Singapore And Lee Kwan Yew

He died March 23 at age 91


Some Singaporeans can ride the Mass Rapid Transit trains without holding on. They can stand there texting or reading or even napping, confident they will not be toppled. It’s a matter of experience-based trust. They know the ride will be smooth, no jolting, just as they know the doors will open precisely on the platform marks and the electronic MRT cards will debit accurately according to time traveled.

So I tried it, standing without holding on, but lacked the faith (too many rides on the New York subways). I compromised by leaning casually against a silver pole and reading. I chose something that did not require turning a lot of pages, “The World in Pieces,” an essay by the late great global anthropologist Clifford Geertz.

Leaving the Outram Park station on the East-West line:

“Since 1945 we have gone from a situation in which there were perhaps 50 or so generally recognized countries, the rest of the world being distributed into colonies, protectorates, dependencies, and the like, to one in which there are nearly 200, and almost certainly more to come. The difference, of course, is the decolonization revolution.”

Approaching Tanjong Pagar, the enclave of Chinese migrant workers between the docks and the town in colonial days, later the constituency of Lee Kwan Yew:

“The revolution has been generally understood. . . as liberation from foreign domination. . . the last wave of a global thrust toward self-determination, the rule of like over like, the modernization of governance, the unification of state and culture, or whatever. . . “

Approaching Raffles Place, the center of the financial district with its tall buildings north of the river:

“But it was, as has become increasingly clear as time has passed and the more purely ideological ardors have cooled, something rather more profound than that. It was an alteration, a transformation even, of our whole sense of the relationships between history, place, and political belonging.”

We got off at Raffles Place, escalated to the surface, and crossed the historic (1869) Cavenaugh Bridge, from the business side to the official side with its colonial buildings: the court house, the cathedral, parliament. And on a pleasant green by the river, the statue of Raffles.

Raffles City, Raffles Hotel, everything is Raffles in central Singapore. Lee wrote that the Dutch economic adviser Albert Winsemius, influential advisor to the PLP, in 1961 laid two preconditions for modern development of the city: “First, to eliminate the communists who made any economic progress impossible; second, not to remove the statue of Stamford Raffles.” The Japanese took it down and were going to melt the bronze, but it was saved and put up again in 1946. A synthetic marble casting now stands white and commanding on a pedestal against the backdrop of tall office buildings that shine like Manhattan at night.

To topple Raffles would have been an acceptable gesture of independence at the time, but Lee and his party were thinking ahead. British defense spending accounted for 20 per cent of the Singapore economy. British banks were major investors. English was the working language. The best Singapore students went to Oxford and Cambridge.

The Peoples Action Party, with British advice and consent, established a parliamentary form of government – but not, it turns out, with much enthusiasm for Western democracy. Lee wrote:

“I have seen so many of the over 80 constitutions drafted by Britain or France for their former colonies come to grief, and not because of flaws with the constitutions. It was simply that the preconditions for a democratic system of government did not exist. None of these countries had a civic society with an educated electorate. Nor did their people have a cultural tradition of acceptance of the authority of a person because of his office. These traditions take generations to inculcate in a people.”

The predictable p.c.-West reaction is to dismiss this as so much authoritarian rationalizing. Lee responds, “No critic has been able to fault the Singapore government for corruption, nepotism or immorality.” Yet the American press would find fault regardless, calling Singapore “antiseptically clean” or “soulessly efficient.” Similarly, the American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington said, “The honesty and efficiency that Senior Minister Lee has brought to Singapore are likely to follow him to his grave” because, “only democracy produces good government in the long haul.” Lee quoted this without comment.

Geertz ridiculed the kind of thinking that formed Huntington’s bestselling “The Clash of Civilizations” as “operatic word painting” contrasted with his kind of ethnologist’s “patient, modest, close-in work.” Geertz, however, abandoned this specific objectivity with regard to Singapore, calling its governance “the father-knows-best moralism of a Lee Kwan Yew, paddling truants, journalists, and bumptious businessmen as insufficiently Confucian.” (Footnotes: Singapore’s criminal penalties include corporal punishment. Public figures are protected under the libel laws. Confucius is the Chinese philosopher of social order and civility.)

Lee wrote of a visit to Singapore by a human rights emissary of the Carter White House seeking an end to detention of political opponents without trial. “I told her Singapore was a Confucianist society which placed the interest of community above those of the individual. My primary responsibility was the wellbeing of the people. I had to deal with communist subversives, against whom it was not possible to get witnesses to testify in open court.” She was so distressed she asked if she could smoke, he writes, even though she had been briefed about his allergy to cigarettes. (Similarly, in another place, Lee portrays Jimmy Carter as a hurried non-listener obsessed with following his schedule down to the second.)

East-West conferences like to distinguish between societies of duty and societies of rights. Geertz, the anthropologist of “deep description” dismisses such intellectualizing. In the essay on the splintered world (“we must address the splinters”) he dismisses “offhand talk about the Confucian Ethic or the Western Tradition” as well as “wispy moralizing about universal values or dim banalities about underlying oneness.“


These two remarkable men needed to talk. They, of course, never did and Geertz died in 2006. They might have found common ground besides their aversion to political correctness and their having come of age in World War II. (Geertz wrote that he was “narrowly saved by the Bomb from being obliged to invade Japan.“) And they might have found agreement on, if not human rights, the nation-building obsession of the West. Let me construct a dialogue in their own words:

Lee: “The uniformity of technology is accompanied by an implicit assumption that politics, and even cultures, will be homogenized. Especially the long-established nations of the West have fallen prey to the temptation of ignoring history and judging every new state by their own civilizations. It is often overlooked that the institutions of the West did not spring full-blown from the brow of contemporaries but evolved over centuries. . .”

Geertz (agreeing): “The diffusionist notion that the modern world was made in northern and western Europe and then seeped out like an oil slick to cover the rest of the world has obscured the fact. . . that rather than converging toward a single pattern those entities called countries were ordering themselves in novel ways. . . For better or worse the dynamics of western nation building are not being replicated.”

Lee: “Many American leaders believed that racial, religious and linguistic hatreds, rivalries, hostilities and feuds down the millennia could be solved if sufficient resources were expended on them. . . Their methods of countering communism in Asia did not impress me.”

Geertz: “We seem to be in need of a new variety of politics, a politics which does not regard ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic, or regional assertiveness as so much irrationality, archaic and ingenerate, to be suppressed or transcended, a madness decried or a darkness ignored.“

Lee: “If there was one formula for success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality.”

Geertz: “The commitment of liberalism, [however,] is said to prevent it from recognizing the force and durability of ties of religion, language, custom, locality, race, and descent in human affairs. . . I do not think this is the case. . . We need most especially to recognize that in attempting to advance it more broadly in the world, we will find ourselves confronting not just blindness and irrationality. . . but competing conceptions of how matters should be arranged and people related to one another. . .The issue is not one of ‘relativism,’ as it is so often put by those who wish to insulate their beliefs against the force of difference. It is a matter of understanding that talking to others implies listening to them.”

I’m sure that Raffles, with his marble ears, was not listening. He stands in a pose of getting to work, as if despite stunning backdrop there is still work to be done in this experimental city-state. In its own way and on its own Singapore has solved many of the problems of Western cities – pollution, litter, traffic jams, predatory landlords, street crime, enclaves of poverty. What else?

We adjourned to the bar at the old colonial Raffles Hotel and drank Singapore Slings and watched a pigeon pecking through the peanut shells on the floor.

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Singapore And Lee Kwan Yew

He died March 23 at age 91

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