Lee Kuan Yew’s Memoirs – A Review (or, How to Build a Country When All You’ve Got is a Bunch of Really Ornery Immigrants)

lee-kuan-yew-memoirsIt seems inconceivable that the World should lose not one, but two of its geniuses in the span of a week. Yet, here we are mourning the death of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father and the last of the PAP’s first generation.

Mr Lee is not known for his literary genius. He was a visionary, strategic thinker and politician. Still, he did publish his memoirs in two thick volumes – The Singapore Story and From Third World to First, so in the spirit of the Owls Well book month, I have decided to write a little bit about them.

As I read both books in 2000, my memory of the books might be a little hazy, but I’m pretty confident that I may well be one of the very few people who have read them cover to cover.

The first book, A Singapore Story, covers Mr Lee’s childhood growing up in rural Singapore, his young adult years as a University student in London and his early political career.

Rather than a book about heavy politics, it’s more of a recollection of childhood and growing up, with a little bit of romance thrown in.

It’s hard to imagine Lee Kuan Yew as a young man picking mushrooms at a golf course and making omelettes with them while courting his wife-to-be, yet the memories are still there, pinned to the page like so many butterflies in a collection. It’s equally difficult to imagine him as a glue manufacturer and salesman, but apparently, Mr Lee supported himself during the Japanese occupation by making Stikfas glue (he even provides his readers with the recipe for it!). It’s not a poetic book by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s informative, giving a glance at the man who would later become Singapore’s driving force.

“The task of the leaders must be to provide or create for them a strong framework within which they can learn, work hard, be productive and be rewarded accordingly. And this is not easy to achieve.” – Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story: Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew only really gets to the meat of the politics of Asia with his second set of memoirs, From Third World to First, (or as I like to call it: “Country Building 101: What to do with a bunch of really ornery immigrants who don’t have much direction and would really like the British to come back, kkthx”).

The answer to this question is, of course, “Get Machiavellian” (e.g. Make serving in the army compulsory on pain of jail and also pain) and if that doesn’t work, “Make Stuff Up” (e.g. Ask Israeli army trainers to grow moustaches and call them codename them ‘Mexicans’ so that things stay totally top secret).

“I have never been over concerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader. Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I’m meaningless.” – Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore story: The Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs is simply seeing what his thought processes were in making his political decisions.  There is no denying that the man was a political genius, and some of the things that he actually got away with were, frankly, inventive and funny.  No matter how many of Lee Kuan Yew’s decisions boil down to getting Machiavellian or making stuff up, we cannot deny the results.  Singaporeans currently enjoy a high standard of living and a the highest trade to GDP ratio in the world.

“I always tried to be correct, not politically correct.” – Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story

Lee Kuan Yew gave everything he had to Singapore and the story he tells about the building process is fascinating, not just because of what happened, but also because of what may still happen in the future.

Goodbye, Sir, and thank you.


2 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew’s Memoirs – A Review (or, How to Build a Country When All You’ve Got is a Bunch of Really Ornery Immigrants)

  1. Pingback: Quietly, quietly: A Round up of tributes to a great man | Owls Well

  2. Pingback: 5 Parenting Lessons From Mr Lee | MalMal Our Inspiration

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