Lee Kuan Yew, A Wise Man for the World: Singapore’s philosopher-king on an ascendant China, the threat of Islamism and America’s entitlements crisis

February 25, 2013, 4:19 p.m. ET

A Wise Man for the World

Singapore’s philosopher-king on an ascendant China, the threat of Islamism and America’s entitlements crisis.


China already dominates Asia and intends to become the world’s leading power. The United States is not yet a “second rate power,” but the inability of its political leaders to make unpopular decisions bodes poorly. Russia, Japan, Western Europe and India are, for the most part, tired bureaucracies. If Iran gets the bomb, a nuclear war in the Middle East is almost inevitable.

These are among the many frank forecasts laid out in a slim volume based on the experiences and insights of Lee Kuan Yew, the founder of modern Singapore, its prime minister from 1959 to 1990, and Asia’s ranking philosopher-king for much of the past half-century. Tiny Singapore has always been too small a stage for a leader of Mr. Lee’s intellect and ego. His interests have extended across the globe, as has his influence. For decades, world leaders, corporate CEOs, scholars and journalists have made the pilgrimage to Singapore to seek his views.

“Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World” forms a kind of last testament of the ailing, 89-year-old Mr. Lee. It is based on interviews with Mr. Lee by the authors—Graham Allison, a professor of government at Harvard’s Kennedy School, and Robert Blackwill, a former U.S. diplomat—to which the authors add a distillation of Mr. Lee’s speeches, writings and interviews with others over many years.

The book focuses forward on Mr. Lee’s prognostications, not backward on his accomplishments. Messrs. Allison and Blackwill refrain from commentary on the man and his ideas, letting readers interpret for themselves. The downside of such restraint is that “Lee Kuan Yew” doesn’t truly convey Mr. Lee’s combative candor or the exceptional subtlety of mind that I was privileged to experience in my own interviews with Mr. Lee over two decades. It was his combination of penetrating brilliance about the wider world and prickly pettiness in his own Singaporean laboratory (e.g., banning two Dow Jones publications for the sin of free expression) that made him so fascinating.


Lee Kuan Yew

By Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill
(MIT, 186 pages, $17.95)

Beyond Singapore, China has always been Mr. Lee’s primary focus. China, he says, is determined to be “the greatest power in the world,” and it expects to be accepted on its own terms, “not as an honorary member of the West.” Yet despite China’s progress over the past 30 years, Mr. Lee says, it has multiple “handicaps” to overcome, chief among them an absence of the rule of law and the presence of widespread corruption. The biggest fear of China’s leaders, he says, is popular revulsion at the corrosive effects of graft. The Chinese language itself—which “is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by its society”—is another obstacle to China’s great-power aspirations. So is a culture that does not “permit a free exchange and contest of ideas.” (Mr. Lee adopted English as Singapore’s national language; he never fully adopted free expression.)

While competition between the United States and China is inevitable, Mr. Lee argues, confrontation need not be. (We, of course, might view China’s widespread computer hacking as a form of confrontation.) The U.S. shouldn’t expect a democratic China: “China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse.” In China’s 5,000 years of recorded history, he notes, the emperor has ruled by right, and if the people disagree, “you chop off heads, not count heads.”

Despite America’s political gridlock and excessive debt, Mr. Lee remains optimistic about the future of the United States and its role in the world. In his view, America’s “creativity, resilience, and innovative spirit will allow it to confront its core problems, overcome them and regain its competitiveness.” Americans believe that they can “make things happen,” and thus they usually do.

Still, Mr. Lee worries about the breakdown of civil society in the U.S.—individual rights (not paired with individual responsibility) run amok—and about a growing culture of entitlements. Sociologists, he says, have convinced Americans that failure isn’t their fault but the fault of the economic system. Once charity became an entitlement, he observes, the stigma of living on charity disappeared. As a result, entitlement costs outpace government resources, resulting in huge debts for future generations. In the meantime, America’s political leaders kick the can down the road to win elections. As so often is the case, Mr. Lee starkly says what others think.

Mr. Lee bluntly blames Saudi Arabia for encouraging the growth of Islamist extremism by financing mosques, religious schools and preachers world-wide to spread its “austere version of Wahhabist Islam.” What the West can do, he says, is to give Muslim moderates the confidence to confront extremists for control of the Islamic soul. But, he warns, if moderates continue to be intimidated by extremists, they will find themselves living in repressive theocracies like Iran. And if Iran gets the bomb, other Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt will do so as well, unleashing the specter of regional nuclear war.

Mr. Lee’s three political heroes are Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who launched economic reform in the 1980s. The reason for Mr. Lee’s admiration: Each held a weak hand at a critical moment in history and, through guts and determination, managed to win. Mr. Lee is a firm believer that leaders are born, though managers can be made, and that leaders should be judged by their accomplishments. “The acid test is in performance, not promises.” As with his three heroes, Mr. Lee began with a weak hand in Singapore but, by playing it to maximum effect, made himself a wise man for the world.

Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is the author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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