Singapore's Godfather Makes His Case

The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

By Lee Kuan Yew
HarperCollins -- 729pp -- $35

Two kinds of images have stayed with me from the years I spent in Southeast Asia back in the late 1960s. One is of vibrant, fecund, rambunctious villages and cities, with mounds of peppers in the markets, loud pigs in backyards, spicy foods, sewage smells, and crowded, busy streets. The other image is of a little girl, deathly sick in my arms, in a dank hovel in a Manila slum. Her mother had sold her medicine so that her sisters and brothers could get food and clothes to go to the school I taught in as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I had these dueling images in my head when I arrived in Singapore at the end of my Asian stay. I was struck by how sterile it appeared compared with Malay and Thai societies. There was order, public cleanliness, and a touch of fear in the air. I hated it. A puritanical, authoritarian state had replaced the rich Southeast Asian tapestry. But something else was also absent--abject poverty. There were no starving children. So I gave Singapore a ''pass,'' the kind of ends-justifies-the-means rationalization for which Lee Kuan Yew, founder and father of Singapore, makes a strong case in his fascinating memoir, From Third World To First.

Lee is perhaps the greatest Asian strategic thinker of the modern era. He understands the ballet of big-power relations, the rise and fall of nations over time, and, most important, the role of the U.S. in stabilizing the global scene, especially in Asia. In such matters, only Henry Kissinger rivals Lee, who has participated in virtually every major Asian event of the past 40 years, mediating, triangulating, teaching.

There are a number of revealing surprises. During the Asian financial crisis of 1997, Lee met with Indonesian President Suharto's oldest daughter, Siti Hardiyanti Rukmana (Tutut), and urged her and her siblings to abandon their huge business privileges. Lee knew international fund managers wanted them out. Tutut said she would not be able to get her brothers and sisters to change their ways. The rupiah collapsed, and with it the Suharto government.

Lee served as a mediator between China and Taiwan, and China and the U.S., over the years. He encouraged the U.S. to get China into the World Trade Organization, Taiwan to reduce its independence rhetoric, and China to be patient about reunifying with Taiwan.

Lee has always been ambivalent toward America, recognizing its power but being critical of its mores. This volume shows that Lee's mixed feelings may have personal roots. In 1965, following years of anti-Chinese race riots, Malaysia decided to expel Singapore. At this time, Lee's wife became seriously ill. The top specialist for the disease was an American doctor then in Switzerland. Lee asked the U.S. government for help in persuading the specialist to come to Singapore. ''They were unhelpful,'' he writes. ''Either they could not or would not help.'' Lee became so angry that he gave a TV interview in which he embarrassed Washington by disclosing that the CIA had tried to spy in Singapore.

Of course, Lee's most pointed critique of America concerns values. Time and again, he has argued that Asia has certain group ideals that suit it better than American individualism would. But the book reveals that Lee is very selective in his choice of Asian values, clearly favoring the values of the educated Confucian class of which he is a member (his father was a doctor). In the city-state's formative years, he expressed pure contempt for the traditional rural, farming values of most of its people (values they shared with 80% of Asia's population at the time).

Lee's noblesse oblige authoritarianism and distrust of popular democracy may very well reflect his British upper-class education as much as his Asian background. Certainly corporal punishment and caning in particular, while common in the British upper-class private schools are hardly ''Asian'' practices. Lee says in the book that the British practiced both whipping and caning before the war in Singapore and his new government adopted the caning.

British elitism also appeared to extend to issues of race and culture with Lee. When he was at Harvard in 1968, learning about American society, Lee was struck by the fact that ''no scholar was prepared to say or admit that there were any inherent differences between races or cultures or religions. They held that human beings were equal and a society only needed correct economic policies or institutions for government to succeed.'' Such assertions were naive, according to Lee.

Lee doesn't trust the market, either. In the book, he says that a market economy quickly devolves into a winner-take-all society because of peoples' unequal abilities. That, in turn, leads to social tensions and political instability. So Lee concludes that the nanny state, run by an elite, is the proper Asian model. Never mind that Korea, Taiwan, and Japan have evolved from authoritarian states to democracies.

At 77, Lee stands as one of Asia's great modern leaders, in part because of his intolerance of hypocrisy. Americans, he writes, ''want to promote democracy and human rights everywhere, except where it would hurt themselves, as in the oil-rich Arabian peninsula.'' Ouch.

Yet it is every bit as hypocritical to defend state authoritarianism in a prosperous, highly educated, and secure Singapore. Lee's powerful memoir reveals a great deal--perhaps even more than the author intended.

Nussbaum is editorial page editor.

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Singapore's Godfather Makes His Case

PHOTO: Cover, ``From Third World to First''

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