This is the third part of a series on Lee Kuan Yew to commemorate the 48th Independence Day of Singapore. Click here for the first and second parts.


LKYs’ success in Singapore came about as a result of the correct and objective analysis of the world situation and the choices that he made at different points in time in terms of his partners and allies on the world stage.

While many countries in the tumultuous 60s and 70s made incorrect decisions like being for or against the two super powers or the third when countries like India and Yogoslavia took part in a kind of non-aligned movement but were practically aligned with the communist Soviet Union, LKY thought it pragmatic to help ensure the continuous US presence in the South East Asia while at the same time forging deep ties with China.  He reasoned that the US’s military presence would ensure that China and the satellite communist states don’t rise and gobble up the area while at the same time understood that China couldn’t be continuously fed tranquilizers to keep it asleep for long. So as and when China woke up, be it a peaceful rising or otherwise, it would be better for Singapore to be in a kind of back seat driver’s position to ensure that China’s growth helps Singapore.

nixon-and-mao (1)With these thoughts , he whole heartedly welcomed Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao when Nixon, under the able guidance of the erudite Henry Kissinger, made a sudden trip to China and befriended it so that the Soviet Union would be weakened without its ally China, another communist state. According to LKY, Nixon, excepting for the Watergate blunder, was a master strategist who helped America expand its hegemony in Asia after FDR. He began to get closer to Kissinger and both shared their likeness for each other and often consulted on world affairs.

When China was under Deng Xiaoping (whom LKY calls the giant of Asia and one of the greatest leaders after Churchill) LKY invited Deng to Singapore in 1978. Singapore of course impressed Deng and then Shanghai was born.And on LKY’s advice, Deng modeled Shanghai after Singapore. And we see where Shanghai is today in comparison with the other cities in China.

When Zhu Rongji took over, he visited Singapore on the advice of LKY and understood how the Central Provident Fund system of Singapore was used to fund the housing of its people and how ordinary Singaporeans were made proud house owners, went back to China and established a model township in Suzhou. But when the project was to materialize Zhu did a mistake and advertised that it was a Chinese project resulting in there being no investors in the project. Later he realized his mistake and advertised in The Financial Times as ‘Singapore-Suzhou joint ventue’. The magic word ‘Singapore’ brought in overseas investors and the project materialized.

LKY-and-Deng-Xiaoping-in-1978-preshigh-Project-singapuraLKY succeeded in taking Deng and his successors down the market economics lane and made them realize that pure-play communism was not in anybody’s interest and that state capitalism would be a viable alternative to ensure ‘maximum good to maximum number of people’. LKY told Deng,”Communism will only work if you believe that all men will sacrifice themselves for their fellow men and not for themselves and their families. But I work on the basis that all men and women first work for themselves and their families and only then they will share a portion of it with the less fortunate“.  I am not saying that these very words changed Deng. But the success of Singapore and the sane words from its founder would have contributed to the change in China to a great extent. Now, there is a working relationship with China and around 100 to 120 mayors of Chinese cities are regularly trained in Singapore on governance in Mandrin. This relationship has ensured that China is a willing consumer of Singapore technology and ideas. Singapore has a stable friend in China.

But LKY was not to rest on this new relationship alone. Always on the look out for options, he wanted to have a counter weight to China in Asia as the communist Chinese government was known for throwing around its weight on its small neighbors. Says LKY, “Will an industrialized and strong China be as benign to Southeast Asia as the US has been since 1945? Singapore is not sure. Neither is Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Thailand or Vietnam. Many small and medium countries in Asia are concerned. They are uneasy that China may want to resume the imperial status it had in earlier centuries, and have misgivings as being treated as vassal states”.

He further says “the Chinese must avoid the mistakes made by Germany and Japan. Their competition for power, influence and resources led in the last century to two terrible wars. The Russian mistake was that they put so much into military expenditure and so little into civilian technology that their economy collapsed. I believe the Chinese leadership has learned that if you compete with America in armaments, you will lose. You will bankrupt yourself. So keep your head down, and smile for 40 or 50 years.

He anticipates that “China will inevitably catch up to the US in absolute gross domestic product. But its creativity may never match America’s because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas”.

He further prophesies that China is not going to become a liberal democracy  and if it did, it would collapse. He has his own Confucian reasoning for that. To achieve modernization, he says, “China’s communist leaders are prepared to try every method except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multi-party system.”

[ I personally believe that China would eventually collapse if it does not go the democratic route of one man one vote for I believe that for far too long has the central communist party kept its people under subjugation. And I would want the USA to spearhead the movement either covertly or overtly to ensure the complete democratization of China. A democratic neighbor, how ever bad he is, would be more predictable than an autocratic and huge one. Simply it is not comfortable for the world to see China all over the world in Africa, in Venezuela, in Sri Lanka and in the Indian Ocean area and in the South China sea intimidating poor Cambodia, Thailand and The Philippines and still not have a democratic government that would answer any question. And the only power to resist this global Chinese influence is a powerful and resilient USA in spite of its short comings within the country. ]

So LKY enticed India into joining the Asean along with China to balance out due to which China knows where it needs to underplay its hegemonic intentions. Singapore is a friend of both China and India and has great trade relationships with both. The direct advantage to Singapore is that the otherwise worrisome neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia dare not try their adventures with Singapore for this country is in great company. And this has been brought about just by the sheer intellect of LKY.

And by way of his insights on China, LKY has become the resident expert on China for any US and Western leader to draw lessons from. Right from Nixon to Clinton to Bush Sr to Obama, LKY’s guiding hand in dealing with China is clearly behind.  His name brings credibility.When Clinton wanted to raise funds for some cause in South East Asia, he requested LKY’s presence just to extend credibility to the effort.

LKY is of the strong opinion that the USA would come out of its credit problems eventually as it has had an open policy on immigration and talent. And being a great friend of the USA, he never misses an opportunity to counsel the USA on these matters.

The talents groomed by LKY have also helped enhance Singapore’s prestige. Take the case of Kishore Madhubani, the permanent representative to the UN from Singapore and currently with the National University of Singapore. Madhubani and his team have been so terrific in the UN that prior to any convention in the UN even late at night, world delegations would seek out the Singapore team to double check on the protocols to be followed and the nature of issues to be addressed. And that is the result of the extreme emphasis on meritocracy in Singapore.

LKY even has a word of caution to the oil rich Arab states. He advises them not to over do the religion portion. He clearly spells out that once oil dries up in Saudi Arabia the radical religious beliefs that they clerics there propound would gradually water down and world would come back to normalcy. He recalls the days during Singapore’s freedom struggle when he used to share the same food with his Malay freedom fighters and how they changed once the oil boom started in the gulf regions and the Malays began to be radicalized and refused to eat the same food that LKY ate. ( Oil drying up probably would take another 100 years )

On India, LKY has sympathy as a good cause gone wrong. Once on a visit to India, he was asked by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra as to how Mumbai could be made a financial hub like Singapore. LKY, true to his self, replied that so long as Mumbai feeds the state of Maharashtra without getting nothing in return, Mumbai’s infrastructure would not develop and the only way out would be for Mumbai to be declared an autonomous state directly dealing with the center. This, obviously was turned down, and we know where Mumbai is.

LKY feels that Nehru had the stature to carry through India as a great industrial and economic giant but squandered his way by siding with the Soviet Union. In a way, he seems to be correct. Nevertheless, LKY has ensured that India remains constantly glowing in Singapore’s radar as an economic and regional balancer.

Some of the great corporations that Singapore has built — Singapore Airlines, Keppel Corporation – the industrial and shipping giant and the water technology companies that Singapore has which earn valuable foreign exchange are the brainchild of LKY and his founding team. ( Singapore has formulated methods to treat sewage water that is taken through multiple purification processes and used as “New Water” mainly for industrial purposes. And the previous Chinese leader Hu Jintau was in Singapore to see the facilities and to replicate the same in Beijing ).

About LKY, Henry Kissinger said ,”One of the asymmetries of history, is the lack of correspondence between the abilities of some leaders and the power of their countries” .  Richard Nixon went further and said,”Had Lee lived in another time and another place, he might have “attained the world stature of a Churchill, a Disraeli, or a Gladstone.”

Singapore’s per capita GDP is higher than that of  Britain. How was this achieved : It has the world’s busiest ports, has become the regional HQ for the western banks, traded in spices and oil, fabricated ICs, is a major bio-medical hub and is also set to replace some western countries in currency coin minting and is expecting to the world gold trading hub.

 In 1965 when Singapore became independent, it was on par economically with Chile, Argentina and Mexico. But today its per capita GDP is four or five times Chile and Argentinas’. And it had absolutely no natural resources nor land. But Singapore had LKY and his intellect.

When he was asked about his feeling for Singapore, LKY said,” Even if I am in my sick bed and you are lowering me into my grave, if I sense something going wrong for Singapore, i will get up“.

Vaishnavite Hindus have this verse about their gurus” இன்னுமொரு நூற்றாண்டிரும் ” ( Live another hundred years, my guru ! ).

LKY – இன்னுமொரு நூற்றாண்டிரும்.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s