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The Lee Kuan Yew myth

 Lee Kuan Yew

Why I think Singapore would have transformed even with a less able leader

THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | There is a widespread myth that Lee Kuan Yew, the legendary prime minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990, was singularly responsible for the transformation of that island city-state from third to first world. His admirers present it as if, without him, Singapore would have remained a third world country. It is an argument that reduces the history of a country to the autobiography of its leader. It removes leaders from their social and political context, and presents them and the societies they lead as mechanical elements responding to the will of a single individual.

I am a big fan of Lee. I have read his autobiography on the rise of Singapore. I have also read many books, papers and articles about him and also watched many of his interviews and talks on YouTube. He was intellectually astute, a great strategist and an effective manager and administrator. There is a lot about his abilities that contributed significantly to Singapore’s success. However, I also think that Singapore would have transformed even with a less able leader because most of its success is rooted in factors such as geographic location, its people and their skills that have little to do with Lee.

To understand the potential for a country to rapidly transform, one has to look especially at the society that produces a particular form of state. Leaders and states are products of their societies and their achievements reflect the potential of those societies. Societies vary greatly in terms of their internal organisation, their aspirations and their values and their human and social capital. These factors, more than their leaders, create the foundation on which success and failure to modernise spring. Societies with a history of strong states, with greater internal unity and trust among their peoples, with more cultivated technical skills, with a tendency to respect authority and obey orders, with a strong culture of individual success, etc. are best placed to succeed at modernization than their opposites.

Just look at a map. Singapore stands at the center of global trade. Such location gives it unparalleled trading advantage. Also look at its people. It is 72% Hun Chinese. Hong Kong, a similar city state is and also made up largely of ethnic Chinese. It transformed just as Singapore without a Lee Kuan Yew. Next to it is Taiwan, also dominated by Chinese which transformed just as rapidly. Its leader, Chiang Kai Shek, and his political party, the KMT, were actually the archetypal predatory state when ruling on mainland China. But once they escaped to Taiwan, Chiang and KMT presided over a developmental state that in one generation moved that Island nation from the ranks of the third world to first world.

Near Taiwan is Japan. In the 30 years (from the Meiji Restoration in 1868) to 1898 it transformed from a backward society into a world power. In 1905, it decisively defeated the Russian empire, becoming the first Asian power to defeat a European power. There was no Lee Kuan Yew in Japan. Next to Japan is Korea. In just 30 years from 1960 to 1990, its southern part, South Korea, transformed from a poor peasant society into a modern industrial powerhouse. One can attribute this success to Gen. Park Chung Hee, the army general who presided over this transformation.

But again, South Korea was next to a rapidly industrialising Japan. By 1960, it had all the characteristics of a society ready for takeoff: a highly skilled, obedient and aspirational population. Its neighbour, North Korea, with similar societal characteristics produces technological feats like placing satellites in space, intercontinental ballistic missiles, etc. yet under international sanctions and isolation. If North Korea was opened up to capitalist production it would catch up with the South in 20 years. This would have more to do with the potential in that society than the attributes of a single leader.

China demonstrates my point well. Since it abandoned communism and adopted capitalism, its growth has been unprecedented. This shows us the internal endowments of the Chinese such as business acumen, innovation, aspiration, etc. that Deng Xiaoping, a great leader, tapped into. Again, my point is that leaders matter but only as catalysts of inherent social endowments of their societies like skills, cooperation, trust, mentalities, etc. If these endowments are missing, as I think they are in, say, the DRC, no special talent of a leader can transform that country.

I am convinced that there is something about the Chinese people – their culture, skills, shared mentalities, their relations with one another, their aspirations, the trust levels among them etc. – that make them highly successful wherever they live. Again, look at the map of Asia. Ethnic Chinese form only 22.6% of the population of Malaysia but produce 63% of its output; 1.46% of Burma but 76% of its output; only 2% of the Philippines but 62% of its output; 3.3% of Indonesia but 71% of its output; 14% of Thailand but 81% of its output; 2% of Vietnam but 41% of its output. There has been no Lee Kuan Yew to explain their success.

In fact, the history of European transformation reaffirms this point. There is no great leader of UK, France, Germany, Holland, Norway, Denmark, Italy, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland who was responsible for their transformation. Europeans did not transform because of their leaders or states but because of the way they organized their affairs. The state and its institutions are only a consequence and a reflection of the organic changes that took place within European societies producing the social forces that acted as catalysts of their transformation.

Leaders play an important role. However, this depends on the social forces that form the core of the state. I do not find the raw material for rapid economic transformation – the skills, mentalities, trust, cooperation etc. for such success in, for example, the DRC.
The DRC, it appears, is a deeply divided society with communities suspicious of each other, making cooperation difficult and state configuration hard. This increases transaction costs of doing business and running the polity. Add to this the low levels of development of technical and managerial skills, a large territory with a very sparce population, you need to be a highly naïve idealist to imagine it producing Singapore-like results.

Prof. William Easterly of New York University and Steve Pennings of the World Bank did a study about the contribution of individual leaders to their nation’s success appropriately sub titled “how much economic growth can we attribute to national leaders”. After controlling for factors beyond an individual’s control, President Yoweri Museveni scored higher than Lee Kuan Yew and Park Chung Hee. Thus, whereas Lee and Park presided over greater transformation than Museveni, the study shows that a significant part of this was due to factors other than their individual qualities and skills.■


One comment

  1. Like a Dolphin, I am amazed by Andrew Mwenda’s Olympic art of political flips and flops, from the Good, the Bad, the Ugly to the Evil.

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