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Book Review: Singapore Slam - The World According to Lee Kuan Yew


Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master\'s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
Interviews and selections by Graham Allison, Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne.
Foreword by  Henry A. Kissinger
Feb 2013, Belfer Center Studies in International Security

Mar 4, 2013
By Anchalee Kongrut

If you follow Southeast Asian politics, you listen when Lee Kuan Yew speaks. This is not only because the first minister of Singapore usually hits his mark and makes valuble points along the way, but Lee Kuan Yew is also not afraid to go all the way – he debunks rumors, mocks ideology and vehemently argues against what he disagrees with. He pursues his arguments to the end. You know you're not getting the watered-down version.

Thus, readers of Lee Kuan Yew's latest book can expect more than in-depth analysis from one of the world's most renown strategic thinkers. "The Sage of Singapore" shares his candid, brutal opinions on radical Islamism, democracy and India's unfulfilled greatness.  

Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World is an anthology of interviews and speeches Lee has given over the last four decades. A team of editors from The Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School creatively combed and categorized his opinions into eight themes, mostly concerning the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific rivalry between China and the U.S, and the future of India Islamic extremism and democracy.

The world according to Lee Kuan Yew is an exciting place, full of promises enabled by scientific and technological progress. However, it is also a world full of chaos and potential anarchy caused by the clash between ideology and pragmatism.  

Considered a mentor to every Chinese leader from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping and a counselor to every American president from Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, Lee is quite optimistic about the relationship between the U.S and China.    

He dismisses war because the competition between U.S and China focuses on trade, not ideology. Both countries know they are better off if they cooperate. The U.S needs a peaceful China in order to ensure world stability, and U.S trade and investment, while China still wants to access the U.S. market and to recieve technology transfers from the U.S. "Both are competitors, not adversaries," he says.

Yet, Lee still warns that the West's imposing universal emphasis on democracy, human rights and ethnic issues such as the Tibetan independence movement might force China to take a hostile position. "China has to be persuaded that the U.S. does not want to break up China before China becomes more open to discussing questions of world security and stability."

A descendant of a Chinese immigrant, Lee understands China's mindset. "China wants to be China and to be accepted as such, not to be seen as an honorary member of the West."
Lee has great faith in China - he even compares top leader Xi Jinping to South African statesman Nelson Mandela because of Xi Jinping's childhood hardship during the Cultural Revolution. He believes that China will increasingly challenge the U.S. and will outperform the U.S. in economic measures such as Gross National Product (GNP), but will never surpass it in terms of creativity. The complexity of the Mandarin language will prevent the country from attracting foreign talent. It is also impossible for China to control the rest of Asia as its small countries are no longer vessel states of China's Empire, as they were hundreds of years ago.

At first, this appears to be a serious academic book. However, after reading for a good twenty pages, readers will find themselves entertained and challenged by Lee Kwan Yew's lucidity, powerful arguments and acerbic tongue. After all, Lee is a good critic because he is not shaped by any ideology, nor does he try to be politically correct. He describes himself as a pragmatic troubleshooter who tries to delve into the heart of problems and understand the positives and negatives.  

For example, despite having glowing admiration for America, Lee has unique view on U.S.. "Americans prosper not because of universal ideology but because of geopolitical good fortune, resource energy, generous flows of capital, and technological flow from Europe."

Lee looks at modern political campaigns in the U.S with skepticism and warns that the U.S political system may fall victim to populism because leaders follow opinion polls and popularity. "A spin doctor is a high-income professional, one in great demand. From such a process, I doubt if a Churchill, a Roosevelt, or a de Gaulle can emerge," he says of U.S. style political campaigns.

Some of his views are contradictory. Despite praising how the great American Dream is open to migrants from around the world, he expresses concerns that the expansion of Hispanic culture will affect the purity of the predominant Anglo-Saxon culture.
His views on Islam also border on the offensive. Lee sees radical Islamism as the rise of some radical Islamists who want to spread the Islamic state worldwide and distort the teachings of Islam. For Lee, Radical Islamism is one dimension --a cultural issue. "Muslims want to assimilate us. It is one-way traffic. They have no confidence in allowing choice. Islam is exclusive."


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