This is the second memoir of Lee Kuan Yew, published in 2000. A fairly thick one, purchased from Amazon China (quite a surprise that they have it in store), but worth reading. Binding is not decent, however, the structure is clear and appealing to readers. Forty-three chapters were included under three parts—first, the Singapore miracle and Lee’s vision of Confucius meritocracy; second, regional and international relations and Lee’s personal encounters with great leaders from major powers; third, his search for successor and family life. In general, this is as good as a well-written textbook on state management and international politics. Lee certainly has laid tremendous influence on my worldview and attitude towards politics. Being pragmatic and realistic, correct but not politically correct, confident and persuasive, these are virtues that I learned from Lee Kuan Yew.
We are all familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, an advocator for meritocracy and Asian values, a courageous independence fighter but also an excellent state builder with rare insights and unparalleled passion for intellectual learning and proved theories, a true leader who is not only convinced in his core ideals such as free-market and the maintenance of Singapore armed force but also capable of persuading his people and colleagues in following his vision. He is likewise controversial: not being welcomed by the West (mainly from the media not the government), seen as a dictator standing against liberal democracy, his PAP has dominated the parliament since the very first day of the republic, and he was charged with nepotism as his eldest son Loong is now acting as the prime minister. But no one would disagree with the following conclusion: without him, there won’t be such a city-state called Singapore, not to mention its glamour—uplifted from a third world to first in less than half a century.
What is the secret of Singapore’s success?
Lee has well explained it in the book, but I would offer my summary here. The rule of law, political stability, benign and collaborating relations between employers and unions, determination in fighting corruption, highly educated local workforce, consistent policies in attracting talented migrants and politicians, well guided industrialization with support from foreign investment and technology breakthrough, and an admirable vision of building Singapore as an international port for finance, technology, knowledge and transportation, a nation with first world infrastructure (both hard and soft) in a third world region.
Yes, these are necessary conditions for the rise of Singapore, but not sufficient.
The key lies in good management and an efficient system favoring good management. Lee and his cabinet have been running Singapore as a giant firm, given their resources and geographical advantages, they strove for maximum profits, in behalf of their shareholders—the Singaporean people who had a stake in its economy by owning their own property. As Lee stressed numerous times in his memoir, top officials and ministers in the Singapore government are as competent as top CEOs, a reason why they should get well paid. They were identified in an early stage (in high schools), received governmental scholarships to pursue higher degrees overseas, and joined the civil service upon graduation. They were cultivated and later promoted based on their merits and characters, brought up as ministers and then led the nation. The system is interesting; in fact, I wished there could be such one in my nation.
Meritocracy versus democracy
I am not against to Lee’s argument that meritocracy fits Asians better than democracy. America’s liberal democracy is certainly not an ideal one, and duplicating it in Asia would likely lead to turmoil and adversity, given most nations are not equipped with sufficient material prosperity and citizens well educated in democracy. Democracy is resolutely the way to go, but it would not come in a short period—it cost Europe and America hundreds of years and thousands of bloodsheds. Hence, the imminent target of developing countries is to achieve modernization and significantly raise theirs standards of living, at the meantime, gradually restructure and open up its political system. Meritocracy with its supreme efficiency, on the other hand, might excel democracy as long as leaders with merits are recognized and appointed, without violating the set of rules and ethics. Of course, democracy proved to be a safer option over the long term, but we should not underestimate the importance of meritocracy in the rise of economy. I am a bit ambiguous while ascertaining my standpoint—I dislike the current political system, it is not even half meritocracy, but I have the gut feeling that democracy might not work that well in China, and if it took place too early, the whole nation might even suffer greatly.
The most interesting chapters have to be those regarding China, placed at the end of this book. Lee visited China and was received by Mao right before Cultural Revolution ended. He admired Deng a lot and regarded him as the greatest leader he has ever met. He shared many concerns—China’s foreign policy, economic development, Tiananmen, corruption and political system. Lee is a dying statesman, who has lived long enough to witness the fall of many others, but his wisdom and charisma would remain much longer.