The Man Who Would Be King

Can Asians Think?

by Kishore Mahbubani
Singapore: Times Editions, 192 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Not a Singapore story, but the Singapore story: it is a bit grandiose to identify one’s life story with that of one’s country, but in Lee Kuan Yew’s case perhaps not entirely unjustified. Singapore existed as a place before Lee, but the Singapore we know today was shaped to a remarkable extent in his image. The former prime minister’s “earliest and most vivid” childhood memory seems peculiarly apt, given the nature of his later enterprise. Young Harry Lee (as he was called until he began using his Chinese name to please the ethnic Chinese voters) was dragged off by his father and suspended over a well by his ears. This punishment was for having messed with Lee senior’s jar of favorite brilliantine. It was a wonder that Harry’s ears weren’t torn off. The experience stayed with him forever, which was a source of puzzlement to him, for he was a man who took pride in being rugged. But, then, in the 1970s, he found the answer, in Scientific American no less. He learned that “pain and shock released neuropeptides in the brain, stamping the new experience into the brain cells thus ensuring that the experience would be remembered for a long time afterwards.”

What makes the current senior minister’s memoirs so arresting is that such tales are recounted without a hint of irony or humor. Lee writes about his life, and the building of his nation, in the manner of an engineer; it is essentially a technical enterprise—the life, the nation, but also the book itself, written, as he tells us, on a PC with the assistance of nine writers. But the engineer is a hard taskmaster. In his own account, Lee and his nation were constructed through sheer discipline, sweat, and a prodigious appetite for punishment. The memoirs were made of similar stuff: “I did most of my uninterrupted work on the PC at night after the day’s work was done. Several of the young men and women to whom I sent my drafts asked if the time stamp on my PC was wrong, because they were frequently stamped as 3 or 4 am. I assured them that it was correct.” What a man!

The taste for punishment, especially when it is administered to others, is perhaps one thing that has endeared Lee to conservative politicians around the world. The cover of his memoirs includes fawning endorsements from Margaret Thatcher and Henry Kissinger. Yet Lee, who began his career as a socialist, also managed to get figures from the soft left, such as Tony Blair and Helmut Schmidt, to burble their praises. The quotes from “world leaders” all praise the brilliance of Lee’s mind. George Bush sees him as “one of this century’s truly visionary statesmen.” Jacques Chirac hails his “genius.” Mrs. Thatcher thinks he “was never wrong.”

How did the former prime minister of a tiny Asian city-state manage to get such an exalted reputation? One …

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Letters

The Singapore Difference September 23, 1999