Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Review of From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 by Lee Kuan Yew

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (07/15/2023)
Intriguing Connections = 1) How Is Sovereignty Is Gained And Lost?

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“We believed in socialism, in fair shares for all.  Later we learned that personal motivation and personal rewards were essential for a productive economy.  However, because people are unequal in their abilities, if performance and rewards are determined by the marketplace, there will be a few big winners, many medium winners, and a considerable number of losers.  That would make for social tensions because a society’s sense of fairness is offended.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Chapter 7: A Fair, Not Welfare, Society, Page 95

“When the PAP government took office in 1959, we set out to have a clean administration.  We were sickened by the greed, corruption, and decadence of many Asian leaders.  Fighters for freedom for their oppressed peoples had become plunderers of their wealth.  Their societies slid backward.  We were swept up by the wave of revolution in Asia, determined to get rid of colonial rule, but angry at and ashamed of the Asian nationalist leaders whose failure to live up to their ideals had disillusioned us.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Chapter 12: Keeping the Government Clean, Page 157

“No other project had brought richer rewards to the region.  Our neighbors have tried to out-green and out-bloom each other.  Greening was positive competition that benefitted everyone – it was good for morale, for tourism, and for investors.  It was immensely better that we competed to be the greenest and cleanest in Asia.  I can think of many areas where competition could be harmful, even deadly.” – Lee Kuan Yew, Chapter 13: Greening Singapore, Page 177


Is This An Overview?

Singapore gained sovereignty in 1965, during a wave of anticolonialism.  Within the following decades, Singapore went from being an underdeveloped state, into a prosperous and politically stable state.  Taking immense effort to build an effective government that provided for social inclusivity, political trust, a productive economic system, and a defense network.  To survive, Singapore needed to manage ethnic tension, find trading partners for resources, and defend itself against threats to their sovereignty. 

Singapore wanted capitalism, but with socialist ties.  A competitive system that had more equitable rewards.  A system designed to give people ownership over the outcomes of production, which had motivated people to take responsibility for their lives and contribute to the building prosperity.  To prevent a welfare dependent system.  Singapore had sought international advice and trained their work force. 

Singapore also developed a trustworthy government.  To build an effective government, they made policies to stop corruption cycles, and punished corruption severely.  Politicians were expected to publicly respond to allegations, and legally defend themselves against defamation.  This is a system where news agencies are punished should they make false claims.  Singapore learned from the international community, and then the international community began to learn from Singapore.  Singapore was effective at managing foreign affairs.  They build cooperation and prevented meaninglessly escalating frustration. 


How Was Sovereignty Gained?

It was the British that established Singapore as a trading post during the early 19th century.  During 1950s, there was a wave of anticolonialism.  Lee Kuan Yew was elected as prime minister of a self-governing Singapore in 1959, after working with trade unions and political parties.  Lee Kuan Yew party went against the communists, which meant making enemies.  Their victorious outcome came about after difficult conflict.  Singapore leadership wanted to rejoin Malaya, and did merge into Malaysia in 1963.  The cooperation was very fragile, for there were Malay-Chinese race riots in Singapore.  Malay wanted dominance, and left no choice for Singapore but to leave.  Singapore became independent in 1965.  Community experiences with hardships made them determined to develop a multiracial and inclusive society.


Relying On The British And Americans?

Singapore was a small country, surrounded by larger more powerful nations which favored domestic policies.  Singapore relied on the British for military defense, but the British were set to leave Singapore, taking their military might with them.  Without them, Singapore’s security would have been threatened. Threatening their survivability.  Security needed for trade and investments.  Without which there would be unemployment. 

There were many Asian states gaining sovereignty, and did not want European powers controlling them.  Asian states wanted an Asian solution to their problems.  But, the smaller states did want to cooperate with other European states to balance the power with the larger Asian states.

Singapore did not yield to pressure to override their legal system, even when Singapore was weak and smaller that the state pressuring them.  By not yielding to pressure, Singapore proved that the rule of law was meaningful and could be overridden with impunity.  They were not afraid to enforce the law, especially with British forces still standing guard.    

Singapore did not want to be intimidated, therefore needed to build a military defense force.  National service was a rite of passage for Singapore.  Unifying the diverse people.  Respecting the diverse people’s restrictions based on faith.

As British influence was declining, the American influence was expanding.  Changing to a different political structure was difficult.  The British and Americans handled power differently.  The British had civility, while the Americans want to prove their power.  Americans needed to be handled without a British buffer.  Singapore relied on US potential support to counter Soviet power.  Singapore was able to enforce various naval claims due to US power.


How Did Singapore Handle Racial Tension?

Singapore was composed of a diverse group of people, who did not always get along.  To handle the racial tension, the government hired security who were a more neutral people with a disciplined and loyal reputation to protect.  Racial tensions raised more urgency for a national security force to protect the fragile independence.

Racial tension made choosing a language a sensitive topic.  They wanted English because it was a neutral language, and was needed for international trade.  Rather than impose English, they accepted different official languages.  Singapore was a diverse community, with diverse people who wanted to keep their language and culture.  The government wanted a quality education, but English seemed to deculturize students and make them apathetic. 

The government made sure that different races were intermingled, and were neighbors.  Even created laws to have inclusive elections.  Enabling the government to be representative of the people.


What Economic System Did Singapore Develop?

Singapore did not have natural resources. For Singapore to survive, they had to be competitive.  To produce products cheaper and better than alternatives.  Singapore had a diverse set of adaptable people.  Singapore wanted to become the trading post for the region.  They did have a strategically located harbor. 

Although Singapore was willing to have a common market with Malaysia, the Malaysian government did not want the common market even when Singapore was part of Malaysia.  As Singapore did not have close ties with neighboring states, they sought for ties with more distant states. 

To develop Singapore as a competitive manufacturing state, they sought for foreign expertise to improve their workforce.  Singapore asked international companies to send their instructors to train technicians.  They had set up training institutions.  That gave the people skills with understandings from diverse cultures.  Making Singaporeans desirable employees.  Singapore learned from foreign experiences to develop effective labor practices.   

Singapore protected its manufacturing industry, for various electronic and other technical products.  Encouraged the business industries to manufacture other products as well.  Primary industries were meant to be ship breaking and repair, metal engineering, chemicals, and electical devices.  There were manufacturing ventures that failed, some due to lack of experience.  And also retrofitted some manufacturing for more profitable ventures.  The protective tariffs were meant to be phased out, and they did not work with international companies that wanted them maintained.  By 1975, international industries were still more efficient than Singaporean.

Singapore did not want an aid-dependent mentality.  They wanted the people to succeed on themselves.  Industries were meant to help employ Singaporeans, and not become dependent on perpetual injections of aid.

Singapore wanted to avoid a welfare state.  Took note of the experiences that foreign state with welfare.  Singapore had seen how welfarism had demotivated other societies, to prevent them from being productive.  Self-reliance was undermined by welfare.  With welfare, people became depended upon the state, and reduced productivity.  Singapore tried to make people as independent as possible, but not everyone can be independent.  Lee Kuan Yew was able to resist criticism until the welfare state was acknowledge as a failure.

To become efficient, the Economic Development Board was meant to take on responsibility for all investor needs rather than having multiple departments.  Investors wanted to make sure that politics, economic, finance , and labor were stable.  They wanted to make sure no disruptions to their customers around the world.  Even during a resource crisis, like during the oil crisis of 1973, Singapore did not claim special privileges over their stock.  They did not block the other countries from removing their stock.  This meant that the government proved that it was dependable.  That Singapore would share on the supply restrictions as every other customer. 

Many development economists saw multinational corporations as exploiters of land, labor, and raw materials.  That they perpetuated a colonial pattern.  Singapore was not supportive of these views, and had problems to resolve which the MNC could be part of the solution.  The Singapore people did not have the technical expertise or entrepreneurs, therefore had to rely on MNC’s.  Singapore also had no resources to exploit.  What Singapore did have was hard working people, infrastructure, and an honest and competent government. 

By the 1990s, Singapore had become a world financial leader.  With jurisprudence, effective governance, and balanced budgets.  Singapore wanted makes sure to not spend more than revenue collected, except in recession.  Financial malfeasances were punished, but it was hard to make a case against international financial manipulators. 

Singapore’s financial regulations were strict.  They were needed initially because Singapore did not have a reputation.  There were requests for more leniency, but were rejected.  As Singapore did not compromise standards, Singapore was not as affected by international financial crises.  As Singapore financial system grew, it needed to change to become more global thinking, while relying less on protection from competition. 

Lee Kuan Yew began a political career by supporting unions, but during 1950s, unions became more communist.  No matter the political ideology, the unions had become more combative. What was needed was to have the unions focus on jobs creation.  It was the British who taught the Singaporeans trade union practices, which had focused on taking away from firms as much as possible no matter the consequences to the firm.  The consequences of such practices included unemployment.  The practices created economic inefficiency.  The practices needed to be updated. 

The union system at that time contained few privileged unionized workers with high pay, and many people underpaid and underemployed.  Policies needed to change to pay based on performance, not time.  Lee Kuan Yew did drastically change policies governing unions during the political uncertainty of the British withdrawal.  Policies meant to bring more power to businesses to control their business.  They changed the incentive structure of work.  Restoring employee changes to businesses.  Unions needed to have a public ballot to take major action. 

The government was socialist, but also capitalistic.  They wanted appropriate division of income, but also needed personal motivation and rewards for a productive economy.  There would have been social tension without social fairness.  Extreme results of competition would have been socially disapproved of, therefore the government needed to find appropriate income distribution practices to get elected.  Social harmony was found in everyone sharing in economic prosperity.  Pragmatic solutions were found for economic and social while limiting potential abuse and waste.

Economic success, brought with it problems.  While people were waiting for their residences to be built, apartment prices kept rising.  The people wanted the apartments built quickly.  The government was pressured, and therefore increased the number of units built.  But the increased units caused property defects which need to be expensively ameliorated.  The government learned not to abide by popular pressure, when the government could deliver. 

The government made policies for individuals to take responsibility for their health care, and retirement.  To not rely completely on government.  An appropriate division of economic resources gave people ownership over the outcomes, which motivated many to support the economic methods.  Rioters acted differently about property they owned rather than rented.  By giving people ownership, they would be more invested in protecting their property.  With shares of ownership, they chose to increase their assets with more financial prudence. 

When replying to why Singapore and not other states developed, Singapore replied that they had a stable social system, a culture of productivity and investing in the future, and supported an educated society.


How Did Singapore Government Function?

The government had trust and confidence of the people, that the government would defend the people.  Even with various groups criticizing the government, they did not want to ruin the trust with misgovernment and corruption.

Singapore wanted to avoid corruption as much as possible, therefore politicians were required to defend themselves against allegations of misconduct or malfeasance.  There was a public expectation that charges of impropriety or dishonesty, were to be challenged in the courts.  Opponents of Lee Kuan Yew made slanderous claims, before elections to cause maximum damage.  Lee Kuan Yew responded with legal means.  The claims would have been legitimated if they were not defended against using legal means. 

During 1959, the government wanted a clean administration.  They were severely disappointed with the corruption of other Asian leaders.  The Asian leaders started by fighting for freedom, but had become oppressors who plundered their people’s wealth.  The way the leaders behaved, had terrible consequences for their societies.  The Singapore leaders wanted to remove colonial rule, without the associated sigma of Asian leaders who did not deliver on their ideals.

Initially, in Singapore, there was a lot of corruption on all levels.  Low ranked officials induced bribes to increase their income, while higher ranked officers did not set a good example.  Officials did not have a good income to live on, therefore abused their power.  Illegal activities were removed quicker when there was alterative employment available, and when the government was able to enforce their polices.

The government made sure that that money use was held responsibility, and amounts could easily be verified.  Corruption in Lower ranked officials would be controlled by simplifying procedures and less discretionary decisions.  The priority was to remove corruption from higher ranked official.  Fines for corruption were increased, as well as for providing misleading information to the anti-corruption agency.  Assets were confiscated from those who were found to be corrupt. 

Corruption could begin with how the candidate were to be elected.  With high monetary costs to elections that needed to be recovered.  Singapore wanted to prevent the corruption cycle, by making sure that money was not used to win elections.  With smaller expenses to elections, there was less costs to be recouped.  Getting votes by providing public works. 

During the crisis of 1997, many Asian countries were devastated due to corruption.  Singapore was not as affected during the crisis, because they did had much less corruption.  The Asian crisis in the 1990s was due to institutional and structural weaknesses within those states.  That investments were made in flawed projects.

Asia contains various value system.  In Confucian values dominate Singapore.  Corruption is a disgrace to Confucian values.  Those who have Confucian values, prioritize community over the individual.  To not use political official resources for personal use.  Favors for relatives undermine the integrity of the government.  In Singapore, there were not many abuses of public resources.  Without the corruption, there was less distortion of the allocation of resources, therefore did not suffer as much during the crisis.  When officials use public resources for private gain, they exacerbate the situation for the people. 

When the PAP government was gaining power, if Lee Kuan Yew or associates were imprisoned, they had wives who would be able to support the family without them.  Lee Kuan Yew kept their record clean, which the critics were not even able to find fault, other than personal issues related to Lee Kuan Yew lifestyle. 

The original members of government wanted to change society rather than power.  The following officials did not face their threats, and had alternative sources of employment.  To attract officials, they needed to be paid in comparable amounts to the private sector.  Other Asian governments had corrupt officers because they were underpaid. 

Singapore government was able to have an effective team.  A team in which decisions could be delegated to individuals, who would effectively resolve the tasks they were charged with.  Lee Kuan Yew would set the policy, but the other individuals were able to work on them.  They learned to discuss policies, and then have public discussions as well.  The government created a Feedback Unit, for the public to have a forum to provide their feedback.  Feedback was influenced and improves policies.

The legal system based on juries, acquittals were very likely, even with people who had committed terrible deeds. The jury system failed, and was abolished.  The government even allowed caning, for it was more effective than long prison sentences.  The law made crime a low cost to society.  A society in which people and property were protected.  Freedom exists in orderly societies.  The relatively severe punishments caused Singapore to get criticism, but it was due to their legal structure that they kept social stability and with much less criminal behavior. 

Tolerance and accommodation are needed to make democracy work.  For the minority views to accept the majority’s claims, until a peaceful transition of power after they have persuaded people.  Not all states had working democracies. 


Why Did Singapore Decide To Green Themselves?

Singapore had decided to become more environmentally friendly, by cleaning up the environment.  To make Singapore a business and tourist destination.  Although buildings could be improved, it took more to change the bad habits of the people.  The government wanted less litter, noise pollution, and for people to be more courteous.

By planting various vegetation, they gave the people pride in their surroundings.  Public spaces were kept clean, as well as various public utilities.  By cleaning up Singapore, it allowed the collection of more rainwater.  Cleaning up the pollution removed the stench.  The clean streams also provided fish.  Improving the quality of life in various ways, such as providing recreational areas. 

There were other Asian states that followed Singapore’s leadership and cleaned up their environments.  Making them greener.  They competed to out green each other.  A very helpful competition.  For Singapore, it promoted morale, tourism, and investments.


How Did Singapore Handle News?

Newspapers have the power to shape the politics of a state.  In Singapore, newspapers cannot print just anything.  The news agencies where not allowed to publish falsehoods.  Journalists are not elected, unlike the government.  The government incentivized news agency to be politically neutral.  This is unlike the West, in which wealthy people can control voter behavior through what people read.  Singapore government needed to support their cultural attitude, rather than undermine it.

The East and West have different cultural attitudes, such as their news approach.  The West tends to criticize government, while the East tends to support their government, with measured criticism.  Chinese readers favor the group over the individual, while the Western news favored their interests. 

When the news agencies misbehaved, such as not publishing government replies or general misreporting, they were punished by limiting the number of papers they were allowed to sell.  This meant that the news agency was able to publish articles, but would not get advertising income.

There were news agencies that had ulterior motives, as they were being funded by foreign powers under false flag operations.  The false flag operations were uncovered, and shut down. 


How Did Singapore Engage The International Community?

Singapore, along with Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand cooperated under Asean.  The intent was economic, and social development and stability, but the underlying theme was for needed security to face Vietnamese aggression.  Vietnam had skillful propaganda, and contempt for Singapore.  As Vietnam changed, Vietnam wanted to make allies.  They even looked to Singapore for policy advice. 

The Soviet Union and China had acknowledged the damaged by isolation, and wanted to integrate them into an international economic system.

Japan had occupied Singapore during WW2 using brutal means, but had changed.  When Japan had lost the war, they became diligent in trying to change themselves, they were a hardworking people.  Singapore wanted compensation for wartime atrocities.  Trying to get an apology.  But, Singapore still forged political and economic ties with Japan. 



The values presented are complex, and are based on cultural values.  Values that can be readily misunderstood by perceiving them through different cultural values.  The policies described in the book, can sometimes appear too harsh, that there could have been alternatives ways to handle situations.  The reasons for the policies are explained, and they did foster the prosperous Singapore.  Singapore did provide an effective and successful governance system, which other states began to learn from.

This book contains a lot of political complexities, such as trying to coordinate with different sides.  A book that favors Western ideas.  It is possible that the support given to those ideas is a political maneuver, rather than genuine.  The support could be an attempt to build more ties with the West.  Although there were segments of the book that which criticized the West.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•How did Singapore gain sovereignty? 
•What economic system did Singapore develop?
•Is Singapore capitalist of socialist? 
•How did Singapore handle ethnic/racial diversity?
•How did Singapore manage the international community?
•How competitive is Singapore?
•How were industries developed? 
•How did Singapore deal with corruption?
•Why did Singapore need military power?
•What legal system did Singapore develop? 
•How did Singapore motivate their people?
•How did Singapore regulate finance? 
•What belief systems were in Singapore?
•How did politicians respond to accusations of malfeasance?
•How did the government consider which policies to enact? 
•Why make Singapore Greener? 
•What were the news allowed to and not allowed to do?
•How did Singapore think of its British legacy? 
•How did Singapore handle care pollution?

Book Details
Forward Author: Henry A. Kissinger
Edition:                 First Edition
Publisher:             HarperCollinsPublishers
Edition ISBN:      0060197765
Pages to read:       696
Publication:          2000
1st Edition:           2000
Format:                 Hardcover

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5