There is a vast difference between an electioneer and a statesman. Barack Obama is in many ways a master electioneer--very good at winning elections but very poor at running a country. A vapid and superficial character, he unfailingly exemplifies the "free lunch with extra sidings" American society which produced him and returns him to office time and again as a true reflection of itself. In the final analysis, his horrendous presidency will not amount to much other than a continuation of the slide into the abyss started by his predecessor and double act--the BushBama years. On the other hand, "Harry" Lee Kuan Yew represents the ideals not just of his tiny city-state but of an entire region. Unlike Obama, he has a vision--call it "authoritarian development" or what you will. What's more, he was able to realize this vision--call it modern-day Singapore. China is but one of the many countries that have found this vision appealing. To put matters into perspective, his American counterpart when he came into power in 1959 was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eleven American presidents have come and gone since then, yet Lee Kuan Yew remains the sage of Singapore.
It is thus with some expectation that I look forward to reading a new collection of Lee Kuan Yew's ruminations entitled Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World. To my astonishment, it is published by none other than MIT Press. Most academic publishers print books about weighty subject matter that are peer-reviewed. Here, we simply have a random collection of quips he's made over several years during interviews and whatnot. Even if he is an enduring character on the world stage compared to, say, Obama the flash-in-the-pan trasformismo, this kind of lavish treatment is rare from an academic publisher.
Fortunately, TIME has some excerpts of his thoughts on today's more interesting questions: How do you avoid falling into the decay and depravity characteristic of modern-day America? Otherwise, how do you encourage disciplined creativity in traditionally hierarchical societies like China? On the hoary China-overtaking-America question, he says:
China will inevitably catch up to the U.S. in absolute GDP. But its creativity may never match America's because its culture does not permit a free exchange and contest of ideas. How else to explain how a country with four times as many people as America--and presumably four times as many talented people--does not come up with technological breakthroughs?Or, how about China becoming democratic?
To achieve the modernization of China, her communist leaders are prepared to try every method, except for democracy with one person and one vote in a multiparty system. Their two main reasons are their belief that the Communist Party of China must have a monopoly on power to ensure stability and their deep fear of instability in a multiparty free-for-all, which would lead to a loss of control by the center over the provinces. To ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads--all rulers ruled by right of being emperor; if you disagree, you chop off heads, not count heads.Lee Kuan Yew has endless quips like these: some are illuminating, others entertaining, yet some more are politically incorrect or even downright deplorable. Again, though, his track record guarantees that people will listen to a person of his stature. After all, would you expect Barack Obama to make sage pronouncements on something other than the matter of creating ballooning deficits in the trillions year in and year out? I didn't think so. Speaking of the US president, here's Lee Kuan Yew on what's wrong with America (among other things):
Nonetheless, Lee is frank in describing what he considers to be fundamental problems with U.S. government and culture. It has been unable to tackle its exploding debt, he asserts, because presidents do not get “reelected if they give a hard dose of medicine to their people.” In a social-media-fueled era of 24/7 news, furthermore, those who prevail in elections are not necessarily those who are most capable in governing, but those who can present themselves and their ideas “in a polished way.” He doubts that such contests “in packaging and advertising” can produce leaders in the mold of “a Churchill, a Roosevelt, or a de Gaulle.” Instead, he laments conditions in which “to win votes you have to give more and more. And to beat your opponent in the next election, you have to promise to give more away.”Like him or not, the Singaporean's thoughts are sought even by the Americans who've been subject to a well-deserved tongue-lashing for years and years now. His health may not be what it once was, but his intellect remains formidable.