A Case Study for the Ages: Lee Kuan Yew's Reflections and Predictions

By Barthel, Josh | Harvard International Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

A Case Study for the Ages: Lee Kuan Yew's Reflections and Predictions


Barthel, Josh, Harvard International Review


It goes without saying that President Barack Obama has access to the world's best sources for critical information on issues such as the revival (after all, it is not the first rise) of China, the future of India, and the threat of Islamic extremism. Still, Professors Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill have a suggestion: listen to Lee Kuan Yew, the eighty-nine year old architect of modern Singapore. Lee's advice has been heeded by world leaders since the 1960s, and the sheer scope of his supposed expertise coupled with the fact that our authors present their book as an ideal staple of a certain second term president's reading list begs the question: why Lee Kuan Yew?

In Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Allison and Blackwill present a mixture of Lee's published statements with answers to more direct inquiries from the professors themselves. Lee's story is one which probably offers more implicit advice to emerging nations than more established ones. When Singapore gained independence from Britain in 1959, Lee became Prime Minister after working in both law and politics as a socialist. Shirking the predictions of traditional dependency theory, Lee built a Singaporean economy based on exceedingly high levels of human capital and organizational efficiency; its small population thus catapulted itself into the global economy with few resources. Isolationists--especially in emerging nations--would do well to keep the fiercely internationalist nature of Singapore in mind; it has securely established itself in several of the world's largest economies with no intention of backing out or slowing down.

It is in this spirit that Lee analyzes the relationship of China and India to the US and the world. In many ways, adjusting for scope, Singapore parallels the case of China. Both have rapidly expanded their economic prowess via market-based strategies while maintaining rather authoritative governments. It is in this vein that Lee notes, "outside powers cannot refashion China into their own image." Lee was able to expand Singapore's reach without sacrificing domestic cultural values, and he sees it as a right of other emerging Asian powers to do the same. Likewise, he recommends not talking about India and China in the same breath, as if they were the same country. This is perhaps the brightest point of Lee's individualistic thinking. He recognizes that the dual rises of China and India mean very different things to the US and the nations themselves, and that they deserve to be appreciated as more than sound bytes.

Pinning down exactly who Lee is presents a challenge. …

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