A political memoir—and a playbook for how to start an improbably successful, postage-stamp nation.
In 1965, the island of Singapore, a strategically important British naval base with few resources of its own, gained unexpected independence when its Malay neighbors rejected union with Singapore’s predominantly Chinese population (evidently expecting that it would become a client state of Malaysia or Indonesia). Enter Lee Kuan Yew, a British-trained attorney and politician who made Singapore into a powerful city-state whose every detail (from family planning to education to traffic flow) he micromanaged. Lee’s authoritarian manner won him both admirers and detractors, as he himself relates in this memoir (which is organized not chronologically but thematically, with sections devoted, for instance, to “getting the basics right,” dealing with China, and forging alliances with the West), but it appears to have had the desired results, inasmuch as the people of Singapore remain independent, comparatively prosperous, and untroubled by the strife that now troubles the region. (They are, however, evidently not well enough behaved for Lee, who writes that “it will take another generation before standards of civic behavior of our people will match the First World infrastructure they now take for granted.”) Lee’s narrative is refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory tone of so many political memoirs; instead, he focuses dispassionately on the hard facts of building a trade economy, fending off the unwanted attentions of rival superpowers, and keeping an eye on the bottom line. His language is unadulterated realpolitik (not for nothing does Henry Kissinger contribute a foreword), and his view of such acts as China’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 is relentlessly practical. “But for [Deng Xiaoping],” he claims, “China would have collapsed as the Soviet Union did”—which might have robbed Singapore of a lucrative market, of course, and thus been catastrophic.
Useful reading for those with an informed interest in geopolitics, or for anyone seeking to do business in Singapore.