Anyone who has ever visited Singapore knows that it is a truly amazing place – which, by rights, shouldn’t exist. It is an island basically without resources which is essentially just “a pimple on the arse-end of Malaysia”, as my high school English teacher so memorably put it. (As you can probably guess from how ancient and rickety I am, this was roughly 300 years ago.)
And when Singapore became an independent nation in 1965, its future was deeply uncertain and very scary.
The Second World War had absolutely shattered the island’s economy and infrastructure. The subsequent rapid decline and near-collapse of the British Empire in the 1950s, culminating in the Suez Crisis of 1956 in which the British were roundly humiliated by the Americans, gave much of East Asia reason to be very afraid. The rise of Communist China in 1949, American failures in the Korean War, and the Great Leap Backward in the 1950s, all put the Southeast Asian nations into an extremely precarious position.
The alternatives were unpalatable, to say the least. And that was before the issue of Malayan independence even came up, what with the Malayan “Emergency” (it was an actual war) and the attempts by Southeast Asian Communists to infiltrate and overthrow the governments of the region.
(For the younger readers who don’t quite see what all the fuss was about with respect to the Commies – there is a REASON why people like me think that instituting a national policy of shooting Communists on sight is both necessary and healthy. People don’t realise it today, but there was a time when a Communist takeover of the entire known world was a VERY real possibility. And it was one to be greatly feared, in fact.)
Into this maelstrom stepped a young, highly intelligent, British-educated lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, who – through various means and machinations – became the very first Prime Minister of the island territory (not yet a nation) of Singapore in 1959. Almost immediately, the rather young Prime Minister – keep in mind, he was about the same age when he became PM of Singapore as I am today – faced some very severe tests.
You see, the ethnic Malays of, well, Malaysia, don’t much like the Chinese. Nobody does, actually, outside of China, and that’s just the harsh truth. The emigrant community of ethnic Han Chinese are basically the Jews of Asia – nobody much likes or trusts them, they don’t like or trust anyone else, and they keep to themselves. They are also a very high-performing bunch – academically, commercially, and politically. As a low-trust, high-performance group, they naturally attract a lot of enemies from the natives who don’t much care for their shenanigans.
Singapore was, and is, majority ethnic Chinese, with a large minority of ethnic Malays and Indians. Malaysia was, and is, majority Malay, with a large minority of Indians and then Chinese. Some kind of break between the two was inevitable, and that is precisely what happened.
Alone, adrift in the world, without the backing of the British Empire, and with a hostile neighbour to the north that controlled its power and water, Singapore had to figure out how to develop, and fast.
Lee Kuan Yew took the opportunity that he was given, and made the most of it. In the space of just two generations, he turned Singapore from a Third World backwater, into a First World miracle.
As I have pointed out before, if you were to compare Calcutta and Singapore in 1945, the comparison would have seemed utterly stupid. One city was the crown jewel within the tiara of diamonds that was the British Raj, a city of art, culture, history, and vital political importance. The other was a mosquito-infested backwater that had once been a great trading port, but which had been reduced to near-irrelevance by the course of historical events.
If you were to make the same comparison today, it would be even more idiotic – in the exact opposite direction.
Today, Singapore is a gleaming example of the triumph of human ingenuity and good governance, of the power of political stability combined with long-term investments and careful planning. Calcutta is an ageing de-industrialised dump in a shithole country that, somewhat unbelievably, still calls itself “the City of Joy”, even though, if you were actually to visit it and see what it is really like, there isn’t really much to be “joyous” about there.
Trust me on this one – if you go to Singapore, you will feel happy to be in an oasis of verdant green and modern architecture (with air conditioning, which, believe me, is vital to survival there). If you go to Calcutta, you’ll get the distinct impression of a city dying on its feet and come away depressed – with, most likely, a bad case of food poisoning to mark your trip at some point.
And all of that happened because of the wisdom and foresight of one man – Lee Kuan Yew.
An Imperfect Legacy
Now, that is not to say that the Founding Father of Singapore was perfect. He wasn’t. Not at all.
Back in the day when I actually lived there, I met one of my readers, a local chap named The Observer, who used to have his own blog. (It’s still up, actually – and somewhat fittingly, his last post was all about a meetup that we organised there years ago). As he and other Singaporeans will tell you, they gave up a very great deal of autonomy and freedom, in exchange for a pampering and smothering nanny-state that largely determines the course of their lives from cradle to grave. That, too, is LKY’s legacy.
Singapore is NOT free. It is NOT the easiest place to live – it is in fact hugely expensive, and despite its squeaky-clean image, it actually has some serious social problems. It is a kind of fairytale wonderland for the expatriates who are lucky enough to be posted there on expat packages – but the locals have a difficult life, what with the annual increases in the cost of living and the extreme vulnerability of the local economy to global trade shocks.
And modern Singaporeans are – let’s not mince words – soft. They’ve had it way too good for way too long. They don’t know what real hardship is, and don’t care to know. (I can’t blame them at all for that trait.) As long as they get their MediaCorp pabulum and their cheap local street food and their government education and housing allowances, they are happy. They will always vote for the People’s Action Party, because that guarantees that they will continue to enjoy the good life
The government there has made the most cynical kind of political bargain possible – vote for us and we’ll keep giving you bread and circuses. It’s what the Daemoncrats, and every European political party, wish they could get away with.
But, all in all, if you had to choose between living in Singapore and living in New York, I’d say the former is by far the better bet. (I’d still take living in Texas over both of those choices, personally.)
LKY was so successful at building out his country in large part because he embraced prudence, discipline, and long-term thinking over the alternatives. Most of all, he was wise, in a way that few modern political leaders are.
The Goathumpistan Prophecies
LKY’s wisdom was rooted in basic common sense, a very rare commodity indeed. Here he is talking about the quagmire that engulfed the USA over in Goathumpistan, which just ended so utterly ignominiously:
The best part is when he says that he is no expert and can’t think like an American – and then immediately proceeds to talk more sense, more directly and with greater clarity, than all of the Georgetown- and Harvard- and Yale-educated foreign policy wonks in the whole of Washington, D.C., COMBINED.
America’s East Asian Syracuse Expedition
You’ll have to fast-forward a bit to about 11:30 in this video to see this, but here, in his final years, LKY talks about how the USA will not defend Taiwan in the event of Chinese invasion:
I think time has shown some of his remarks leading to that point to be misguided, to say the least. Giving China access to global trade routes was, in hindsight, a huge mistake. The Chinese were never interested in “free” trade. They were always mercantilists at heart – any halfway-educated look at their history would have revealed this fact. The Chinese have always preferred to engage in trade on terms most favourable to them, and only British and European gunboat diplomacy stopped that. (Well, that, and opium, which led to the gunboat diplomacy in the first place.)
But overall, he is right. The USA cannot afford to get involved in Taiwan. Indeed, today the USA is no longer in a position to fight off the Chinese. The whole world, and especially China, has now seen just how weak the US military actually is.
Conclusions – Lessons Learned and Applied
In order to understand how Lee Kuan Yew navigated some of the most challenging political and economic shocks in history, you really have to read his two books, From Third World to First, and The Singapore Story. (I haven’t, yet, they are on my reading list.) But there are some very clear lessons to be learned from the man that many, including Our Beloved and Dreaded Supreme Dark Lord (PBUH) Vox Day the Most Malevolent and Terrible, regard as the greatest statesman of the 20th Century.
First, know your limitations, and respect them. Singapore didn’t become a regional power by throwing its weight around, at least at first. It got there by building long-term alliances and coalitions to get where it needed to go. Today Singapore is both a mercantile and a military power that can react rapidly to threats in its own backyard, while still maintaining amicable relations with its much bigger neighbours.
Second, principle and pragmatism are natural allies, not enemies. Too many men these days make the mistake of standing on principle long past the point where it is practical. In this respect, LKY and his ilk are very much of the Eastern school of philosophy, which is less enamoured of brilliant sparkly ideas and much more interested in pragmatic results. Westerners often make the mistake of over-idealising the world, and as such tend to make huge mistakes when their pretty visions run face-first into the concrete walls of reality.
Third, ensure that your interests align with the people you presume to rule over. America has failed, over and over again, to heed this lesson, in part because of the way that the One Party of Big Government operates. In the USA, politics appears to be a zero-sum game, but it really is nothing more than a game. It matters not whether the Daemoncrats or the Republicucks win – the public gets screwed no matter what. This has led America to the ruination of the present day, in which the American nation is occupied by a foreign, neoclown-ruled, Jewish-led empire that does not recognise or represent them.
And fourth, learn from your mistakes after taking legitimate and measured risks. When the evidence very clearly tells you that what you’re doing isn’t working, BLOODY WELL STOP DOING IT. Taking risks is necessary for growth and success, but only a complete moron charges headfirst into battle isolated and alone without any support or help. And making mistakes after taking a risk is forgivable and indeed necessary to learn and grow as a human being. But making the same mistake, repeatedly, without cease, is unforgivably stupid. America has failed to heed any of the lessons of the past 30 years in foreign policy, warfighting, and electoral politics – and look where it is now.
Singapore is, to repeat, FAR from perfect. There are a lot of problems with the country and I could regale you with quite a few of them at some length. But Singapore got to where it is today, bumps, warts, and all, largely because of the wisdom and foresight of one man. As Men of the West, we should appreciate the wisdom of one of the last of the “noble pagans”, who did his duty to his people and lived by a series of simple yet powerful principles.