COM 03/2015

Lee Kuan Yew: A Reflection

Assoc. Prof. Michael D. Barr, School of International Studies of Flinders University, Australia


On the occasion of the passing away of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder and long-term leader of Singapore, we present in our rubric “Asian leaders” an article of Michael Barr, PhD, Associate Professor in International Relations at the School of International Studies of Flinders University, Australia. Author of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs Behind the Man”, Michael Barr presents in this paper conclusions on life and legacies of Lee Kuan Yew on whom he has been doing research for 20 years.

The death of Lee Kuan Yew on 23 March 2015 has prompted many assessments of the man and his legacy. He was a highly successful political leader, administrator and communicator who presided over the building of a successful city-state and economy, so it is not surprising that most assessments have been gushingly positive. He was also an unreconstructed racist and dictator who rode roughshod over his opponents, so it is just as unsurprising that a few have been highly critical. Yet none of the assessments that I have read (or written) have identified succinctly what it is that distinguished Lee Kuan Yew from other successful politicians, administrators,  communicators,  racists  or  dictators.

This little article is designed to contribute some thoughts to fill that gap, based on 20 years studying the man.

In my view, if you want to seek the most basic difference between Lee Kuan Yew and most political leaders is that at his peak he possessed a rare gift for political judgment and capacity. This is a simple statement and might even be read as a ‘motherhood’ statement, but in using it I am speaking very precisely. On the one hand, he had no time for hopeless dreams. He declared in 1966 that he was interested in only one test of an idea: “the sheer test of its applicability.” Democracy itself was one of the ideas that he regarded as being an experiment under consideration – an experiment that he judged was failing before his eyes in the mid-1950s, in contrast to his perception of the wonderful utility of Chinese-style communitarianism. On the other hand, if there was a way to build a scenario for success based upon his own prejudices, he was clever enough and energetic enough to create the edifice of ideas by which it could be rationalized and justified in terms of pragmatism.

When I was researching my PhD thesis on Lee Kuan Yew, Michael Lever – one of his former fellow-students in the Cambridge Law School and later an English judge – wrote me a letter reflecting on the Lee Kuan Yew he knew at university. He said that Lee had perhaps the ‘greatest legal brain’ he had ever encountered. He underlined the word ‘legal’, to point to both the limitations and the power of his ‘greatness’. Lee’s was not a mind suited to philosophy or deep reflection. Not science or creative prose or maths (though his son’s achievements as a mathematician gives us grounds to doubt that last disclaimer).

His was a mind that could construct powerful and persuasive arguments to suit the argument of the day – or of the moment. Another of his fellow students, David Allen, described this capacity to me as one that enables a legally trained mind to provide powerful and logical arguments pro- or anti- any stance. He said Lee was masterful at this. He used it to terrific effect but unlike a lawyer working for a fee, Lee used it in the service of politics in two ways.

First and most obviously he used it to cower opponents and rouse supporters. The second service to politics is slightly less obvious: he was able to use his prosaic analytical approach to rise above his own prejudices and preferences to determine what was possible and what was not. This is certainly not to say that he freed himself of his prejudices. No, these stayed with him to the end: he died as he lived, as a Chinese supremacist and a thoroughgoing elitist. But he was able to see past his prejudices to recognise the limits of the possible, and to make confident (and often correct) judgements about how best to achieve those outcomes that he judged possible. Furthermore, he was no fainthearted leader: he stretched the limits of the possible as far as he could, on many occasions going beyond the limits of prudence.

Not perfect…

One of the more spectacular failures of Lee’s judgment in this respect was manifest in his push in the 1980s to introduce eugenics programmes into Singapore. I do not intend to dwell on his eugenics initiatives, but I mention them because they draw attention to Lee’s most deep seated prejudice, which lies close to the heart of his technique of governance: his elitism. For Lee, the distribution of talent and energy and intelligence among peoples, both as individuals and as collectives, explained the world and he never understood why this was not perfectly obvious to everyone else. Furthermore, race had always formed an important element of his understanding of the hierarchies of the talented. When he looked out over civilizational history and contemporary global politics, he saw strong societies being led by natural elites. The critical point here is that his social cognition saw the world in hierarchies, where elites ruled and others served to the best of their abilities.

He was circumspect about such thoughts in the 1950s, but once Singapore separated from Malaysia, he was suddenly liberated to speak his mind on elitism, if not yet on race. The social “pyramid,” said Lee late in 1966, consisted of “top leaders” at the apex, “good executives” in the middle, and a “highly civic- conscious broad mass” at the base. The role of each of these social strata was distinct, requiring “qualities of leadership at the top, and qualities of cohesion on the ground.” Lee supplemented his imagery of the pyramid with that of a military organization, and argued that after the leaders come the “middle strata of good executives,” because “the best general or the best prime minister in the world will be stymied if he does not have high-quality executives to help him carry out his ideas, thinking and planning.” Finally comes “the broad base” or the “privates.” They must be “imbued not only with self but also social discipline, so that they can respect the community and do not spit all over the place.”

Democracy and constitutionality demanded routine genuflections, but neither was important to Lee. It so happened that in the first decade and a half of Singapore’s independence, the country’s very survival was a matter of serious doubt and for someone who had only ever considered democracy to be an “experiment” bequeathed by the British on their former colonies and who sought to highlight crises and challenges as a matter of political technique, this was a golden opportunity. The 1970s was the dark decade for Singapore’s democracy, as Parliament, political parties, the news media, the trade unions, and the ethnic and language associations succumbed, and dissidents were detained, bankrupted, or marginalized. Lee was clearly comfortable rationalizing the use of repressive practices – including the detention without trial or charge of political opponents for years at a time, along with beatings, sleep deprivation, induced coldness, and intimate humiliations – to the point where it became standard government practice in the 1960s and 1970s, and was still an option at the end of the 1980s when he stepped down as prime minister.

Today a government attack on political opponents is more likely to take the form of litigation and civil action than actual detention without trial –though it needs to be noted that the threat of detention remains, and the courts have not been of any help in upholding even the most basic natural rights of defendants or the most elemental of judicial procedures when it is a political case. The political process Lee created under himself and tried (with only limited success) to bequeath to his successors was therefore supine and compliant; the ordinary folk giving way and giving deference to their betters.

Lee’s Legacy

Lee Kuan Yew has now left this world at the end of his long and successful life. By the end he was clearly out of touch with the changing attitudes of his own constituency in Singapore, which is why his son forced him to retire in May 2011. History will no doubt confirm how much he has contributed to public discourse and ideas – particularly to the politics of economic development and to recognition of the importance of professional management. Some of his prescience has today become common wisdom: welcoming international capital; the idea and best practice of state capitalism at a time when regional economic unions and liberal capitalism are lurching from crisis to crisis; seeking export markets wherever they can be found; and the importance of a rising China. Even his persistence in thinking in terms of ethnic communities and structuring society through this prism may turn out to be an enduring legacy. And who knows? His very effective utilization of communalism to feed national success, even at the relative expense of minority groups, could yet prove to be visionary, as distasteful as this idea sounds.

In among all these legacies it seems likely that one of the more significant and powerful of them might be the legitimacy he has lent to authoritarianism as a political system, and the example he has created for the world’s more intelligent and sophisticated dictators – those willing to seek a long-term marriage between a strong state at least bordering on dictatorship and capitalism.

Within his tiny former fiefdom of Singapore, his legacy will be enduring, well beyond his own lifetime. He has implanted the ideal of a meritocracy deeply into the national psyche – and that ideal will stay there even if the reality is a highly flawed distortion of the ideal. He built an education system that is elitist and in many ways unfair to significant sections of the population, but which produces high calibre outputs that make excellent professionals, and then set up a system of importing more expertise. As a direct consequence, the society he leaves behind has an extraordinarily high regard for education and professionalism. This is the core of his positive legacy.

As his legacy becomes part of history rather than part of contemporary politics, we can expect the critical interrogation of it to intensify, producing increasingly candid assessments that acknowledge the flaws within the achievements and the foibles within the brilliance. Some of these negatives are relatively incidental to his achievements, but others seem to be intrinsic either to his vision or to the reality of his achievement. Many of these failings reflect deep- seated impulses on his part. On the one hand, his disrespect for democracy, human rights, rule of law, and for any idea with which he disagrees is intrinsic to his political vision and praxis, as is his systemic privileging of Chinese people and “Chinese values.” On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether his wilful persistence in creating a cosy network of personal contacts and family members to run and profit from the instruments of state capitalism are central to his method of operation. These practices were and continue to be so endemic that his claims to have been running the country through a system of meritocracy are easily challenged.

One of the other fundamental challenges that his system faces, and that it has been trying to overcome for nearly two decades with indifferent success, is the production of educational, social, and political systems that conspire to stultify the imagination and engender a culture of bland and sterile conformity. The government has been trying to introduce a significant degree of diversity into the education system in an effort to stimulate entrepreneurial individualism and creativity, but it faces a problem: the same features that make Singapore an outstanding success by its own terms also serve to cramp independence of imagination. This conundrum leads to an even more fundamental impasse: the ruling elite wants independent thought and creativity in business and enterprise, but not in politics. There is a basic contradiction between the demands of capitalism in a knowledge-based economy and the demands of authoritarian rule, and they may prove to be irreconcilable in the long term.

Lee Kuan Yew is a colossal figure in modern Asian history. Whether he is regarded as a hero or a villain will ultimately depend on the values of future generations casting judgment. For my part, I think that Singaporeans have paid a high price for Lee’s vision. He has produced prosperity for many, but at a very high cost.