Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s insights on China, the U.S. and the World

Lee Kuan Yew has been the prime minister of Singapore (an island nation or city-state) for about 50 years and is credited with taking them from a developing country into one of the world’s largest economies as measured by Purchasing Power Parity. Singapore has an interesting story, transforming itself in just a few decades from almost irrelevant to a top nation economically.

I don’t recall how I first heard of Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) or how he became a topic of conversation but his accomplishments as a political leader seemed interesting enough that I wanted to learn more so I bought The Grand Master book. As I was reading the book I also saw his interview with Charlie Rose. At an age (90) he is slow and quiet to answer things but it’s good watch if you want to learn more about him (and have an hour). Some of the things they talk about are also covered in the book:

The book is broken into chapters that discuss the future of China, the U.S., U.S.-China relations, India, Islamic Extremism, globalization, democracy and the way LKY thinks. Each chapter presents a dozen or so questions and the answers are provided through a selection of interviews picked by the authors. This makes the book a compilation of very interesting and diverse interviews about the above topics but it also means some of the selected replies are duplicates, which can, at times, be a little confusing.

Some of the highlighted points include:

  1. It’s China’s intention to be the greatest power in the world and its neighboring countries have already taken this into account. They’ve repositioned themselves because they know there will be consequences if they try to stop China. China can simply deny access to its 1.3 billion people whose incomes and purchasing power are increasing.
  2. China is getting more aggressive as its position in the world increases and it understands it can deny access to its markets.
  3. China has a lot of handicaps going forward like the abuse of the rule of law (the Chinese still behave like they are run by an emperor); a huge country with little emperors running around controlling local areas; cultural habits that limit creativity, imagination and expression; a language that shapes thinking around epigrams and 4,000 years of text that suggests everything worthwhile has been said; a language that is difficult for foreigners to learn; and the inability to attract and assimilate talent from other societies around the world.
  4. China is not going to become a liberal democracy; it would collapse if it did. There won’t be a revolution for democracy either, just look at Tiananmen Square and the impact that’s had – very little.
  5. The U.S. is going through a rough patch with its debt and deficits but America will not fall to second-rate status. Historically the U.S. has demonstrated a great capacity for renewal and revival thanks to a wide range of imagination and pragmatics; a diverse population that competes in investing, embracing new ideas, taking risks; a society that attracts talent from around the world and assimilates them comfortably; and a language that is an open system that is the language of the leaders in science, technology, business, etc.
  6. In the US Presidents don’t get reelected if they give a hard dose of medicine to their people so there is a tendency to procrastinate, to postpone unpopular policies in order to win elections. This is how we get budget deficits, debt, and high unemployment carried over from one administration to the next.
  7. The US’s approach towards China with human rights groups, threatening the loss of most-favored-nation status, etc. ignore the differences of culture, values and history and hurt China-U.S relations. Less sensitivity and more understanding of the cultural realities of China can make the relationship better.
  8. India has wasted decades in state planning and controls that have bogged it down in bureaucracy and corruption. A decentralized system would allow more centers like Bangalore and Bombay to grow. The caste system has been the enemy of meritocracy. India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness.
  9. There are limitations in the Indian constitutional system and political system that prevent it from going at a high speed. Whatever the political leadership wants to do it has to go through a very complex system.
  10. Islam has not been a problem; however contemporary radical Islam or Islamism is a problem.
  11. The Russian population is declining. It is not clear why but alcoholism plays a role; so do pessimism, a declining fertility rate, and a declining life expectancy.
  12. There is no historical precedent on how to maintain peace and stability and to ensure cooperation in a world of 160 nation-states. And the age of instant communications and swift transportation, with technology growing exponentially makes this problem very complex. In one interdependent, interrelated world, the decline in the relative dominance of the leaders of the two blocs increases the likelihood of a multipolar world and with it the difficulties of multilateral cooperation.
  13. Westerners (The US) have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government… In the West, especially after WW2, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family… 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.

There’s a lot more detail is this book of nearly 200 pages, for example LKY goes more into the U.S.’s problems, like the war on drugs and the US’s tolerance for illegal immigrants but is optimistic in our ability to solve problems when we finally come together.

I would definitely recommend this book to someone wanting to learn more about Lee Kuan Yew’s views of the world and/or anyone interested in International Politics / Relations. Given the international views we (I) have as (an) American’s it’s refreshing to read someone else’s views on the world and how the US fits in. That’s not to say LKY is a know-it-all, or doesn’t make mistakes but his leadership is unrelenting.

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Jamie Larson