Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: One Man's View of the World

My friend, Ken Fong, found the book so compelling that he bought a bushel so he can give a copy to each of his friends as he ran into them in daily encounters. At age 90, this is most likely the last book by Lee Kuan Yew. Lee was Singapore’s first prime minister in 1959 and led the city state to full independence in 1965 when the rest of Malaysia rather unceremoniously invited Singapore to go their separate ways. By the time he stepped down in 1990, Singapore has been transformed into a First World metropolis. His is a legacy of what good government is like and how a successful national leader should behave.

As the book jacket stated, with little else left to prove, he looks ahead to offer his unvarnished view of the future shape of the world. In reading his view of the world, the reader will come to understand the core beliefs of this remarkable man. Some of these include:

(1) For any nation to succeed, clean government is a must. Road to a clean government is to pay the civil servants generously so that there is no reason for corruption. For those that do stray and gets caught, the punishment needs to be harsh for betraying the public trust.

(2) Democracy is no panacea. If the citizens are poorly educated and have no idea of what democracy is all about and if the country lacks a history of progressive thinking and culture of individual equality, the introduction of democracy will fail. As Lee predicted in his book, winter inevitably followed Arab Spring because tribal based feudal systems of the Middle East cannot nurture democracy.

(3) Education is the necessary foundation to any successful developing nation and the access to quality education must be equal to all citizens, male and female. Educated workforce is vital to economic development and a growing economy gives the population opportunities to a better life and thus a willingness to support their government. Thus in his view, the caste system will always hold India back from realizing its full potential and keeping women from education will block the development of Islamic countries.

(4) Diversity in a population trumps homogeneous population because diversity means more diverse gene pool and greater range of creative thinking and capacity for innovation. From his point of view, the U.S. greatest strength is its welcoming attitude towards immigrants. By the same token, Japan’s inability to accept anything foreign, even ethnic Japanese who has lived abroad is the root of its inevitable decline.

Hi book deals with major global topics and each major regions of the world.  On China, his impression of Xi Jinping is in the “Nelson Mandela class of persons,” and Deng Xiaoping is undoubtedly the most impressive international leader he has ever met. Key difference between the US (a benign power) and China is that China does not believe in “evangelizing their form of government.” His biggest concern on China is if the future young generation of Chinese, not having experienced the challenges of China’s difficult past, gets overly nationalistic and aggressive.

From his visits to the U.S, “I came to appreciate fully the dynamism of the entrepreneurial American.” Lee sees long-term success of the U.S. resting on its ability to continue to attract “bright and restless immigrants from the world.” As for the competing influences of the U.S. and China in Asia, he felt that even though the US military budget is still six times greater than that of China, China has advantage of proximity in competing for influence in its neighboring states. He seems to think that both sides need to find mutual accommodations around a stale mate.

Lee is considerably less optimistic about Europe. He sees two major hindrances. The flaw behind the Euro is monetary integration without fiscal integration between 27 nations with wide and disparate of economic development. He sees no hope for fiscal integration ever. Europe is afflicted with the welfare state mentality and stifling labor laws that discourage entrepreneurialism, innovation and striving for productivity. Rather condescendingly, Lee thought Europe might be able to get away with the welfare state mind-set if they were competing with Fiji or Tonga.

The book jacket endorsements list some of world’s who’s who as heads of state, diplomats and international notables.  But I don’t think that was the reason Ken liked the book so much that he became a volunteer propagandist of Lee’s worldview. In Lee, he sees and the world sees a great statesman who successful synergized his impeccable western education with his innate Asian values to show the world how a small port city can integrate into the global economy and let the people thrive. The politicians in Washington would do well to read and heed the lessons he learned.

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