A tribute to Lee Kuan Yew’s Asian values

Eulogy for the late Harry Lee Kuan Yew (李光耀), GCMG, CH, former Prime Minister, former Senior Minister and former Minister Mentor of the Republic of Singapore:

My favourite quote from Lee Kuan Yew that sums up the dichotomy between Asian values and Western liberalism. He was quoted as saying, with trademark pragmatism, during his speech to the National Day Rally in 1986.

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 the corrupt 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.

“In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.”

—T. S. Eliot, East Coker (1940)

“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’.

And may Sabah, soar as high as thy Singapore in my lifetime.


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