Lee Kwan Yew, Confucius and the Myth of Asian Values

London, March 23, 2015—(Please note a comment by friend Dimon Liu at bottom) There’s no doubt that Lee Kwan Yew, the Singapore political leader and patriarch who died over the weekend at 91, transformed the small vulnerable island off the southern tip of Malaysia into a prosperous trade and financial center and a stable society with super-clean streets.

Lee Kwan Yew at a political rally in the 1960s.

He had another project that was perhaps less successful, and blessedly so: the idea of autocracy dressed in something he called Asian values.

The notion that there is a single norm of Asian values seems intuitively false. Asia after all spans an area and array of cultures from the Middle East to tiny Pacific islands. Does anyone think that Syria is a indication of common Asian values? Tajikistan, anyone?

What he really meant were two other things. One was the necessity of the once-colonialized Asia to break from western dominance. He called this self-reliance and it has had deep attraction in places as disparate as China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia. This included breaking from Western political models.  He once said that if Singapore practiced Western democracy, “We’d go down the drain; we’d have more drugs, more crime, more single mothers with delinquent children, and a poor economy.”

His other description of Asian values lay in Confucius, the Chinese philosopher who preached ethics and the harmonization of society. In Lee’s view, Confucian development required the need for a strict, benevolent and virtuous leader to guide society. Effectively, Lee ran a one-party parliamentary system. Among his takes on Confucianism-in-practice were harassment of political opponents, experimentation with government matchmaking to make a smarter population, corporal punishment and the banning of chewing gum and long hair. “Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him,, or give it up,” he said in 1980. “I’ve spent a whole lifetime building this and as long as I’m in charge, nobody is going to knock it down.”

Ironically, his anti-democratic formulas gained little traction among the four other Confucian-legacy countries which, along with Singapore, led East Asia’s prosperity in the past fifty years: Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. All these self-styled Asian Tigers strove for Confucianism’s traditional, sound relations among family, society and government. But Japan prospered under a democratic constitution forced upon it by the United States. South Korea and Taiwan operate under free-wheeling electoral democracies that nurtured rather than hindered affluence after dictatorships left the scene. Hong Kong would prefer to govern itself under democratic principles but China, whose leaders feature themselves Confucian exemplars, won’t let it.

Lee’s formula of disciplinarian style was arguably a necessity for Singapore, an isolated, multi-national speck of land with no resources that lay south of a country which, at Singapore’s founding, was rife with anti-Chinese communal tensions. That Lee’s philosophy can or ought to be transferred elsewhere is a myth, as is the existence of something called Asian values.

Note: Dimon Liu in Hong Kong, suggests a different take on LKY and China: There are few serious study of Confucianism in the West, and even fewer make the distinction between classical Confucianism, and the variances that were subsumed by the state, beginning in the Han dynasty. There are many differences between Beijing and Singapore. LKY was a Legalist in Confucian garb, and he retained parliamentary form in his government, which means that if his son wants genuine democratic reforms, the son can move forward without much structural hindrance. Beijing’s honchos are much worse – they are gangster in control of a Leninist system. It is farcical that they have donned on Singaporean version of Legalist with Confucian garb… Whatever works, right? And it is working for them so far.

Here’s an interview with from 2009 by Farid Zakaria (need subscription).

And a few of Lee’s thoughts on geopolitics in a book review.

For those who want to go deep, this is a paper that paints Lee more as Machiavelli than Confucius.

Daniel Williams

Published by Daniel Williams

I am a former correspondent who, for more than 30 years, did time in China, Southeast Asia, Central America, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe and Africa and covered wars that went from episodic to non-stop. My book, "Forsaken," about Christian persecution in the Middle East came out January, 2016. NextWarNotes is a news and analysis blog designed to fill gaps, provide background and think about what’s next. The name of the site comes from a 1935 article by Ernest Hemingway in Esquire Magazine called “Notes on the Next War,” in which he predicted the coming conflagration in Europe, told why it would happen and warned Americans to stay out.

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