Lee Kuan Yew

Book review: Lee Kuan Yew, by Graham Allison and Robert Blackwell

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 March, 2013, 4:39pm

Lee Kuan Yew

by Graham Allison and Robert Blackwell

MIT Press

Any book on Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew is welcome news, especially one from Harvard's Graham Allison. He and Robert Blackwell have teamed up to add Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World to the literature on the city state's founding prime minister.

Allison, an academic with government experience, and businessman Blackwell, a former ambassador to India, are thorough cosmopolitans, particularly by US standards. Their compilation, which includes two of their interviews, will serve to reinforce the consensus view that Asia bred something special in Lee.

His long and sometimes less than heartwarming hold over the city state was due not just to the iron grip of his near-monopolistic ruling party. The good people of Singapore can have no worry that the world might ever wonder why they put up with this titanic ego for so many decades. Lee and his mainly meritocratic team make it all work.

But now, at a very frail 89, he is continuing to "degrade rapidly", in his words when I last spoke to him; his beloved Singapore is ready to move on. The dominance of his People's Action Party looks less certain by the day; many Singaporeans want a more open and irreverent polity; and Lee's son, Lee Hsien Loong, is trying hard to be the bridge to that future.

The book is a peek into the past, a mini-encyclopedia of Lee's statements, speeches, magazine articles (and so on), that is stirred into a bouillabaisse for beginners. Alas, old and new are thrown together not in chronological order but topic by topic, as if live questions by the authors. The approach is a little hard to follow if you want to know what is new and what is old, and how old it is.

Lee Kuan Yew is a phenomenon and his Singapore a marvel of development. But his views on China, the West and the rest bubbled up not from the rarefied atmosphere of the academy or from the boardrooms of business, but from the human cauldron of millions of human beings who needed day-by-day effective governance while being guided strategically From Third World to First (the title of Lee's superb first volume of autobiography). This was hard to do.

More than just an exceptional mind, Lee is a force of nature. Up close and personal, he can charm your human-rights arguments away with dialectical subtlety, or blow you away with one overpowering dismissive glare. Has there ever been anyone like him?

So how might history rate this man who held office as an elected prime minister for longer than anyone in recorded history? Given Allison and Blackwell "resisted the temptation to comment or offer our own views", their book effectively ducks the interesting questions. Perhaps they should do another book in a few years' time.