In politics and economics, the East Asian and Southeast Asian countries do generally have a limited originality. Philosophically and culturally, legalism and Confucianism play a vital role in many nations within the region, but socialism, capitalism and liberal democracy are completely Western inventions. Not to mention the whole spectrum of technology and innovation, borrowed from the West in the name of globalization (or pragmatics). Nowadays, prominent research in science at for instance The University of Tokyo occurs, but its larger framework does unhesitatingly stem from Western institutions.
With that said, there are still some lessons to be learned from figures within modern Asian politics. Lee Kuan Yew (1923-2015)—the former, long-lasting Singaporean prime minister who served his country for several decades—was such a persona. His most important book, From Third World to First (2000), as well as other discourses of Lee, are valuable sources of information that contain strategies and words of wisdom that can be useful in the West today.
1. Leave useless ideologies behind
Lee was a overtly convinced communist in his youth and as he entered politics. Since his rise of power in the emerging city-state in the 1960s, he shifted towards a more pragmatic and rational political-economic model based on a blend of Western market economy and institutions (British in particular), semi-authoritarianism, and a light version of Confucianism. The latter was believed to keep families united and welfare expenditures low.
The lesson to learn here is to distinguish the upsides from the downsides of Western and Asian culture and thus absorb the components that are valuable, while simultaneously discard the useless elements of whatever kind. Of course Singapore’s particular version of a nanny state is problematic, but still it is preferable to many Western nations that preach unrestricted decadence and political correctness.
Western institutions and science are in almost every thinkable respect materially superior to any pre-modern Asian society, but some of the baggage from the 20th century West—such as socialism and left-liberalism—have no place today or tomorrow. The same kind of discernment has to be carried through whenever Western societies are transformed into more fertile ways of life.
2. Push-pull in international relations
Singapore is indeed a small and largely powerless country and hardly of any significance for American policies and politics. Still the leadership of Lee can serve as a symbol of constructive push-pull strategies regarding international relations (geo-political game).
Lee stresses that Singapore, as a small city-state, had to be careful and not upset powerful nations such as the U.S. or China, and always strive to keep Malaysia enough satisfied (whether or not they would otherwise encourage new race riots between ethnic Malays and Chinese, or cut off the water supply).
Still it had to show strength and courage during critical moments, such as when two Indonesian marine soldiers were executed in 1968 in the aftermath of the MacDonald House Bombing in 1965. Indonesia is a powerful country in comparison to small Singapore, but Lee asserts that it was important to show the region that signs of confidence and strength matter.
”Whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him. Or give it up. This is not a game of cards.” – Lee Kuan Yew
The lesson here is that any nation and its main leader has to push-pull in ways that benefit the country both short-term and more long-term wise. The U.S. should avoid confrontations with China and Russia, and even smaller nations, but still set examples whenever its interests really are threatened from an international point of view. The leadership itself sends proper signals to other states and their leaders on how a balanced approach on international relations can be fortified.
3. Use global institutions for the benefit of the home country
Globalization and its political-economic underpinning, globalism, is indeed a complex of multi-layered mechanisms. Whether or not one wishes only a light version of globalization (or a light version of protectionism for that matter) or to immerse these processes, it is always of chief importance to direct them to national interests.
Currently globalization benefits many Western societies (constructive trade agreements, innovations in technology and science, agreements on international policies), while simultaneously hurting them (large-scale migration, intranational income inequality, companies and corporations leaving the U.S. and Europe for emerging markets, etc.).
Singapore is a typical example of how a nation has pretty much only benefited from globalization. This fact, of course, makes it fragile whenever unwanted global or even regional changes eventually occur, but the point is that at least during the country’s massive main development, it has used global/Western institutions and knowledge in order to accumulate wealth and increase prosperity.
For instance, both Lee and his eldest son—current Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong—studied at Cambridge University in the UK. Today Singapore is one of the major nations in science and mathematics.
This is not the same as to stress that Western states in any way should use global mechanisms in order to hurt other nations that do not pose any direct threat, but rather to avoid the perils of globalization and perhaps also try make it less extensive in time and space, while simultaneously find ways to benefit from it, regardless of its current magnitude.
4. Be aware of the inherent risks of a multiethnic society
1964 brimmed with life-threatening race riots in Singapore, at that time a part of Malaysia. Ethnic and Muslim Malays—with a view of themselves as the regionally dominant group who ought to be granted special treatments—gathered and eventually attacked a lot of ethnic Chinese in Singapore.
Since then, Lee has struggled to maintain multicultural order through keeping demographics and different ethnic groups—Malays in particular—in check by means of both lenience and consistent policies. Somewhat forced tolerance toward minorities is palpable in Singapore, but also the chief significance of cooperation and individual responsibility.
It is not that difficult to find a parallel to the U.S. and other Western nations that currently struggle with the perils of large and unpleasant doses of cultural and ethnic heterogeneity. Just as Chinese is the dominant group in Singapore, whites constitute the majority (although decreasing) group in the U.S.
Scholars such as Frank Salter and Tatu Vanhanen have shown that ethnic heterogeneity do matter a lot with regard to social stability, economic development and the dominant population’s will to pay welfare to other members of a society. But while Lee—rarely restricted by political correctness—consistently tried to keep demographics in check, his goal was to keep the share of ethnic Chinese at about a 75% rate. Most Western leaders are letting the majority groups shrink in numbers.
Any serious leadership must take demographics and cultural differences into account, while at the same time avoid chauvinistic attitudes and policies for the sake of both the whole and the main parts that make up a country. Immigration policies ought to be primarily beneficial for the host nation.
”I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” – Lee Kuan Yew
5. Investment in aesthetic improvement
Singapore may be primarily known as a highly modern and urban metropolitan area, with tall skyscrapers as its backdrop. However, Lee has actually made it into one of the world’s leading “garden states,” linked to a process of greenery which was initiated in the 1960s, with gradual improvements made visible in every decade ever since. Singapore is now even to be regarded as a “city within a garden,” according to some views.
Aesthethics are valuable and one of the major aspects of any civilization. There is always room for improvement and small yet fruitful changes. Lee did also make this sententious statement in 1995, ”I have always believed that a blighted urban landscape, a concrete jungle destroys the human spirit. We need the greenery of nature to lift our spirits.”
Aesthethic improvement of this sort does have a instrumental value for the country’s economy, and for its inhabitants who can live in a more pleasant environment.