Great men have the capacity to influence and shape the thoughts of society, said the American psychologist and philosopher William James in 1880. Lee Kuan Yew, the man widely recognized as the founder of modern Singapore and the country’s first prime minister, is one such man who has profoundly impacted Singaporean society and shaped its foreign policy over the years.
Although he retired as prime minister in 1990, Lee assumed the position of senior minister and later minister mentor until 2011. Second-generation leaders like Goh Chok Tong, who became Singapore’s second prime minister, gained much from Lee’s “mentoring sessions” – usually over lunch. Goh recalled that the lunches were always “serious affairs,” where “we didn’t discuss light topics. It was always political… what was happening in the region and how these events would affect us.”
In the words of another mentee, Minister and NTUC Secretary-General, Lim Chee Onn, “Lee Kuan Yew passed on a lot of his experience, his way of thinking, his way of analysis and of course, his own interpretations and assessments of situations. Not just the related facts, but also the way you look at things.”
Lee’s tenure as prime minister coincided with the period of the Cold War. His time as senior minister (a title that he assumed after stepping down as prime minister in November 1990) and minister mentor (August 2004-May 2011) fell rather neatly into the post-Cold War period. Anyone following Lee’s strategic thinking and its evolution from the 1950s, when he first embarked on a political career, to the present will discover that he had a very well developed sense of history and a dynamic grasp of geostrategic reality.
Unlike many who came to power as nationalist independence heroes, trumpeting the values of democracy and commitments to socialism, while their family and a plutocratic elite accumulated wealth and assets inconsistent with their incomes, Lee made known his views on democracy from the start. In a speech in 1990 Lee said, “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries ... Westerner’s value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective and efficient.”
Singapore was always business-friendly and pragmatic, and Lee has been consistently unapologetic about the constraints on individual liberty and free speech he considered necessary for the country to progress. Questioned by a reporter about the famous ban on chewing gum, he replied: “If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.”
While much have been written about Lee and his leadership role in the development of Singapore, almost all have focused on his domestic policies and on issues of governance, with very little on his foreign policy thinking. This is somewhat surprising considering that Lee is generally acknowledged as Asia’s leading strategic thinker, one who does not flatter but “who is known, from time to time to, to speak bluntly,” and someone who helps “us find direction in a complicated world.”
Former US President Richard Nixon recalled Lee as one of the ablest leaders he had met, comparing him to Winston Churchill. Even former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who did not share all of Lee’s views, particularly with regards to China, described him as “undoubtedly one of the twentieth century’s most accomplished practitioners of statecraft.” And former US President Bill Clinton described Lee as “one of the wisest, most knowledgeable, most effective leader in any part of the world for the last 50 years.”
Lee had this uncanny ability to foresee the political trends that helped Singapore to be so nimble in the conduct of its foreign relations. On more than one occasion, Lee has said that he is not an ideologue but a pragmatist and that his thinking and worldview were not shaped by any particular theory but “the result of a gradual growing up from a child to adolescent to a young student to a mature adult.”
In reply to a question about the overarching framework which shapes his understanding of international relations, Lee said, “It’s always been the same from time immemorial. A tribe wants more space, wants to take over the territory of other tribes, they fight and they expand. Even when it is part of them and they become a different unit, they still fight, for supremacy….” Bringing this to its logical conclusion, Lee predicts that by the 22nd century, China and the United States would either have to learn to co-exist or would destroy each other.
Lee’s life-long preoccupation was the survival of Singapore. This was his perennial foreign policy challenge – How to “seize opportunities that come with changing circumstances or to get out of harm’s way.” In his view, to achieve this would require “a prime minister and a foreign minister who are able to discern future trends in the international political, security and economic environment and position ourselves (Singapore) bilaterally or multilaterally to grasp the opportunities ahead of others.”
It is noteworthy that even before Singapore became independent, Lee Kuan Yew had formed a broad strategic outlook of international affairs, forged by his experience of the Japanese occupation during World War II, and his observation of the postwar developments and British response to the Cold War division of Europe and the formation of the US-led military blocs to counter and contain the Soviet-led communist bloc. While Lee noted the positive impetus that the Soviet challenge to European imperialism gave to the decolonization of British and French colonies, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, he also saw how the nationalist struggle for independence in the colonies were driven by the competing appeals of communism and communalism. He was also keenly aware of how communal conflicts underpinned regional conflicts over disputed territory such as that of India-Pakistan.
Lee was attuned to the psychological dimension of international events and big power politics. He was prescient in projecting the shifting balance of power from a European-Western dominance of the period from the 1500s to the 1900s, to one in which China and India, and Asia in general, would become dominant once again in the 2lst century. By 1985, he already foresaw the rise of Asia in the 21st century, anticipated the inexorable rise of China, and to a lesser extent India, with the relative reduction of influence of the Western world.
Lee has also been remarkably consistent in his views about the balance of power, the inter-relationship between economics and politics, and the role of the great powers in the international system. But he was realistic about the ability of multi-lateral regional organizations to protect and promote the interests of members against the efforts of the superpowers to divide and patronize them. He always stressed the need for Singapore to be nimble and alert to ensure that in any arrangement or shifts in the balance of power it had the preponderant force on its side.
He also had the ability to sense change, for example, the need to cultivate the Americans when the British could no longer be counted on, or the rise of China. But for all the accolades that have been heaped on him, he professed that he did not know when he started his political life in the 1950s that he would be on the winning side of the Cold War and that Singapore would be what it is today – an implicit reminder of the role of contingency in the study of history, even though this essay has focused on the perception and role of one man.
What the foreign policy of any nation addresses itself is the image of the external world in the minds of the people who determine the policy of that nation.” In the case of Singapore, it is surely the worldview of Lee Kuan Yew that has been most influential.