Lee Kuan Yew's Fabian Phase

By Barr, Michael D. | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2000 | Go to article overview
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Lee Kuan Yew's Fabian Phase

Barr, Michael D., The Australian Journal of Politics and History

In the late 1990s, Lee Kuan Yew described himself as an economic liberal.(1) This should come as no great surprise to followers of Lee's career, because he has associated welfare with "malingering and laying about" since 1969.(2) Yet to this day, the original leaders of the People's Action Party of Singapore (PAP) maintain that they were socialists when they came to power in 1959.(3) With the publication of Lee's memoirs(4) and his coffee-table collection of speeches and interviews(5) there can be little doubt that he was genuine in his belief in some sort of socialism in the early years of PAP government, but there has been very little detailed attention paid to the nature of his vision of socialism, or his attitude to the welfare state.(6) In recent years Lee has made several statements on his early attitude to socialism and the welfare state which demand a reconsideration of his early views on welfarism, if for no other reason than even his later statements are inconsistent. Lee has variously maintained that he abandoned the idea of the welfare state immediately upon coming to power in 1959;(7) only after witnessing the failure of socialism and the welfare state in Britain in the years following the PAP's rise to power,(8) and; in the 1970s, after studying the record of achievement in welfare-free Hong Kong.(9) Finding the truth amongst these retrospective accounts is further complicated by Lee's public position until 1965, that it was impossible to create a socialist state in a minuscule trading community like Singapore, though in the 1950s he aimed to create a socialist Malaya,(10) while in the first half of the 1960s he aimed to create a socialist Malaysia.(11) If Lee wished to defend this proposition today, he could point to his advocacy of the creation of a welfare state in Malaysia as late as 1964.(12) A corollary of this argument is that it was Singapore's separation from Malaysia that forced the PAP to abandon socialism.(13)

This article explores the conflicts and paradoxes in these accounts and argues that Lee never intended to build a welfare state in Singapore, Malaya or Malaysia, but that despite the apparent contradiction, he genuinely regarded himself as a socialist in the early years of the PAP Government. The basis for this conclusion is four-fold: a survey of Lee's personal reminiscences of his "socialist youth"; a study of the politics of the major welfare issue facing the first PAP Government; a brief examination of the PAP's record during the period of Singapore's membership of Malaysia; a study of Lee's statements regarding socialism and welfarism at the time. Although the focus of the inquiry is Lee Kuan Yew's early attitude to socialism and welfarism, this will involve a substantial consideration of the actions and words of Goh Keng Swee. Goh was Lee's right-hand man during this period, and was at the coalface of the issues upon which some of our judgements must be made.

Lee Kuan Yew's accounts of his drift from the welfare state contain inherent contradictions. Perhaps Lee's single most enigmatic statement on the matter was in an interview with Lianhe Zaobao in 1993. Speaking of Britain's post-war Labour Government, Lee said:

   They were going to create a just society for the British workers -- the
   beginning of a welfare state, cheap council housing, free medicine and
   dental treatment, free spectacles, generous unemployment benefits. Of
   course, for students from the colonies, like Singapore and Malaya, it was a
   great attraction as the alternative to communism. We did not see until the
   1970s that that was the beginning of big problems contributing to the
   inevitable decline of the British economy.

Yet without further explanation he continued:

   The moment we got into office in Singapore in 1959, we reversed policies.
   We stopped free medicine.... We knew that free medicine was wasteful.... We
   learnt very quickly that it was not workable, that this was one of the
   causes of Britain's decline and that until they got rid of it they could
   not prosper because they were not trying to compete as a people. 

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