From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000
by Lee Kuan Yew, published 2000
This book has two parts (well, really, three, but the third part is about 20 pages and isn’t as significant as the other two parts), the first of which is about how Lee Kuan Yew describes the building of political institutions and the development of the economy of Singapore under the leadership of himself and his People’s Action Party over almost four decades, the second of which is a country-by-country exploration of Singapore’s foreign relations or what might best be called the exercise of Lee Kuan Yew’s political power abroad. I have an essay planned which will cover the first part of the book separately, focusing on the economic development of Singapore “from Third World to First” and the related political issues with specific emphasis on the myth of Singapore as an example of free market economics at work. Confusingly for some readers, I will argue both that according to Lee Kuan Yew himself Singapore was not a free market and was not intended to be one, and that despite this most of the credit for Singapore’s amazing economic development over the forty year period observed still belongs to the workings of the free market and not to intelligent central planning and wise stewardship of the economy by protectionist politicians.
Therefore, this review will only cover part of the book, but a still substantial one (pg. 225-660) and one which touches upon enough issues that will be raised in the upcoming essay that the reader should be able to get most of the story. I also plan in this review to meander quite a bit and talk about the things I found most interesting or meaningful, rather than summarizing the themes. I took extensive notes on the used copy I bought, annotating almost every other page. There’s a lot to chew on here and I probably won’t cover it all even between this review and the later essay, but might come back to it and comment on individual issues as my thoughts or interest allow. For those who are so inclined, you may wish to read some personal observations and experiences I had during a recent trip to Singapore, as well as some of the comments I made about Singapore’s history and political story, by reading the earlier posts tagged about Singapore. They may add meaningful context.
The Role of International Affairs in Little Singapore
Imagine I described to you a tiny, natural resourceless island nation situated strategically along a major shipping lane, whose historical role was one of trade entrepot and for whom fluid commercial volumes with every people and country possible were key to its economic survival. What kind of foreign policy would you imagine such a country would conduct? Do you imagine it’d have a standing army, or rely on the goodwill of other nations for its existence? What do you think it’s chief executive would spend most of his time doing and where would he most frequently be found?
According to LKY’s memoirs, though a small country dependent upon trade and commerce, Singapore nonetheless had a big role to play in international politics and was not above taking hostile stances even toward other southeast Asian nations (and even looked on approvingly at various wars in the Middle East!). Establishing a robust Singapore Armed Forces was one of the first priorities of LKY when independence was gained in 1965, reportedly to ward off threats from Malaysia and even Indonesia. And during my reading, I lost count of the number of times various chapters and paragraphs began with LKY meeting with other political and academic elites outside of Singapore.
Rather than adopting a strict foreign policy of peace and goodwill towards all nations, LKY comes across as almost bloodthirsty in his description of Singapore’s role in the Vietnam War, describing American intervention as good and necessary, claiming the Vietnamese regime deserved to be “punished”, first in a cross-border skirmish with China and then by continuing sanctions and non-normalized trade and diplomatic relations between Vietnam and Singapore even a decade after the conflict ended and even going so far as to throw his lot in with the Khmer Rouge to counterbalance the Vietnamese puppet government in Cambodia, describing the decision as one arrived at after having “no choice”! If choice doesn’t play a role in designing policy, what need have we of great leaders like LKY?
And then there is Singapore’s role as arms merchant at various times in various conflicts…
And why was it so important to LKY to get agreements with other countries to host SAF detachments for training in unusual environments? Though we are told that the SAF was created to defend tiny Singapore, the desire to train in environments alien to the tiny tropical island seem to lead logically to one place– interventionism. I doubt LKY planned to militarily dominate the globe, but surely he hoped to have his forces participate in struggles that had nothing to do with the direct defense of the island.
While many of the political tours were related to commitments imposed by being part of the British Commonwealth and its former colonial possessions, there seem to be just too many instances of LKY as a global jetsetter to excuse. Why was this man hobnobbing seemingly everywhere but Singapore?
I don’t know what the meaningful difference is between a currency board and a central bank, but assuming there is one, LKY said that Singapore did not have a central bank because,
a central bank is an easy way out for a finance minister who likes to juggle [his figures] when he has a deficit in his budget. I do not think we should put such a temptation before the finance minister in Singapore.
And yet, we witness numerous examples throughout the book, including episodes in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Asian Financial Crisis during which Singapore attempts to “defend” the value of other countries’ exchange rates through currency intervention in Singapore. Why? What excuse could their possibly be for this behavior other than trying to be a “player” in world affairs?
But it’s not all baffling. The book has its charming moments, too, including many glimpses into how world political figures really think and what they say about their regimes and records of governance behind the scenes. Take, for instance, this phallic competition between Indonesia’s Sukarno and Lee Kuan Yew:
[Sukarno] asked, “How big is your population?” “One and a half million,” I replied. He had 100 million. “How many cars do you have?” “About 10,000,” I said. Jakarta had 50,000. I was puzzled but readily conceded that he occupied first place in Southeast Asia in terms of size.
Or, the behavior of Indian officials in the face of new golf balls:
It was a gradual slide in quality of a once elite service [Indian Civil Service], now caught up in the throes of a social and economic revolution which had reduced living standards… they could not buy good (i.e., imported) golf balls because their import was forbidden… Our high commission had advised me to bring several boxes of golf balls to distribute to the committee members of the club. It was depressing to see top brass and civil servants breaking up the packages and taking fistfuls of golf balls to stuff into their golf bags.
Indeed, golf balls were so precious that caddies would dash into any house or rough to find them. Once, at the former Bombay Royal Golf Course in 1965, I sliced my ball into a squatter area [what is a squatter area doing within driving distance of a Royal Golf Course?] and heard the loud clatter as it fell on a zinc roof. My caddie dashed off, I thought to find out who was hurt. But no– a little boy emerged with the golf ball, not to complain of injury but to bargain over the price of the ball.
We also learn of the need to be street-wise when dealing with foreign communist dictatorships looking to play a little development scam on a credulous leader:
In February 1994, I signed the Suzhou Agreement with Vice Premier Li Lanqing in Beijing, witnessed by Premier Li Peng and Prime Minister Goh… the essence of the project was to transfer our knowledge of how to plan, build and administer a comprehensive industrial, commercial and residential park that could attract high-quality foreign investors… Instead of giving SIP their full attention and cooperation as was promised, they used their association with Singapore to promote their own industrial estate, Suzhou New District (SND), undercutting SIP in land and infrastructure costs, which they controlled… It was a chastening experience… For the Suzhou authorities, a signed agreement is an expression of serious and sincere intent, but one that is not necessarily comprehensive and can be altered or reinterpreted with changing circumstances… China has an immensely complex government.
But LKY was something of a shakedown scam artist himself as Singapore was seen as a “developing” but not “developed” economy for some time. After catching some American personnel spying in Singapore,
I told the British commissioner, Lord Selkirk, that we would release these men and their stupidity would not be made public if the Americans gave a hundred million U.S. dollars to the Singapore government for economic development. They offered US$1 million, not to the Singapore government, but to the PAP [LKY’s political party]– an unbelievable insult.
He engineered something similar with Japan,
The only important business I raised with Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda was the “blood debt”, a request for compensation for their wartime atrocities… We eventually settled this “blood debt” after independence, in October 1966, for $50 million [serious money for small Singapore when the dollar was worth something!], half in grants and half in loans. I wanted to establish good relations to encourage their industrialists to invest in Singapore.
American race-baiters like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton couldn’t have worked a better deal with calls for reparation that would just end up in their own pockets! He even tried the same scam on different terms with the Japanese at a later date, this time playing “Godfather” over a shipping lane:
To get the Japanese to help us, for example, in investing in a petrochemical plant, we had to remind them that their ships passing through the Straits of Malacca would have problems with toll collectors if Singapore were to join the other littoral states, Indonesia and Malaysia.
“Nice open sea lane you got there, it would be a shame if something happened to it,” said in a thick, Germanic Robber Baron accent. The shakedown later continued with “soft loan” subsidies available only to developing nations:
I protested to Fukuda that his officials had spoken of Singapore not as a developing country but as an industrialized one not entitled to soft loans from Japan… We would lose our General Scheme of Preferences (GSP) [like affirmative action for international trading partners who are non-developed countries] and other advantages before we could compete on equal terms.
“Soft loans” are a form of fraud where one entity makes loans to another entity that they never intend to be repaid and usually forgive entirely. It is an outstanding source of graft, especially in corrupt political regimes where outright bribery is outlawed by the lender nation’s laws.
When he isn’t reflecting on his own actions, LKY proves to be a biting and incisive critic and a truthful observer of laws and conditions in other people’s countries. Here he is on the European Economic Community, the predecessor to the EU:
With the other commissioners, I discussed how to avoid manufacturing those products that EEC countries would find sensitive because of persistent high unemployment. I discovered to my dismay that the list was unlimited. Any member country with any influence on Brussels, feeling the slightest pain, could appeal to Brussels for protection and would invariably get it.
This brief anecdote proves three things simultaneously– (1) contrary to propaganda, the EU is a protectionist trading bloc, not a free trading society, (2) there appears to be no nation on Earth that is led by politicians who understand the benefits of free trade, even unilateral free trade and (3) not even trade-dependent Singapore is able to gain a competitive advantage by being a true free trader because it was led by a Keynesian planner-mindset politician-in-chief, LKY, who had his own worries about managing unemployment in his country to risk upsetting bureaucrats in Brussels! Now that is global political power projection for you!!
Here’s another honest and insightful observation from LKY, this time about a faux pas made by an inept American president:
When I was leaving, he gave me a green leather-bound copy of his campaign autobiography [aw gee, what a nice gift, a hastily produced, ghost-written volume of propaganda], Why Not the Best? He had already inscribed it, “To my good friend Lee Kuan Yew. Jimmy Carter.” I was flattered but surprised by my elevation to “good friend” even before he had met me. This must have been a standard practice during his election campaign.
It makes you wonder if Jimmy Cahtah even bothered to sign it himself. If you’re going to piss off a foreign leader on a cheap gesture, spare no expense!
The book is rife with such charming episodes, I could fill the blog up with them. Instead, it’s worth saying something about Lee Kuan Yew’s somewhat confusing and arbitrary arguments for polylogist legal theorizing and the explanations he gave for the success of Singapore’s economic and national development since 1965.
As a polylogist, LKY is a skeptic of the idea of simply importing “progressive” legal principles from one population to another:
the are fundamental differences between East Asian Confucian and Western liberal societies. Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family. Many in the West believe that the government is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when it fails, as with single mothers… freedom could only exist in an orderly state, not when there was contention or anarchy. In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum [even better if they’re ruled by people like LKY!]… Democracy works where the people have that culture of accommodation and tolerance which makes a minority accept the majority’s right to have its way until the next election, and wait patiently and peacefully for its turn to become the government by persuading more voters to support its views.
And yet, he encouraged China to join as a member of the law-abiding community of nations! How can China, whose authoritarian legal system is ostensibly appropriate for the culture and values of the Chinese, join the law-abiding international community whose laws and customs are foreign and antagonistic to the culture and values of the Chinese? One potential solution is that there exist in every society a set of elite individuals who are not beholden to local political bigotry and historical traditions but can instead transcend them and tap into a more universal logic. But if they can do this for their countries at an international level, why can’t they do this at the “local” level of their domestic politics?
This seems to present some problems for the polylogist approach of LKY, although I think there’s a perfectly simple, but embarrassingly revealing, answer that has something to do with the reality of power and how and why it is exercised in any society which the thoughtful reader can probably surmise with a bit of their own consideration.
I am not a polylogist. I believe there is one, universal human logic that all mature, physically functioning adult minds can understand and employ in their own thinking and communications. That being said, I think LKY is absolutely correct that it is absurd to believe one can foist political principles that were developed over hundreds or thousands of years of combined cultural history onto a population that has never utilized them before, such as using military Keynesianism to deploy democracy in Afghanistan and Iraq, particularly when in so doing the existing political arrangements and power structures are rapidly collapsed or, worse, ignored as if they’re unimpactful.
But more importantly, I think it is naive to expect any political principle, foreign or domestic, to work miracles. For example, believing the process of revealing voter preferences through democratic elections can somehow obviate the need for working within the confines of economic scarcity. Or, to use another example, instituting a vicious socialist dictatorship which doesn’t give a damn about anyone’s preferences, and expecting it to spit out the highest standard of living in the world for its people. So, there is some truth to what LKY is saying on this subject, just not much how he said it.
And how did LKY explain Singapore’s success?
the basic principles that have helped us progress: social cohesion through sharing the benefits of progress, equal opportunities for all, and meritocracy, with the best man or woman for the job, especially as leaders in government
I’d call this a bit of self-aggrandizing delusion. When LKY says “sharing the benefits of progress”, he means that he doesn’t believe the outcomes in a market society are anything but random (he makes this claim in an early section of the book), and that the wealth should be spread around by politicians through things like government housing projects and forced savings accounts. Of course, getting to hand out welfare goodies after an election is a good strategy for winning future elections– some might call this building “social cohesion” to a particular party’s cause, such as LKY’s People’s Action Party.
Similarly, it is pure fudge to claim that you provided equal opportunities for all while running a meritocracy. A meritocracy implies an inequality of opportunity– opportunity goes to those who show merit, having performed well with other opportunities. To give everyone equality of opportunity is not just wasteful, it’s impossible. Does everyone in Singapore have an equal opportunity to be Prime Minister like LKY, or just those who control a well-oiled electoral wealth redistribution machine like the PAP? The double fudge is insisting that government leaders themselves are examples of this meritocracy. Nobody wants to lose their subsidized housing for questioning the merits of their political leaders!
That being said, I don’t think LKY played NO part in the Singapore success story. There is something to be said for a stable political regime with predictable laws and regulations over a 40+ year period, especially one which tended more toward laissez-faire than most. And clearly, looking around the neighborhood (Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia… China) Singapore could’ve had worse political management than it experienced. I just think that the credit due is negative– it’s what LKY and his team didn’t do, that made Singapore great, not what they did do. That, and what they didn’t do relative to what the more eager regimes in neighboring jurisdictions did do over the time period observed. With racial tension in Malaysia, military government in Indonesia, socialist science experiments in India, a devastating civil war in Vietnam and the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, you didn’t have to be all that fast to win this footrace.
By just not getting out of bed and ordering an atrocity each day, LKY virtually guaranteed the investment, development and progress would come to his tiny island nation unimpeded for decades, just like it did. But since there’s no way to run a truly controlled experiment here, there’s no way to know for sure what might’ve happened under a different set of policies, so ultimately it’s Lee Kuan Yew’s word against mine.