Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew LKY - Singapore Story

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and after hearing of Lee Kuan Yew’s worsening condition last week I finally pulled it off my shelf. I’m very glad I did.

To be a ‘great man of history’ you usually have to lead a large nation or embody a clear and significant culture or ideology. Lee Kuan Yew did neither, but he was no doubt, a great man.

Lee led a small city state, which both joined and left a larger federation in his time, and was nearly swamped by the much larger states on either side, not to mention Cold War pressures. He was of Chinese ancestry, led a nation with a vocal Malay minority and yet was the so called ‘last Victorian’ in Asia (he was born ‘Harry’ Lee).

The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 begins with Singapore’s dramatic step out of Malaysia and in a very personal way recounts the governance challenges facing the new country. How to get the economy going, how to build a defence force (with a notable cameo from two other beleaguered small states Israel and Taiwan), and how to build a coherent national identity.

Lee presents his approach in relentlessly pragmatic fashion, being swayed by better arguments, or more commonly, persuading everyone else with his better arguments. As such it’s easy to find yourself swept along without taking automatic offense at the anti-democratic or controlling aspects of his policies.

Perhaps most fascinatingly is Lee’s approach to capitalism. While very much convinced of its merits as a necessary framework, he has an alternate approach to the stereotypes of welfare laden Europe or heartless but free America. Lee instituted an early form of compulsory superannuation in the 1960s and soon expanded these accounts to cover housing (Joe Hockey must be jealous), along with medical expenses and other social costs.

This approach of forced savings and government/employer co-contributions is rejected by many free marketers, but if they reject the current welfare model, and want something that can plausibly work towards their ultimate ambitions (low taxes, low debt and a sense of personal responsibility) there’s a lot to like about it. (It’s certainly far more coherent and serious than magic pudding style laffer curves). For the left, these kinds of schemes do offer some challenges, but anything that ensures that we can guarantee long term social support, means tested to ensure that we focus state resources on the most needy is worth seriously exploring.

(This also gives some support to the claim of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State – which I’ve reviewed here – that the East has supplanted the West as the locus of re-thinking governance)

But back to the book. After covering the affairs inside the state, the second and longer part of the book details Singapore’s relations with the rest of the world. Southeast Asian and key large states get their own chapters (or several in the case of the US and China) and there’s some fascinating detail about how this city state has tried to avoid being squashed by the elephants around it.

That said, this section does also fall into that trap of other ‘great man of history’ books by detailing the many travels and meetings with dignitaries that your narrator held over the years. After a while, it can drag on, and for the general reader I’d recommend just skimming quickly through. Then again, if Singapore-Thailand relations are your real passion in life, do go right ahead and read it closely.

For few people is the term ‘Father’ of their nation quite so true. According to a friend from Singapore, the sense of loss after LKY’s passing is just like that of a family member’s death. A student of mine currently studying over there reports lines running kilometre after kilometre of people waiting to pay their respects.

Such images might bring to mind the fakery and fanaticism of dictators. And while LKY was happy to use the cane (or detention without trial) to further his cause, he was not just feared but loved. He took a desperately poor ‘tropical slum’ and made it coherent, rich, influential and safe.

A remarkable tale, and a remarkable book. Highly recommended.