A tribute to Lee Kuan Yew’s Asian values

Lee Kuan Yew was no Mandela or Gandhi. But the founding father of modern Singapore, dead at 91, will be remembered for turning a chaotic and malaria-ridden harbour in Southeast Asia into a gleaming global metropolis where the GDP per capita exceeds that in the US. A visionary thinker and transformational leader, he will be remembered for lifting millions out of poverty—even if that meant micromanaging their lives.

He was quoted as saying, with trademark pragmatism, during his speech to the National Day Rally in 1986:

“I am often accused of interfering in the private lives of citizens. Yes, if I did not, had I not done that, we wouldn’t be here today. And I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters—who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.”

Lee Kuan Yew never shrank from expressing his views bluntly. He was not one to mince his words. And his blunt and provocative quote above sums up the dichotomy between Asian values and Western liberalism.

Do I agree with ‘Asian values’? Yes, as a Malaysian born and bred, it makes sense to me even though it contradicts the fundamental principles of democracy. And it makes more sense in the Singaporean context: a resource-poor nation that requires a strong government to achieve tremendous development.

It is not a myth—but works only under an exemplary, benevolent and brilliant leader like LKY—not under Mahathir (although he championed it most vociferously in the ’90s) or Suharto or Marcos or other dictators alike. Still, a visionary man with great integrity like him is hard to find these days. I know.

What can I say, he too was born in September; a Virgo, perfectionist after all. His rights definitely far outweigh his wrongs. His stewardship makes Singapore become a model of economic growth and efficiency. His decades of authoritarian ‘Asian values’ in government is widely credited for Singapore’s astonishing success, recognised by political leaders all over the world. His administration proves that authoritarianism isn’t necessarily bad; it too can lead to prosperity without the hassle of liberal democracy.

And let us (especially the naysayers who may refer advanced economies that practice healthy democracies in East Asia like Taiwan, South Korea and Japan) put some thoughts into what the old wise man said in his 1992 speech in Manila:

“I believe that what a country needs to develop is discipline more than democracy. The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions which are inimical to development. The ultimate test of the value of a political system is whether it helps that society to establish conditions which improve the standard of living for the majority of its people, plus enabling the maximum of personal freedoms compatible with the freedoms of others in society.”

Maybe, just maybe, tight political control with strict social order is a better catalyst of advancement in some Asian countries.

“I say the one idea, the one goal, the one ideal worth fighting and dying for is a Malaysian Malaysia.”

—Lee Kuan Yew, Malaysian Solidarity Convention, 6 June 1965

Fare thee well, sir. You will likewise be remembered as the first man who championed for a ‘Malaysian Malaysia’.


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