Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Confucian Genius

Lee Kuan Yew
Mr Lee Kuan Yew
There are few leaders of the contemporary world that I admire more than former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Actually, strike that. I admire Lee Kuan Yew more than any other living world leader.

I have written quite a bit in admiration of Mr Lee Kuan Yew on this blog. Now here’s a bit more from a speech of his that he gave at the US-ASEAN Business Council’s 25th Anniversary event in Washington DC on October 27 2009.

He began by saying, “Small countries have little influence on international trends. Singapore has always taken the world as it is. We analyse the world clinically, take advantage of opportunities that come our way or get out of harm’s way. This evening, I hope to share with you some of my views on some major international trends.”

He is a genius of realism. “Taking the world as it is.” But doing what is most rational in the given context. Take advantage of opportunities and don’t get into trouble. It reminds me of the Buddhist injunction: “First do no harm. Then try to do good.” He’s a realist. He knows that being a small country, Singapore cannot change the world. All it can do is to be the change that it wants to see in the world. Many people parrot that advice reportedly given by MK Gandhi, the Indian political leader of the mid-20th century, but Lee Kuan Yew is one of the few who followed that strategy. I don’t know for sure but it sounds very much like what Confucius may have said.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew is a Confucian genius.

Here’s part of what he said about China in his speech:

It faces enormous domestic problems. No one knows their seriousness better than China’s own leaders. But in a pragmatic way, they have coped with their problems. This leadership is not in denial of the weaknesses and flaws in their system: among them, widespread corruption and increasing numbers of mass protests in rural areas where Communist Party officials collude with property developers to evict farmers from their land without adequate compensation. Beijing’s response has been flexible, using the carrot or stick, or both. It has survived traumas that would have cracked a rigid system. While there are imponderables in its development, the course it has set out on will result in high growth rates for the next two decades. High growth will bring major social and political changes. China’s present political structures will come under acute stress. Governing a people with over 70% living in urban areas with access to worldwide information through “Blackberries”, cell-phones and the Internet will require a restructuring of their political structures and governance of this huge nation.

He sees China’s rise as part of the continuation a reformation that began with Japan’s Meiji Revolution in 1868.

China’s rise is one facet of East Asia’s modernization growth story. It began with Japan and the Meiji Revolution in 1868. In China, it began in December 1978 with the open-door policy of Deng Xiaoping. India opened up to the world in 1991. China and India can and will catch up with the West in science and technology. They will restore Asia to its leading position before European colonialism enveloped them. The world order will be re-balanced.

It was a short speech but as always, full of insight and practical advice. Go read the transcript.

[This was previously published on another site on Nov 5th 2009.]

Related Post: Lee Kuan Yew on India — Dec 2005. This post is worth reading, even if I say so myself.

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the Confucian Genius”

  1. all very touching Dr. D – but after that gushing endorsement perhaps you will take the time to tell us why LKY has denied his own people that most important thing – liberty.

    As things stand, if you are in Singapore and have a political opinion that disagree’s with this authoritarian dictator, you do not stand much of a chance. LKY is a tyrant (just as Nehru was). The only difference is that while Nehru gave us the circus – LKY gives them bread.

    As your blog is amongst the few that encourages free debate, I would recommend everyone reads a more balanced anlysis of LKY (link below)

    The one truly good thing about LKY – he is not personally corrupt – in the venal sense. Even his worst critics cannot accuse him of being the swiss bank account holding types. That credit has to go to the man


  2. Arvind S:

    I cannot tell you why LKY did what he did, as I don’t have access to him or his inner motivations.

    All things being equal, it would be nice to have individual freedom. It’s one of the freedoms among many — political freedom, economic freedom, etc.

    I think that sometimes one does not have the luxury to have it all. There are trade offs in life. I value economic freedom over political freedom. At some point of economic well-being, I will be willing to trade off some economic well-being for political freedom. That point depends on how well off a person is economically. I believe that if someone is starving, the freedom to better one’s economic situation would dominate one’s need to make political statements.

    I am a superficial observer of Singapore. From what I can see, Singaporeans do have sufficient to eat, their children are educated, they live in decent surroundings.

    As a superficial observer of India, I see that an estimated 450 million are desperately poor, about half of all children below 5 years of age are malnourished, the streets are choked with traffic and garbage, the politicians are criminals, corruption rampant and figure in unbelievable thousands of crores — in short, a place that most guarantees a Hobbesian existence for most of its billion+ population.

    As I stress, this is my superficial impression. I would be happy to be corrected. I would also like to know how many in Singapore will offer to change places with the average Indian — and vice versa.

    Please pardon me for my “gushing endorsement” of Singapore’s leaders. Perhaps someone will balance it with a “gushing endorsement” of Indian leaders.


  3. The one truly good thing about LKY – he is not personally corrupt

    What do you mean? Singapore is doing well–amazing that as a small city state is is impressive. You keep saying the man is authoritarian–you want singapore to be a democracy like India with swathes of beggars, illiterates and hungry in the name of democracy, ruled by the last three generation of Congress leader who were college dropouts turning the nation into a nation with no education like themselves? What good is democracy in this sense? Democracy has caused India’s population to quadruple–soon it will cause India to be a nation of 2 billion people, mostly hungry….Who is the leader that will bring this populaion under some control?


  4. “Unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West.”

    This to me is the most significant statement of Lee Kuan Yew speech.


  5. As someone living in Singapore for the past 18 years, I can shed some light on this. It is true that many Singaporeans view “old man” LKY and his family as authoritarian rulers and the country is a fake democracy, one party rules the country since it was created.

    It is also true that many of LKY’s acts during the early days were questionable, for example, he used the communists support to gain freedom for Singapore but after that happened he promptly banned the communists.

    However the facts speak for themselves. Singapore has come from an opium smuggling pit-stop, a mosquito infested swampland, a poor forgotten wasteland fifty years ago, to where it is today, a modern, prosperous, efficient, thriving country, a leading financial and shipping hub, and a progressive, forward looking country surrounded by third world backward nations. Yes it is not politically correct to talk about our neighbours like this, but we were much worse off 50 years ago.

    LKY once said that we don’t claim to be a bastion of democracy, but we have a system which works very well, and the proof is in what we have achieved in 30-40 years. You can’t impose Swiss style democracy on every country in the world and expect it to work.

    30 years ago, Singapore was dirty, people would spit everywhere and litter like pigs. The approach here is simple. Tell people nicely. If they don’t listen, impose heavy fines. That reduced littering and improved cleanliness tremendously. Try having this done in India. I give you 100 years time. Prove me wrong.

    You talk about democracy. I talk about achievements. Take the economic strength of the country. In the late 1960’s the Singapore dollar was about 9 SG$ to one British pound and 3 SG$ to a US$. Today it is 2 SG$ to a pound, and 1.35 SG$ to a US$.

    What about the Indian rupee? We were about 3 rupees to one US$ in the 1940’s. Now we are at nearly 50 rupees per USD.

    What about standard of living? 85% of people here own their homes. This is among the highest in the world in any developed country. There are beggars but they are very few and far apart.

    What about safety? I can walk out of my house and stroll around at midnight without worry. I can safely take a cab at 3am without worry. I allow my 8 year old son to take the bus and train alone, wherever he goes, with the knowledge that he will be safe. In the worst case he gets lost and calls me up. He is even allowed to take the cab himself. Every cab driver here gives you exact change for a $4 fare even if you hand them a $10 note.

    How about basic services? I have never, once had an unscheduled power “failure” in my 18 years of living here. Not once have I seen a water supply cut. Never a bus strike or train strike.

    What about basic road rules? Can you cross a road in Delhi today? Here if I start crossing at a zebra crossing, even a double decker bus will stop for me. Try making them behave this way in India? You will get run over and cursed and spat on.

    They have among the lowest corruption rates in the world, and one of the most efficient public service systems. I can’t remember even once having to plead with someone or suck up to someone in power or offer a bribe to anyone, in any situation. People in the public sector come and do their job professionally and with integrity. For example, POSB (one of our oldest banks) allows me to open an account in 5 minutes. Even if I have forgotten some paperwork for some important procedure at, say, the phone company, there is enough information for them to retrieve old records, and help me complete my transaction. The attitude is completely the opposite of public sector organisations in India where the main goal is to harass the customer and hopefully send him away frustrated and angry.

    How about the schools? The education system here is on par with anything else in the world. I moved my son from the Indian international school to a local school because the curriculum and teaching is so much better. They ensure there’s a school within a 1km radius of every single public housing estate in the country. It’s usually walking distance, or at most 2 bus stops. Each school is constantly monitored, audited, upgraded and equipped. Staff are constantly trained and skills upgraded. They have free medical and dental care in school, and each school is even equipped with a dental clinic. You don’t have to rush and queue when your son is born, hoping for that seat in DPS RK-Puram, or St. Columbas, or one of the top schools. And how much do I pay? $14.50 a month. That is peanuts. It’s breakfast for a week.

    What about black money? I have never, ever had to deal with it. I’ve bought and sold three flats here. Every dollar has been over the table. I paid zero in “special commissions” a.k.a. bribes and baksheesh money. It is illegal to under-declare sale prices, and this rule is strictly enforced (jail time if discovered).

    What about taxes? I paid less than $2000 in taxes last year even though I earn many times that amount each month. Yet, Singapore has enough and more cash for anything they need, be it public services, education, housing, infrastructure or anything else. I challenge India to manage cash this efficiently. Forget 3-4% income tax, I challenge India to reduce it from 30% to even 15%. It is impossible.

    Tried meeting your MP in India? Better be rich or influential or a gangster, or all three. Here, I can walk in to my local meet-the-MP session every Tuesday evening and raise any grievance or question face to face with him. No strings attached. I’ve often had MP’s visit house to house and inquire about any complaints. They travel with a secretary, and he takes detailed notes about residents comments or problems. I once had a complaint, it was acted upon within the week, and I got an email confirmation and was called to ask if things were settled. I challenge India’s MP’s or local government babus to achieve this level of service in 20 (scratch that, I give you 200) years time.

    At the end of the day, people here still value our basic standard of living, safety, efficiency and service. This government has delivered in spades.

    I can go on and on, but you get the hint. This is why my whole family took up Singapore citizenship last year and that is the best decision we have ever made.


  6. great comment, the above! Good answer to the ” the grapes are sour” types who refuse to look at the reality that is India straight at the face, and like to hide it behind feel good excuses of having democracy….


  7. I agree I’ve visited Singapore and found it clean and safe and the public officials were intelligent (a definite first) and helpful. I would live there any day of the week. I currently live in Australia and Singapore is definitely the better place to live in. The first time I travelled to Australia from India via Singapore I remember being disappointed since Singapore was so much better than Perth. I’ve since read comments about Singapore being run like a school which I take to mean that it has strict rules. I agree with that wholeheartedly rules prevent us from making a nuisance of ourselves and embarrassing ourselves. I’m for more rules not less. I’ve lived in India and in Australia and I’ve visited Singapore. Two democracies and Singapore outstripped them both by far as being the most livable. Let me tell you if Australia had India’s population it would be another India. LKY has delivered and he gets my vote


  8. And being an Indian I can say I am ashamed of what we’ve let our country become. Growing up in India I was taught to be proud of India. From a distance I see that what we had was not pride but arrogance. If we were truly a proud people India wouldn’t have the problems it has today.


  9. Anad Ram,
    you wrote-This is why my whole family took up Singapore citizenship last year and that is the best decision we have ever made-

    sure make sense and you did right.

    Thats what Europeans did for last few centuries and had occupied both americas, Australia and someother lands. Thats what Indians did not do sadly. Imagine just what would happen to todays Europe, if all these people who have become happy campers outside Europe were tranplanted back in Europe, you will see what is currently witnessed in India. The govt distributes a kilo of Rice for Rs 2 to 4 to the poor. Population control is the only answer dude. Some MPs (senators), and some governors (CMs) are doing jailtime in USA on corruption convictions.We also have ‘no go areas’ here in USA, just to let you know.That said, the situation can not be compared to India, I agree.- surya, chicago


  10. @ larry
    ” I agree I’ve visited Singapore and found it clean and safe and the public officials were intelligent (a definite first) and helpful.”

    Lee Kuan seems intelligent and understands the needs of his country. I am sure he has far more intelligence than the Congress leaders (the last three) of whom did not even need to finish college to decide laws for Indians. You get what you elect. If you have mediocre leaders, they turn the country in their own mediocre image. I can’t see how these Congress leaders are an inspiration to the intelligent young folk in India or role models in any way…..


  11. Don’t forget the huge governance deficit and even more despicable integrity deficit that Indian “leaders” offer to Indians.

    If you are steeped in the “Indian system” and “Indian Culture” (which includes corruption and everything and full tolerance of corruption by the system) you will definitely notice the big, striking difference in Singapore. So, a little immersing in Singapore will be of great benefit to any Indian as there is much to learn from! (However, you will still not have a clue how to “change” the corrupt and entrenched Indian system and society for the better. My point is, if you remain encircled in an Indian system, you will have an even lesser chance).

    In many ways, the Indian system is spreading out from India to everywhere, with globalization. Yes, you and me are “carriers”! Therefore, I appreciate Anand Ram’s sentiments expressed and reasons why he moved his child from Indian International School (presumably GIIS) to local schooling. I have seen Indian CBSE syllabus text books which talk about how citizens should not allow corruption to take root and all good things about activism, but in reality what the global indian Indian International School (GIIS) would offer your child is, apart from an average CBSE education, an opportunity to genuflect before more more Indian style “leaders” and allied inept guardians of the truly feudal traditions of India. Is that how you want your child to grow up ? The choice is yours.

    I do hope that more Indians in Singapore will be woken up by the call by Mr Lee for expat Indians children to attend local schools to integrate better (

    India has to go a long way to be able to unleash its own human potential. The answer may lie in the distant past, I really don’t know, but the present-day Indian culture and system self-perpetuating and it is best to step out of it rather than be encircled by it. Then you probably have a chance to contribute to cleaning up India for future Indians, if you are so inclined !


  12. Many people confuse liberty and freedom to be the most endearing qualities of Democracy. Yet what is liberty and freedom without Responsibilities.

    Most “free” democracies are ineffective including the USA and of course India. While USA has been a developed nation and has its share of problems, India in the meantime is a hotbed of systematic anarchy under the guise of Democracy. The country is being stripped naked and there is very little anyone can do.

    I think LKY understood very clearly early on that people left to their own devices without sufficient control ultimately end up corrupting everything around them. The control needs to come from the top.

    The person at the top needs to have vision, integrity and has to be incorruptible. Tough decisions need to be made and sometimes it is better to withdraw a few liberties in the long term interest of the country.


  13. The only thong I remember about LKY is what he said about India: that India has too much of democracy.

    No wonder, democracy inthe hands of those who do not understand or value democracy, India is anarchy!


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