Lee Kuan Yew was one of Asia’s greatest modern leaders and visionaries, having led Singapore from a poor, third-world country to a wealthy, first-world one in a few decades. As Prime Minister from independence in 1965 to 1990 and then Senior Minister from 1990 to 2004, he is closely tied to his country’s rise. So it is no surprise that his autobiography From Third World to First- The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 is basically a story about Singapore. The book lays out how Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, while managing relations with bigger and threatening neighbours as well as the US, the UK and China. In fact, the latter part takes up most of the book.
Having been one of Britain’s major Asian colonies as a vital port, Singapore had a traumatic beginning as an independent nation, as it was initially part of a federation with Malaysia before being kicked out due to political differences and racial fears. In what now seems surprising, Lee Kuan Yew was so distraught by this that he cried, because tiny Singapore was now alone with no resources and hinterland. But with commendable planning, foresight and effort, Lee and his government made Singapore into a shipping and financial hub, with substantial manufacturing services and eventually, one of the world’s richest nations.
The first chapters are a historical timeline of Lee’s early years, the breakup with Malaysia and his attempt to solidify his domestic rule, including his fight against the local Communists. Internationally, he had to fight diplomatic battles with Malaysia and Indonesia, who had a very hostile stance against Singapore in the 1960s. He maintained relationships with a fading Britain, while building up ties with giants like the US, Japan and eventually China. It is fascinating to read his insights into the US, which had taken over from Britain as a global power, and China, which was moving away from its chaotic and tragic period under Mao Zedong and starting its economic rise under Deng Xiaoping in the eighties.
ASEAN relationships were also vital to Singapore, especially those with neighbors Malaysia and Indonesia, which improved immensely after the tense early days of Singapore’s independence. However, he had a very hostile attitude towards Vietnam, due to their Communist regime, but even opposed their invading Cambodia and driving out Pol Pot from power, which I think was a little unreasonable. Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong also feature. With Hong Kong, he had a very interesting insight in that the British rule of Hong Kong, which lasted until 1997, meant Hong Kongers did not need to act cohesively as a community, thus they became “great individualists and daring entrepreneurs.” It is an attitude that still prevails today, though perhaps not the “daring entrepreneurs.” Lee’s view also helps explain why Hong Kongers seem to lack leadership skills in governance as under the British, they were never decision-makers but managers.
Lee was firm in what he did and had a pragmatic and ruthless streak. This also means he is blamed for Singapore’s authoritarianism which was exemplified in media restrictions and heavyhanded libel rules which saw him often successfully sue media outlets and political opponents. But he also genuinely cared for his country as signified by the public housing policy, which allows most Singaporeans to enjoy affordable quality public housing, and diversification of the economy into areas such as high-tech manufacturing and gas processing. There are a few policies that might raise your eyebrows such as a racial ratio quota with housing developments, meaning the proportion of Chinese, Indian and Malay residents had to be kept at a certain level, as well as a dating service for civil servants.
Singaporeans may be getting tired of their country’s one-party rule and rethinking Lee’s legacy, but they should consider themselves lucky to have had a leader like Lee who was pragmatic, intelligent about domestic and international politics, and was upfront about his policies and actions. At the least Singaporeans should be glad that Lee was not like other regional strongmen who either enriched themselves obscenely, like the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, or ruthlessly held on to power, such as Mao, while letting their countries stay poor.