The Russian-language edition of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000” with Foreword by the Hon. Henry Kissinger and Introduction by Dr. Alexander Mirtchev
Lee Kuan Yew
“From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, 1965-2000”
First Published by HarperCollins, October 2000, with foreword by Dr. Henry Kissinger
Foreword to the Russian Edition*
Published by the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), September 2009
By Alexander Mirtchev
A Strategic Breakthrough: the Singapore Story and its Lessons
The memoirs of great statesmen are always a worthwhile read. The memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of independent Singapore, unquestionably deserve a special place at the top of any reading list.
The Singapore Story unfolds the history of one of the most visionary political and economic endeavors of the 20th century, with implications reaching far beyond its immediate temporal and geographical boundaries. This volume resonates particularly well with today’s rapid changes imposed by the tension between globalization and fragmentation, and necessitating, with growing urgency, a search for development strategies that could respond to the challenges of the 21st century. Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs offer the reader a chance to see a strategic mind at work on major geopolitical problems, plying the art of politics on a grand scale and with breathtaking finesse that opens new vistas and frequently allows for prescient decision-making. And, as long as History continues to grind the contours of the erstwhile polities and multi-national agglomerations, Singapore will be offering to all serious policy-makers a study in the art of governance.
Stranded on the South-East Asian margins of the crumbling British Empire, the Singapore naval base was little more than a speck in the cross-wires of its overwhelming neighbors, including Malaysia, China, Indonesia and Japan, with no realistic hope of independent development. Over the span of less than three decades, Lee Kuan Yew and his disciples have transformed this handful of impoverished islands into a respectable, socially stable and influential nation with an enviably sustainable economic growth record and a high standard of living. Singapore has become one of the global financial centers and an exporter of high tech goods. Almost as breathtaking as the evolution of Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew’s own political journey, from a young local patriot to a statesman who commands international respect and enjoys the confidence and friendship of almost every regional leader and in every center of global power.
Confronted with the natural resource limitations, lack of experience in governing an independent state, social and ethnic tensions compounded by an ever-complex and relentlessly fluid international environment, Lee Kuan Yew and his followers responded by espousing and implementing, in a disciplined and consistent manner, the policy of strategic pragmatism. This policy has emerged as the result of a careful study of the contemporary economic thought and the international experience of statehood. Lee Kuan Yew deliberately eschewed the temptations of becoming a “true believer” in any doctrine, be that communism, economic liberalism or the so-called Western democratic value system that at times ignores the ethnic, religious and local facts on the ground.
Lee Kuan Yew’s strategic pragmatism manifested itself in the way he determined the breakthrough directions of national development and pursued them through consistent and uncompromisingly common sense actions. If Singapore was poor in natural resources, its survival had to depend on the efficient labor and entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens. Consequently, human capital growth and free enterprise had to be the sine qua non of an economic breakthrough. Since neither effective business management nor labor is feasible if the society is plagued by corruption, it had to be ruthlessly uprooted. Observing that technological advancement is impossible in isolation from the rest of the world, Lee Kuan Yew opts for an economy open to competition and welcoming of foreign high-tech investment. However, competitiveness and large scale foreign direct investment are a pipe dream absent infrastructure; therefore the government gives priority to investment in infrastructure over many other demands.
The policy of constant rejuvenation and adjustment has become the backbone of the Singaporean “national identity”. This policy relied on the strategy of staying ahead of the regional and global competition, focused on seeking ever-changing arbitrage opportunities and deliberate creation of competitive advantages that would open up fundamentally new opportunities and markets. Lee Kuan Yew saw these opportunities first and foremost in new technologies and placed his bets on their development. Or, as the historian Arnold Toynbee, highly regarded by Lee Kuan Yew, pointed out “Technological progress is not an automatic process, it is a deliberate and a consciously designed human activity; … we are free to choose technological regress instead.”
The Singapore Story also demonstrates that the sustainability of social transformation is largely dependent on what Lee Kuan Yew calls the ‘software’ of development, i.e. the mechanisms and institutions of the rule of law, transparency and efficiency in government, quality strategic planning, protection of competition, professional development, incentives for achievements at every level, from the worker to the high government official, and ultimately the rise in the standard of living. When such ‘software’ is installed, the government becomes an effective tool for solving genuine social and economic problems ranging from the consolidation of the multi-ethnic society to the comprehensive modernization of the nation.
Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs reflect his belief that a responsible political leader should understand the actual dynamics of social interests and strive for the social and economic progress of the nation as well as regional stability by taking advantage of local and global trends in a consistently flexible manner. This belief is also the corner stone of Singapore’s foreign policy that does not dwell on the frequently painful past shared with only too many countries in the region, but rather faces the future and supports the goal of long-term beneficial geopolitical positioning of the nation.
Lee Kuan Yew’s pragmatism is admired by some and criticized by others. However, even the critics respect him for the consistent policies and economic and social outcomes that Singapore achieved under his leadership. Needless to say the realities of Singapore cannot be replicated in other countries, particularly in larger nations. Moreover, it is unlikely that Singapore’s foreign policy would be used as a model by the countries that feel on their shoulders the burden of global and regional responsibility. Lee Kuan Yew himself warns against using his memoirs as a textbook or manual. The Singapore story may rather be appreciated as a laboratory where one can observe the effects of transparency and efficiency of governmental policies, smart strategic planning, and encouragement of competition, individual initiative, education, and innovations, on building a strong nation that enjoys dynamic growth and prosperity.
As with any large scale “social experiment”, its observers can draw their own conclusions about the margins of error, the rate of success, and applicability of the tested approaches to different environments.
What is beyond dispute is that the Singapore “social experiment” has produced a major strategic breakthrough of historic significance, which is all the more remarkable for having been achieved for the benefit of the population rather than through the blood and tears of the common man. Introducing the author of these memoirs to the international reader, Dr. Henry Kissinger writes that “in the case of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of the Singapore nation, the old dispute about whether the circumstances or the individual determine the events, has been resolved to the benefit of the latter.”
The Singapore Story clearly offers important lessons to the 21st century. I am certain that this volume will assume a prominent place on the bookshelves of mature politicians and up-and-coming leaders. It is my privilege and pleasure to introduce this new edition to the Russian-language reader.
* Translation from Russian