From Third World to First: the Singapore Story – Lee Kuan Yew

I was also troubled by the apparent over-confidence of a generation that has only known stability, growth and prosperity. I thought our people should understand how vulnerable Singapore was and is, the dangers that beset us, and how we nearly did not make it. Most of all, I hope that they will know that honest and effective government, public order and personal security, economic and social progress did not come about as the natural course of events.

Lee Kuan Yew is the person responsible for the rise of Singapore, from $400 GDP/capita in 1959 when he became Prime Minister to $12,200 GDP/capita in 1990 when he retired. In this book, he tells his memoirs.

When Lee Kuan Yew took charge, Singapore was part of the British Empire, 4.5 times richer per capita than the city-state. By 1990, a Singaporean was richer than a British. Singapore did not have any natural riches to sell, like oil or diamonds, or rich neighbors, not even security guarantees; it had nothing, but its people.

In a towering 750 pages book, Lee Kuan Yew presents chronologically how he achieved this amazing performance. The book is divided in three parts: internal, foreign affairs and legacy.

In first part, the Singaporean leader explains his policies to develop economically and socially the country. He also describes the struggle against the internal enemies: the Malayans and the communists. He took in 1959 an adamant libertarian, free market, pro-capitalism view, in a time where socialism and communism were seem to be on the right part of history. Even in the prosperous years, efficiency and individualism were not abandoned to socialist policies. Meritocracy and a world class civil service were his out-most concerns.

At some point, his views seem controversial, such as recommending marrying your equal in terms of studies. He himself was not though child of such parents and he proved successful.

Nonetheless, he understood that no policy is infallible and he was quick to adapt and abandon inefficient policies, including capitalist or libertarian ones. If it works was what mattered.

Lee Kuan Yew never lost the elections from his sight. He was not a despot, but an elected leader of a democratic country and he always had internal politics in mind. However, the public opinion was not driving his decisions; he pulled and convinced an entire country to follow him. And it followed, because it always came with solid arguments and it delivered.

His critics, however, remind him of his restrictions to several human rights in Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew tries to explain himself throughout the book, arguing that no former colonial territory erupted in a democracy; they all needed a steady hand.

In the second part, he recalls his experiences with different countries, leaders and parts of the world. The Great Britain, Europe, the USSR, the United States, ASEAN, Japan, Australia, India, the Commonwealth meetings are featuring in his chapters. But amongst them all, Lee Kuan Yew admires the most China and Deng Xiaoping.

The Singaporean leader is, of course, influenced personally by China, as son of Chinese immigrants. He visited often China and his leaders. He was most impressed by Deng Xiaoping, which he considered a giant among men. In Lee Kuan Yew’s words, Deng was the only leader that could gather the loyalty and respect of his fellow Chinese communist leaders in order to change the economic policies of China towards capitalism. Deng did the change in the smart way, gradually, unlike Gorbachev of USSR. Hence, the country did not collapse. Nevertheless, corruption remains a long-term problem in China, Lee Kuan Yew reckoned.

Th third part is the shortest and looks at the new generation of Singaporean leaders. Learning from Deng’s failure to have his appointees leaders of China, Lee Kuan Yew tasked his government to choose a leader.

Talking about his family in this chapter, he expresses his gratitude towards his wife, a keen reader of people and constant support, sharing the same views as him.

The memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew are truly incredible. He is not politically correct and he forcefully puts forward his arguments for what he thinks it is right. The book is a legacy of a man with keen intelligence, using the best examples life gave him: from the American capitalist policies to communist political tactics, from Chinese caution to the experiences of for colonies.

[Feature photo – Singapore by Nicolas Lannuzel]

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