Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going

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Straits Times Press, 2011 - Prime ministers - 458 pages
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Presented in Q&A format, and enriched with strong contextual narrative, each chapter features Lee in full flow – sometimes combative, occasionally querulous, but always engaging. His views are articulated forcefully, with forays into history to buttress his point. To him, Singapore is a miracle that could disappear if not for exceptional leadership and safeguards. Here is Lee at 87, an unrepentant believer in strong government, in genes, and in the view that economics trumps freedoms. This book presents the politically incorrect Lee, often impatient and dismissive of those who criticise his worldview. He is not one for regrets. He does not recant. But there are moments when he looks back and thinks he could have done things differently or been more accommodating. Readers will gain insight into Lee’s mind as he ruminates, argues, thinks aloud and rebuts.

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Undergirding Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatism in politics is an intimate understanding of the inherent vulnerabilities of Singapore as an independent nation. He professes himself that his greatest fear is “a leadership and a people that have forgotten, that have lost their bearings and do not understand the constraints that [Singapore faces].” (p.75) This realist view is despite political scientists such as Cooper and Shaw (2009) arguing that small states such as Singapore are ‘resilien[t]’ rather than ‘vulnerable’ as they are able to ‘resist and reshape structural factors’ (Cooper & Shaw, 2009, p.3). As repeatedly highlighted by the journalists in the book, the latter view is prevalent among some Singaporeans. They compare their nation to other small but successful nations such as Denmark and Sweden, proclaiming the redundancy of Lee’s brand of politics. However, Lee maintains that, Singapore’s small size and population as well as her location in what he perceives to be an unstable and hostile region results in a perpetual state of insecurity. Despite the success of Singapore thus far, the survival and sustainability of the nation is, and will continue to be in the near foreseeable future, fragile. To him, this challenge can never be fully overcome, and Singapore as a nation must stay aware and alert of such. Being anchored in this reality, the former Prime Minister and Minister Mentor is thus able to engineer strategies for the nation to thrive despite her disadvantages.
In conclusion, Lee’s very realistic assessment of Singapore’s vulnerabilities stood as a source of strength: it resulted in solutions tailored towards the idiosyncrasies of the nations. As the leader of this small and fragile community, he focuses on the facts of reality before him rather than lofty ideals, zooming in on the community’s advantages and choosing to hone them. It is precisely because of this brutal pragmatism that Singapore is able to flourish today.

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