Pacific Perspectives: An Asian Leader Receives Coveted American Award

“If they push too hard, China will stumble”

October 28, 2011

Los Angeles – They honored the controversial, though increasingly appreciated, Asian statesman Lee Kuan Yew at the historic Ford Theater in Washington recently, and frankly I wish I had been there. Exceptional leaders are hard to find anywhere on the globe, including Asia. Until his recent retirement, this tough-as-nails guy – now 88 – had helped organize and run tiny Singapore almost like nobody has ever run anything. He certainly didn’t do things 100% the American way. This made this U.S.-led award event all the more extraordinary and noteworthy.

They call it the Ford Theatre’s Lincoln Medal. Recipients are said to somehow exemplify the legacy of old Abe himself. So now modern Singapore’s founding prime minister finds himself in the same category as past awardee Desmond Tutu, the legendary anti-apartheid crusader and 1984 Nobel laureate. And Lee becomes the first Lincoln awardee ever from Asia.

Who would have thought?! Western human rights organizations must be rolling over furiously on their bed of staunch principles. They so hated his control over the opposition and dissent. But Singapore, under Lee, never much cared for what rights ideologues thought. Singaporeans did it their own way: They wanted nation-building results – and fast. And, within decades, this is precisely what they achieved.

The Lee speed-demon era is almost over, of course. Yes, his son is the prime minister and so the results-first legacy will endure for a time. But a new generation is moving into power and things will begin to change. This is as it should be. Nothing that is dynamic can stay the same.

In fact, in accepting the Lincoln Award, Lee made exactly that point about China. The 1.3 billion people question is whether some sort of evolution toward democracy, however defined, is in the cards for what in an earlier time was called the Middle Kingdom.

The precise Lee handled this monumental question this way: “The Chinese know their shortcomings.  But can they break free from their own culture? It will mean going against the grain of 5,000 years of Chinese history. Can China become a parliamentary democracy? This is a possibility in the villages and small towns. This will be a long evolutionary process, but it is possible to contemplate such changes. One thing is for sure: The present system will not remain unchanged for the next 50 years.”

One listens to Lee about China with more than passing care because of his track record for correct assessments. Though a staunch and unyielding anti-Communist, he accepts the inevitability of China’s historic rise in this century, and rates Deng Xiaoping as the greatest leader he has personally met in his long career. When one considers the parade of stars in Lee’s illustrious life, that assessment is significant.

They had been calling him Minister Mentor until his recent retirement. It was an apt title. My own gratitude to Lee for his assistance to my journalism dates back to 1996, the year when my op-ed column on Asia was launched in The Los Angeles Times (four years later it morphed into the syndicated version that you are now reading).

It was a typically torrid October day in Singapore when Lee greeted me in his office. I had heard of him but had never met him. The interview had been scheduled to last about 20 minutes but rolled on for an hour. I asked him to focus on a rising China and how it might all backfire.

He said he hadn’t been asked that before and, uncharacteristically, took a dozen seconds before speaking.

“Where could China go wrong? Impatience; wanting to make faster progress than circumstances allow; pushing too hard; taking short cuts that could set them back.”

This he is saying in 1996!

Continuing: “The natural ability is there…. but that doesn’t mean they can do what France and Germany can do…. All the elements aren’t yet in place…. For instance, putting an object into space is not the same thing as getting a 747 airline accepted by the commercial airlines of the world. They lack this depth, and if they push too hard, they will stumble….”

Lee warned China against irritating smaller countries in Asia: “They have so much to do at home, they need their neighbors’ cooperation. Look at this [erupting back then, as again right now] row over Senkaku, which the Chinese call Diaoyudao….”

In that 1996 flare-up, however, China showed commendable restraint. So he pointedly added: “They could have made it a very big deal. China has been very cool, firm but no histrionics. That [should] sum up their policy for the next 10-20 years.”

China’s neighbors argue that it hasn’t – that China has been pushing too hard in the South China Sea (…If they push too hard, they will stumble….). Perhaps China should inaugurate a Deng Xiaoping Award. Lee could be its first recipient. Then he could give a speech and China’s leaders would listen. It might do them some major good. A properly and peacefully developing China is a gigantic plus for the world, not to mention for China itself.

Loyola Marymount University’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Affairs Tom Plate is the author of the Giants of Asia series. The most recent volume is “Conversations with Thaksin.” The first one was “Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew,” now available in Bahasa, Chinese (simplified and standard) and other languages beside. © 2011, Pacific Perspectives Media Center.


One Reply to “Pacific Perspectives: An Asian Leader Receives Coveted American Award”

  1. Exceptional leaders are sometimes exceptional only because the works of others have gone to their credit. Lee Kuan Yew is no exception. Without Dr Albert Winsemius, without Goh Keng Swee, without Singaporeans, Lee Kuan Yew would have amounted to nothing. It wouldn’t be accurate to refer to Lee Kuan Yew organising and running Singapore as Goh Keng Swee organising and running Singapore with Dr Winsemius as advisor.

    It wasn’t just under Lee but even before Lee, Singapore never cared much for ideology. We were founded as a place for trade and commerce and have continued to evolve as such.

    It is strange that Lee Kuan Yew would refer to Chinese history as going back 5,000 years instead of going back to 1949 when the Chinese Communist Party won power. Strange because whenever he refers to Singapore history, he invariably goes back to 1959, the year he won power instead of 1819, the year of our founding.

    To refer to his track record of correct assessments is even stranger. He couldn’t even see the Global Financial Crisis unfolding right before his eyes and GIC which he headed lost billions overnight. His wrong assessment in the early years led to over-control of population growth leading to population under-growth today. The economic policy he adopted when he first took power was import substitution for the Malaysian market. Import substitution was the policy that eventually failed many third world nations. Thankfully for Singapore, we were kicked out of Malaysia and didn’t have to suffer the consequences of Mr Lee’s wrong assessment.

    He labelled his former comrades communists and made himself look anti-communist in order to lock them up and destroy them. He even referred to a group of Christians as Marxists and had them locked up too. You see, he will call his opponents anything just to have his way with them. But if you look at the substance of his accusations, there is none to be found. Have you ever seen communists anywhere in the world fighting without guns and bullets? Yet, these were the unarmed people labelled by Lee Kuan Yew as communists and locked up for such a record number of years even Nelson Mandela cannot beat.

    If we have to name a Singapore counterpart to Deng Xiao Ping, it would have to be Goh Keng Swee, advised by Dr Winsemius. The award most befitting Lee Kuan Yew would be a Mao Tse Tung award or a Joseph Stalin award. For Lee is a through and through autocrat whose only gifts were political guile and ruthlessness, the two hallmarks of great autocrats like Mao and Stalin.

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