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Master Miniaturist on a Broad Canvas
By David Plott


THE PARADOX OF Lee Kuan Yew's life is that it has been both his great fortune and his ill luck to have been given an exceedingly small canvas on which to practice his political statecraft.


He was fortunate in that the rump city-state of Singapore, formed after an acrimonious breakaway from the Federation of Malaya in 1965 (only two years after it had joined the federation), provided the young Lee with a relatively confined political laboratory in which to shape, with increasing success over the years, his unique brand of nation-building. Like an Ottoman miniature painter, he fleshed out his canvas with minute attention to detail, oblivious perhaps to the fact that the art in which he was engaged might be assessed only on the small scale in which it was being practiced. In the vocabulary of music, Singapore wasn't Carnegie Hall, but it would do, at least for Lee.


At the same time, this founding father of modern Singapore, with his powerful intellect, deep knowledge of history, capacity for sometimes ruthless and dispassionate political analysis and penchant for blunt talk, was never in a position to have his grand geopolitical reflections — which grew in volume over the years as he was seen to be one of the developing world's most capable leaders — tested on the larger canvas of more complex political settings, such as China, the United States or the European Union. Instead, he became a sort of self-appointed political consultant from a small country to many of the world's leading political and business leaders, who increasingly sought out his views, himself never having been given by history the opportunity to test whether his style of city-state leadership would have succeeded in turning other, larger places in the world into Singapore Writ Large, or whether his well-known penchant for domestic political heavy-handedness would have delivered these places into a Singaporean Spring.


In evaluating this new book by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill — which is a highly valuable compilation of Lee's thoughts on a range of geopolitical issues, as well as a window into Lee's way of thinking about democracy and the rights and nature of individuals — it is important to underscore what this book does and doesn't do.


What it does do is provide a rich and judicious selection of Lee's statements on world affairs over the years, as well as answers to questions posed about these issues in interviews by Allison and Blackwill. In this regard, it may be the single best available volume for those who want a quick grasp of Lee's thinking on foreign affairs and geopolitics. What it doesn't do is evaluate his thinking in these areas in the context of his record domestically as a leader who succeeded in bringing Singapore from Third World to First World status in barely three decades, but who often did so through political thuggery and a contempt for open public discourse and the right of democratic dissent.


The reason that this domestic political context is important is because in larger, more complex political systems that dominate the global world order, particularly democratic ones, political leaders must balance their nation's global interests with domestic ones, and that often isn't easy when they hold political levers of power much more complicated and fragile, and less monolithic, than those that Lee wielded over Singapore as prime minister from 1965 until 1990. In short, it's important, in my view, to evaluate the deep geopolitical observations that dominate this new book in the context of Lee's own long-term political shortcomings as a domestic political leader in the small canvas that is Singapore. In the setbacks that his long-ruling People's Action Party (PAP) has suffered in recent elections and the torrent of questioning that Singapore's dominant political culture is facing in the city-state's social media networks, it is evident that Lee the domestic political leader may not be as wise as Lee the global political consultant so evidently beloved by Allison and Blackwill (more on that later).


One thing Lee got unmistakably right in his approach to governance in Singapore was to recognize that the economy is key. By focusing on building its manufacturing sector, infrastructure, educational system, regulatory environment (including especially the need to stamp out corruption) and openness to the global economy, he saw Singaporean per capita annual income rise from US$400 when he took over to more than US$61,000 today. That economic miracle, executed on the small canvas of Singapore, is precisely what created the opening for this miniature painter to make his mark on the larger canvas of world affairs. After all, who seeks out leaders of failed states for their geopolitical or economic views? Global leaders sought Lee's opinions on economic management and foreign affairs repeatedly over the years, first because he had so demonstrably succeeded at home, and second because the nature of Singapore's emergence as a nation meant Lee was forced to think geopolitically from the very beginning in order to ensure that tiny Singapore survived in a neighborhood of larger nations roiled by the forces of post-colonialism and the Cold War.


Allison and Blackwill have skillfully organized their presentation of Lee's thinking into chapters that focus on key countries and topics, including China, the US, India, Islamic extremism, national and global economic policy and the future of democracy. They also include an alluring chapter, "How Lee Kuan Yew Thinks," that seeks to lay bare the assumptions that drive his worldview. Among them: "Human beings, regrettable though it may be, are inherently vicious and have to be restrained from their viciousness." And referring to his own youth: "The Japanese invasion of Singapore was the single biggest political education of my life because, for three and a half years, I saw the meaning of power and how power and politics and government went together, and I also understood how people trapped in a power situation responded because they had to live."


Among the most valuable chapters are those that deal with the future of China, the US and the US-China relationship. Lee's calculations on China are predicated on the country's embrace of a market economy and the sheer political power that derives from the steady enrichment of a population of 1.3 billion people, and also on the deep cultural roots of a 5,000-year-old civilization. It is virtually inevitable that China will become the world's No. 1 power, he argues, and that is precisely to what the country aspires. "Their great advantage is not in military influence but in their economic influence "¦ They have the manpower to do things cheaper in any part of the world economically. Their influence can only grow and grow beyond the capabilities of America." China's conquest of East Asia will take place through trade, he argues, with China becoming the top importer and exporter of all East Asian countries over the coming decades. "How can the Americans compete in trade?" he asks.


At the same time, he says China is in no hurry to take the top spot in global affairs, partly because it needs 50 or more years to get its domestic house in order, but also because it doesn't want to challenge the US at this stage in its development. Germany and Japan made that mistake in the first half of the 20th century, he says. "Rather, its strategy is to grow within this framework, biding its time until it becomes strong enough to successfully redefine this political and economic order."


Lee also dismisses the idea that China's economic development will invariably lead to democracy. "I do not believe you can impose on other countries standards which are alien and totally disconnected with their past. So to ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads; all rulers ruled by right of being the emperor, and if you disagree, you chop off heads, not count heads."


One of the key challenges that the US faces with the rise of China is the need to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific region. "The 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific, because that is where the growth will be. That is where the bulk of the economic strength of the globe will come from. If the US does not hold its ground in the Pacific, it cannot be a world leader," Lee says.


For now, in overall terms the US has a significant edge over China in technology, its culture of entrepreneurialism, and, Lee says in an intriguing argument, in its use of the English language. "Talent will not go to China. Talent will go to America because Americans speak English and everybody fits in. It is a country that embraces immigrants. To go and settle in China, you have to master the Chinese language. And you must get used to the Chinese culture. And that is a very difficult hurdle to clear." Elsewhere in the book, he refers to his conscious decision early in the founding of Singapore to make English, rather than Mandarin, the main national language, precisely because it would connect the cite-state more easily to the world. His remarks on China and the English language reveal how Lee's experiences in Singapore inform his thinking globally.


Lee is far more critical — and at times dismissive — of India than he is of China or the US, particularly with regard to the many obstacles the country's bureaucratic government poses to economic development. He also questions whether India's sheer complexity in terms of religious, ethnic, racial, historical and other differences within its vast geographical and demographic reach make it ungovernable. "India is not a real country. Instead, it is 32 separate nations that happen to be arrayed along the British rail line. The British came, conquered, established the Raj, incorporated under their rule an amalgam of 175 princely states, and ruled them with 1,000 Englishmen and several tens of thousands of Indians brought up to behave like English."


He is more upbeat about India's private sector than its government, arguing it is superior to China's, because "Indian companies follow international rules of corporate governance and offer a higher return on equity as against Chinese companies," adding that "India has transparent and functioning capital markets."


Although Lee is often scathing about India's sometimes dysfunctional democracy, at times even suggesting that its democracy is itself a source of the dysfunction, he surprisingly concludes that "India's system of democracy and rule of law gives it a long-term advantage over China, although in the early phases, China has the advantage of faster implementation of its reforms."


At the same time, in a nod to his conviction that national cultures, habits and history are essential to understanding a country's behavior, he cautions against explicitly comparing China and India: "Do not talk about India and China in the same breath. They are two different countries."


On the issue of Islamic extremism and its future, Lee focuses on both economics and theology. "Militant Islam feeds upon the insecurities and alienation that globalization generates among the less successful. And because globalization is largely US-led and driven, militant Islam identifies America and Americans as the threat to Islam." He warns in particular of the risks of a future victory by a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "A severely retrograde form of Islam would be seen to have defeated modernity twice: first the Soviet Union, then the United States."


Lee's blames Saudi Arabia's more conservative brand of Islam for being the breeding ground of Islamic extremism, and says moderate Muslims around the world are the only force capable of taking on Islamic extremists. "Only Muslims themselves — those with a moderate, more modern approach to life — can fight the fundamentalists for control of the Muslim soul."


From one subject to another throughout this volume, Lee's complex, nuanced, deeply analytical views on world affairs are expressed in blunt, compelling language. Readers of every political stripe who have followed Lee over his long career will find much in this book to praise and much to condemn, in large part because Lee has always been anything but politically correct. But in compiling such a rich collection of statements on such a wide range of global issues, Allison and Blackwill have done both scholars and general readers a service by providing a manageable, one-stop shop on Lee's thinking.


One note of caution for scholars using this volume: While the book's various chapters read smoothly from beginning to end, the text is actually a disparate accumulation of statements by Lee made at different times and in different contexts. Virtually every paragraph contains an endnote, and only by marching back and forth between the text and the endnotes can one determine precisely when and where Lee said what he did. This is important to know, because otherwise one can easily overlook the fact that Lee's thinking actually evolved over the years and that each of these statements was made in a particular historical context.


The only other thing that mars this otherwise valuable collection is a fawning tone in many of the introductory remarks, as though Allison and Blackwill weren't content to let the forcefulness of Lee's thinking speak for itself. Instead, they apparently felt the need to gush. The opening chapter's title, "Who Is Lee Kuan Yew?," is followed, for example, by this subtitle: "A strategist's strategist, A leader's leader, A mentor's mentor." That could have been taken straight from Singapore's government-controlled media. Moreover, the chapter itself consists of nothing but quotations from political and business leaders praising Lee. This even includes quotations from publicity blurbs by prominent people for books written by Lee. There are no quotations from critics of Lee, which makes the chapter title a bit disingenuous.


This glowing tone informs even the book's title. Wouldn't Lee Kuan Yew: Insights on China, the United States, and the World have been enough? I guess not when one is a bit too eager to signal where one stands on a man whose legacy is not yet fully written, but will contain both good and bad — even if more of the former than the latter.


David Plott is the managing editor of Global Asia.

Back to Issue
    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 MIT Press: Belfer Center Studies in International Relations, 2013, 224 pages, $17.95 (Hardcover)
    Published: September 2013 (Vol.8 No.3)
    About the author

    David Plott is managing editor of Global Asia.

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