Culture Is Destiny: A Conversation With Lee Kuan Yew, condensed

These are all the good bits from a 1994 interview of Lee Kuan Yew, the benevolent autocrat behind the making of modern Singapore by Fareed Zakaria.  You may just find it as fascinating as I did.

(All quotes are of Lee unless otherwise noted)

Zakaria (Asking about America): What, in your view, is wrong with the American system?

Lee: It is not my business to tell people what’s wrong with their system.  It is my business to tell people not to foist their system indiscriminately on societies in which it will not work.

In the East the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms.

Zakaria (again about Lee’s waning admiration for America): What, in your view, went wrong?

Lee: I would hazard a guess that it has a lot to do with the erosion of the moral underpinnings of a society and the diminution of personal responsibility.  The liberal, intellectual tradition that developed after World War II claimed that human beings had arrived at this perfect state where everybody would be better off if they were allowed to do their own thing and flourish.  It has not worked out, and I doubt if it will.

Westerners have abandoned the ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed.

Eastern societies believe the individual exists in the context of his family.  He is not pristine and separate. . .The ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family provides best.

In the West, especially after World War II, the government came to be seen as so successful that it could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family.  This approach encouraged alternative families, single mothers for instance, believing that government could provide the support to make up for the absent father.  This is a bold, Huxleyan view of life.

Governments will come, governments will go, but [family] endures.  We start with self-reliance.  In the West today it is the opposite.  The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.

What would I do if I were an American?  First, you must have order in society.  Guns, drugs, and violent crime will go together, threatening social order.  Then the schools; when you have violence at schools, you are not going to have education, so you’ve got to put that right . . . I would start off with the basics, working on the individual, looking at him within the context of his family, his friends, his society.  But the Westerner says I’ll fix things at the top.  One magic formula, one grand plan.  I will wave a wand and everything will work out. It’s an interesting theory but not a proven method.

We focus on the basics in Singapore.  We used the family to push economic growth, factoring in the ambitions of a person and his family into our planning.

Nobody really believes that the government can provide in all circumstances.  The government itself does not believe in.  In the ultimate crises, even in earthquakes and typhoons, it is your human relationships that will see you through.  So the [American] thesis  . . . that the government is always capable of reinventing itself in new shapes and forms, has not been proven in history.

If you have a culture that doesn’t place much value in learning and scholarship and thrift and hard work and deferment of present enjoyment for future gain, the going will be much slower.

[Y]ou will find people unreceptive to the idea that they have been Westernized.  Modernized, yes, in the sense that they have accepted the inevitability of science and technology and the change in the lifestyles they bring.

I’m not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best.  I’m convinced, personally, that we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he’s likely to be more careful, voting also for his children.

The regime in Beijing is more stable than any alternative government that can be formed in China.  China is a vast, disparate country; there is no alternative to strong central power.

Zakaria: You have said recently that allowing Japan to send its forces abroad is like giving liquor to an alcoholic.

Lee: The Japanese have always had a cultural trait, that whatever they do they carry it to the nth degree.  I think they know this.  I have Japanese friends who have told me this.  They admit it is a problem with them.

You are unable to stop North Korea.  Nobody believes that an American government that could not sustain its mission in Somalia because of an ambush and one television snippet of a dead American pulled through the streets of Mogadishu could contemplate a strike on North Korean nuclear facilities like the Israeli strike on Iraq.

[After World War II] Any old established nation would have ensured its supremacy for as long as it could.  But America set out to put her defeated enemies on their feet, to ward off an evil force, the Soviet Union, brought about technological change by transferring technology generously and freely to Europeans and Japanese, and enabled them to become her challengers within 30 years.  By 1975 they were at her heels.  That’s unprecedented in history.  There was a certain greatness of spirit born out of the fear of communism plus American idealism that brought that about.  But that does not mean that we all admire everything about America.


~ by Joshing on March 27, 2008.

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