Lee Kuan Yew Resurrects


Guest Columnist: Chidi Amuta

In times of collective national disillusionment such as now, the urge to comb the global landscape for models of outstanding leadership comes logically. The appeal and relevance of inspirational statesmanship knows no boundaries. It can and does uplift moods and can come from far away places. In the work of such great leaders, the problems we see as intractable and the solutions we only dream about become things that others achieved with relative ease. If care is not taken, this generation of the Nigerian elite and intellectuals may die citing success stories of national success and development in other lands.

Not even his demise will diminish the stature of Singapore’s sagely founding leader and guiding intelligence, the late Lee Kuan Yew. Commentaries, biographies and books of interviews on his wisdom and insight continue to be published decades after he left office and years after his death. This concentration of intellectual attention and journalistic curiosity derive mostly from his unusual statesmanship and sterling leadership qualities. Even in death, Kuan Yew has a lot to tell us about the issues that continue to define our contemporary world.

His name has become synonymous with the transformation of his tiny city state nation from the worst Third World calamities to a first world enclave of development and a global example of phenomenal economic growth, prosperity and exemplary political stability all within a generation. A leader who inherited a city-state with a per capita income of less than $400 ended up bequeathing a super modern nation with a per capita of $50,000 plus within his life time. For this alone, the late Kuan Yew deserves veneration if not adulation by all those around the world who believe in the power of positive and pragmatic leadership.

While in office, Kuan Yew was both elected leader and national ‘teacher’, combining the onerous tasks of state with a certain moral responsibility to play guide and guardian. He taught his multi-racial, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic people the value of discipline in attaining economic prosperity and social justice. So thoroughgoing was his achievement as ‘national teacher’ that a people previously known for spitting in public and indiscriminately pasting chewing gum remnants in public places came to accept a legislation that criminalised even these apparently mundane cultural bad habits. Even after leaving office, he continued to serve as guardian of his people while spreading his influence and ideas all over the world, serving as he travelled around, as a mobile inspiration for leaders from both the developed and developing worlds alike.

In a recently revised and very significant book of edited interviews, Lee Kuan Yew: On China, the United States, and the World, Allison and Blackwell bring together, albeit in a coherent and most readable form, the views and perspectives of this world leader on the key strategic issues of our time, namely, the rise of China, relations between China and the US, the changing role of the US in the world, the place of India, Islamic fundamentalism and global security, the future of democracy as well, the future of globalisation and the plight and future of the world economy.
Most importantly, the book provides a rare insight into the thought processes of this great leader and the key philosophical pillars of his seminal leadership qualities. It also offers unique perspectives on both Singaporean national politics and world affairs from the perspective of one of the most erudite and remarkable statesmen of the developing world in the 20th century.

In a characteristically seminal and thought-provoking foreword, American diplomacy and intellectual oracle, Henry Kissinger, highlights the unique insights offered by the book. He also comments on the career of a man he had come to admire and greatly respect. Kissinger adequately positions Kuan Yew within the pantheon of great leaders and, most importantly, in the context of a fast diminishing breed of world leaders- the philosopher king as a type. For Kissinger, Kuan Yew’s unique contribution lies in the fact that he believed in the power of the human intellect and mind to fashion a prosperous state in which governance would produce a contented citizenry. “His vision was of a state that would not simply survive, but prevail by excelling. Superior intelligence, discipline, and ingenuity would substitute for resources…”

With a very acute sense of history and a keen eye on contemporary developments, Kuan Yew offers unusual depth of insight into the major issues of utmost strategic importance in the contemporary world. He insists, for instance, that China’s current rise to economic and diplomatic pre-eminence is a resurgence of a past sense of glory, but one stripped of its previous cultural arrogance and courtly grandeur. The new China has realised the mistake of the old China and is using the opening of the country under Deng Xiaoping to aspire to global pre-eminence without openly confronting the United States.

China’s new striving for world leadership takes its immediate East Asian neighbourhood as its staging theatre and places economic might above military prowess, knowing full well that it cannot afford an arms race with the United States for instance. The bedrock of its economic strategy is its 1.3 billion population, a demographic might that is now enhanced by its increasing wealth and purchasing power. To deny any East Asian nation access to the Chinese market is to literally strangulate that nation economically. This is the strategic springboard of Chinese economic policy.

However, Kuan Yew recognises that China will have to contend with democratising social and political pressures from within because of the hegemony of the Communist Party and its inherent authoritarianism. And yet he concedes that this authoritarian heritage is one which the Chinese cannot easily shed without inviting anarchy. Therefore the democratisation process in China will necessarily be incremental and long drawn. A certain sense of order is inherent in China’s authoritarian political heritage. That heritage has become a necessary tool in containing the libertarian pressures that come with phenomenal economic prosperity. The inherent order of this totalitarian veneer is needed to sustain China’s economic progress. But it can only last for a while. “China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse.”

On US-China relations, Kuan Yew cautions against American politicians turning China baiting and bashing into a domestic agenda. Such an approach fails to understand the peculiar historical and cultural factors that have combined to produce the current Chinese resurgence. This aspect of Kuan Yew’s thought becomes instructive in this era of isolationist rhetoric by politicians like Donald Trump who insist on China bashing as a way of attracting attention and votes.

Kuan Yew laments the relative slow march of India and blames it on India’s colonial history, excessive bureaucracy and constitutional constraints. A combination of bureaucracy and corruption as well as the cultural limitations of the caste system have hindered India’s real growth relative to the more monolithic command structure of the Chinese system.

On the contemporary threat of Islam-inspired radicalism to world order and peace, Kuan Yew makes a crucial distinction between Islam as a religion and Islamism as the use of Islamic doctrine to promote fundamentalist extremism. He insists that modern day Islamists are fuelling fundamentalism with oil dollars in order to destabilise the Middle East and perhaps the rest of the world. The central delusion of Islamism as exemplified by the emergence of ISIS is the possibility that the Islamists can manage to create and sustain a Caliphate that would confront and defeat the West. His panacea is the promotion of moderate Islam and its use to neutralise the radical elements. In this regard, Kuan Yew would seem to have prophetically envisaged such recent developments as the election of a moderate Muslim politician as the Mayor of the City of London. Nigerian authorities intent on putting an end to scourges like Boko Haram and the Shiite menace in northern Nigeria ought to listen to Kuan Yew’s extant counsel.

Throughout the selected interviews that form the content of this book, Kuan Yew comes across as insistent and consistent on his core political beliefs. He shuns ideological predictability but instead opts for pragmatism. He adopted what worked best for his society and insisted that in order to produce a prosperous society, leadership must be disciplined, knowledgeable and focused. He insists that it is the elite that must lead a society, not ignorant mediocrities. For him, the desirable objective of society must be social justice and fairness, not welfare and entitlement.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of Kuan Yew is the body of ideas he left behind on leadership and statecraft. His ultimate triumph is that he put his ideas into practice and his practice led to the emergence of one of the most spectacular success stories of the world in the 20th century. Singapore has succeeded both as a democracy and an economically prosperous state.

For Nigeria, the challenge of the Kuan Yew model is first the role of enlightened and knowledgeable leadership in driving rapid national development. Take a look at Singapore’s current cabinet from the prime minister to all the ministers, it reads like a Harvard or Oxford faculty list. It takes intelligent people to lead a nation towards enlightened modernity.

Nigeria has not been quite lucky to have the rare combination of intellect and pragmatism at the helm. We seem to be failing both as a nominal democracy and as a candidate for sustainable economic development and modernisation because our leadership selection process has been remarkably and consistently anti-merit. In this state, we seem headed in either of two directions: a pitiable standstill or a humiliating regression.

• Dr. Amuta is Chairman of Wilson & Weizmann Associates Ltd., Lagos