Living in Singapore, one cannot not be in awe of this ‘Founding Father’. What he (& his team) created from mud swamps – with no natural resources of its own, multi lingual, multi racial society and no major employment opportunities, and no major international significance being so tiny, besides of course the ports – in a mere few decades is for us all to see.
Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), also known by the English name Harry, was Singapore’s (first) prime minister from 1959 to 1990 (31 years! till he passed the mantle to his hand picked and mentored successor Goh Chok Tong). LKY, the prime minister of a tiny island – the little red dot as Singapore is often referred – was a leader respected world over for his insights, an incisive mind, astounding foresight factoring ground realities, great business acumen, and understanding of international affairs. Leaders like Henry Kissinger, Margaret Thatcher, Helmut Schmidt were his friends, who looked up to him for his insights from time to time. Deng Xiaoping, the second Chinese premier who LKY considers the greatest leader of his time (outside Singapore), too was inspired by Singapore’s prosperity and advancement to open up China to the world – the key turning point that’s critical to China’s success and emergence as a superpower!
The book is literally a socioeconomic, geopolitical, at times historic cultural world tour through LKY’s eyes. Around the world and back in 256 pages! (The book is actually about 350 pages long – the last few pages reveal LKY’s views on Global Economy, Energy & Climate Change and a few on his personal life at 89 years of age.
It is a wonderful insight into the world from someone who had the power to influence and the access to everything and everyone powerful. What strikes out in this memoir of sorts is the objectivity and practicality with which LKY looks into the many countries, people and policies and events and decisions that changed the world. Even while answering questions regarding the current Singapore and does he sometimes worry about certain issues (like ageing population and declining fertility rates), LKY charms with his simple (so rare these days) – why should I worry? I did what I had to do (during my term.) Now it is for the current set of leaders.
His writing style, much like his fiery speeches, is conversational, confident, aggressive and persuasive. It is amazing to be shown the world the way it is by someone so confident about his understanding of the world.
Here’s a glimpse at China from LKY’s view of the emerging superpower with its strong centre.
One man one vote – not for China
‘China will evolve its institutions and systems, but in a distinctly Chinese way. Whatever their reforms, one thing will not change: they will retain a strong centre.’
This has primarily to do with China’s 5000 year-old belief system that their country is safe only when the centre is strong. LKY believes that China can never be a democracy as it is not traditionally inclined to be so. He cites very interesting example of a farmer unrest in Wukan village and how the powerful state security came down hard on unrest with one of their topmost officials mediating and taking side of the protesting farmers against corrupt local officials. They used hard and soft measures to address the issue, restore peace and ‘nip the problem in the bud.’
Rural workers (who are not benefiting and may want to change the system) are not organized and want to join the middle class in the cities. They see their future in joining the people in the cities not in rebellion which will bring them chaos.
Although they will avoid ‘free-for-all’ contests (elections) with unpredictable results, the Chinese Communist Party has been keen to explore ‘intra party democracy.’
Corruption – the culture of guanxi or relationships by giving gifts (gradated in accordance with the importance of the person).
Lack of rule of law – ‘for (the Chinese) when you sign an agreement, its the beginning of long friendship, and from time to time, as friends, you have to sort out whether one of you is making too much money and may need to cough up more.’
In China, the man is bigger than the office.
Takeaways from Singapore
Meet the people sessions, residents’ committees, People’s Association – having grassroots constantly attended to.
Mao Zedong – perpetual revolutions
Deng Xiaoping – reforming and opening up
Jiang Zemin – consolidation and development
Hu Jintao – reducing the gap between rich and poor
Xi Jinping – broad minded
The other country he regards highly is America and maintains that America should stay confident and powerful to maintain the balance of power in the world and more so in Southeast Asia.
For India he believes that it is not even close to China in its race to be the Superpower. India’s long lineage of caste and caste-based politics is dragging it way behind.
ASEAN needs to stay together in order to be a strong influence.
There have been quite a few aha moments for me while reading this highly inspiring book, although I don’t agree with all of his views (especially on defense and consumption driven economy). I’d highly recommend the book ‘One man’s view of the world’ and rate it as a ‘not to be missed’!