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

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.


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

  1. Nyk says:

    “Lee Kuan Yew was arguably the best statesman of the 20th Century.”

    True, but unfortunately he only got to run a small city-state. If we also take into account the total number of people pulled out of misery and poverty, I think Deng Xiaoping would be the undisputed no. 1.

    • Foseti says:

      It’s hard to say how much Lee influenced Deng (more on this later) but I think the answer is “a lot”. So part of Deng’s accomplishments should be credited to Lee.

      • Scott Locklin says:

        Everyone forgets about Park Chung Hee. He accomplished more in some ways than LKY. Not to take anything away from LKY, whose book is excellent.
        Another writer you might enjoy is Kishore Mahbubani, whose book I picked up in the Singapore airport.

  2. Leonard says:

    Great review.

    It certainly helps that Lee got a country well stocked with East Asians. Still, he could have easily pissed away that advantage, so good on him.

  3. Five Daarstens says:

    One thing I like about Lee Kuan Yew is the he seems to want to temper some of the worst parts of capitalism. For example, he advocated having cities as nice places to live, with parks and beautiful buildings, it’s not very free market, but it’s very good for quality of life. The real estate market is very controlled, but seems to work – they live in small but nice housing that creates good communities and no speculative bubbles.

  4. Candide III says:

    Yes, this is a very good book. One interesting bit to add to your review, one area where Lee failed is high-IQ demographics. As more Singaporean women started to get higher education, he noticed that their fecundity went down steeply, and became worried about the future of Singaporeans’ group IQ. He tried various policies to reverse the trend, including but not limited to tax credits, school credits and guaranteed places in best schools for the children, government-sponsored marriage brokers, but nothing worked. I believe his heirs had no better luck.

    • Red says:

      Freedom for women always results in IQ and demographic collapse. Happened to the Western Romans, the Spartans, the Babylonians, and finally to the West and Japan. If you want a stable system you need to make family with the father as the absolute head of the family the basic unit of society.

  5. asdf says:

    I love Singapore, but I often wonder if that kind of governance can scale past the city state level. Yes, China adopted some of it, but its not the same or even close.

    With China the real test is what they do after catch up growth (and how much they fuck up their environment in the process). Given China’s IQ and catch up status I’d be dissapointed with anything less then what I’ve seen, I don’t yet consider it a miracle.

    • Anonymous says:

      Maybe it can scale up, maybe it can’t. Who cares? Cut other “nations” down to city-state size (lots of them)

      • Nyk says:

        The Gambia stands as a “shining” example that this kind of patchwork of city-states can only take you so far.

  6. spandrell says:

    Singapore won’t last though. It barely won the last election.

    Goal orientation is a requisite for good governance. Lee wanted to make Singapore into a first world country. Well that’s done. Now what?

    • asdf says:

      It’s not just a problem for governance, but more generally in post modern society. With the goal of survival satisfied, nobody really seems to know what their purpose is. I believe this is responible for many social phenomon, including in my experience the new feminine hyper desire to be dominated (to be told what to do, to be given purpose).

    • formerly no name says:

      “Goal orientation is a requisite for good governance.”

      You should have been advising Chamberlain in 1936. Why get upset about Italy taking over Ethiopia? Why object to Italians building roads and hospitals, abolishing slavery and miscegenating with the natives?

    • Michael says:

      “What I fear is complacency…” LKY

  7. PA says:

    You guys do realize that China drags married Chinese women to abortion clinics while giving various ethnic minorities a pass on the one-child rule? China also has sizeable African expat neighborhoods and even lets them riot. So much for the effective police state, eh?

    • spandrell says:

      They only rioted once, and that’s because police was rounding them up for deportation.

      As for ethnic minorities, someone has to fill the brothels. Minorities are way overrepresented as hookers.

    • doug1111 says:


      I wouldn’t call 3000 sizeable. Most of them also don’t seem to last in Singapore. They have one month to find employment or enroll in an educational institution. One wonders why they let any in given Lee’s views on HBD.

      The Immigration and Checkpoints Authority of Singapore declined to give figures on the number of Africans here. Mr Ekundayo estimates that there are around 3,000 Africans in Singapore right now, 70 per cent of whom are Nigerians.

      The rest come from countries like Ghana, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Cultural and religious differences among them often lead to distrust and scuffles.

      Such outbursts are also linked to frustrations with their predicament here. They come in search of work or paper qualifications, lured by stories of Asia’s growing economy and bountiful opportunities. Then they run smack up against the reality.


      The Africans have about a month to sink roots here – as that is the length of stay allowed on their visitor’s pass. After that, they have to find employment or enrol in an educational institution to stay on. With each passing day, their funds dwindle and despair escalates.

      The last time I saw Mr Godswill, he was training with his all-African soccer team at a field in Farrer Park. The team, which called itself the African All- Stars, had hopes of qualifying for the S-League some day. But with many of the players here on a month-long visitor’s pass, the team’s progress was hampered by an ever-changing team list.

      For Mr Godswill and many others, the Singapore Dream turned out to be a nightmare. His soccer boots were stolen. He could not afford another pair or to travel around the island with his team to compete in friendly matches. He came to Singapore in January. The next month, he left, a despondent man.

      I felt for him – until I spotted a plump Chinese girl anxiously looking for someone at the coffee shop. An African at my table remarked that she was pregnant and searching for the baby’s father.

  8. formerly no name says:

    I don’t think anyone on the planet has a better grip on reality than spandrell.

  9. KK says:

    Is he making fun of Americans for being so sensitive?
    I get the impression Lee’s in to the joke. He says thanks for editing the text to more gender-neutral form but makes it a point to refer to his editor as a ‘she’.

  10. […] has posted an excellent review, here, of the autobiography of the former Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan […]

  11. yacheritsi says:

    I saw cops when I was in Singapore. They looked pretty thuggish. They all looked the same squat, with big black sunglasses, and moustaches. They drove olive-drab jeeps with wire-screened windows. Soldiers were a fairly common sight on the public transportation as well. They all seemed young, so I’d guess they were conscripts.

    I went to the Jurong Gardens on National Day. I was rushing along with all of the commuters on my way back and I heard one man singing very loudly. When I got closer, I saw the singer was an older guy, he looked homeless, and desperately frightened. There was a police officer watching him with his arms crossed and his head cocked. I assume he had threatened to arrest the guy unless he sang the national anthem or some such thing. I didn’t stay to ask any questions. I rushed along without making a scene, just like everybody else.

  12. B says:

    In interviews, Lee’s demeanor is exactly like that of middle aged Russian crime bosses. Very polite, a reserved sense of humor, and every word is calculated with regards to several alternate meanings.

  13. patung says:

    But, there have been cases of Singaporeans, almost certainly chinese, saying something negative abt Islam on their facebook pages, and while I’m sure they didn’t get a knock on the door in the dead of night they did get into trouble, this is one aspect of the racial harmony thing in singapore, it can be felt as quite oppressive if they’re watching for things said on the internet.

  14. dearieme says:

    Two points.
    (i) He didn’t have to cope with communist insurrection: the attempt at that was defeated by the British before independence for Malaysia and Singapore.
    (ii) He was a very able fellow – everyone of his generation in Britain who’d known him agreed on that.

  15. pwyll says:

    Here’s another example of good governance in Singapore – the blog author’s argument is thought-provoking as well.

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  18. […] though, as I’ve written, Singapore heavily restricts immigration and designs policies (i.e. restricts freedoms) […]

  19. […] greatest statesman of the 20th Century wrote a memoir that is essentially a warning against universal suffrage in diverse societies. To put the point […]

  20. […] the world. In the process, they killed millions. On the other hand, Lee Kuan Yew was just trying to stabilize his own unstable country. To do so, he blatantly pursued the interests of his own people over those of other peoples nearby. […]

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  23. […] Read the memoirs of the greatest statesmen from the post-War era. You may be surprised at how stable and prosperous […]

  24. […] these parts of the internet are generally fans of the rulers that have made multicultural societies […]

  25. […] Kuan Yew told us that we couldn’t have a free press in a multi-racial/ethnic/religious […]

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  28. […] successful, predominantly Chinese city-State—that isn’t democratic and is doing just fine: Singapore. If Hong Kong wants a model to emulate, they ought to look to what works rather than what […]

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  30. festus francis says:

    Reading this book expand my scope and intellect and I wonder how Lee was able to accomplish this task without the derailing.Please let African continent borrow from this world genius.Infact my country Nigeria.

  31. TravancorePriest says:

    Thank you very much! Well presented specially on the stress of cultural influence in Singapore’s development relative to the Western world! And great job quoting him!

  32. […] former colonies which learned the British tradition well is also useful. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew brilliantly synthesized British governance and Chinese cultural […]

  33. Jaji Elias says:

    Lee kuan yew is a man to emulate

  34. […] successful, predominantly Chinese city-State—that isn’t democratic and is doing just fine: Singapore. If Hong Kong wants a model to emulate, they ought to look to what works rather than what […]


    Good blog post. Reading this book expand my scope and intellect and I wonder how Lee was able to accomplish this task. Incidentally , you are looking for a IRS W-3 , my kids discovered a sample version here ““.

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