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 way of explaining it is that he is the only Asian politician who sounds more articulate in English than most American presidents. But that is perhaps faint praise and surely not all there is to it. What unites leaders from right to left is admiration for that vaunted combination in Singapore of rigid order and glittering prosperity. Lee has built a nation that is richer than many countries in the West, and yet seemingly uncluttered by all the messy accoutrements of other capitalist societies: no drugs, no noisy protests, no sex scandals, no single mothers on welfare, no unruly students, no racial or ethnic violence, not much crime to speak of, and, most miraculous of all, hardly any opposition to the government.

None of these things reach the surface, at any rate, and the surface is all that distinguished visitors to Singapore will get to see through the windows of their Mercedes Benz limos. Most Singaporeans say they are content. Time and time again, they cast their votes for Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). When one brave young man, Dr. Chee Sun Juan, leader of the tiny Democratic Party, was swiftly arrested last February for making an innocuous speech in the center of town, many Singaporeans thought he had just been foolish for speaking out of turn. A young woman working for a financial consultancy told a reporter: “The Government cannot please everyone. He [Chee] is only saying bad things about the PAP. You have to admit we have a good life under the PAP.”

Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore, then, might easily be seen as a kind of autocratic paradise, a neat, wealthy, preppy, leafy boarding school, with plenty of fresh air and exercise, founded by a brilliant but strict disciplinarian who never spared the rod and was never, ever wrong. This model of harmony and prosperity has become known as something typically Asian, something often ascribed to typically “Asian values.” Lee has mentioned such values in his own speeches, but has left the main missionary work to various official scribes in the government and the foreign service. Kishore Mahbubani, a traveling veteran of the international conference circuit and Singapore’s current ambassador to the United Nations, is such a man. Can Asians Think? is the curious title of his latest booklet, which has a photograph of Mahbubani himself, in a deep thinking pose, gracing the cover. Mahbubani is a bit of an expert on the subject of thinking. The title is from a talk he gave at “an international conference on thinking,” held in 1997 in Singapore. Mahbubani clearly has had many thoughts; few of them, in my view, have much merit.


Mahbubani is convinced that the Western promotion of democracy, human rights, and freedom of the press in Asia and other parts of what he still calls the third world is “a colossal mistake.” Indeed, although he says he cannot prove it, he thinks there might be “a causal connection between a more aggressive free press and increasingly bad government.” He quotes the US government debt as an example. Recent communal violence in India is cited as another. In fact, it is more likely that honest reporting in the Indian press helped put a stop to it. Nonetheless he tells us that “political openness” is not “the key variable” to look at in Asia. Mahbubani defines Asian values as follows: “attachment to the family as an institution, deference to societal interests, thrift, conservatism in social mores, respect for authority.”1

One might well ask what is peculiarly Asian, rather than simply conservative, about these things. One might even wonder in what urban Asian societies they are actually much in evidence: in Bangkok, in Shanghai, in Jakarta, in Bombay? And one might disagree with Mahbubani’s assertion that “the West” is “demanding” democracy in Asia. Perhaps the world would be a better place if the West would, or could, demand such a thing.

In truth, it is Asians who are making the demands. But not Mahbubani’s Asians, or, as he prefers, “Asian minds,” who, he states, don’t want democracy, just “good governance.” Well, who doesn’t? The problem is that Asian autocracies have not had a very good run recently. They have either been replaced—through popular demand—by more democratic forms of government (Taiwan, South Korea, the Philippines), or are in a state of collapse (Indonesia), terminal decay (Burma), or more or less permanent crisis (China). The exception is indeed that little city-state of Singapore, which is still humming along pros-perously in its disciplined, fearful, and illiberal way. I would argue that this has less to do with its supposedly Asian qualities than with its size, its history, its inherited institutions, and the peculiar nature of the man who shaped it.


“Harry” Lee Kuan Yew was born in 1923 and educated to be an Englishman, or at least the colonial, “Asiatic” version of an Englishman. His grandfather, a fine gentleman never out of his collar and tie, no matter how hot the time of day, thought the English were never wrong. He especially admired their “order, strength and efficiency.” Young Harry adored him. At school, Harry learned all about Brit-ish literature, British history, and British geography. In one of his political speeches, he said: “I was sent to an English school to equip me to go to an English university in order that I could then be an educated man—the equal of any Englishman, the model of perfection.”

He said this in a tone of regret to please his Chinese-speaking audience. But in a way the Englishman remained Lee’s model of perfection—not the Englishman of today, of course, the decadent, post-imperial softy, but the Englishman of the old school, who dressed up in the tropical heat and bravely bore the white man’s burden. Order, strength, and efficiency were never particularly Asian boasts, but were more typical of the British Raj, as was the claim that colonial peoples had a long way to go before they were “ready for democracy.” And that provided the model for Lee’s Singapore. Except that the Raj in its later stages was more liberal than Lee’s republic would soon become.

There was, however, one Asian model of discipline to which Lee could warm. The European was rudely knocked off his surprisingly shaky pedestal the moment Japanese troops marched into Singapore in 1942. British and Australian armed forces were humbled by a much smaller number of orderly, strong, and efficient Japanese. General Arthur Percival, a chinless figure in shorts, offering his surrender to the bull-necked General Yamashita, was the hapless symbol of British imperial humiliation. (The scene has been fixed forever in a waxworks tableau on Singapore’s Sentosa Island, a popular spot with Japanese tourists.) As Lee notes, “The British built up the myth of their inherent superiority so convincingly that most Asiatics thought it was hopeless to challenge them. But now one Asiatic race had dared to defy them and smashed that myth.”


Lee reacted quickly to the change of masters and decided to learn Japanese. He took a job as an English-language editor at the Japanese propaganda department. Later on he also did well for himself as a profiteer on the black market. The lack of sentimentality with which Lee recalls these events might be described as bracing, if one wishes to be charitable, or chilling if one does not. About the black market: “It was a no-lose situation. Every item was in short supply and getting scarcer…. I was able to raise some money and quickly accumulated more.”

But, as we might expect, it was the harsh discipline instilled by the Japanese that left the deepest mark. “The Japanese Military Administration governed by spreading fear. It put up no pretense of civilized behavior. Punishment was so severe that crime was very rare.” Does Lee still shudder at the memories of Japanese cruelty? Did it temper his views in any way? Not a bit of it. As a result of witnessing Japanese methods, he reports, “I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.” The interesting thing here is not whether Lee is right or wrong, but that he would home in on this particular aspect of the occupation, and indeed of the British rule that preceded it.

The Japanese are undoubtedly Asians. But to identify the ways of the wartime Japanese Imperial Army with “Asian values” would be to take a very dim view of Asian culture. And in fact Lee never admired the Japanese because they were Asians, but because they were ruthless. This did not mean he liked the Japanese. Indeed, he always appears to have liked the English better. But he respected them. Did he regard them as his enemies? After all, the Japanese treated the ethnic Chinese with particular brutality—to impress the Malays.

This question cuts to what is most fascinating about Lee. He spent a lifetime fighting real and imaginary enemies, but he did so by stealing their best lines, and he usually ended up looking oddly like them, in a distorted kind of way. As an ethnic Chinese and an “Anglified Chinaman” (his words), he was hardly a supporter of the Japanese occupation forces, yet he worked for their propaganda outfit and admired and emulated their harsh discipline. As a left-wing nationalist struggling for national independence he had to oppose the British, but even as he opposed their right to rule, he collaborated with them to crush his local rivals, and kept their most repressive institutions once they had gone.

Lee spent much of his later political life fighting the Communists, or those he chose to identify as such, yet he used them to come to power and imitated their organization and populist demagoguery. If there is a pattern here, it is Lee’s respect for power, whoever happens to wield it, and his eagerness to learn the methods by which it is maintained. Lee’s bullying, like all bullying, was always reserved for those who were weaker or less ruthless than himself.

Lee was never easy on himself either. You sense in his prose, as well as his actions, a terror of being thought to be anything but a tough guy. Going over his first television appearances as a politician, even Lee was shocked at how much he resembled a scowling gangster. His has been a life of political toil and few pleasures. No women, no music, no wine, no art, no movies, no novels. A regular round of golf, that is about all. A workaholic and a bit of a philistine, then. But there are anecdotes about Lee which suggest that self-discipline could be softened by self-interest. When Lee sailed for England in 1946, a privileged scholarship student bound for the London School of Economics (and later Cambridge), his behavior was quite eccentric. One of his shipmates later recalled:

Fresh water was strictly rationed. We were six to a cabin and the steward would bring in three buckets of water early every morning, half a bucket for each person. But Harry would rise as early as five or six o’clock and use up all three buckets in his cabin for himself and then go over to the other cabin for more. This of course made him quite unpopular, but he didn’t seem to care.2

Courting popularity never was Lee’s style. He preferred to be feared.

Much of the autobiography, which ends in 1965, when Singapore was separated from Malaysia (the next volume is yet to come), concerns Lee’s relations with his Communist, or “communist,” enemies. In 1950 Lee returned to Singapore from Cambridge University, which was, he assures us in his typical style, “not the Cambridge of youngsters who wanted to have a good time and to impress each other with their arty-crafty ways.” Lee was still a young socialist then, impatient for independence and, he notes without a smidgen of irony, disgusted with the “feeble press” and the “supine speeches” of local politicians, which “never challenged British supremacy.” In short, he was hungry for power. But to achieve it he needed the leftists, for they were the only ones who could stir up the Chinese-speaking masses against British rule.

Chinese speakers formed the majority in Singapore. Lee belonged to a tiny English-educated elite. The Chinese-educated union leaders and front men for the Malayan Communist Party were able to draw from the deep well of Chinese nationalism. They spoke Chinese dialects and basked in the prestige of Mao’s revolution. Lee’s command of Chinese was still “pathetic, almost negligible.” He put the matter succinctly to an Australian reporter in 1955:

Any man in Singapore who wants to carry the Chinese-speaking people with him cannot afford to be anti-communist. The Chinese are very proud of China. If I had to choose between colonialism and communism, I would vote for communism and so would the great majority.

Even as he said this, however, Lee was courting the British colonial authorities as allies against the leftists, who were organizing strikes to protest against the colonial system. First he invited popular leftists, such as Lim Chin Siong, to join the PAP, which was formed in 1954 and pretended to be on their side. Then he solicited British backing for himself as the only acceptable leader of a future independent Singapore by contrasting his constitutional tactics to the leftists’ rabble-rousing and violence. Lee wanted the British to help him purge his popular rivals from the PAP, but not before Lim and others had served his interests. After they had secured mass support for the PAP and rattled the British, he didn’t object, at least in private, when the British Special Branch put the radicals in jail. As he observes with the same clinical detachment as in his descriptions of wartime collaboration and black marketeering, “Without the communists going beyond the law and using violence, my methods would not have been effective. It was the less unpleasant option I offered that made them acceptable to the British.” If Lee Kuan Yew is indeed as brilliant as his admirers believe, it is manifested in these Machiavellian games. It is the naked, almost childlike delight he takes in his own duplicity that makes Lee’s ploddingly written book such a fascinating document.

Consider the following. In 1957, Lee was in London to discuss the new Singaporean constitution.3 Singapore was to be a self-governing state with continued British political “supervision.” Lee visited the secretary of state for the colonies, Alan Lennox-Boyd, at his house in Eaton Square. After tea was served, Lennox-Boyd suggested to Lee that people who had been charged with subversive activities should be barred from standing in the first election under the new constitution. Lee objected. Such powers could be misused against democrats too. This was Lee, the young democrat, speaking. When Lennox-Boyd asked Lee what would happen if Lee’s jailed party comrades were to run for office, Lee replied that they would surely win. This was Lee, the realist. When Lennox-Boyd suggested that in that case they should surely be barred from running, Lee answered that he still would have to protest, but not too much. This was Lee, the Machiavellian. Alas, the democratic Lee, to the extent he ever really existed, was to fade away soon. The realist would often fall prey to paranoia. But the Machiavellian would rarely falter.


Communists can be disciplined, efficient, and ruthless. Lee admired those qualities. But how many of his political rivals in those early years of self-government were truly Communists? Some undoubtedly were. One of the most active, Lim Chin Siong, denied that he was. Many of the radicals from the Chinese-language universities were Chinese chauvinists, but not necessarily part of a Communist front. And Lee’s main rival in the PAP, the former mayor, Ong Eng Guan, was a moderate, whose main threat to Lee was his popularity with the voters. But from the moment he became prime minister in 1959, Lee behaved as though Singapore was infested with Communist conspiracies. He talked about “enemies” and “rogues” and “Communists” who would “fix” him if he didn’t stand firm. He made it clear to the British and to the government in Malaya that he, Lee, was the only force that stood between good order and violent revolution. The way he managed to fix his rivals was both ruthless and cunning.

The strategy was two-pronged: he convinced the Malayan prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, an amiable aristocrat with a taste for fine women and fast horses, that the only way to defeat Communist revolution in Singapore was a merger with the Malayan states, with Lee in charge of Singapore. While engaging in secret negotiations with the Tunku, he warned his leftist party colleagues that the federal Malayan government would probably crush them. They reacted in just the way he had hoped, by opposing Lee’s plans for a merger, thus splitting the PAP.

Lee then staged a referendum on the merger, offering a choice between merging with Malaya on good terms for Singapore or on bad terms. Newspapers were warned by the former champion of a vigorous free press that anyone souring relations between Singapore and Malaya would “go in for subversion.”4 Voting was mandatory, blank votes were counted in favor of merger, and it was rumored that the blank votes could be tracked and result in punishment. The people voted for the government’s merger plan. And 133 activists, journalists, and trade unionists who had opposed the merger were duly put in jail, where some of them remained even when the merger came apart in 1965 and Singapore separated itself from Malaysia.

The PAP leftists decided they had had enough of Lee and formed a new party, the Barisan Sosialis, or Socialist Front, headed by Lim Chin Siong. Lee had a problem. Self-governing Singapore was still a democracy, and the Barisan Sosialis had far more support than the PAP. It was time for Lee to fix them. So he called for a general election. But it was to be a rather singular general election. For by now Lee had developed his own ideas about democracy. In 1960 he had told fellow politicians that “all this talk of democratic rights, laissez-faire liberalism, freedom and human rights, in the face of the stark realities of an underground struggle for power, can only confuse the English-educated world.”5 The English-educated world! That is to say, Lee’s own world. And his main political adversaries were politicians from the Chinese-educated world who enjoyed the support of the majority of voters.

How does this square with the idea that Asians don’t really want democracy? Anyhow, Lee took care of the problem quite deftly. All he describes in his memoirs is his own exhaustive campaigning, from village to school to city square, over a period of months. He became, he observes, “a kind of political pop star.” And when he was challenged by Barisan supporters, he put the spotlights on them and had them photographed. Lee recalls:

The jeers and chanting stopped. The occasion turned out to be a demonstration of my resourcefulness and resolve to meet their threats when they played it rough, and enhanced my standing as a leader prepared to go to the end of the road in any fight.

The details missing in Lee’s memoirs concern the way he virtually stopped the Barisan from taking part in the contest at all. The official campaign period, as opposed to Lee’s own barnstorming activities, was nine days, including several days of official festivities. Former detainees were physically stopped from registering as candidates. Permits to gather in public places were almost impossible to get. Printing facilities for opposition parties were blocked. Permission to put up banners got bogged down in red tape. Seven leftist trade unions were deregistered and the bank accounts of three were frozen.6

Finally, as a coup de grâce, came Operation Cold Store. In the early morning of February 2, 1963, 370 Singaporean and 133 Malayan police officers swooped down on 169 selected “pro-communists.” Some 115 were arrested that night. The excuse was a failed rebellion in Brunei, one of the sultanates in the northern Borneo, which would become independent only in 1984. By playing up the danger of a similar rebellion in Singapore, Lee had convinced the Tunku, as well as the British, that the arrest of all pro-communists was necessary. In his memoirs, Lee claims that the idea had come from the Tunku, and he was a reluctant accomplice. That is not the way critics of Lee remember the affair. Lee and the Tunku seemed to have spent most of their time haggling over lists of people to be put in jail. It was the British commissioner, Lord Selkirk, who tried to distinguish between political and security risks. In any case, it did the trick: the PAP won thirty-seven out of fifty-one seats.

Lim Chin Siong’s fate was a sad one. After four years in Changhi prison, with long stretches in solitary confinement, he had become a suicidal wreck. He begged Lee to release him and agreed to sign a letter renouncing any faith in communism and promising to give up politics for good. Lee insisted on a televised confession. Lim couldn’t face such a humiliating ordeal and spent three more years in jail, until he was released, a broken man. So much for the Asian value of saving an adversary’s face.

What particular lessons did Lee pick up from his leftist enemies? His memoirs are very good on this. In one remarkable instance, Lee’s inspiration from the united front dovetails with something he observed during a visit to the Vatican. Walking around St. Peter’s Basilica, he is “pleasantly” surprised to see the Pope being carried around on a palanquin by his Swiss guards. Nuns standing nearby are “almost fainting with joy.” And then, in Lee’s own inimitable prose:

After my experience with communist rallies I instinctively looked for the cheerleaders. I found them above me, choirboys on circular balconies up the pillars. The Roman Catholic Church had used such methods of mass mobilization long before the communists. The Church must have got many things right to have survived for nearly two thousand years. I remembered reading about a new Pope being elected by some one hundred cardinals who themselves had been appointed by earlier popes. That recollection was to serve the PAP well.

Such an observation, one imagines, could only be made in a spirit of dark humor. Yet Lee is not noted for his sense of humor. Lee: “Soon after I returned from Rome, I proposed that PAP elections to the central executive committee be modeled on the system for electing the Pope…. We got the necessary changes adopted.”

He did more. The PAP was organized in a quasi-Leninist hierarchy of ordinary party members and cadres, whose status was secret. As with Communist Party rule, the borders between the ruling party and government institutions were more or less abolished. Lee and his top cadres formed a People’s Association which embraced all the organizations normally associated with a “civil society”: voluntary social organizations, sports clubs, musical and theatrical associations, and so forth. These would be supervised by full-time secretaries working for the Social Welfare Department. As Lee puts it nicely: “We wanted to give people something positive to do, and get them lined up on the side of law and order.”

Henceforth almost every aspect of life in Singapore would be regimented under the aegis of the PAP. This might appear to be relatively benign, and compared to, say, North Korea, so it is, but the effect—desired by Lee, of course—was to turn every maverick, liberal, or dissenter who felt constrained by the PAP way of life and openly said so into an enemy of Singapore, part of a Communist conspiracy, and thus a danger to national survival. In a letter to the Australian government, Lee made his position quite clear: “You can depend on my colleagues and me to ensure that Singapore will remain a non-communist nation so long as we are in authority and whatever the sacrifice we have to make” (italics mine).

Long after any possible Communist threat had subsided, the PAP government was still rounding people up as conspirators. On a visit to Singapore in 1987, I met some of these alleged urban guerrillas, who had been arrested for plotting to turn Singapore into “a Marxist state.” They were an attractive group of young lawyers, a few Catholic social workers, and a woman who had written satirical skits for a small theater company. No evidence was ever produced of Communist activities by any of them. Their crime had been to think for themselves.

Apart from the Communist conspiracies, there was just one more knotty little problem that needed to be sorted out before Lee could feel totally in control of his land. How to operate inside a newly formed Malaysia? The merger, in September 1963, created new enemies who needed to be fixed. The ethnic Chinese formed a majority in Singapore but a minority in Malaysia. It was agreed that the Malaysian prime minister would always be a Malay, as the chief of the so-called bumiputra, or sons of the soil.

The Chinese minority in Malaysia tried to protect its communal interests by voting for the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). The Malays were represented by the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), which still rules Malaysia today. Lee’s ambitions in 1963 could hardly be sated by being a mere chief minister of one Malaysian state. Eventually he would have liked to rule Malaysia. So he insisted on remaining prime minister of Singapore, and projected the PAP as the only party in Malaysia not tied to one ethnic community or another. The PAP was for everyone, Chinese, Malay, or Indian. He would fix the MCA and UMNO by painting them as promoters of dangerous “communalism,” i.e., a politics of divided ethnic communities. Since the Malays, most of whom were still living in villages, were frightened of being dominated by the more sophisticated, urban Chinese, Lee got plenty of ammunition from his opponents: hysterical sinophobic articles in sections of the Malay press, shrill statements by Malay politicians in Kuala Lumpur, and defensive Chinese responses inside the MCA.

On the face of it, Lee’s promotion of a “Malaysian Malaysia”—that is, a state that stood above communal interests and treated all citizens equally—was both rational and sensible. After all, Lee had criticized ethnic Chinese chauvinism in Singapore too; he saw it as part of the Communist front. One can’t be sure what Lee’s personal feelings are about race. The impression from his book is that he imbibed both Chinese and British colonial prejudices. He recalls his shock as a student in Cambridge at meeting Africans for the first time: “I was unprepared for their strange body odours, quite unlike those of the racial groups we had in Singapore. I did not sleep well that night.” On tours to such lily-white areas as Australia, which in the 1960s still had a racist immigra-tion policy, Lee made speeches about the undisciplined peoples of Southeast Asia, and he challenged the right of Malays to call themselves indigenous, as opposed to “virile” Chinese or Indian immigrants. He was honest about his beliefs at least, but such utterances were bound to inflame suspicions which Malay politicians already harbored about him. And Lee wouldn’t have been Lee if he hadn’t exploited such suspicions to the hilt.

Lee pounced on every instance of Malay sinophobia as a mortal threat to Malaysia. He made the much-loved Tunku look weak and ineffectual. In the words of Dr. Ismail, the home affairs minister at the time, the PAP “is a party which shouts ‘Fire! Fire!’ While committing arson.” 7 And as a result partly of Malay demagoguery, partly of Sukarno’s anti-Chinese diatribes in Indonesia, and partly of Lee’s efforts to stir things up further, Singapore exploded in ugly race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays twice in 1964. Who knows who actually started them? A Chinese policeman might have been set upon by a Malay mob. Or perhaps a Malay was pushed around first by a Chinese policeman. The fact is that they cost lives and poisoned relations between Lee and the federal government in Kuala Lumpur even more.

As usual, Lee took on the colors of his enemies, and even as he spoke out against communalism he had a way of sounding like a ferocious communalist himself. This is how Lee remembers the situation:

We had jumped out of the frying pan of the communists into the fire of the Malay communalists. We had to find a counter to this system of intimidation through race riots, with Chinese being killed and maimed wherever they dared to resist Malay domination. We decided that one effective defense would be to link the opposition in all the towns in the Federation in one network, so that a riot in one major city triggered off riots in others to a point where the police and army would be unable to cope, and all hell would be let loose.

No wonder, then, that the Malaysian marriage ended in divorce. In the summer of 1965, the Tunku was being treated in London for shingles. The more it hurt, he said, the angrier he felt with Lee Kuan Yew, who, in the Tunku’s view, had wrecked the delicate ethnic and religious equilibrium in Malaysia. And Lee realized that being king of Singapore might be a better option than being a mere chieftain in Malaysia. So the Tunku and Lee signed a separation agreement in August 1965. Both expressed their sorrow, Lee in a particularly spectacular and highly uncharacteristic manner. During the televised press conference in Singapore, Lee broke down in the middle of his speech and cried. “Among Chinese,” he says in his memoirs, “it is unbecoming to exhibit such a lack of manliness. But I could not help myself.” He had never shown such emotion in public before, nor would he ever do so again. He puts it down to his deep disappointment over the failure to establish a noncommunal Malaysian society. Others believe the tears were more an expression of anger that Lee would never rule more than a small city-state. The man who now rules Malaysia, Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammed, shares most of Lee’s assumptions about Asian values and the inherent nature of racial characteristics. But Mahathir’s belief that the Malays are disadvantaged by nature has sharpened the tribalism of his politics. For example, he has institutionalized preferential treatment for Malays. Interestingly, the two greatest proponents of Asian values, Lee and Mahathir, can’t stand each other personally.


In some ways Lee made an astonishing success of Singapore. By turning it into a hub of financial services and a corporate-friendly, low-tax haven for international enterprises, he made his country rich. Singaporean civil servants are highly paid and relatively immune to corruption. This is perhaps the one advantage to be derived from government surveillance of every aspect of Singaporean life. A heavy emphasis on infrastructure—the superb airport, phones that might be tapped but always work—is also conducive to international business. People are properly housed, well fed, and highly educated. But can they think? That is after all the question Mr. Mahbubani poses in his book. The assumption that they cannot, for some biological or cultural reason, would surely be unconscionable. The real question is whether they are allowed to think, to think for themselves that is, to think critically and in public, as citizens. Here I would turn to something D.J. Enright once wrote, after he ran into problems with Lee’s government in 1960 when he was a professor of English literature at the University of Malaya. It still strikes me as one of the truest statements about the Singaporean condition:

From its inception, or perhaps one should rather say from its assumption of power, right up to the present, the P.A.P. has always had more energy than outlet, more drive than elbow-room. This is a situation apt to generate irritability in a party’s leadership and a tendency towards the disproportionate taking of umbrage. It may account for why, though P.A.P. leaders have repeatedly described the local populace as “sophisticated,” nevertheless they have often treated them like naughty or backward children.8

Backward children cannot be expected to think for themselves, for they are not responsible citizens. It is this official attitude toward its people that makes Singapore such as depressing place, despite its fine hotels, excellent restaurants, and shining shopping malls. The result of fifty years of PAP government is that most Singaporeans are too frightened to think. To call that “Asian values” is an insult to the rest of Asia.

This Issue

June 10, 1999