well aware—as am I—of our debts and deficits.  He considers our language as one of our great strengths, since it is used by “. . . the leaders in science, technology, invention, business, education, diplomacy, and those who rise to the top of their own societies around the world.”

Even though America is experiencing difficult economic times, he believes our creativity, resilience, and innovative spirit will lead to solutions.  Lee believes America will remain the number one powerfor the next few decades partially because we are able to recruit English-speaking talent from around the world.

He says we have a “can-do” attitude with entrepreneurs and investors who “. . . see risk and failure as natural and necessary for success.”  He calls us a frontier society.    A negative point that Lee makes is that our democracy is such that to win re-elections, politicians have to deliver more and more—leaving the problems of debt to future generations.  I consider this to be a major problem for America, Europe and Japan, as well as elsewhere.  Lee considers it crucial to improve our school systems in order to compete globally.

Lee contends that it is a country’s discipline rather than its democracy that helps its people to succeed.  He thinks after World War II, we began putting too much faith in government.  He abhors “. . . guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public; in sum – the breakdown of civil society.”  I agree that we have serious problems in these areas.  I think a big part of the solution to our problems will have to be education that focuses on values and wisdom.  That would include teaching in homes, places of worship and schools.  Wisdom encompasses the positive values such as empathy, truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity and comprehensive knowledge—from “The Centrality of Wisdom” in How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth.  Also necessary is the realization that the “war on drugs” just hasn’t worked.  For more insight on this topic, see Walter Wink’s essay, “Getting off Drugs:  The Harm Reduction Option” in the book I published, How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth.

Lee states, “America’s debt is what worries me most, because it will absolutely strike at the heart of America’s global leadership.”  I certainly agree.

In terms of China and the United States, he expects stability because cooperation and healthy competition is desirable for both countries.  “The danger of a military conflict between China and the U. S. is low.”  I agree, but China must be treated with the respect its size and importance dictates.  Lee expects this approach, too.

When I read a book, I mark it up and write comments.  This particular book had more “I agree” notations that I can recall in any otherbook.

Lee says that American influence is needed in Asia to balance China, yet we need to become more dynamic and less debt-ridden for that to occur.  Lee explains that the supremacy of the individual was not the reason for America’s success; rather “. . . .because of a certain geo-political good fortune, an abundance of resources and immigrant energy, a generous flow of capital and technology from Europe, and two wide oceans that have conflicts of the world away from American shores.”  This does seem to conflict somewhat from Lee’s glowing praise of America’s entrepreneurial, creative and innovative record.

Lee states, “America’s greatest long-term influence on China comes from playing host to thousands of students who come from China each year; some of the ablest Chinese scholars and scientists.  They will be the most powerful agents for change in China.”  Lee thinks it will be good for China to study how to minimize the negative effects of its growth.

Concerning India, Lee attributes its lack of greater progress to “. . . stifling bureaucracy” and corruption.  He’s quite blunt in saying “India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness.  Its potential has lain fallow, underused.”

Lee points to India’s lack of a common language, poor infrastructure and large deficits—particularly at the state level.  He says it’s really like “. . . 32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line.”  The caste system stifles meritocracy.

India does have certain advantages, such as the rule of law.  “India’s private sector is superior to China’s.”  It has a stronger banking system and capital markets that are more robust and transparent.  India’s population continues to increase, and Lee believes that this could be a real engine for growth if India meets the huge challenge of educating its young people.

One of India’s greatest opportunities is in manufacturing, as it is Lee’s superb analysis that no nation has progressed to become a major economy without going through an industrial revolution of manufacturing.  But India lacks roads, ports, railways, modern airports and has a burdensome red tape and endless bureaucracies.  Also, India should allow direct investment from outside their country.

Lee explains that China’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is three and a half times India’s GDP.  But India is a big nation of one billion people and “. . . India has some very able people at the top.”  India has a stronger private sector than China as well as a long-term advantage because of its democracy.

Lee makes a keen observation that the divide is no longer between communist and democratic nations, nor between East and West.  Muslim terrorists face the United States, Israel and their supporters while there is war between militant Islam and non-militant modernist Islam.  “Al Qaeda-style terrorism is new and unique because it is global.”  Lee believes that unfortunately “(t)his surge in Islamist terrorism will take years to tamp down.”  He says radical Islam without oil is a problem, but oil “plus” Islamism becomes a severe mix.  And he states Islamism plus oil plus weapons of mass destruction will “. . . . significantly alter the geopolitical balance.”  Incidentally, President Obama recently made a major foreign policy speech without even mentioning weapons of mass destruction.

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the cause of Islamic terrorism.”  It’s the illusion that radical Islam funded by Saudi Arabia over the last thirty or so years “ . . . can drive Americans out of the Middle East, destroy America, and frighten Europe; and thereby keep their Muslim societies pure and pious, as in the seventh century.”  I agree that they are doomed to failure because their aggression, including suicide bombings, is born of hate, rather than love, and therefore not from Almighty God—or Allah, the same God of us all.

Lee makes a very good point:  “In Muslim countries, it is a matter of time before the moderate Muslims have to put down the extremists, or they will end up with Taliban governments—in charge of them as in Afghanistan.”  He states that, “(o)nly Muslims can win this struggle.”  I agree with Lee that this terrorist ideology is based on “. . . a perverted interpretation of Islam.”

In terms of a solution, Lee states that, “(t)o make the long-term burden sustainable, the U.S. needs a broad alliance, to spread the load, to reduce excessive burdens on itself.”  This would include “. . . Europe, Russia, China, India, and all non-Muslim government . . . along with many moderate Muslims.”  It is critical “. . . to reassure and persuade moderate Muslims . . . that they are not going to lose, that they have the weight, the resources of the world behind them.  They must have the courage to go into the mosques and madrassas and switch off the radicals.”

In summing up how other third world leaders can achieve growth like Singapore, Lee stresses that the keys are social order, education, peace with their neighbors and the investment of future worth through the rule of law.   “A people’s standard of living depends on a number of basic factors:  first, the resources it has in relation to its population . . .; second, its level of technological competence and standards of industrial development; third, its educational and training standards; and fourth, the culture, the discipline, and drive in the workforce.”

He makes the point that “(d)emography, not democracy, will be the most critical factor for security and growth in the 21st century . . .”   I actually think both will be critical.  He and I do agree that, “(t)he quality of a nation’s manpower resources is the single most important factor determining national competitiveness.  It is a people’s innovativeness, entrepreneurship, team work and work ethic that give them that sharp keen edge in competitiveness.”  This supports my belief that we are now in The Innovation Age.

He writes, “The key to innovation and technology is people.  We must develop and nurture our talent so that innovation and creativity will be integral to education and training . . . from kindergarten to university, and on to lifelong learning.”  I agree completely.  This applies not only to Singapore, but to the entire world.

Lee admires Israel as a nation that has a population of four million Jews whose talents are ten times greater.  He compares Israel to Singapore, since both are bound by much larger nations and he believes both populations are exceptionally gifted.

Another comment I like is, “Old-fashioned notions that managers are out to exploit workers are irrelevant in today’s industrial climate.”  He also says “. . . management views that trade unions are troublemakers. . .” is outdated.  Instead, Lee says those stereotypes should be discarded “. . . if we are to build up relationships and cooperation between management, unionists, and workers.”

In speaking of Singapore, Lee says “. . . we were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop, the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety, and loyalty in the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.”  I fully agree with the following two comments:  “Unlike workers in the repetitive, machine-based age, tomorrow’s workers must depend more on their own knowledge and skills . . . They must be disciplined enough to think on their own and seek to excel without someone breathing down their neck.”  Those are wise and insightful observations by the sage of Singapore:  Take heed, world.

He is a firm believer that the English language will be an important basic skill in the 21st century.  He states that, “(i)f one is to succeed, one will need a mastery of English, because it is the language of business, science, diplomacy and academia.”

There are four big problems according to Lee—and me, too:

1.      Eurozone debt that threatens the whole world;

2.      North Korea’s adventuresome, nuclear-armed dictator,

3.      Japan’s stagnation, debt and aging population and its policy of not allowing migrants; and

4.      The danger of Iran developing a nuclear bomb and its likely spread throughout the Middle East (and I believe, its use by radical Islamic).

Russia has problems with a declining population apparently due to alcoholism, pessimism, and the inability to develop an economy independent of its energy and natural resources.

He says derivatives ought to be regulated, and I agree.  We already have way too many unwise, unnecessary and complex regulations, laws and tax rules that greatly hamper our economy and job creation.  However, complex derivatives have allowed rouge traders to wreak havoc because management really doesn’t understand them.  Few people comprehend these financial vehicles and yet huge profits and losses have happened.  Risks to the public are too great to allow these intricate secondary devices.

Lee states that the United States’ model of free markets is no longer considered ideal.  And while Lee states that China thinks it has a better system, I just read a New York Times article, dated May 25, 2013, that China’s new prime minister, Li Keqiang said that “. . . the central government would reduce the state’s role in economic matters in the hope of unleashing the creative energies. . .” of China.

Lee says, “The ultimate threat to human survival is global warming and climate change.”  He believes what will affect the coming years is technological change.  He says, “The present world is as full of promise as of perils.”  There is no question that “the rapid technological advances of the past few years have greatly accelerated globalization.”  He says, “Those countries that keep out advances of technology because of their undesirable by-products will be losers.”  I agree.  And I also agree with Lee that people should “. . . never lose their core values.”

I concur with Lee’s insight that “(h)uman talent is at present the most scarce and valuable resource for creating wealth in the knowledge economy. . .”  I call the present the “Innovation Age” instead; but our thinking is quite alike on the importance of human talent.

He explains that there are no precedents on how to keep the peace, stability and cooperation of a world with 160 countries.  Lee and I concur: “Globalism is the only answer that is fair, acceptable, and will uphold world peace.”

Lee says, “In their fundamentals, neither entrepreneurship nor business leadership has changed.  What has changed, and changed beyond recognition, is technology.”  I concur.  Lee states, “The gravest challenge will be to protect the values we cherish . . .”  That is so very important around the world, the positive wisdom-associated values of empathy, truth, honesty, justice, cooperation, peace, compassion, universal well-being, creativity and comprehensive values (taken from Copthorne Macdonald’s essay, “Centrality of Wisdom” in the book, How to Achieve a Heaven on Earth.)

Regarding the future of democracy, Lee has some definite convictions.  “The business of government is to . . . make firm decisions so that there can be certainty and stability in the affairs of the people.”  That’s basic and quite wise.  Lee also states, “From each according to his or her ability.  To each according to his or her worth and contribution to society.”  I agree, generally; but, I believe the allocation of capital through savings and investments is a contribution to society.  Of course, I also agree with Mahatma Gandhi’s admonition against wealth without work.  Passing wealth from one generation to another can be a motivating factor to the creator of the wealth; and, who knows when someone in a future generation might do amazing things with his or her inheritance.  Years ago many scientific advances came about by people of wealth having the time and resources to wonder about all sorts of things.

Lee points his finger at us: “Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society believing that all problems are solvable by good government.”  He also states, “In the East, we start with self-reliance.  In the West today, it is the opposite.”  I think the 2012 Presidential election showed there is a lot of truth in those statements.  He also says “. . . when the people who put their crosses in the ballot boxes are not illiterate but semi-literate, which is worse [this] is a government which is already weakened before it starts to govern.”  Throughout the United States and the world, education is the key to developing a world full of robust, stable, prosperous democracies –a world of permanent peace.  It’s not an easy road, but the hard way is sometimes the best way.

Lee is frank in his assessment of communism.  “Communism has failed.  The welfare state of Western democracies has also failed.”  I certainly agree about Communism; but, I sincerely think Western democracies—including our own—can become stronger with the superb kind of leadership of people such as Prime Minister Lee, President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In the chapter, “How Lee Kuan Yew Thinks,” the point is made that “(h)uman beings are not born equal.  They are highly competitive.  Systems like Soviet and Chinese communism have failed, because they tried to equalize benefits.  Then nobody works hard enough, but everyone wants to get as much as, if not more than, the other person.”  I agree with Lee, though I believe we are all equal before God.

Lee and I certainly concur on this wonderful quote:  “For at 60, more than at 50, comes the realization of the transient nature of all earthly glories and successes, and the ephemeral quality of sensory joys and pleasures, when compared to intellectual, moral, or spiritual satisfactions. . .”  Lee and I certainly concur that, “(y)oung people learn best from personal experience.”  In fact, I think in many ways the theory of learning by doing applies to all ages.

Lee explains that he is a pragmatist not guided by philosophies or theory, but by results.  His country’s rise from an average net income of $400 when Lee took over to over $50,000 currently demonstrates that he got those results.

We agree, “. . . not to try to impress by big words.  Impress by the clarity of your ideas.”  The chief editor at Pelican Publishing Company told me the same thing a few years ago in speaking of an author that had submitted a manuscript with a lot of flowery words.

Lee points out a truth not often heard: “No society has existed in history where all people were equal and obtained equal rewards.”  He explains, “. . . we needed to create the wealth before we can share it.  And to create wealth, high motivation and incentives are crucial to drive a people to achieve, to take risks for profit, or there is nothing to share.”

Lee explains some of the basics of a vigorous society, “. . . honesty and integrity, multi-racism, equality of opportunities, meritocracy, fairness in rewards in accordance with one’s contribution to society, avoidance of the buffet syndrome where, for a fixed price, you can take or eat as much as you want.  That is why welfare and subsidies destroy the motivation to perform and succeed.”  It’s obvious that Lee expects all able people to contribute to their nation just as President Kennedy once remarked quite famously.

In terms of leaders, Lee calls three “helicopter qualities” the most important: “Powers of analysis; logical grasp of facts; concentration on the basic points, extracting the principles.”  Lee states “. . . you must be able to soar above reality and say, ‘This is also possible’—a sense of imagination.”

In conclusion, the authors describe Lee Kuan Yew as “. . . this quiet, articulate, supremely confident, yet remarkable modest man from whom we have learned so much.”  I’ve been to Singapore recently have seen firsthand the results of Lee’s efforts.  He has proven himself a successful leader.

What follows is a summary of some of the important points in this book:

·         China intends to be the greatest power in the world.

·         If states or enterprises do not take heed, they will be denied the market of 1.3 billion Chinese citizens.

·         China’s progress cannot be assumed to be certain at any particular time because there are obstacles: the lack of the rule of law, a huge country with “. . . little emperors” throughout, cultural habits that inhibit innovation, honoring conformity and a very difficult language, especially written.

·         China is not going to become a liberal democracy.  I think over time Lee will be proved wrong about this, to which he hinted earlier in the book.

·         The United States has difficulties with its debt and deficit; but, Lee does not think the United States will obtain a second-rate status.

·         Presidents have promised too much to get elected and the debts and deficits have been carried forward from one administration to another.  I consider this to be a very serious issue that must be addressed sooner rather than later.

·         The United States should stay out of the internal affairs of China.

·         The United States must remain focused on issues relating to Asia.

·         India has a burdensome bureaucracy, a decentralized and difficult government, a caste system that inhibits opportunity for all and is “. . . a nation of unfulfilled greatness.  Its potential has lain fallow, underused.”

·         A big problem is radical Islam, which is made worse with oil and even worse than that with weapons of mass destruction.

·         Russia suffers from a declining population apparently due to alcoholism,   pessimism, lowering fertility rate, and shorter life expectancy.

·         There are no historical guidelines on how to keep the peace among 160 nations in the world with rampant technological change.

·         Globalism is essential and is the only way to have a fair, peaceful world.

·         The West believes too much in the importance of government.  In the East, self-reliance, not undue government assistance, is the way to prosperity.

·         People are not equal in their energy, drive, perseverance and basic ability.  And while I agree with this conclusion, I do believe we are all of equal value before Almighty God and we are all made by God with a mind, body and what I termed a “little piece of God.”

·         Lee wants to be remembered as “. . . determined, consistent, and persistent.”  He seeks results, not to be considered a “statesman.”

This wonderful book is certainly filled with awesome insights from the sage of Singapore.  I’ve now gone through the book four times—reading, making notations, analyzing, digesting—and have written this review so that others will be motivated to do the same.   I highly recommend this work to everyone so that you might understand Lee’s worldview, one that is simple, yet quite sophisticated.

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