Lee Kuan Yew: A book review by Bob Morris

Lee Kuan YewLee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World (Belfer Center Studies in International Security)
Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne
The MIT Press (2013)

Unique and invaluable perspectives on global developments that are certain to become even more challenging…and promising

Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne, examine the global perspectives of Lee Kuan Yew. Never heard of him? Allow Henry Kissinger to introduce him: “I have had the privilege of meeting many world leaders over the past half century; none, however, has taught me more than Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first premier and its guiding spirit ever since.” What we have here is an extended Q&A format during which Yew responds to a series of questions that address eight major subjects, with a separate chapter devoted to each.

1. The Future of China
2. The Future of the United States
3. The Future of U.S.-China Relations
4. The Future of India
5. The Future of Islamic Extremism
6. The Future of National Economic Growth
7. The Future of Geopolitics
8. The Future of Democracy

Then in Chapter 9, “How Lee Kuan Yew Thinks,” his answers to the questions posed “reveal much about the principles and worldview that have shaped his political choices.” These are among Yew’s observations of greatest interest and value to me:

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o Straight-line extrapolations from such a remarkable record [i.e. China’s rapidly growing consumer market] are not realistic. China has more handicaps going forward and more obstacles to overcome than most observers recognize.

o China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse.

o I understood Deng Xiaoping when he said: if 200,000 students have to be shot, shoot them, because the alternative is China in chaos for another 100 years.

o 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.

o Presidents do not get reelected if they give a hard dose of medicine to their people.

o The baiting of China by American human rights groups, and the threatening of loss of most-favored-nation status and other sanctions by the U.S. Congress and the administration for violations of human rights and missile technology transfers…ignore differences of culture, values, and history, and subordinate the strategic considerations of China-U.S. relations to an American agenda.

o Americans seem to think that Asia is like a movie and that you can freeze developments out whenever the U.S. becomes intensely involved elsewhere in the world. It does not work like that…The U.S. cannot come and go as it pleases.

o Islam has not been a problem. However, contemporary radical Islamism is a very serious problem.

o The Russian population is declining. It is not clear why, but alcoholism plays a role; so do pessimism, a declining fertility rate, and declining life expectancy.

o There is no viable alternative to global integration…Globalism is the only answer that is fair, acceptable, and will uphold world peace.

o They [the BRICS, the emerging economies in Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa] are different countries on different continents that happen to be growing faster than other combinations of countries, so somebody said: why not bring them all together and make them into a global force?…The Chinese and Indians do not share the same dreams.

o I do not want to be remembered as a statesman…Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.

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According to the co-authors, “The purpose of this slim volume is not to look back on the past 50 years, remarkable as Lee’s contributions to them have been. Rather, our focus is the future and the specific challenges that the United Stated will face during the next quarter century.”

Here are complementary observations by Kissinger: “Lee’s analyses shed light on the most important challenge that the United States confronts over the long term: how to build a fundamental and organic relationship with Asia, including China. There is nobody who can teach us more about the scope of this effort than Lee Kuan Yew.”

I am grateful to Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, and Ali Wyne for the skill with which they prepared for, conducted, and then prepared for publication a unique and timely an interaction with one of the world’s most influential thought leaders, Lee Kuan Yew. I also appreciate Henry Kissinger’s contributions. This book is a “must read” for anyone interested in and (hopefully) concerned about global challenges that await all of us in months and years to come.

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