Yesterday, Lee Kuan Yew, the father of modern Singapore, passed away.
A master of statecraft, a pragmatic leader who believed that free enterprise could thrive in the absence of a vibrant liberal democracy, Lee made Singapore the role model for post-Maoist China.
For those who believe that what worked in a city-state like Singapore could not work in a large populous country China serves as an example.
The current debate about the compatibility of capitalism and liberal democracy derives in large part from the success of Singapore, and more especially, China.
When leaders of developing countries seek models for their own nations, they look at what works. In the best cases they place pragmatic solutions ahead of ideology.
The importance of Singaporean influence on China was underscored by the fact that, when Lee died the state-run Chinese media devoted massive amounts of attention to the event. The Wall Street Journal reported:
The depth of coverage mirrored the warmth of bilateral ties between top leaders from China and Singapore — a close relationship for which the seeds were sown nearly four decades earlier, when Mr. Lee—as prime minister—made his first official trip to China and met briefly with an ailing Mao Zedong.
Mr. Lee subsequently visited the mainland more than 30 times. In his meetings with high-level Communist leaders, he formed a particular bond with Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader credited for launching vital pro-market reforms and kickstarting China’s meteoric rise as an economic power, who reciprocated Mr. Lee’s visit with a trip to Singapore in 1978.
“Starting with Deng Xiaoping, Chinese leaders [were] quite frank about the fact that there are many things they can learn from Singapore,” said Willy Lam, an expert in Chinese elite politics and senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.
Such lessons include Singapore’s model of rapid economic development paired with tight political controls, along with Mr. Lee’s appeal to Confucianism and so-called “Asian values,” which he used to justify curbs on civil liberties and his rejection of Western-style liberal democracy.
“China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse,” Mr. Lee said in an interview published in a 2013 book, titled “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grandmaster’s Insights on China, the United States and the World.” “I do not believe you can impose on other countries standards which are alien and totally disconnected with their past.”
“If they change in a pragmatic way, as they have been doing, keeping tight security control and not allowing riots and not allowing rebellions and, at the same time, easing up… it is holdable,” Mr. Lee said, referring to the Communist Party’s ability to keep its grip on political power. “One thing is for sure: the present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years.”
Writing in the New York Times Roger Cohen emphasized the Singapore is a multicultural city. It is anything but a homogeneous grouping.
How did Lee manage to unite diverse peoples and create a world-class economy?
The measure of that achievement is that the ingredients of disaster abounded in Singapore, a country that is “not supposed to exist and cannot exist,” as Lee said in a 2007 interview with The New York Times. “We don’t have the ingredients of a nation,” he noted, “the elementary factors: a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.” Instead, it had a combustible ethnic and religious hodgepodge of Chinese, Malays and Indians gathered in a city-state of no natural resources.
Yet Lee made it work, where many nations with far more of those attributes of nationhood — Argentina prominent among them — failed, and where, from the Balkans to the Middle East, sectarian differences have proved insurmountable and often the catalyst of war and national unraveling.
The key to the success, Cohen explains, was good leadership:
The fact that the elements for cataclysm exist does not mean that cataclysm is inevitable. Lee demonstrated this in an age where the general cacophony, and the need to manage and spin every political minute, makes statesmanship ever more elusive. The determining factor is leadership. What defines leadership above all is conviction, discipline in the pursuit of a goal, adaptability in the interest of the general good, and far-sightedness.
But, the principle that governed Lee’s reforms was good, old American pragmatism:
Lee’s only religion was pragmatism, of which religion (as generally understood) is the enemy, because, to some adherents, it offers revealed truths that are fact-resistant. Any ideology that abhors facts is problematic. (If you believe land is yours because it was deeded to you in the Bible, for example, but other people live there and have for centuries, you have an issue pregnant with violence.) Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work? It was the criterion of a forward-looking man for whom history was instructive but not imprisoning. He abhorred victimhood (an excuse for sloppy thinking and nationalist delusion) and corruption. He prized opportunity, meritocracy, the work ethic of the immigrant and education.
And yet, how did it happen that we in America took leave from pragmatic principles in order to pursue ideological purity. How did we make American democracy so unappealing?
Lee had no interest in what he saw as Western democracy:
Western democracy was not for him. It was too volatile for a nation that had to be forged and then fast-forwarded to prosperity. He was authoritarian, harsh when necessary. Free speech and political opposition were generally suppressed; the only liberalism was of the economic variety. Lee tapped into an Asian and Confucian inclination to place the communal good above individual rights; he also cowed Singaporeans into fear. Overall, it worked. Singapore became a booming commercial and banking center. Prosperity elided differences, even if the yawning gap between rich and poor is a growing issue, as throughout the world.
There is no single model for all humankind, even if there is a universal aspiration for freedom and the means to enjoy it. Technological hyperconnectedness does not produce political consensus. Pragmatism also involves accepting this, weighing the good against the bad (while standing against the heinous) and exercising patience.
Beyond the fact that our own cultural cacophony, with its constant threat of social instability does not appeal to the Asian mindset, our recent glorification of cultural turmoil does not argue for liberal democracy.
If liberal democracy is going to become a beacon for the world, we in America must make it work. We must demonstrate that we can have liberal democracy without the ideological, anti-pragmatic extremes. We must show that a multicultural nation need not descend into ethnic and special interest factionalism. And we need to show that we are unwilling to sacrifice economic progress for a quixotic quest after social justice.
Life is a trade-off. Some nations, like Singapore and China, have sacrificed some measure of personal freedom in favor of economic freedom. They have rejected an ideology that confuses freedom with a free-for-all and prefer to bask in prosperity.
If Americans are so married to ideology that they are willing to trade prosperity for a guilt-free soul, they ought to say so. If they believe that purging their sins in a cauldron of social turmoil will naturally create more economic prosperity they are fooling themselves.