BOOK REVIEW: ‘Lee Kuan Yew’

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LEE KUAN YEW: THE GRAND MASTER’S INSIGHTS ON CHINA, THE UNITED STATES, AND THE WORLD
Interviews and Selections by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill
The MIT Press, $17.95, 186 pages

In late 1976, I began a month at San Clemente helping edit Richard Nixon’s memoirs. The work was interesting, and I was paid for my efforts. But the real reward was a long, relaxed, one-on-one conversation with the man himself, during which I got to know him better than I had during more than three years in the Nixon White House. Sitting in his cozy office, reminiscing about great leaders and great events, he was infinitely more relaxed, more forthcoming and, yes, more comfortable in his own skin.

Nixon asked as many questions as he expressed opinions. One I found particularly poignant: How did I think people would appreciate Jerry Ford now that he had been defeated by Jimmy Carter? I replied that a few months of the Carter presidency would probably do wonders for Jerry Ford’s numbers — which they did. But I couldn’t help thinking that Nixon was really wondering how people would reappraise a certain other ex-president now that they didn’t have him “to kick around anymore”

As opposed to domestic opinion, Nixon’s stock had always been high with foreign statesmen as different as Charles de Gaulle and Chou En-lai, and he was an excellent judge of leaders himself. In the course of our conversation, he singled out the then-relatively obscure ruler of a tiny city-state: Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. Heaven only knows, Nixon reflected, what massive accomplishments Lee might have managed if he had led a major power.

After reading Graham Allison and Robert Blackwill’s artfully synthesized collection of statements by Lee — long and short, written and spoken — one comes away wondering. While clearly a brilliant thinker on a global scale, perhaps it is just as well that Lee exercised his particular brand of intelligent, domineering, detail-oriented leadership in a small space and on a limited number of people. The most benevolent of Big Brothers, his hands-on, know-it-all leadership style was a perfect fit for a backward, amorphous city-state in search of an identity and a future. By wielding his total powers wisely, upgrading education, encouraging trade, enterprise and investment, and by making English the official language of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew almost single-handedly turned a postcolonial backwater into a globally oriented economic dynamo.

The same “I-know-what’s-good-for-you-better-than-you-do” mindset that worked in Singapore could easily have ended in bloody purges or mass rebellion in sprawling, teeming nations like India or China with their millennia of accumulated prejudices, grievances and sheer weight of tradition. An example of Lee’s blind spots: He compliments the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi for what many consider her most cynical and tyrannical act: “She had the gumption to declare a state of emergency” — while bemoaning the fact that she lacked “the guts to change the system and let Indian enterprise break out.” He seems to forget that while Gandhi was perfectly comfortable wielding dictatorial powers against political foes, she was never really interested in improving the private sector, having acquired a misguided Fabian Socialism on her father’s knee.

Where Lee excels is in his pithy evaluations of regional and national strengths and weaknesses. At his best, the man is a cross between Confucius and Machiavelli.

On Mikhail Gorbachev’s failure to control reform in the Soviet Union: “He had jumped into the deep end of the pool without learning how to swim.” On Western malaise: “Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government. … In the East, we start with self-reliance. In the West today, it is the opposite. The government says, give me a popular mandate, and I will solve all society’s problems.” On America’s future: “The U.S. is going through a bumpy patch with its debt and deficits, but I have no doubt that America will not be reduced to second-rate status. Historically, the U.S. has demonstrated a great capacity for renewal and revival.”

And, finally — and most disarmingly — on Lee Kuan Yew himself: “I do not want to be remembered as a statesman. … I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something. I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That is all. … Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.”

Aram Bakshian Jr. served as aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan.

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