Tuesday, May 30, 2017
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FROM THIRD WORLD TO FIRST, THE SINGAPORE STORY – 1965-2000: A BOOK REVIEW

Reviewed by Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon)

Author: Lee Kuan Yew.
Book:  From third world to the first, the Singapore story : 1965 – 2000.
Paperback: 752 pages.
Publisher: HarperCollins, New York, NY 10007,Year published, 2000.
Price at Amazon: $20.65 (Hard Cover).

This book is worth reading, particularly by those aspiring to lead and develop third world countries.  It is the story of great achievements in the teeth of dire and daunting   circumstances of an island nation bereft of material resources, and surrounded by unfriendly neighbors – a puny island, whose population was so ethnically, culturally and religiously divided that the inevitable mistrusts and suspicions bred recurring conflicts.  Managing such diversity always poses monumental challenges to the leadership of a country, and so it did in Singapore.

Singapore_Lee KuanSingapore’s short travail to its miraculous achievements within a span of only thirty-five years (which is but a fleeting moment in the life of a nation) is told in this book by none other than the man who made it possible, and was at the helm all along: Lee Kuan Yew, its prime minister for thirty-one years.   Mr. Lee passed away last year at 92, having retired from politics 25 years before.

It would be impertinent to praise the author’s language considering his legal education in Cambridge and the fact that British English has been the tool of his learning and his trade, throughout his long life.  His complaint (in the Acknowledgement), if only jocular, that the “line editor at HarperCollins, New York, has meticulously Americanized my English” betrays a certain degree of Britishness, despite his Chinese ethnicity.  The text is lucid and easy to read.

The book is an education in itself as the author puts his rich and wide leadership experience in politics (domestic and international), public administration, and economic development at the disposal of the reader.  In a nutshell, it is about a successful experiment in nation building in the face of overwhelming difficulties.  The author says at the outset:

“There are books to teach you how to build a house, how to repair an engine, how to write a book.  But I have not seen a book on how to build a nation out of a disparate collection of immigrants from China, British India, and Dutch East Indies, or how to make a living for its people when its former economic role as the entrepot of the region is becoming defunct”.

Certainly, there are theories on how to build a nation and some of them, if not all, can be dismissed as ‘common sense’.  However, in the practical application of these theories common sense often becomes elusive which makes us wonder why many Third World leaders do not, or cannot, see the obvious.  For instance, a group of professionals who gathered at the Nigerian Institute of Public Administration, had occasion to invite a prominent American economist to give them a lecture on ‘economic development’ over lunch.   They expected him to blurt out some economic secrets that helped America to develop so quickly, and produce so prodigiously.  Much to their disappointment, he started by putting this simple, yet provocative and challenging question to them: ‘You Nigerians have land, you have water and you have labor, all in abundance. Why are you poor?’  Though he did not fulfill their high expectations, he did, indeed, give them the secret they were looking for.  And it happened to be an open one.  For these three factors which every economist learns at school spell out the genesis of American economic development.

Paradoxical though it may seem, we do not often see the obvious.  Mr. Lee, however, saw what was obviously needed to enable Singapore to leapfrog from its Third Word status to the First; and he acted on it conscientiously.   He saw that the key to every thing was the human element: the transmuter and often the creator of the other resources.  It was that resource that he developed to the maximum possible, and optimally utilized without swerving from the tried and true principle of ‘The Right Person for the Right Job’.  The huge dividends that followed from this policy are self-evident.

Singapore’s long political stability was a crucial factor.  In no other country has it ever been possible for a prime minister to wallow in office for anything approximating Mr. Lee’s 31 years – not even under dictatorships.  There is, inevitably, a tendency to infer that Mr. Lee was a ‘dictator’, simply because he had no term-limit, and was sequentially returned to power in periodic, free and fair elections.  In fact, his Western critics, like the late Warren Christopher and Chris Patten (the last Governor of Hong Kong), scoffed at his inordinate longevity at the helm as ‘social engineering’. While the latter recognizes in his 1998 book, ‘East and West: China, Power and the future of Asia’ that ‘Singapore is an extremely well run city’ he observes that ‘Mr. Lee’s political opponents tend to spend a good deal of their time in court’.  Thankfully, however, Singapore’s judiciary, far from being subservient to executive authority, is in fact beyond reproach.

Mr. Lee’s style of leadership is apparent throughout the book. While working within a multiparty system he kept recruiting talented professionals into his political party and make them run for elections, for he believed that the combination of high professional capacity and political experience would make good, responsive and responsible ministers.  His cabinets were not teams of rivals, but likeminded colleagues whom he had hand-picked and cultivated; and they were all dedicated to a single goal: the rapid transformation of Singapore from what it was to what it became.

Together, they built first class institutions, professional public services, and (irrefutably) an independent judiciary.  Whether one calls that approach ‘social engineering’ (Patten) or ‘guided democracy’ (Walter Lippmann) its stupendous success bears it out.  Indonesia’s own version of  ‘guided democracy’ under President Sukarno had ended up in dismal failure, which underscores the dire need for enlightened leadership, political stability and effective implementation in order to succeed.

Apparently, Mr. Lee was not at all impressed with his limited experience in Africa, for he says very little about it, and the leaders he met.  Perhaps he thought the less said about it the better.  But, he illustrates through the following passage how learning opportunities and improved human resources were wasted.

‘”Osagyefo” (Redeemer), as Nkrumah was called, had recovered enough of his bounce to give me dinner with some of his senior ministers and a bright young vice-chancellor of his university. This man, Abraham, was only about 30 years old, had taken a First in Classics at Oxford and was a fellow of All Souls’ College. Nkrumah was very proud of him.  I was impressed, but wondered why a country so dependent on agriculture should have its brightest and best do Classics – Latin and Greek.’

Sadly, as Mr. Lee learnt years later, that bright young man, Abraham, ended up in a monastery in California.

Wherever he went in the world, and in his encounters with leaders, Mr. Lee was a keen and critical observer.  His advice, especially in East Asia, was widely sought – even by the leaders of China.  But he never failed to learn too.

Readers who have a flair for politics and are interested in nation building will enjoy the fascinating story of the city-state of Singapore, for there is much to learn from it.

Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon)
Email:geeldoonia@gmail.com

Ismail Ali Ismail (Geeldoon), is an author and political analyst, who writes about politics and governance. Mr. Geeldoon is a regular contributor of WardheerNews and the author of the book, Governance: The Scourge and Hope of Somalia. Now retired, he was a senior civil servant in Somalia and, later, a senior professional staff-member of the United Nations. He now resides in Virginia, USA.


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  • Abdiraheem Omar

    Sir, your writing is beautiful. Reading your articles is like having a nice decert that you don’t want finish it too soon. Write often please.