One Man's View of the World

One Man's View of the World



The Pequod Review:

There is a lot of plain-spoken wisdom in Kuan Yew Lee's broad and wide-ranging book One Man's View of the World. KYL was Prime Minister of Singapore for more than thirty years (1959-1990) and even though his book covers international politics in somewhat simplistic detail, he has a blunt style as he describes the strengths and weaknesses of various countries around the world.

In the case of China for example, he presents a refreshingly realistic picture of a nation that has little interest in becoming more like the West:

Also deeply ingrained in Chinese culture is a way of doing things that pays little heed to the rule of law or governance institutions. In Singapore, we have come to accept that we have to be like the West on this — to have legislatures deciding on the wording of laws and then to have independent courts and judges deciding what those words mean. So Parliament can pass any law, but once it’s passed, if a dispute arises, you don’t go back to Parliament and say, “What do you mean by that?” You go to a judge, who says, “I interpret this to mean the following, according to fixed rules of interpreting documents that are based on well-established precedents.”

The Chinese have not accepted this, just as they have not accepted that when you sign an agreement, it’s final. For them, when you sign an agreement, it’s the beginning of a long friendship, and from time to time, as friends, you have to sort out whether one of you is making too much money and may need to cough up more.

This ambiguity is also reflected in the way they view institutions. In China, the man is bigger than the office. So you can be president, but if you don’t have the clout with the military, you’re a different president — whereas in Singapore or Britain or Europe or the United States, if you’re president or prime minister, the military heads automatically take orders from you because the institution is bigger than the man. Can China follow Singapore — never mind America — on establishing the rule of law and governance institutions? Not easy at all. It will require a very fundamental change in the mental approach of both the government and the population. And as these concepts are absent from their culture and history, one has to ask: Out of what will these arise?

Instead, I see them working out their own system and trying out all possible configurations without the rule of law and governance institutions. But because of these limitations, China will never operate at what I would call maximum capacity — the ideal state in which you grow steadily, up and up. China will evolve its institutions and systems, but in a distinctly Chinese way. Whatever their reforms, one thing will not change: they will retain a strong centre.

He has a similar view on the potential for a democratic Middle East:

When the flurry of excitement over the so-called Arab Spring is finally over, the world will probably come to the stark realisation that nothing much has transformed the governance in that region. As dramatic as the changes look, and as sensational as newsmen have made them out to be, when we look back with broad lenses many decades from now, it is highly doubtful that any of them would prove to be part of a substantive and permanent shift towards popular rule in the region. It is far more likely that these democratic experiments will not last. Before long, I expect many of the countries that have taken exploratory lurches in the direction of one man, one vote to revert to one-man rule, or one-cabal rule. In other words, spring is followed by summer, autumn, then winter. Life just goes on — just as it has for millennia past.

The Middle East region lacks a history of counting heads and making decisions on that basis. There is no democratic tradition — whether in ancient Islamic times, in more recent colonial history, or in the post-colonial nationalistic era. When the British and French protectorates broke up into separate states, they all ended up with one-man rule — not by coincidence, but for deep cultural and sociological reasons.

One might argue, of course, that democracy, being a relatively novel phenomenon in human history, begins somewhere in every region, and that in many places, including a number of Asian countries, it has taken root — or at least appeared to do so–despite a similar absence of democratic tradition. But there is one key difference. On top of not having any prior experience in representative forms of politics, the Middle East also lacks vital social factors that form the foundation on which democracy must stand.

The first is a sense of equal citizenship. This is the idea that you and I, despite all our differences in wealth, social standing, achievement, physical and mental attributes, and so on, are on par at some level for no reason other than that we are both citizens of a particular nation. We possess the same rights and responsibilities that the nation accords to any individual belonging to it. We are legally equal, and morally so as well. This concept necessarily precedes the development of actual democratic practices and institutions. It has to gain acceptance not only in intellectual or progressive circles but throughout society.

What we see in many parts of the Middle East, however, are tribal or feudal systems. In Saudi Arabia, tribal leaders bring gifts to the king once a year. Like in ancient China, the king gives them more valuable gifts in return. The loyalty held by ordinary people is to the tribe — not to the nation, for no nation exists, and certainly not to fellow citizens. I spoke to an American diplomat some years back after he left his posting in Saudi Arabia and he agreed with this view. The Saudis have a feudal set-up, he said to me. The Libyans, similarly, do not have a united nation, but an amalgamation of tribes that is exacerbated by regionalism. In these tribal states, when one regime falls, there might be a significant recalibration in the rules governing how politics is organised — who gets to decide what and how — but democracy will not emerge because the basic unit in the polity is not the citizen but the tribe.


President George W. Bush went into Iraq with the best of intentions. Saddam Hussein was an irrational dictator whose actions destabilised the region and the world. A strong case could be made for taking him down. But when the Americans announced their aspiration to democratise Iraq, I held my breath. It was a sign of hubris. I thought to myself: “This is a 4,000-year-old society that is going to be transformed by a society that has only got — if you go back to the Mayflower — 400 years of history.” Bush went ahead with the plan after being persuaded by the neoconservatives that a democratic Iraq was key to peace in the Middle East. They had based their argument on the advice of Iraqi émigrés, supported by Professor Bernard Lewis, a respected scholar of Islam and the Middle East, and cheered on by Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and pro-democracy activist who was at the time a member of the Israeli Knesset. It was a grave mistake. They removed Saddam, a strong man who held the disparate forces of the country together and made it governable, without producing or supporting another strong man who could fill Saddam’s shoes, which is what they should have done. To make matters worse, they disbanded the police force and dissolved the Ba’ath Party, instead of utilising both in service of a new regime.

When the Japanese Army occupied Singapore during the Second World War, they captured the soldiers but left the police and the administrators in charge because they knew they needed their help to govern the place. Even British heads of power, water and gas were not disposed of. The Americans wanted to build a government from scratch in Iraq and democratise an ancient people. The former is near impossible, the latter is simply impossible.

In this regard, the Chinese have the wiser foreign policy approach. They do not believe it is their business to change the system. They deal with a system as it is and get whatever advantages they can out of it, without entangling themselves. The problem with the Americans is that they go in believing they have the power to change the system. Time and again, they have been proven wrong. They have not changed the world. They may be able to change Fiji or Vanuatu, where the civilisations are young and not deep-rooted, and you can overwhelm them with, say, Christianity. But can they change China or India? These are nations with ancient traditions of their own.

He also has a highly unique perspective on the United States, whose enduring economic and political success remains the envy of the world. He makes a very interesting argument that this may be partly due to internal competition:

Another source of American competitiveness are the many competing centres of excellence throughout the country. In the East Coast, you go to Boston, New York, Washington; in the West Coast, you go to Berkeley, San Francisco; in Middle America, you go to Chicago and Texas. You will find diversity and each centre challenging the other centres, not willing to toe the line. When the Texans found that they were oil-rich, James Baker, a former Secretary of State and a Texan, tried to create in Houston a centre that would rival Boston or New York. Jon Huntsman, the former US ambassador to Singapore and China, and a personal friend of mine, is another example of this. His family had prostate cancer problems. So when he inherited his father’s fortune, he brought the best scientists doing research on prostate cancer to his home state of Utah to study this problem.

Every centre believes it is as good as any other, and all it needs are money and talent, which can be sourced. Nobody feels compelled to obey Washington or New York. If you have money, you start another centre. Because of this, there is a certain diversity in society, a competitive spirit that throws up new ideas and new products that survive the test of time. China, of course, takes a completely different approach. The Chinese believe that when the centre is strong, China prospers. There is a certain de rigueur attitude, a demand that everybody conforms to a single centre. Everyone is expected to march to the same drummer. Even Britain and France cannot match the Americans on this. In France, everyone who is bright ends up in the grandes écoles. In Britain, it is Oxbridge. These countries are relatively small, compact and therefore more uniform.

From the late 1970s to the 1980s, America lost its industrial lead to reviving economic powers Japan and Germany. They got overtaken in electronics, steel, petrochemicals and the auto industry. These were important manufacturing sectors that employed many workers, including blue-collar ones who were represented by trade unions. In some European countries, trade unions resisted labour reforms by threatening industrial action that would inflict severe short-term losses. But in America, the opposite happened. Corporations could make hard but necessary changes. They downsized, retrenched workers, and improved productivity through the use of technology, including IT. The American economy came roaring back. New businesses were formed to help companies optimise their IT systems, including Microsoft, Cisco and Oracle. After a period of painful adjustments, companies were able to create new and better-paying jobs. They were not interested in hanging on to old-type jobs which can be done by China, India and Eastern Europe. They saw their future in a world where wealth was generated not by making widgets or cars, but by brain power, imagination, artistry, knowledge and intellectual property. America was back in the game. It regained its status as the world’s fastest-growing developed economy. I came to appreciate fully the dynamism of the entrepreneurial American. 

KYL's optimism that the US would quickly rebound from its recent economic and political setbacks would prove to be entirely correct:

America is not on the decline. Its reputation has suffered a setback as a result of the long and messy military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a severe financial crisis. But perceptive historians will point out that a seemingly weakened and weary America has bounced back from far worse situations. It has faced great trials and challenges within living memory: the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the rapid post-war rise of industrial powerhouses Japan and Germany. Each time, it found the will and energy to recover its position at the front of the pack. America has prevailed. It will do so again.

The success of America lies in its dynamic economy, sustained by an uncanny ability not just to produce the same with less, but to constantly innovate — that is, to invent completely new goods and services that the rest of the world soon finds to be useful and desirable. The iPhone, iPad, Microsoft, the Internet — these were created in America, not elsewhere. The Chinese have many talented individuals compared to the Americans, but why have they not been able to come up with similar inventions? Clearly, they lack a spark that America possesses. And that spark means that the Americans can be expected to throw up game-changing innovations from time to time that will again put them in the forefront.

Even if the declinists are right, and America is in fact on a downhill path, one needs to remember that this is a big country that would take a long time to decline. If Singapore were a big country, I would not be so worried if we adopted the wrong policies, because they would be slow in showing results. But we are a small country and a wrong course of action brings catastrophic consequences within a short space of time. America, on the other hand, is like a huge tanker. They will not simply turn around like a skiff does. But I believe that the declinists are wrong. America is not likely to go down. Relative to China, it may become less powerful. Its power projection in the Western Pacific may be affected and it may not be able to equal the Chinese in numbers and in total GDP, but the Americans’ key advantage — their dynamism — will not disappear. America is, by far, the more creative society. And the fact that the Americans are having an internal debate about whether or not they are declining is a healthy sign. It means they have not become complacent... 

[T]he US is a more attractive society than China can ever be. Every year, thousands of bright and restless immigrants are allowed into America, settle and become successful in various fields. These immigrants are innovative and usually more adventurous, or they would not have left their own countries. They provide a constant source of new ideas and bring about a certain ferment within American society, a buzz that you will not find in China. America would be far less successful without them. For centuries, America drew top talent from Europe. Today, it is drawing them from Asia — Indians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and even Southeast Asians. Because the US is able to embrace these immigrants, help them integrate and offer them an equal chance of realising the American dream, there is a continuous inflow of talent that contributes, in turn, to the creation of new technology, new products and new methods of doing business.

Whatever our differences, I hope that we as Americans don't forget how lucky we are to live in such an amazingly dynamic society.