I first came across Lee Kuan Yew’s name in 1968 while reading Kwame Nkrumah’s book, Dark Days in Ghana. In the immediate wake of the 24 February 1966 coup that overthrew him, Nkrumah received many messages of support from all over the world. Only a representative sample of these letters was published in the book.
Written in the heat and passion of the moment, most of them were a shade too emotional, a few were outright hysterical. In this medley, the statement by Lee Kuan Yew, the then president of Singapore, struck me as a piece apart. It was short and written with a judicial calm.
Lee began his statement by saying that it had taken him two weeks to compose his thoughts. He had visited Nkrumah’s Ghana on two occasions and did not “believe that [the] political changeover has written finis to the chapter of what has gone before”. He went on: “The Ghanaians are a vigorous and lively people and they deserve all the vision and leadership which you strove to give them, to make Ghana into a strong modern part of an Africa whose unity you have always espoused… May what you stand for, a united Africa and a great Ghana, triumph and flourish”.
No other statement of solidarity in the book could match Lee’s in grandeur, genuineness and beauty of simplicity. Who was this Far Eastern leader, I began to wonder, who could write so well-meaningly about our country and its future? At the time and given where I was, I could find no material to hand which might have enlightened me about Lee himself or his country, Singapore, until I came to England.
In the Cambridge of the 1970s, it was still possible to run into people who had been Lee’s contemporaries at Cambridge University and who had stayed on to pursue academic careers. Such people invariably spoke of Lee’s academic record with undisguised awe and admiration.
This was hardly surprising – he had carried off all the prizes and wound up with a rarity called a starred first in the final law exams. The more I heard, the more I wanted to know about this clearly fascinating individual.
Then, at the beginning of 1979, I joined the Political Affairs Division (PAD) of the Commonwealth Secretariat and began to attend the biennial Heads of Government Meetings (CHOGM). I was one of those Secretariat officials with direct responsibility for the record of the Meetings, and in effect I had a ringside seat at the proceedings, a privileged opportunity to hear Commonwealth leaders viva voce.
Commonwealth Heads of Government Meetings were in a class of their own. Everything about them – from the seating arrangements right down to the use of first names, was designed to facilitate a genuine exchange of views. Documentation was kept to a minimum and reading out speeches from prepared texts strenuously discouraged. In the result, debates at the summits were models of their kind. The meetings threw up a number of stars but for the purposes of this piece, I will confine myself to some of the most outstanding of these leaders.
From the old Commonwealth there was Pierre Trudeau of Canada, as intellectually brilliant as he was physically handsome. In a debate on World Peace and Disarmament, he quoted Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” essay from memory and when I came to check the quotation against the original text, I found his citation to be word-perfect.
Julius Nyerere of Tanzania had by the late 1970s become one of the Commonwealth’s elder statesmen who had seen and done more than most around the table. He spoke with unrivalled authority on world issues generally but especially so on the issues of Southern Africa. He and Dr Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia brought moral grandeur to Commonwealth meetings.
Mrs Indira Gandhi generally spoke little but when she did, she tended to leave lasting impressions, not least by asking unanswerable questions. India, she once said, was all for nuclear disarmament, but who around the table could tell her how India was to recover that part of her territory which China had invaded and occupied since 1964 against international law and entreaties.
Michael Manley of Jamaica, Forbes Burnham of Guyana, and indeed all the Caribbean leaders displayed a grasp of international political and economic issues that simply compelled admiration. Listening to the West Indian leaders, one wondered whether the boast that the region had more talent per square mile than the Greece of classical antiquity was all that exaggerated.
The leadership of the Commonwealth Secretariat was equally distinguished. Sir Sonny Ramphal, as secretary general, was nominally the servant of the heads of government. In reality, he was equal to the best of them and they knew it. Sonny Ramphal was a man of broad and consummate capacity, with a powerful intellect, a fervid imagination and an indomitable will. His speeches were models of oratory and polished diction. He loved work. In fact, industry seemed to come so naturally to him that it was difficult to think of any aspect of his work as a task.
Chief Emeka Anyaoku of Nigeria, Sonny’s deputy and later on his successor as secretary general, was an unerring judge of men and circumstances. A trained classicist, he took to diplomacy like a duck to water and on any view of the matter, he would have given any Kissinger a run for his money. I should know, for I observed him in action at many of the Commonwealth’s most delicate negotiations, including those leading to the end of apartheid in South Africa.
To impress a Commonwealth thus constituted took some rare ability, but Lee Kuan Yew consistently emerged as the star of Commonwealth summits. In fact, he carried it off with such nonchalance as would have defied the imagination of Castiglione himself.
Lee spoke in measured tones and periods in which every word was in its place and every sentence told. He also spoke with the confidence which comes to a man universally acknowledged to have pulled off something of a miracle: the transformation of what had been as late as the 1950s, a little fishing village into a flourishing economic powerhouse; or to paraphrase his own words, the translation of Singapore from a developing nation into a First World country.
How he achieved this rare feat was what his fellow heads of government wanted to know, and he did not disappoint them, for it was a subject to which he was to return time and again.
It all began in 1965 on the eve of the break-up of the Federation of Malaya, of which Singapore had been a constituent part. The end of the Federation came on top of other developments which threatened Singapore’s very survival: the withdrawal of British forces east of Suez and the disappearance of the old entrepôt economy.
Without the Federation and the income from Britain’s military bases, Singapore was left with only one option, and that was to revitalise the entrepôt economy in late 20th century conditions.
Lee and his senior colleagues held emergency meetings to define in precise terms the constituent elements of a 20th-century entrepôt economy. They agreed that such an economy would need to give pride of place to banking, insurance, dry-dock services and technology in general.
In short, they agreed to make Singapore into a service economy with a matching resolution that in its chosen areas of specialisation, Singapore would be second to no other country in South-East Asia.
An elite economy called for elite specialists and so the educational system was fundamentally restructured to produce an elite class of administrators, managers, and entrepreneurs with the necessary drive and dare to spearhead the country’s progress.
A special premium was placed on knowledge and skills. Information and knowledge-gathering was accordingly made the concern of everybody in a leadership position.
The rule required serving ministers and officials, as well as those who had held ministerial and other senior positions, to submit a report to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs upon visiting any country for the first time, setting out what they had seen and heard while in that country. No one is more punctilious than Lee himself.
Thus towards the end of 1992, on the eve of South Africa’s transition to a non-racial democracy and in keeping with his own injunctions, Lee Kuan Yew submitted a report to the government in which he made this most pointed observation: “South Africa is a First World economy about to be taken over by a Third World workforce.”
In strict fidelity to the historical record, the writing of these special reports was the innovation not of Singapore, but of another and older city state – Renaissance Venice – which required its ambassadors to send back home detailed reports on the geography, history and political structure of the state that they had visited as well as its foreign policy and the personality of the ruler.
Lee Kuan Yew’s innovation was to extend this requirement to embrace ministers and senior officials, serving and retired. To the same end, the gathering of knowledge and information, Lee encouraged his colleagues in government to circulate to each other newspaper and journal articles as well as books which they had read and found useful.
At the outset, Lee defined Singapore’s foreign policy in severely utilitarian terms. In his last address to Commonwealth leaders in Kuala Lumpur in October 1989, he put the matter this way: “Whenever I come to consider establishing diplomatic relations with another country, I always ask myself two questions. Can this country provide me with capital? Can it give me technology? If the answers to these questions are not ‘yes’ and ‘yes’, I will not establish diplomatic relations with that country.”
In Singapore’s foreign policy, the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) has priority attention, not out of any misplaced sentimentalism about regional solidarity, but out of hard-headed practical calculations.
As he himself explained it at Kuala Lumpur, all the member states of ASEAN found themselves in dire poverty at the end of the Second World War. They had then, through hard work involving considerable sacrifices, brought their respective countries to the present levels of prosperity in the region. Fear of a return to the old poverty was what underlay ASEAN’s unity and explained Singapore’s commitment to the regional body.
The concentration on ASEAN did not, however, detract from Lee’s interest in the wider world and here, his interventions at Commonwealth meetings were authoritatively insightful.
In one of the debates on world political trends, Julius Nyerere said that whenever Chinese ministers came to see him in Dar es Salaam, they always strenuously denied that their country was on the way to superpower status. He wondered whether Lee could shed some light on the matter for the benefit of the Meeting.
Lee’s response was brief and enlightening: “The Chinese know that superpower status is their destiny. The rest is tactics.”
Having regard to everything – the inauspicious beginning; the lack of resources of any kind except human resources; the peculiar vulnerabilities of small states of today’s world and much else besides – it is difficult to withhold admiration for Lee Kwan Yew’s achievement.
It is also one that gives cause for pause; and no one better understands the potential preying threats than Lee himself.
“If [Singapore] breaks up,” Lee said in 1995, “it will never come back. It’s man-made, it’s very contrived to fit the needs of the modern world, and it has to be amended all the time, and the needs change. The moment it no longer fulfils that role, it will begin to decline. I put it at one chance in five.”
Singapore seems to be a society permanently and tightly girt up as a necessary condition for its survival. But as all admirers of Singapore must wonder from time to time, is there a place for chance as a decider in the system?
In August 1966, at the beginning of the experiment, Lee made the following categorisation: “In any society, of the 1,000 babies born there are so many per cent near-geniuses, so many per cent average, so many per cent morons.”
His focus was on the near-geniuses and the above average. “I am sorry,” he said, “if I am constantly preoccupied with what the near-geniuses and the above average are going to do. I am convinced that it is they who ultimately decide the shape of things to come. It is the above average in any society, who set the pace.”
The vanguard role envisaged for the near-geniuses in the leadership of society, with the above average as their close coadjutors, is recognisably Platonic; but the consequential iron discipline may well lead Singaporeans to regard themselves as belonging not so much to themselves as to their state, which is peculiarly Spartan.
It is in this blend of the ethos of a Platonic republic and that of the historical Sparta, that Singapore may experience its most intractable problems in the future. The first challenge will be to ensure an uninterrupted succession of the quality of leadership appropriate to Singapore’s peculiar needs.
Lee Kuan Yew succeeded partly because he combined a rare intellectual capacity with an equally rare executive capacity, which usually exclude one another.
The question then is, how does Singapore provide against a break in this almost unique and certainly rare quality of leadership. The second challenge will be how to manage the rush into “freedom” when the constraints on society are removed. For now the people of Singapore have accepted tight discipline as the price of prosperity. What happens when the system is no longer in a position to deliver its side of the bargain?
John Clammer, who knows Singapore well, has noted that “there is a permanent sense of crisis [in Singapore]… change, construction, urgency are the key words. But why? What is the ultimate purpose of all this activity…? Nobody quite knows, for the system seems to require that today’s solution is tomorrow’s problem.”
That, in a nutshell is the challenge facing Lee’s successors. R. H. Tawney, the great historian of the 16th and 17th centuries, once described the sensational achievements of the civilisation of 17th- century Holland as nothing short of a pyramid balancing on its tip. With all its future challenges, that is how Singapore appears to my generation; and it is what underpins our enduring admiration for Lee Kuan Yew.