From Third World to First

Lee gives an historical account of Singapore''s development, while also recounting some of his personal achievements during his time as prime minister.

From Third World to FirstI have often pondered what China would have looked like today had it been run by Lee Kuan Yew and not Mao Zedong. Lee has proven to be one of the most formidable, visionary and incorruptible Asian leaders of the century. He took a city-state with no natural resources and turned it into a sovereign state with a per capita GDP of over $20,000. His 31 years as prime minister were a testimony to hard work and the creation of a national identity. What if this same man could have had the whole of China as his canvas? It is one of the great what-ifs of 20th century history.

In Lee’s book From Third World to First he looks back over his achievements. I opened the book - as an admirer of Lee’s - hoping for something that Lee has not written. I would like to read a book by Lee that seeks to explain ‘the Chinese’ and the social and cultural hybrid he has created in Singapore. He is in a position to write a much more authoritative version of Bo Yang’s famous The Ugly Chinaman than anyone else - a book in which the author assesses what is good and bad about Chinese culture.

Indeed, Lee’s Singapore - for Singapore is Lee’s vision of what a state should be - is the product of some very serious social engineering. He recognized early on that there were great flaws in Chinese society and set out to inject what he saw as necessary elements from Anglo-Saxon culture.

His move to English as Singapore’s primary language - which established a way of thinking about law and government in a different way to how these concepts are addressed in the Chinese language - and the way he set to root out patronage and establish a dependable legal system, all created a Chinese city-state unlike any other. The Chinese of Singapore are therefore a hybrid. This has its pros and cons. To take two examples, they are more civic-minded than other Chinese, but also less prone to take risks. Maybe Lee will one day write such a book. He is uniquely positioned to do so.

The book he has written, indirectly touches on these issues - at one point he mentions how he had the feeling of “not being Chinese” on his first trip to China - but is more of a history book than a philosophical look at the Chinese themselves. In its 700 pages he looks at the history of Singapore’s development, and brings to bear conversations he has had with other leaders.

My advice is to start in the middle of the book, as the second half is more interesting than the first. Indeed, the best chapters are those towards the end, about Singapore’s relations with China. The section on Singapore’s investment in Suzhou on page 653 is enlightening.

The writing style is dry, straightforward and rarely witty or apt to turn a phrase. Bearing that proviso in mind, I liked: “The Koreans are a fearsome people. When they riot, they are as organized and nearly as disciplined as the riot police who confront them.”

The book has the occasional good anecdote, but not as many as there could be. Some of the best ones are reserved for African leaders in the chapters about the Commonwealth meetings - but few Asian readers will care about these.

Interesting moments include the passage about Jiang Zemin staying in a three-star hotel on Orchard Road in the days before he was paramount leader, or when Helmut Kohl started a conversation with an elderly Indonesian by an aquarium only to later discover it was President Suharto. He also has some brilliant insights on the Japanese and their system - including his shock when a Japanese executive in Singapore committed suicide after failing to win a contract. Ironically, he also has more interesting things to say about Britain than most Britons. But, again, this will be of secondary interest to Asian readers.

The worst flaw in the book is its attempt to encapsulate so much. At times this leads to a discussion of each successive leader in a country, many of which are bare thumbnails. He writes a few paragraphs, for example, about all the Japanese prime ministers he met in his time. But four paragraphs on Kakuei Tanaka hardly does justice to the man, and has a definite sense of historical writing that falls between two stools. But that aside, who is the leader that the great Lee Kuan Yew says impressed him the most? The answer: Deng Xiaoping.

This is not a book that is explicitly about finance, but if you have an interest in recent Asian history or you frequent Singapore, it will certainly have relevance.

Rating: 3/5

Reviewed by Steven Irvine

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