LKY: From Third World to the First

April 13, 2020 [books] #singapore #lky #reviews

I really like books by old folks looking back on a life well-lived. This is one of those. Below are some of my thoughts on the book.

LKY chose to organize the book by issues he had to tackle, and the countries he had relations with. Each chapter covers Singapore’s dealings with a country or response to a crisis, from its genesis to the end of the 1990s. This is unlike most other memoirs or biographies where the narrative progresses linearly through time. One advantage of LKY’s approach is that it didn’t overwhelm this reader, and simultaneously offered a view into LKY’s mind. Each problem, spanning a few chapters, was clearly explicated, with the motivations of all the parties involved examined. Some problems take decades to solve, if it could be solved at all. Unfortunately this approach to telling LKY’s story is also a slight disservice to the man. Halfway through the book one realizes that while Singapore is dealing with American spies, they were also trying to convince the Tunku of Malaysia into giving concessions, survive Indonesia’s Konfrontasi, avoid insurrection by the Singaporean and Malay communists, figuring out how to make English the language of the union without losing popular support, greening the city, and the training of their armed forces by the then-unrecognized state of Israel. All at the same time! This is not at all evident from the narrative. That LKY did all this simultaneously and came on top of each one speaks to the man’s talents.

One also learns that he meditated daily and took personal notes after every meeting. That he had to take notes was evident from the book - he wouldn’t have been able to write about every encounter so throughly if he were not recording them. Meditation was surprising. I do not know yet of any world leader making a habit of meditation, or ascribing to it therapeutic qualities. Even more interesting was the fact that LKY took up meditation after it was recommended to him by the Japanese PM Yashuhiro Nakasone. Nakasone, it turns out, was a practicing Zen Buddhist who meditated for two hours in a temple every week, sitting in the lotus position.

I particularly enjoyed the recounting of his tussles with the western press and academia, and the dismantling of their sanctimonious attitudes towards Singapore’s version of a prosperous society. LKY might be dead, but Singapore is thriving and did not implode, contrary to what the “free” press liked to proclaim then (and still does). Not all systems are equal, and none universal. Each society must find its own way. Of the many examples available, one only needs to look at Singapore’s response to the current pandemic versus that of the Western world regarding the effectiveness of its approach. The government is radically transparent and its citizens have a high level of trust in it, in no small part because of the system of checks and balances established by LKY and his compatriots. Who wouldn’t want a society and a governance like that? Singapore is evidence that the carrot and stick approach to designing human behavior works as well with kids as it does in a creating a civil society.

LKY, in the last chapter, says “If there was one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work? This was the golden thread that ran through my years in office. If it did not work, or the results were poor, I did not waste more time and resources on it. I almost never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from the mistakes others had made.” Words to live by in any line of work.

P.S: Now that I am working my way through Caro’s LBJ series, it is interesting to contrast LBJ’s effectiveness with LKY’s. LKY’s appraisals of U.S. presidents include LBJ. Two men acquiring and wielding political power in two very different climates to do a great amount of good, that deserves an essay by itself.

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