Review of “From Third World to First” by Lee Kuan Yew

April 30, 2012

Lee Kuan Yew was arguably the best statesman of the 20th Century. Lee’s claim to the title of best statesman of the 20th Century rests on his transformation of Singapore from a third world country into one of the world’s richest and most civilized countries and into a new type of political entity. But this obvious transformation in some ways masks his two larger contributions to statesmanship.

Everybody loves multiculturalism, but the dirty little secret of the multicultural society is that no one has any idea how to govern one. Lee’s Singapore is the first attempt to create a system of governance that seriously attempts to deal with the problems associated with a multi-racial/ethnic/religious society (hint: the answer is not more democracy). Lee’s solution is particularly interesting, since Singapore was a British colony and thus has the same basic legal foundations of other common law countries. To manage life in a diverse society, Singapore eliminated certain cornerstones of common law – including trial by jury and a free press. In short, many of the principles that we believe "protect liberty" may only do so in a homogenous society – jury trials and a free press, for example, in a diverse society may serve mainly to manufacture or highlight racial strife.

Lee’s second important contribution to statesmanship is that his Singapore served as a specific and very important purpose in the rise of China under Deng Xiaoping. Lee’s Singapore is wealthier than many Western countries (and it grew much more quickly). Lee had seemingly found a way to take the good bits of Western governments – particularly their economic dynamism – without taking the bad parts – particularly the high and unsustainable levels of welfare payments and the consequent moral degradation and disorder of society. In short, Singapore took a bunch of illiterate Chinese fishermen and created one of the wealthiest countries in the world and it did so without undermining values that are important to Chinese (and other) cultures. Deng saw something worth emulating, and China has subsequently grown at a dizzying rate. In Lee’s own words:

Confucian societies believe that the individual exists in the context of the family, extended family, friends, and wider society, and that the government cannot and should not take over the role of the family. Many in the West believe that the government is capable of fulfilling the obligations of the family when it fails, as with single mothers. East Asians shy away from this approach. Singapore depends on the strength and influence of the family to keep society orderly and maintain a culture of thrift, hard work, filial piety, and respect for elders and for scholarship and learning.

I stressed that freedom could only exist in an orderly state . . . In Eastern societies, the main objective is to have a well-ordered society so that everyone can enjoy freedom to the maximum. Parts of contemporary American society were totally unacceptable to Asians because they represented a breakdown of civil society with guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, and vulgar public behavior. American should not foist its system indiscriminately on other societies where it would not work.

Very little of Lee, the man, emerges from this book – all we hear about is Singapore. There is a bit on his family in the beginning and the end, but he breezes through these sections as if he was required to write them by his editor. Throughout the book, Lee might take a few subtle jabs at Western political correctness – I couldn’t quite tell. For example, in the introduction he notes that the editor "also made me politically gender correct. Wherever I wrote ‘man,’ he has become ‘person’ or ‘people.’ I thank her for making me appear less of a male chauvinist to Americans." Is this just a statement of fact? Is he making fun of Americans for being so sensitive? I’m guessing the latter because there are several statements like this throughout the book, but it’s subtle enough that I can’t tell. If he is making fun of Americans, he also has a sense of humor similar to my own.

Lee took power in the largely-Chinese Singapore at a time when it was merging and then later splitting with Malaysia. Soon after the split, the British pulled out hastily from Singapore. Lee inherited a piece of land that was not really a country, that was populated by a mix of Chinese, Malaysians and Indians, that was Confucian and Muslim, and that was precariously positioned in a region that was succumbing to pressure by Communist forces. Other than that, everything was pretty good though!

The first thing Lee did when he took over was build a defense force. To do this, Lee turned to Israel and Switzerland for examples of how a small country should go about defending itself. The next think he did was ensure the safety and security of the country and provide a stable legal system.

Then next thing he did was introduce protectionism:

In 1965, a few months after independence, an economic planner whom the Indian government had seconded to us presented me with a thick volume of his report. I scanned the summary to confirm that his plans were based on a common market with Malaysia. I thanked him, and never read it again.

Lee had no intention of trading freely with anyone at first. He wanted everyone in Singapore employed (so they wouldn’t riot, among other reasons) and he didn’t want them competing with low-cost Malaysian labor. Singapore specifically protected cars, appliances, consumer electronics and other consumer goods. The protections were all phased out later, as national industries matured, the population got richer and better educated and other sources of employment became available.

Lee’s economic positions are hard to describe using labels. For example, he refers to himself as socialist several time: "We believed in socialism, in fair shares for all" ("Fair, not welfare"). Yet he goes on:

Watching the ever-increasing costs of the welfare state in Britain and Sweden, we decided to avoid this debilitating system. We noted by the 1970s that when governments undertook primary responsibility for the basic duties of the head of a family, the drive in people weakened. Welfare undermined self-reliance.

. . .

For nearly four decades since the war, successive British governments seemed to assume that the creation of wealth came about naturally, and that what needed government attention and ingenuity was the redistribution of wealth. . . . We have used to advantage what Britain left behind: the English language, the legal system, parliamentary government and impartial administration. However, we have studiously avoided the practices of the welfare state. We saw how a great people reduced themselves to mediocrity by leveling down.

. . .

The foundations for our financial center were the rule of law, an independent judiciary, and a stable, competent, and honest government that pursued sound macroeconomic policies, with budget surpluses almost every year. This led to a strong and stable Singapore dollar, with exchange rates that dampened imported inflation [the Singapore Dollar was always backed by 100% foreign currency reserves].

From there, Lee’s goal was to create the best organized country in the region:

Visiting CEOs used to call on me before they made their investment decisions. I thought the best way to convince them was to ensure that the roads from the airport to their hotel and to my office were neat and spruce, lined with trees and shrubs. . . . Without a word being said, they would know that Singaporeans were competent, disciplined, and reliable, a people who would learn the skills they require soon enough.

Indeed, Lee’s descriptions of the places he visits are often limited to the trip from the airport to his hotel room. By the time he gets to his room, he knows everything he needs to know about the country he’s visiting. Lee’s vision is still in effect in Singapore. In Singapore, you exit the plane, take short walk through an airport that looks brand new to a very efficient immigration counter, you get right in a cab that moves quickly down a beautiful road (the road looks impossibly well-maintained and the plants around the road look impossibly well-groomed yet I’ve never seen anyone maintaining either the roads or the plants – the city is also incredibly safe and I never saw a policeman or heard a siren).

Next, Lee dealt with the press. Around the time that Singapore separated from Malaysia, there were some race riots in Singapore. From then on, Lee was wary of the media. He seems to have believed that a totally free media would stir up racial animosity while providing little benefit. Obviously that’s not the case in the US media! The Communists were particularly active in sowing discord across groups, so he banned their publications.

A Singapore with a totally free press would have in the best case scenario been plagued by ethnic or racial or religious violence and in the worst case become an actual Communist country. Instead, it became what it is today and everyone is immensely better off.

Lee defends his policies by noting that totally free presses are highly over-rated. Lots of countries with free presses still have high levels of corruption. He also noted that in his dealings with the press, USG (specifically State) would get involved quickly. This made his suspicious.

Next, Lee focused on his population. I wrote more on that here. The short version is that it’s not an accident that Singapore is high on this list.

One of the reasons Lee was so successful was that he changed his mind quickly if something he tried didn’t work. For example, he instituted several programs to try to scatter people of the same race. However, no matter what he tried, the groups eventually recongregated. Instead of mandating desegregation, the Singapore government eventually changed election laws so that some minority representation was required and, for similar reasons, got rid of jury trials. This system combined with some geographic quotas on concentrations seemed to work.

The rest of the book turns to foreign policy, another area in which Lee was particularly adept. Lee seemed to find the US a frustrating ally. At times he seems to be openly mocking the apparent randomness of American foreign policy. He was also frustrated by American heavy-handedness. He sums up his view of Americans as follows:

I viewed Americans with mixed feelings. I admired their can-do approach but shared the view of the British establishment of the time that the Americans were bright and brash, that they had enormous wealth but often misused it. It was not true that all it needed to fix a problem was to bring resources to bear on it. Many American leaders believed that racial, religious, and linguistic hatreds, rivalries, hostilities, and feuds down the millenia could be solved if sufficient resources were expended on them.

. . .

They [i.e. American professors] were too politically correct. Harvard was determinedly liberal. No scholar was prepared to say or admit that there were any inherent differences between races or cultures or religions. They held that human beings were equal and a society only needed correct economic policies and institutions of government to succeed. They were so bright I found it difficult to believe that they sincerely held these views they felt compelled to express.

. . .

I learned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi-experts, especially academics in the social and political sciences. They have pet theories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideal, especially how poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.

Lee supported US involvement in Vietnam. Even following the war, he defended it, since it bought time for other Asian nations to build up their own defenses against the Communists

Perhaps the most interesting chapters in the book are Lee’s comparisons between Singapore and other countries. There are two that I will particularly remember: Ceylon and Hong Kong.

Ceylon and Singapore became independent commonwealth Commonwealth countries and both are island nations. Anyone looking at the two countries at independence would have bet that Ceylon had the brighter future. However, both countries had diverse populations and Ceylon pursued a more democratic route following its independence. Lee sums up the results: "During my visits [to Ceylon] over the years, I watched a promising country go to waste. One-man-one-vote did not solve its basic problem," which was ethnic conflict.

Lee’s contrast of Hong Kong and Singapore was also interesting. Hong Kong was in a position that prevented it from becoming an actual nation – doing so would have threatened China. Singapore, on the other hand, had not choice but to become a nation to avoid being swallowed by Malaysia. And it certainly did become a nation.

Randoms: backlog

April 30, 2012

Accountable government (if you like this blog’s one sentence message, you’ll like this article)

– You’ll also enjoy Sonic Charmer on regulation

Technology and crime


The people who want to flee Britain are not economic migrants. It is not high taxes that they object to (many want to move to France, where taxes are not low), but barbarism. They are cultural refugees in search of a more civilized homeland, where fewer people are uncouth or militantly vulgar.

– A gold standard may be coming. Look at it this way, you should buy gold to keep your savings safe from thieves.


What we’re seeing here is the last desperate gasps of democracy as the new aristocratic age struggles to be born.

– The NYT discovered that WalMart does business in Mexico. My guess is that this same article could have been written about any company that does business in countries like Mexico. My wife’s old company specifically set aside money for bribes in Russia, for example.

This seems to match my own experience.

– Charlton on affirmative action.

– AnomalyUK on employment

Random thoughts from OneSTDV

Studies discovers that poor people aren’t very smart when it comes to eating healthy. I’m shocked. I wonder if poor people are also not smart in other areas of life.

– "I just discovered I might not be Hispanic, do I have to give up my benefits?" No. (Passed along by Percyval, who digs up a nice Trotsky quote here.)

– In unrelated news, I just discovered that I’m Hispanic.

To go mainstream or not to go mainstream

April 30, 2012

There was a bit of a dust-up recently (hat tip) about whether alt-right bloggers should go mainstream in reaction to Chuck’s recent move to the more mainstream, which itself was the consequence of his excellent coverage of the Martin-Zimmerman affair. I’m firmly in the "don’t go mainstream" camp.

I do everything to keep my readership at about the level that it’s currently at. If it gets higher, I stop blogging for a while, or I publish a bunch of posts at one time instead of spreading them out, etc.

As I’ve written elsewhere, with mainstream status comes a politically-correct muzzle. There are simply certain things you can’t say when you become mainstream. I’d prefer to be able to say what I want. I have no desire to get Derbyshired. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. Steve Sailer) I trust pseudonymous bloggers more than people that blog under their real name – you’ve got to be a little bit crazy to blog under your real name if you don’t censor yourself.

I always have and still do like Chuck’s website, but he recently engaged in some comments on white nationalism that highlight the concern associated with going mainstream. I happen to agree with Chuck’s points. I believe Chuck really believes his own points as well. I don’t mean to pick on Chuck at all. But, since he’s gone mainstream, I couldn’t help but wonder: If Chuck liked white nationalism, could he say so?

Randoms of the day

April 17, 2012

– Yglesias and Cheap Chalupas are having a pretty (unintentionally) hysterical back and forth (start here and go backwards) to try to determine who has higher SWPL status. It’s too close to call.

QOTD: "It will be this goddamn ‘Who Whom?’ question for the rest of your life, then you die."

– Larison on the democratic peace theory.

– Unamusement channels Carlyle


April 16, 2012

Sweden is fscked up

So is Britain:

Case One concerns Caroline Pattinson (pictured above), an abuser of heroin, which is supposed to be illegal but isn’t in practice.

Pattinson, 34, has committed 207 crimes in 20 years.

These include 108 convictions for theft, many for cruel frauds on pensioners. But until last Tuesday she had never been sent to prison, except on remand.

Now that she has, she’s not worried. Why should she be?

On being sentenced to 30 months (of which she will serve at most 15 months), she mockingly called out: ‘Cushty! Easily done!’

Beyond Democracy (HT)

Heartiste: "In a future post I will explain why intelligent men need to learn game and start marrying and having kids with dumber but hotter chicks in order to save Western civilization." The Hilary Rosen thing was interesting, in part, because all the feminists were suggesting that only rich women can afford to raise their own children. However, feminism is the reason that most women have to work these days. This means that feminists argued that only rich women can escape the ravages of feminism, which is true but it’s a weird argument for a feminist to be making.

Vox interviews Derb.

Chuck thinks we should have debates: "I suggested on Twitter that I’d love to see a debate between John Derbyshire (or Steve Sailer) and someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jelani Cobb, or Toure." I don’t think that will work. A representative from the former group would actually make substantive points, while a representative from the latter group merely demand that – for making substantive points – the representative from the former group should be forced out of his livelihood. Debates about religious matters between non-believers and believers always degenerate into the latter group screaming "heretic!"

A scandal in the media

The IQ gene?

– Real science does not operate by rules like this. Real science, however, is apparently racist.

– "Heretics, Kulaks, and Witches:"

Soviet science took an odd turn that we today may find amusing. We shouldn’t.

According to [Soviet-approved biologist] Lysenko, there is no intraspecies competition, that is, there is no class struggle between members of the same species. On the contrary, all members of the same species "help" each other: "There is not, and cannot be, a class society in any plant or animal species. Therefore, there is not, and cannot be, here class struggle, though it might be called, in biology, intraspecies competition." (2)

It is to laugh? Sociologist Ann Morning, 2007:

Evolutionary biologist Joseph Graves (2001:5) claims, "Today, the majority of geneticists, evolutionary biologists, and anthropologists agree that there are no biological races in the human species," and reports that two American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) panels of philosophers, biologists, and social scientists have reached the same conclusion. (3)



April 11, 2012

Cheers to you, good sir

Activism vs. politics

– The Civil War was worse than we thought

– Here’s a long article on democracy that’s worth reading

The Deep Throat myth

Christianity is leftism

– A defense of excluding women (btw, since when did Forbes become the thought police?)

– Tyler Cowen has some thoughts on Singapore and Hong Kong

On mainstream economics

April 11, 2012

Aretae notes that "ALL" economists agree that "Gold standards are substantially bad for some important things."

In the trivial sense, this should be true. A good economist (like a good engineer) should acknowledge that everything has tradeoffs. The more interesting question is what we should conclude from the fact that virtually all mainstream economists vehemently oppose a gold standard.

My suggestion would be that we should conclude nothing.

– Mainstream economists get to choose other mainstream economists and support of the gold standard, by definition, means that you’re not qualified to be a mainstream economist. So, the fact that mainstream economists don’t like the gold standard is akin to the discovery that Catholic priests don’t like Martin Luther.

– Economists should be skeptical of counting heads. It’s much more interesting to look at how much someone’s opinion is worth. The average econ-blogger’s opinions on the gold standard costs $0. Jim Grant’s cost about $1000/year. I’m with Grant.

– As I understand mainstream economic thinking on fiat currency, mainstream economists believe that if a country has a fiat currency and issues debt only in said currency, the country is immune from default. In a trivial sense, this is true – reality doesn’t work that way though. (It’s also interesting that mainstream economists believe in the importance of independence of central banks, but they don’t see rising debts as a threat to central bank independence).

– For a decade or two, free market economists were on the ascent. The current mainstream faith in fiat currency has effectively reversed this ascent. If central planners can effectively manage the money supply, they should be able to manage anything. Apparently the Soviets only failed because they lacked fast computers and really good economists.