It goes without saying that President Barack Obama has access to the world’s best sources for critical information on issues such as the revival (after all, it is not the first rise) of China, the future of India, and the threat of Islamic extremism. Still, Professors Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill have a suggestion: listen to Lee Kuan Yew, the eighty-nine year old architect of modern Singapore. Lee’s advice has been heeded by world leaders since the 1960s, and the sheer scope of his supposed expertise coupled with the fact that our authors present their book as an ideal staple of a certain second term president’s reading list begs the question: why Lee Kuan Yew?
In Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Allison and Blackwill present a mixture of Lee’s published statements with answers to more direct inquiries from the professors themselves. Lee’s story is one which probably offers more implicit advice to emerging nations than more established ones. When Singapore gained independence from Britain in 1959, Lee became Prime Minister after working in both law and politics as a socialist. Shirking the predictions of traditional dependency theory, Lee built a Singaporean economy based on exceedingly high levels of human capital and organizational efficiency; its small population thus catapulted itself into the global economy with few resources. Isolationists - especially in emerging nations - would do well to keep the fiercely internationalist nature of Singapore in mind; it has securely established itself in several of the world’s largest economies with no intention of backing out or slowing down.
It is in this spirit that Lee analyzes the relationship of China and India to the US and the world. In many ways, adjusting for scope, Singapore parallels the case of China. Both have rapidly expanded their economic prowess via market-based strategies while maintaining rather authoritative governments. It is in this vein that Lee notes, “outside powers cannot refashion China into their own image.” Lee was able to expand Singapore’s reach without sacrificing domestic cultural values, and he sees it as a right of other emerging Asian powers to do the same. Likewise, he recommends not talking about India and China in the same breath, as if they were the same country. This is perhaps the brightest point of Lee’s individualistic thinking. He recognizes that the dual rises of China and India mean very different things to the US and the nations themselves, and that they deserve to be appreciated as more than sound bytes.
Pinning down exactly who Lee is presents a challenge. Having served as Minister Mentor of Singapore from 2004 to 2011, Lee has been giving advice about public service for longer than many have been working in the field itself. The aging, iconic, and above all, honest, world leader is fueled as much by machismo as by filial piety. His inventiveness in the world of business is heavily counterweighted by his traditional cultural values. Lee’s words appeal to normally separate but not necessarily incongruous groups ranging from Social Darwinists to opponents of multiculturalism to social conservatives. If this sounds a bit vague and scattered, so will the book. Allison and Blackwill try to weave Lee’s spoken advice as best they can into an organized written form, but the outcome is hampered by vagueness and the ostensibly off-the-cuff nature of Lee’s remarks.
If this book were to fall on the desk of President Obama, it is clear that several of Lee’s pieces of advice would most certainly not be taken, and rightly so. Lee’s views may vary quite widely, but the majority of them align with the center-right platform of his former employer, the People’s Action Party. Lee claims that “Cradle-to-grave welfarism blunted the ambition of many budding entrepreneurs” as Britain’s position on the world stage declined. While explaining why American entrepreneurialism has been so successful, Lee notes that a “tolerance for a high degree of income disparity” has been a salient feature of this aspect of American success. Indeed it has, but for a world leader to present this fact without an acknowledgement of it’s troubling nature is irresponsible.
Lee’s views on welfare are skewed by the fact that he has led a nation with a population that had barely exceeded three million by the time he left office in 1990. Singapore’s small size has allowed government-let population control measures to work in both directions, decreasing the population growth rate in the 1960s and 1970s and then increasing it in the 1980s. To apply this type of policy to a nation of 300 million, however, would be both anachronistic and unfeasible.
As with Taylor Branch’s The Clinton Tapes, Allison and Blackwill’s Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World is at times made impotent by its casual nature. And while the casual nature of the former gave readers a unique view into the personal thoughts of a great leader, the latter does none of this. Readers are left with a useful survey of Lee’s thoughts on several important issues, thoughts rooted in the experience of an amazing life but still sadly speculative.