Lee Kuan Yew is best known for having taken Singapore from the third world to the first world, an improbable achievement that he chronicled in a lengthy 2000 memoir. As he prepares to turn 90 this September, however, the cohesion, equanimity, and order for which his country has become legendary are coming under strain. Amidst rising income inequality and growing popular discontent about a government proposal to attract more foreign workers, some question how much longer Singapore’s current model of governance can endure.
A recent article in The Economist observed that the government has long been:
confident enough in the infallibility of its policymaking and in the inevitability of its re-election to ignore pressure groups and to scorn pandering to populism. Even its critics concede it has been successful. But times have changed. Social media have turned silent, isolated dissent into more concerted, vocal protest. The political opposition—with less than 10 percent of the seats in parliament—seems a long way from power. But with 40 percent of the popular vote in 2011 it can no longer be dismissed as irrelevant.
Although Lee’s time as prime minister ended in 1990, one suspects that at least part of his legacy will ride on Singapore’s ability to respond to the concerns of this newly emboldened opposition. There is a lesser-appreciated aspect of his record, however, that should also figure in that legacy: his insights into international order, which he has been sharing for over half a century as a statesman on the world stage. One could argue that he had little choice but to become a grand strategist on the job—to survive, the fledging city-state of Singapore had to cultivate ties with Asia’s giants, China and India, a balancing act that would grow more difficult after the two countries went to war in 1962.
In a book that I published with Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill earlier this year, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, we tried to distill Lee’s insights on some of the central issues of international affairs, based on a series of in-depth interviews with him and a careful review of his voluminous output (the speeches, interviews, and press-conference presentations that he gave from 1950 to 1990 run ten volumes; those that he gave from 1990 to 2011 run another ten volumes). Readers will learn what he thinks about the prospects of the world’s lone superpower, of major powers such as India and Russia, and of groupings such as ASEAN and the BRICs. It is undoubtedly his views on China, however, that elicit the greatest interest—for good reason. Lee is no ordinary observer of developments there: no less than the chief architect of modern China, Deng Xiaoping, sought Lee’s advice as he prepared China to embark on market reforms. Ezra Vogel notes that when
Deng left Singapore on November 14 , the two leaders had developed a special relationship that…enabled them to communicate with mutual respect on a common wavelength…Only one other person outside mainland China, Y. K. Pao…and no other political leader, had bonded with Deng the way Lee did. Deng had close ties with many foreign leaders, but his relationship with Lee reflected a greater depth of mutual understanding. From Deng’s perspective, what made Lee and Y. K. Pao attractive was their extraordinary success in dealing with practical issues, their first-hand contacts with world leaders, their knowledge of world affairs, their grasp of long-term trends, and their readiness to face facts and speak the truth as they saw it…Singapore made a deep impression on Deng.
It is hard to imagine that China, which only half a century ago was reeling from the worst famine in human history, is now on track to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy within 15 years and, further along, as the world’s largest defense spender. Given such projections, we wondered if Lee foresees a Chinese superpower. “The Chinese have figured out,” he explained in October 2007, “that if they stay with ‘peaceful rise’ and just contest for first position economically and technologically, they cannot lose.” He was more explicit in April 2009, saying the Chinese “have the manpower to do things cheaper in any part of the world economically. Their influence can only grow and grow beyond the capabilities of America.”
Lee is even more forceful, however, when he discusses China’s long-term aspirations. In May 2011, we asked him if “Chinese leaders [are] serious about displacing the United States” as the preeminent power in Asia and ultimately the world. The first quote of Lee’s that appears in our book is his provocative answer: “Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world—on track…to become the world’s largest economy in the next 20 years…Theirs is a culture 4,000 years old with 1.3 billion people, many of great talent…How could they not aspire to be number 1 in Asia, and in time the world?”
Ali Wyne is an associate of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a contributing analyst at Wikistrat. In 2012, the Diplomatic Courier and Young Professionals in Foreign Policy selected him as one of the 99 most influential foreign-policy professionals under 33.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's July/August 2013 print edition.