Asia's Fate: A Response to the Singapore School

By Jones, Eric | The National Interest, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

Asia's Fate: A Response to the Singapore School


Jones, Eric, The National Interest


THE ECONOMIC SUCCESS of East and Southeast Asia challenges the verities of Western historical uniqueness. It shatters the ethno-centric notion, which even Asian writers accepted as late as the 1960s, that industrialization is a reward for Protestantism. The East Asian Miracle is taking place within quite another ethic, and some of the practices within the region would have made a Victorian mill-owner blush. The signal questions about the phenomenon are: will it go on; what type of polity and society will eventually settle down alongside the Western world; and what will be the implications for the Third World of this other ethnocentrism: growth-through-Confucianism.

The Singapore School

SOME EAST and Southeast Asian officials are busily dismissing aspects of Western culture, notably democracy and human rights. A "Singapore School" is arguing vigorously in Western newspapers and journals against what it sees as human rights campaigns mounted by a West which it thinks is spiritually, and to all intents and purposes financially, bankrupt. The "School" includes Lee Kuan Yew, elder statesman of Singapore, Bilahari Kausikan of the Singaporean Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean diplomat. Their arguments are meant to apply to the whole of "Confucian" Asia and probably beyond, not merely to the prodigiously successful city-state of Singapore. Their attitude must concern anyone raised in the Western tradition, whatever our own backslidings, for they are insistent that we keep our noses out of what they see as solely their affairs. They rely on persuading us that the greatest good of the greatest number in Asia absolutely requires the use of repressive political methods.

Lee Kuan Yew expresses these ideas trenchantly and with a greater sense of the historical processes than most other leaders show. His pragmatism is seductive. We have however to be careful: the power of the arguments and the learning behind them invites, and properly invites, a closer scrutiny than the pontifications of more ordinary politicians would deserve. In debating terms, Mr. Lee and the Singapore School are the ones with whom we have to contend, but other leading figures throughout the region are the ones likely to practice on the grand scale what the Singaporeans preach. Lee Kuan Yew may influence them and rationalize their actions, but he cannot control those who may take his arguments as an invitation to an open-ended license which a close reading shows he does not intend.

Mr. Lee has given his observations on how the world is unfolding, together with opinions on the desirability of different approaches to growth and development, to interviewers for several Western newspapers and magazines. His ideas are complex--the subject is complex--and not easily summarized, partly because the interviewing mode tends to mingle historical observations and value judgements. The core of the position seems to be that values are learned differently in West and East, with one's mother's milk; that Asian leaders are right to put the reduction of material suffering first, even if they have to be brutal in order to attain that goal; and that, although Asian societies as they develop will inevitably induce more participatory politics, this will be extremely slow and its hastening should not be encouraged by outsiders, for fear of blurring goals and creating disorder.

Mr. Lee comes out strongly against brutality for its own sake but displays special sympathy for Deng Xiao Ping, on the grounds of the Chinese leader's personal suffering and the enormous difficulty of managing a population as large as China's, especially when parts of the economy are growing fast. It is possible to conclude that, although both he and Kishore Mahbubani deprecate the extent of the force used at Tiananmen Square, Mr. Lee comes uncomfortably close to an endorsement of current Chinese policing methods.

Interviewed by the New Perspectives Quarterly (Winter 1992), Mr. …

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