"There are three principles of conduct which the man of high rank should consider specially important: that in his deportment and manner he keep from violence and heedlessness; that in regulating his countenance he keep near to sincerity; and that in his words and tones he keep far from lowness and impropriety."
- The Analects
Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s life was defined by political turmoil. His worldview was shaped by his participation in, or witness to, the major convulsions of his era – Japanese militarism, the Chinese revolution, anti-colonialism, the Cold War, the challenges of economic development, racial schisms, and religious violence. In his search for stability amidst the chaos and blood of the 20th century, he reached for Confucianism, with its emphasis on order, hierarchy, and cohesion. Lee leaves us with five core lessons from his 60-plus years in public life.
1. The utility of force. Perhaps the seminal event of Lee’s life was the Second World War, precipitating the stunning collapse of British rule in Singapore and a harsh Japanese occupation, all despite Britain’s enormous imperial strengths, international treaties, and the approbation of the international community. Thus under Lee, Singapore instituted compulsory military service and built the most potent military in the region. The lesson: Soft power works fine, as long as hard power is not in the room.
2. The balance of power. Lee’s foreign policy frequently entailed a tilt toward the U.S., not necessarily because he was intrinsically pro-American, but because he felt the U.S. was underweight in Southeast Asia and that a balance of power in the region was essential to Singapore’s security. When the Philippines kicked the U.S. out, Lee invited the U.S. to maintain a military presence in the region at a small facility in Singapore. The lesson: A weak U.S. presence can be destabilizing. Hegemony dangerous; balance good.
3. The necessity of self-determination. Western powers tended to emphasize the positive elements of colonialism - economic development and rule of law. Critics saw colonialism as unjust and frequently with racial overtones. Lee understood both the transcendent appeal of nationalism and the dangers of communism as an economic or government philosophy. He established a nationalist party as an alternative to both colonialism and communism. It remains perhaps the only political party to have governed in a popular front with the communists and not be swallowed by them. The lesson: People have an inherent desire for self-determination against which the best colonial power cannot compete. If non-communist parties cannot make this argument, the communists will.
4. The requirements for economic growth. Unfortunately, post-colonial independence came to the new nations of Asia and Africa at a high point in the appeal of socialism. Lee notes in his memoirs that his prescription glasses as a student in Britain cost only a few pounds – what could be better than the National Health Service? The allure of socialism took many countries down the path of state ownership, protectionism, and economic ruin. Popular opinion viewed multinationals as exploitative and held that the new nations needed to promote “national champions” behind trade barriers. Lee broke with popular opinion and committed Singapore to a strategy of internationalism and economic growth. Today, Singapore is perhaps the most inviting locale in the world for trade and investment and its citizens enjoy one of the highest living standards in the world. The lesson: Open economies move ahead. Markets work.
5. Domestic stability. With the birth of Singapore, Lee faced a series of domestic challenges: how to fend off the communists, steer the population clear of racial or religious chauvinism, and build a successful polity. In a Confucian society, order and predictability assume precedence over experimentation and individualism. This set a basis for nationhood but side-stepped important questions of civic participation and personal liberty. New nations around the world foundered amidst corruption and tribalism, but Singapore built a modern state. The lesson: Economic growth, individual mobility, and social inclusion are the building blocks for stability.