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From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000

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Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world's number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world's fourth–highest per capita real income?

The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore's charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign forces, Singapore now is hailed as a city of the future. This miraculous history is dramatically recounted by the man who not only lived through it all but who fearlessly forged ahead and brought about most of these changes.

Delving deep into his own meticulous notes, as well as previously unpublished government papers and official records, Lee details the extraordinary efforts it took for an island city–state in Southeast Asia to survive at that time.

Lee explains how he and his cabinet colleagues finished off the communist threat to the fledgling state's security and began the arduous process of nation building: forging basic infrastructural roads through a land that still consisted primarily of swamps, creating an army from a hitherto racially and ideologically divided population, stamping out the last vestiges of colonial–era corruption, providing mass public housing, and establishing a national airline and airport.

In this illuminating account, Lee writes frankly about his trenchant approach to political opponents and his often unorthodox views on human rights, democracy, and inherited intelligence, aiming always "to be correct, not politically correct." Nothing in Singapore escaped his watchful eye: whether choosing shrubs for the greening of the country, restoring the romance of the historic Raffles Hotel, or openly, unabashedly persuading young men to marry women as well educated as themselves. Today's safe, tidy Singapore bears Lee's unmistakable stamp, for which he is unapologetic: "If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one."

Though Lee's domestic canvas in Singapore was small, his vigor and talent assured him a larger place in world affairs. With inimitable style, he brings history to life with cogent analyses of some of the greatest strategic issues of recent times and reveals how, over the years, he navigated the shifting tides of relations among America, China, and Taiwan, acting as confidant, sounding board, and messenger for them. He also includes candid, sometimes acerbic pen portraits of his political peers, including the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the poetry–spouting Jiang Zemin, and ideologues George Bush and Deng Xiaoping.

Lee also lifts the veil on his family life and writes tenderly of his wife and stalwart partner, Kwa Geok Choo, and of their pride in their three children –– particularly the eldest son, Hsien Loong, who is now Singapore's deputy prime minister.

For more than three decades, Lee Kuan Yew has been praised and vilified in equal measure, and he has established himself as a force impossible to ignore in Asian and international politics. From Third World to First offers readers a compelling glimpse into this visionary's heart, soul, and mind.

752 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2000

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About the author

Lee Kuan Yew

35 books465 followers
Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore in 1923. He was educated at Raffles College, Singapore and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, England. He was called to the Bar, Middle Temple, London, in 1950 and practised law in Singapore. He became advisor to several trade unions.

In 1954, he was a founder of the People's Action Party and was Secretary General up to 1992.

Mr Lee became Singapore's Prime Minister in 1959, serving successive terms until he resigned in November 1990, when he was appointed Senior Minister by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong. He was re-appointed again after the 1991, 1997 and 2001 general elections.

In August 2004, Mr Lee was appointed Minister Mentor by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and was reappointed again after the 2006 general elections. He stepped down as Minister Mentor in May 2011, and was appointed Senior Advisor to the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 431 reviews
Profile Image for Huyen.
142 reviews188 followers
September 24, 2017
I'm surprised this book is translated into Vietnamese. He makes no effort to hide his distaste for communism and the Vietnamese leaders who came to him for advice in the 1990s. Whether you like the way he's ruled Singapore Inc., he's an amazingly intelligent guy with a far-sighted vision for where his country was going and has largely succeeded and outdone many leaders of the West. From his fascinating description of other Asian countries, including many that had similar starting point as Singapore but have fallen far behind, it seems to me that the fate of a nation doesn't really depend on democracy, natural resources or history, it mainly depends on the vision of the leader and the quality of leadership.
Profile Image for Andrea.
7 reviews2 followers
March 20, 2010
This guy just seems to get everything right. Take all the good stuff in Ayn Rand and turn it into something that's actually workable, and that adds in the concept of fairness. LKY is able to examine the policies of all the other countries that came before Singapore and take what's good and leave what's bad. His policies on "welfare," healthcare, retirement savings, you name it, it seems to be the ideal solution for dealing with the inherent problems of each of those things. His personal savings plans are the same plans proposed by the decision-making experts Thaler and Sunstein in the book Nudge. LKY travels around the world, even doing a short stint at Harvard, to learn things from people so that he can find the best solution for addressing each of Singapore's problems.

The other thing I love about LKY is how refreshingly politically incorrect he is. Based on results from the Minnesota twin studies, he told men in Singapore that IQ is genetic, so if you want your child to be as smart as you, marry someone at your level or above. Things like this would never fly in the US! He calls it as he sees it.

If only every country could have LKY to run it, the world would be a much better place.
Profile Image for Taisin.
16 reviews5 followers
January 28, 2012
Fascinating and well worth reading. The story itself is great: a small nation, isolated, forced to import even drinkable water, obtains (forced into) independence. Ah, yes, small detail: British Empire, protector and developer of this big port, is moving out. And China is willing to move in.
Question: what do you do?
Majority's response: cry and die.
LKY's: whatever is necessary to make it work.
Amazing, what a team of people honestly dedicated to their country and utterly pragmatic can do, no?
And pragmatic LKY surely is. He can appear hypocrite in some parts of the book, but imho he isn't. His only ideology and principle is simple: what is good for Singapore is good, everything else is bad. Free market is good when it works. When it doesn't - regulate. Communism is bad - bad for business, dangerous for the mostly Chinese city. But when it's good for business - we'll trade and work with it, no problem.
A must read for everyone interested in state building quest.
(...Quest 5: defend the nation from the possible attack after Britain moves out.
Precondition 1: the ethnic majority hates army, army is small, stuffed with ethnic minority people.
Precondition 2: one possible treat is this ethnic minority's origin country.
Precondition 3: one possible treat is the ethnic majority's origin country.
Profile Image for Lorong Cat.
1 review
November 9, 2012
Dear Harry,

Thank you for your company during my daily lunch hour for the past couple of months. When I heave open the hard bound book that is the second volume of your memoirs, I feel as if I have been transported back in time to post-colonial Singapore. I have benefited from the peek into your early struggles and that of your colleagues Goh Keng Swee, Toh Chin Chye and Raja. I am intrigued by your account of The Plen (short for plenipotentiary), your moniker for Fang Chuang Pi, the mysterious communist activist operating in Singapore for Beijing.

I don't believe every word you said but do not take offense as I reserve such healthy skepticism for every politician I read from Bill Clinton to Deng Xiaoping.

You know you had your fair share of detractors. In every great achievement of mankind, there are bound to be sacrifices and collateral damage. As the Chinese saying goes ... 一将功成万骨枯. I am sure you read Machiavelli and bought the argument that sometimes "the ends justifies the means". To this end, I am glad that like many others in my generation, I have benefited from your decisions and grew up in relative stability and prosperity - akin to striking the birth lottery.

You should know that while I believe your intentions were for the greater good, the same can be said of your fallen political opponents. Some have chosen to be life long prisoners of conscience. Men with such strong convictions and strict principled approach to life would have easily done well in society had they taken the offer of the olive branch you purportedly extended to them. Singaporeans are fortunate to have these selfless and spirited men who stood up for what they believe to be right for the nation in those tumultuous times.

On the other hand, I am now aware that your freedom and life was at one point under severe threat from your opponents as well. You had to juggle with several hostile fronts such as the Indonesian confrontation abroad, communists at home and north of the island as well as the pro Malay supremacy groups in Malaysia. You survived but history could have easily turned out differently.

I don't feel comfortable reading the fact you acted as a go-between for the U.S. Presidents like Ronald Reagan to "pass messages" to leaders of politically estranged nations like Chiang Ching Kuo and how you've aligned yourself with the U.S. in all matters of foreign affairs in the 60s -70s. Perhaps that's why some of our country critics say we hang on to the coattails of America. However, I understand why that has to be done and like Jack Bauer from one of my favourite TV series 24, you do what needs to be done because as you mentioned time and again in your book, you are a pragmatist and not an idealist and Singapore cannot survive on pure idealism.

Others may think this book is all about you but to me it's all about the birthing process of independent Singapore and most importantly, our relationships with our neighbours, allies and dear frenemies; and our stance in international foreign affairs. I do not have the greatest interest in politics but now I understand better our position in Southeast Asia and how we are indeed a very vulnerable nation in the presence of much bigger countries such as Indonesia. If one looks at history briefly, the odds for the survival of an island state like ours are not high especially with the lack of successful precedents. You articulated a vision predicting that for a small country like Singapore to survive, we need to position ourselves as a useful intermediary to other dominant nations and hope for a balance of power between U.S. and China.

You've shared many of your personal thoughts about people you've dealt with in your career - even those whom you found no room for. Communists and Chinese student activists have earned your respect for their simple lifestyles, quiet confidence and fiercely patriotic spirit. This is opposed to the English educated masses (here I supposed you pride yourself on being an exception) with their wanton/decadent ways and lacking of a serious approach to life.

Your personal mantra is heavy on how one must lead a purposeful life and not indulge in pleasure seeking ways. From my observations I believe you practice what you preach and for that I salute you and I wish I can be as disciplined and ascetic but alas! Your gift is also a curse to many of us and we grew up in too safe and too sanitized an environment you've created and lack what you might refer to as "fire in the belly".

I find your writings inspirational though i disagree with some of the more outdated things you said especially about college educated couples giving birth to brighter kids.

Continue writing. I now live just off Fitzjohns Avenue where you lodged as a student after having just arrived in London. (did I mention I think it's totally cool that you married Mrs Lee in such romantic fashion as akin to an elopement?!) I will stand you a beer if you ever decide to revisit your old haunts in London.

Profile Image for Henna Pääkkönen.
84 reviews40 followers
December 20, 2015
I have always admired how Singapore has managed, in a short period of 30-40 years, to become the competent, rich and serious first-world country in the region where it sits, and wanted to learn more about the how.

Lee Kuan Yew's impressive and magnificent autobiography is a testimony of pride of the growth of the nation, written by its founding father, and covers the period from 1965 onwards (i.e. When the country separated from Malaysia and became The Republic of Singapore), i.e the period of 30 years when the country moved from the third world to the first!

The author explains the challenges of buiding up a thriving nation out of a natural-resource-poor country made up of Malays, Chinese and Indians, where his first target was to build an army out of scratch to avoid occupation by Malaysia / China. At the same time, Britain pulled out, creating further economic challenges for Singapore.

Lee Kuan Yew was an intelligent visionary who meticulously set himself to structure and build up a competent nation, by studying and educating its population, by housing all of its inhabitants, and by mixing the different cultures to live side-by-side, and by taking an absolute no-tolerance stand to corruption. With the stick and the carrot he shaped his nation to have an educated and trustworthy workforce, and as such he has been critizised as being a tough ,dictator-like leader by the west, but I seriously question whether the country would have become the success it is, without his tough pulse, and my guess is no. Lee K Yew travelled the world to attract foreign direct investment little by little into the country and by the 90's the GDP/person of his nation surpassed that of their coloniser Great Britain. His memoirs cover his foreign policy and his discussions with the global leaders in between the 60's snd 90's and he shares his experience with his neighboring countrIes in South East Asia as well as in China and the other Asian countries, covering interesting historic events, economic questions, values, but also talks about the foreign policies of US, Great Britain, Russia, Germany and France.

This book was a great learning experience for me, and I admire Lee Kuan Yew's work. My only criticism for this piece is the way it is organized by themes and not by chronological order of the happenings, which makes one jumping back and forth in time a bit confusing. Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating compilation of impressive memoirs by an outstanding personality of the 20th century, definitely worthwhile to be read!
Profile Image for Cristobal.
625 reviews39 followers
June 20, 2015
One of the best books you'll ever read, period. Mr. Yew knows everything about how to build a prosperous country and nothing about political correctness. I'd never heard someone as accomplished as Mr. Lee describe with all honesty his dealings with super powers, heads of state and the common man.

If you're interested in learning how common sense, discipline and hard work can be combined to transform a country, you can't miss this book.
Profile Image for JoséMaría BlancoWhite.
301 reviews34 followers
December 15, 2014
I had a great time reading what this great -and un-known to the West- leader wrote in this sort of memoirs book, and it was comprehensive too. It's not so much a memoirs book as his recollections of all things Singapore related during his long term in office. First of all, the book is easy and fun to read. That is the thing that most favorably surprised me, coming from a politician. It is sincere in tone, not ridden with sophistry or abstractions, but filled with common sense and expressed in a happy and relieved sense that he has done his bit, has come a long way, as well as little Singapore.

We have no other voice to contrast his sayings to, obviously, this is his book. But we do have Singapore to look to, and see how far this new little country, ex-British colony in the Far East, has come. Democracy, rule of law, free markets, an anti-communist watchful eye, the Confucian values of its people restored and fostered, the English language mandatory in schools and administration (as well as Mandarin and Malay), and a very careful handling of its diverse ethnic population sentiments: avoiding nationalisms and the intrusisms offoreign nations by means of religious, ideological or nationalistic infections. Taking care that its own multi-ethnic populations do not fight each other and grow instead a sense of community and cre for each wonder, seemed to be the number one achievement. An achievemente that many other nations who have not had to go through this take for granted. And that is no little achievement when we consider everything else, economic and cultural.

The story (the success of Singapore, rather) is told by topics, first national and then international-related. Finally, there is a short chapter on his family and an epilogue. But the joy and sense of the author in having accomplished what he is so obviously proud to believe is contagious all through the book: a real joy.

I enjoyed all parts, and there was no repeating issues already mentioned. The careful author mentiones them only in a different light, on account of another story-related. One big favor Mr. Lee Kuan Yew did to us readers here is sharing his honest opinions of his collaborators in government and especially on the contemporary world leaders. Criticism that is constructive and witty but. It comes clear throughout the book that the man is a highly intelligent and afable fellow. I thougt at the beginning he would be a candid and good-natured person when I read.

The line editor at HarperCollins, New York, has meticulously Americanized my English.She has also made me politically gender correct. Wherever I wrote man", he has become "person" or "people". I thank her for making me appear less of a male chauvinist to Americans.

Was that a candid acknowledgment of his supposed machismo or a I-can't-care-less attitude? One of the many interesting and illuminatating issues that the book brings out is the relation and differences between peoples of the West (Western Europe and North America) and the East. There's a divide of cultures that the author points out. It's a contention that both peoples have to end, and better end sooner than later, because the benefits of their good relationships and common understanding are immense, the differences only a matter of culture and beliefs. The issue is very much worth reading and thinking about: I came to agree with the author.

Another thing: You can read the book and learn a lot about history, geo-politics and all kinds of government related issues, from economy to Confucianism, sociology. The history of Singapore is like that of an Asian New York, with its varied peoples uniting to become one new country, surrounded by giant and manacing Asian countries who try to suck you in and have you play for them. Singapore's greates feat was, simply stated, just to make it. To live through the perils of independence amid these big countries and not falling into the paws of communist imperialism or becoming a puppet of Russia, the US, India, China, Japan, Malasia, or Indonesia. They made it by themselves: what an achievement.

A superb book to have a look, an in-depth look, at Asia and Southeast Asia in particular; to know what's been going on with the big politics of the late 20th century. Singapore presents a great study case, because it could not avoid relating with the big leading national characters of the 20th century, and thus it presents to us the unique opportunity of seeing what was going on on so many levels of international business and politics: from the foot on the street, races, cultures and sentiments of the people to the Cold War and the post-Communist world. And if not for the wealth of news here, then read it because it's just fun to read.
Profile Image for Ahmed Almawali.
630 reviews334 followers
April 10, 2017
لا يوجدُ في هذه المذكراتِ ما يدلُّ على أنَّ لي كوان كان رجلًا غَيْرَ استثنائيٍ في بدايةِ عهدِه بعدَ الانفصالِ عن الأم ماليزيا بل هو مرَّ بحالاتِ ضِعفٍ: بكى حينما قررتْ ماليزيا التخلي ، هزته المنازعاتُ العرقيةُ بين الملاويين والصينيين، أزعجتْهُ الإضراباتُ وسعى لوأدِها، جاهدَ وتوسلَ للبريطانيين على إبقاء قواتهم أو بطء رحيلِهم؛ لكنه في المقابلِ كان مخططًا استراتيجيا، وعمِلَ على أسسٍ متينةٍ مدروسةٍ ليتجاوزَ المِحنةَِ، واتخذ خطواتٍ لأجلِ المساواةِ بين العرقين اللدودين الملايويين والصينين، جلبَ الاستثمارات، أسسَ جيشًا وطنيًا "وللأسف بالاستعانةِ بالصهاينةِ"، اهتمَ بالتفاصيلِ الصغيرة: التشجيرِ، النظافةِ، تمليكِ المنازل ... أخيرا فإن مفهومَ الحريةِ له دلالاتُه الخاصةُ عند كوان يستحقُّ الوقوفُ معه طويلا حينما يتعارضُ مع المساسِ بأمنِ الدولة واستقرارِها
هذا الجزء أراهُ أجملَ من الجزءِ الأول وإن كان فاصلُ ما بين القرائتينِ خمسةٓ أعوام، يختصر قصةَ القفزِ من العالم الثالثِ للعالَم الأول
Profile Image for Mik Chernomordikov.
64 reviews224 followers
November 10, 2012
Прекрасная автобиография одного из самых великих политических деятелей современности!
Толстая книга с подробными рассказами - но оно стоит того.
Имейте в виду, что где-то на первой трети начинается рассказ не про внутреннее устройство Сингапура, а про взаимодействие с другими странами - Великобританией, США, Китаем, Россией, Японией, Малайзией, Индонезией и другими.
Мне это понравилось больше всего, хотя, думаю, эта существенная часть книги может быть не всем интересна
Profile Image for Valerie.
252 reviews12 followers
January 18, 2008
I found this book tremendously disappointing. (And since I am not Singaporean, I can say that.) I was looking for details regarding the development of HDBs, the removal of people off the river, the creation of the ideology of racial harmony. Instead, we get lots of moments of Lee congratulating his colleagues. Then, we get chapter upon chapter in which Lee offers his views of Singapore's geographical neighbors. Not terribly useful, as the nitty-gritty is, of course, omitted. (Myanmar, for instance.)
Profile Image for Michael Scott.
725 reviews131 followers
August 2, 2015
+ very clear, high quality writing. A delight to read such an eloquent story!
+++ Very good book, excellent in many parts but annoying in its many propaganda parts. Excellent and lengthy analysis of China's leadership, policies, and issues, if more compassionate than that of Southeastern Asian countries.
+++ I finally understood how Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia and Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge were possible.
+/- Many politically charged statements, which makes the book difficult to assess objectively.
+++ recommended reading for anyone trying to understand the history and politics of the region.
- Unfortunately, the book covers only the period until 2000. So much has happened in Asia (and the entire world) since!

Good policies:
+ the right to leave the country
+ running the economy
+ house ownership
+ low corruption
+ greening
+ focus on education

Main issues:
- the chase for First World standard (ends when reaching standard, leaving little else to achieve as Grand Dream)
- the nationalist call combined with fear of neighbors who want to destroy them (never ends, if played right, but destructive in forming a safe environment)
- presenting a well-known leader as the know-it-all source of decisions, for decades (ends when said leader retires, typically with nepotism or cronyism in replacement process - in N. Korea, same family; in China, same political groups; in the US, same family)
- progressive tightening of the screw (ends when a large fraction of the population cannot take it anymore)
- patient but decisive elimination of rivals
- resettlement of most people, specifically separating ethical groups (Stalin also did this)
- many rules, disproportionate and seemingly discriminating punishment (example: the widely different duration of limiting the volume of printed newspapers, after seemingly similar infringements of the law)
- financial incentives for people for voting with the ruling party (upgrading houses first in quarters won by the ruling party)
- seemingly nepotism, with all three children winning medals and high positions in environments linked to their father. That the children, now mature, have coped well with the high-responsibility positions is undoubtful. However, the key question is: would Singaporean children without a connected parent have had the same opportunities and success?
- lots of propaganda (we have to catch uo, pressure from neighboring enemies, return to traiditinal values)
- using the "others do it too" argument and other logical fallacies

Other issues:
- need for change, as accumulation of resentment - happens with coaches of the most successful teams, when players become fed up with the same person managing the course of action
- only a small fraction of the population of a First World country is willing to do Third World jobs; the missing workers willing to do them can be imported, which raises racial and ethnical tensions, and fights over salaries and opportunity; the missing workers can also simply be provided from the younger generation, causing unwillingness to work and street riots (as in England)

! Rankings, rankings, rankings
Profile Image for Semiticus.
14 reviews8 followers
March 20, 2023
Walter Crocker once stated that the good leaders of world history combined intelligence with compassion; citing Lincoln as an exemplar of these two characteristics. While these two qualities can go a long way; there are still a few variables which need to be taken into consideration. There are many leaders; from Tony Blair to Pandit Nehru to Angela Merkel; who were intelligent enough in their own way, and reasonably well-intentioned. But they lacked a certain sense of realism, the reverence for truth and reality no matter the unpleasantness; and the capacity to place things in proportion. Lee Kuan Yew; who in addition to possessing the cardinal leadership virtues of intelligence and good-will; had that elusive intangible quality of good judgement.

His Meiji-style empirical approach to policy formulation was key to his successful track record. Instead of letting emotion and ideology (which is merely emotion transplanted onto a political plane) decide on the course of action; he insisted that a policy prove itself in the real world; or be consigned to the dustbin and a newer policy put in its place. Time and again he would face a public policy problem; and instead of deciding a priori what should be done based on a doctrinairian framework; he would search around the globe for tried-and-true solutions; ascertain the feasibility of implementing such solutions in Singapore; and if feasible the policy would be adopted; whereas if unfeasible he would be open to experimentation.

And it is in experimentation where Lee Kuan Yew was at his most effective and pragmatic. Whereas other nations debated the merits of free market healthcare and government-provided medical care for all; Lee Kuan Yew and his health minister combined elements from both to maximize efficiency while ensuring a decent provision was made to low-income individuals. He mandated that Singaporeans place roughly 6% of their wages (with some variation depending on age and income) into a MediSave fund; where high deductible and co-pay plans were offered to ensure fiscal responsibility at the personal level; and the care system was divided into 5 tiers; with the lowest-cost, no-frill wards being subsidized at a greater level than higher tier wards. The result is an astonishingly cost-efficient healthcare system that requires a paltry 2.2% of GDP - in comparison to the 8-10% norm for developed nations, and 17% for the US - to achieve world-leading health outcomes.

Lee also initiated a program to help Singaporeans own a home; which he discerned as being necessary to ensure stability of the state; in contrast to Hong Kong where sky-high rent and low ownership has caused severe distress among a wide section of the populace. The initiative succeeded, and Singapore now has a 90% ownership rate, in comparison to 65% in USA. Though I view his healthcare and housing policies as his two greatest achievements; Lee Kuan Yew surprisingly asserts in the book that his greening initiative - a simple act of planting trees and growing gardens - was his best policy. Singapore needed multinationals to invest capital into the country; and first world aesthetics was in his view critical to attracting FDI.

Lee however was no angel, and though he can be considered honest and humane in comparison to the great majority of historical leaders; did commit some errors during his lifetime. First, he was quite harsh on opposition politicians who dared to disagree with him or his party; launching several lawsuits which bankrupted his opponents without mercy; and jailing dozens of communists without due process. The latter can be forgiven on account of Machiavellian necessity; and the fact that the communists of that era were violent fanatics not above dirty tactics themselves. But Lee’s persecution of non-violent opposition politicians was borne out of his vindictiveness and lack of respect for democratic norms.

Lee can also be criticized for Singapore’s cultural sterility; since other nations of comparable size such as Finland, Hungary, Armenia and Lebanon were capable of producing great musicians, writers, poets, artists etc. while Singapore has no world-cultural figure to speak of. Whether Lee Kuan Yew can be held responsible is difficult to ascertain. On the one hand his single-minded focus on material improvement may have caused a neglect of cultural activities; but some might pin this on a general East Asian lack of creativity. Japan has demonstrated that this notion is somewhat exaggerated, but the overall principle may have some kernel of truth.

At any rate his achievements far outweigh his defects and mistakes; and those who blow his faults out of proportion risk ignoring the example of one of the most rational and constructive leaders in world history. One whose policies if emulated can substantially improve the material standards of nations wise enough to adopt them.
Profile Image for Samuel .
178 reviews114 followers
July 22, 2016
He was:
A free market supporter who also didn't mind some government intervention.
A die hard anti-communist who also supported gun control and unique social policies
A proponent of the rule of law but one who didn't mind using the state to jail and bankrupt his opponents in long court cases.
A dedicated classical liberal who also was willing to institute the infamous anti-chewing gum law and hang drug smugglers.
A founder of the most successful multi-cultural state in Asia but one who also believed in the divisive "bell curve".

"There are books to teach you how to build a house, how to repair engines, how to write a book. But I have not seen a book on how to build a nation."

So begins volume two of the memoirs of Lee Kwan Yew, former Prime Minister of Singapore, one of the longest serving heads of state and in terms of achievements, the greatest nation builder Asia has ever seen or will see. This book chronicles the time he ruled "the red dot" of the region, from the break with Malaysia to the 1990's where Singapore was the most developed and prosperous state in Asia. This book shows how he and his team, with very little resources, a moody, sometimes jealous neighbor and contending with demographic trends which would have torn the city apart crafted a first world nation in all but name.

At the beginning of the book, Singapore was in the doghouse. With a powerful communist insurgency kicking into high gear, unpredictable and suspicious neighbors such as Indonesia and Malaysia on the prowl and massive racial and religious tensions that could have gotten out of hand, poverty stricken Singapore wasn't expected to succeed. In fact, Britain thought that Sri-Lanka would be the colony most likely to become a developed nation. But they hadn't reckoned with the 42 year old Cambridge educated Lawyer who in 1965 was thrust into the hot seat and laden with the unenviable burden of developing a tiny state with no natural resources and hardly any international clout.

But he delivered, leveraging Singapore's location to a hilt and building up a reputation as Asia's best port, cracking down on corruption like an avenging angel and investing huge sums of money into creating what is now the fourth best education system on the planet. All these measures paid off, by the time Lee retired, "the red dot" had become the safest country in Asia, richer and cleaner than many of its larger neighbors, its citizens better educated and prepared for the new millennium and most critically it had fourth highest per capita real income on the globe. Barring some recent developments, these achievements have stood up extremely well.

I like to think of Lee Kwan Yew as the Jack Bauer of politicians. Most politicians today only concern themselves with what their country can do for them and not what they can do for their country. That was mostly the case with Lee Kwan Yew's counterparts, many who squandered and stole resources and money from their countries. Lee was the opposite. When others were building grandiose presidential palaces, Lee was living in the same house his parents and grandparents had lived in. When his peers amassed huge fortunes and created dictatorships Lee wiped out the majority of corruption in his government and wasn't afraid to go after close colleagues who had taken from the till, a rarity in the legendary corrupt world of Asian politics. But where the Jack Bauer analogy comes in is describing Lee's political ideas. Pragmatic, effective and sometimes uncomfortable during his rule, he only cared about what worked best in the circumstances and laughed at the one-size fits mentality America seemed to have in its attempts at setting up democracies worldwide.

Like Jack Bauer, who's willingness to do whatever it takes in order to survive his bad days led him to torture and kill bad men, Lee was willing to do whatever worked to fulfill his goal of taking his country from the third world to the first. At times, his measures like the protagonist of "24" led to criticism, and occasionally even condemnation from western academics and human rights advocates who were freaked out by an upstart like Singapore trampling on all the rules and conventions of democracy which they had taken for granted. After reading this book, you may not admire Lee, you may be uncomfortable with what he did, but like Jack Bauer doing whatever it took to get the job done, regardless of reputation or following the rules, you can't argue with the results Lee achieved which speak for themselves. In this book, he explains his reasoning for taking measures which have led to quite a bit of mockery. For starters, the anti-gum law was instituted when somebody stuck some gum to the door sensors of a subway train, bringing the entire system to a halt for several hours during rush hour and causing much distress for commuters and the government. You may still disagree with him at the end of the book but it does let you understand his side of the story and gives context to this seemingly obtrusive government meddling.

But it's not just the domestic front the book deals with but also the foreign side of Lee's rule. He's met countless world leaders who at times have flocked to him for advice and he shares his observations of them. From the US presidents (he shows a nuanced perspective of Lyndon Johnson the good side of Gerald Ford, discusses Richard Nixon who was his favorite and drowns Jimmy Carter in scorn for his micromanaging style and general naivety of geopolitics), UK Prime Ministers (a fan of Thatcher but believed her stance of apartheid was out of date), Asian leaders (Defends Suharto of Indonesia for immensely improving the economy of his country in comparison to his womanizing predecessor Sukarno, speaks highly of Deng Xiao Ping who learnt a lesson in why Marxist economics sucked when visiting Singapore and is rather melancholic when speaking about the rest of South East Asia which had so much potential and was squandered by such poor leadership. In particular, his views on Cambodia was rather tragic) and countless others, the book allows us to take the proverbial peek behind the curtain at how a small nation dealt with the big fish of the Cold War world. In particular, the parts about the challenges Lee was forced face up to with growing accustomed to a dying UK presence and a larger American one are particularly interesting.

Overall, this is a masterpiece. Unlike most memoirs which sometimes only indulge with patting the author on the back, this one also actually makes you think about the caliber of the present politicians who run the Western World, the limits of the democratic ideals and systems we take for granted and the difficulties with developing a nation without it descending into war and strife like South Sudan recently. Can the achievements of Singapore be replicated elsewhere with Lee Kwan Yew's methods? Probably not. But this book is a highly fascinating saga which can teach the reader a thing or two about the lengths one must go to build a nation.
Profile Image for Salem Lorot.
96 reviews26 followers
May 1, 2017
When you read the history of a country's success through the lens of one of its foremost architects, it is a reading experience that is slow and deliberate. Lee Kuan Yew tries to show the progress of Singapore over the years since the formation of PAP, her intrigues, her politics, her successes. And in all this, his paintbrush extends to the geopolitics of China, Russia, Britain, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia.

This is how he ends the 691-page long memoir:

"The future is as full of promise as it is fraught with uncertainty. The industrial society is giving way to one based on knowledge. The new divide in the world will be between those with the knowledge and those without. We must learn and be part of the knowledge-based world."

I agree with this assessment of the future. Knowledge and ideas are shaping the modern world.

Lee writes of the Confucian values and he insists that in Asia, family and the community comes first than the individual. Thus, he faults the insistence of democracy and human rights by the US on ASEAN and China. He writes that every nation has its own unique culture, civilization and values and that any change should be tempered and should be gradual, particularly on China with a civilization of 4,000 years.

Somewhere in the book, Lee writes:

"Would I have been a different person if I had remained a lawyer and not gone into politics? My work experience would have been more limited and my horizons narrower. In politics I had to range over the whole gamut of the problems of human society. As the Chinese saying goes, "the sparrow though small has all five organs." Small though we may be, our needs are the same as those of any larger country, domestically and internationally. My responsibilities gave me a wide perspective of human societies and a worldview that a lawyer would not have."

I would recommend this book to any serious African leader who wants to transform his or her country. It is not a prescription to all the ills affecting our modern leadership but it has worthy lessons, particularly on how to deal with corruption and thoughts on bringing forth a new breed of young leaders who eventually take over the reins of leadership.
Profile Image for Sergey.
25 reviews2 followers
March 24, 2013
Безусловно, очень интересная книга одного из видных политиков на Востоке. Книга ценная тем, что подробно описывает шаги, которые предпринимались правительством Сингапура для развития страны, подкрепляя эти шаги комментариями от первого лица. Пребывание столько лет у власти - большой подвиг. Не меньший подвиг - работа над этой книгой.
Теперь о минусах. Автор претендует на то, что он рассказывает свою историю честно и от чистого сердца. Он не раз подчёркивает, что обходится также и со своим народом. При этом на протяжении всей книги очень много субъективизма, попыток передёргивания и перевирания фактов. Например, Ли Куан Ю с самого начала как бы намекает о том, что Сингапур - очень великая страна. Не имея ни собственной армии, слабую экономику и кучу проблем, вынужденную прогибаться под Англию, США и соседей, он оставляет подтекст величавости Сингапура. По мне это странно - как можно ходить с высоко поднятым носом, если твоя страна напрямую зависит от исхода ситуации с выводом войск?
Теперь о СССР/России. Это отдельная история. В какой-то момент Ли Куан Ю упоминает о том, что ему довелось испытать советские самолёты и сравнить их с английскими. В этот момент автор достаточно надменным тоном говорит о том, что советская технология мягко говоря "так себе"; при этом в другом эпизоде он говорит о поставках отличных автоматов АК-47, не упоминая страну-производителя. Очевидно, что Сингапур и союзники побаиваются и недолюбливают Россию и до сих пор. Но столь явное передёргивание фактов для меня ставит крест на объективности и честности автора.
На мой взгляд книга была написана с определёнными конкретными целями - любой ценой поднять имидж Сингапура ещё выше. На мой взгляд, автору это удалось. Поэтому книгу нужно читать особенно внимательно, подвергая сомнению приведённые факты. Тем не менее - стоит ли читать этот труд? Однозначно стоит. Нечасто встретишь такой подробный рассказ от первого лица, пусть и небольшого государства.
Ну и напоследок подчеркну, что таким обзором я бы не хотел умолять заслуг Сингапура и лично Ли Куан Ю - они проделали действительно большую работу и добились существенных результатов. Так что в этом смысле остаётся только порадоваться за них.
Profile Image for Anj✨.
176 reviews27 followers
October 17, 2021
Well, I didn't expect to enjoy this. I must be getting old, I do prefer the word evolving tho 🤪

TBH I only read this on a whim. Start of campaign season in the Phillipines and I'm already too tired seeing the Marcoses on my newsfeed. I keep seeing LKY's name associated to the late President Marcos which is disgusting. Both were in office at the same time and I can't understand why people can't see how different they are???
First off, LKY's vision is for Singapore, not for his own gain. Just look how thriving Singapore now. And Philippines is Phillipines, poorer than ever and getting too deep on debts...again

Lee Kuan Yew is a visionary. A man who isn't shortsighted. He's disciplined, pragmatic, and he has a legacy that everyone should be proud of.

In this book it detailed his humble beginnings slowly morphing to a discussion of the domestic policy which became the foundation and more discussion of foreign policy that made Singapore what it is now. It detailed the problems, the experience and reasons of each decisions he took. All I can is LKY is a brilliant social, political, economic engineer.

Overall, this is an outstanding read. Makes me mad even 'coz all we have here are abundance of stupid politicians who can only think about what Phillipines can give them, not what they can give to the country.

Well this is my favorite among all the things he said on Philippines. Hurts too much but too true.
It is a soft, forgiving culture. Only in the Philippines could a leader like Ferdinand Marcos, who pillaged his country for over 20 years, still be considered for a national burial. Insignificant amounts of the loot have been recovered, yet his wife and children were allowed to return and engage in politics.
Profile Image for Abhishek.
70 reviews16 followers
April 14, 2020
My favorite genre of books - an old man looks back on a life well-lived. I particularly enjoyed the recounting of his tussles with the western press and academia, and the dismantling of their sanctimonious attitudes towards Singapore’s version of a prosperous society. LKY might be dead, but Singapore is thriving and did not implode, contrary to what the “free” press liked to proclaim then (and still does). Not all systems are equal, and none universal. Each society must find its own way. Of the many examples available, one only needs to look at Singapore’s response to the current pandemic versus that of the Western world regarding the effectiveness of its approach. The government is radically transparent and its citizens have a high level of trust in it, in no small part because of the system of checks and balances established by LKY and his compatriots. Who wouldn’t want a society and a governance like that?

LKY says in the last chapter:
“If there was one formula for our success, it was that we were constantly studying how to make things work, or how to make them work better. I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or scheme was, would it work? This was the golden thread that ran through my years in office. If it did not work, or the results were poor, I did not waste more time and resources on it. I almost never made the same mistake twice, and I tried to learn from the mistakes others had made.”

Words to live by in any line of work.

P.S: Now that I am working my way through Caro’s LBJ series, it was interesting to contrast LBJ’s effectiveness with LKY’s. I enjoyed LKY’s appraisal of LBJ, it seemed just right. Two men acquiring and wielding political power in two very different climates to do a great amount of good, that deserves an essay by itself.

P.P.S: Of course LBJ caused a great amount of damage too, to a vast number of people. LKY? Not so much.
Profile Image for The Laughing Man.
286 reviews50 followers
June 2, 2020
An incredibly important handbook (especially for libertarians) that contains deep insights about Asian politics, especially the Southern part. The bits about China were also quite explanatory of the current situation and gave me critical knowledge about how to understand how China works. Lee Kuan Yew is a glorious personality, loved his intelligence, depth and intuitiveness that shows in his every remark and observation.

This man needs to be recognized all over the world especially in the Western world which seems to have been plagued once again with Marxism virus that cripples it...

Profile Image for Raed.
137 reviews
December 10, 2017
سيرة رجل عظيم قاد بلاده في فترة عصيبة بعد استقلال سنغافورة عن ماليزيا ونجح رغم العداوات من دول الجوار ورغم ضعف الموارد الطبيعية ورغم الاختلاف العرقي المكّون للمجتمع.
وجود قائد مثل لي كوان يو عنده رؤية واضحة لماسيتم تحقيقه ونجاحه في استقطاب الكفاءات لمساعدته في مسعاه وثقة الناخبين به هي ثالوث النجاح .
تفاصيل كثيرة تناولها لي كوان يو الأب الروحي لدولة سنغافورة وكيف استطاع التغلب على المشكلات والصعوبات التي واجهته .
Profile Image for Sam Cui.
5 reviews1 follower
April 18, 2017
Very informative and insightful. Half the book explains the context and challenges LKY faced in the journey of transforming Singapore from a third world British colony into a first world leader. The second half dives into LKY's thoughts on countries around the world and their unique situations. An incredibly insightful book by one of the greatest leaders of the modern era. Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Bá Hoàng.
96 reviews33 followers
May 20, 2020
Quyển này đọc xong đã lâu hôm nay tình cờ thấy nên đánh dấu đã đọc. Nói về Lý Quang Diệu thì hẳn ai cũng đã biết ít nhiều, tôi đánh giá ông là một vĩ nhân, qua quyển sách này các bạn sẽ hiểu Singapore thịnh vượng vì lý do gì và vì ai. Lịch sử Singapore nằm trong quyển sách này.
Profile Image for Sokcheng.
241 reviews10 followers
July 28, 2018
finished this about 3 years ago. nothing but respect for this pragmatic, disciplined man.
Profile Image for Andrew Carr.
471 reviews96 followers
March 26, 2015
I had been meaning to read this book for a while, and after hearing of Lee Kuan Yews worsening condition last week I finally pulled it off my shelf. I’m very glad I did.

To be a ‘great man of history’ you usually have to lead a large nation or embody a clear and significant culture or ideology. Lee Kuan Yew did neither, but he was no doubt, a great man.

Lee led a small city state, which both joined and left a larger federation in his time, and was nearly swamped by the much larger states on either side, not to mention Cold War pressures. He was of Chinese ancestry, led a nation with a vocal Malay minority and yet was the so called ‘last Victorian’ in Asia (he was born ‘Harry’ Lee).

The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 begins with Singapore’s dramatic step out of Malaysia and in a very personal way recounts the governance challenges facing the new country. How to get the economy going, how to build a defence force (with a notable cameo from two other beleaguered small states Israel and Taiwan), and how to build a coherent national identity.

Lee presents his approach in relentlessly pragmatic fashion, being swayed by better arguments, or more commonly, persuading everyone else with his better arguments. As such it’s easy to find yourself swept along without taking automatic offense at the anti-democratic or controlling aspects of his policies.

Perhaps most fascinatingly is Lee’s approach to capitalism. While very much convinced of its merits as a necessary framework, he has an alternate approach to the stereotypes of welfare laden Europe or heartless but free America. Lee instituted an early form of compulsory superannuation in the 1960s and soon expanded these accounts to cover housing (Joe Hockey must be jealous), along with medical expenses and other social costs.

This approach of forced savings and government/employer co-contributions is rejected by many free marketers, but if they reject the current welfare model, and want something that can plausibly work towards their ultimate ambitions (low taxes, low debt and a sense of personal responsibility) there’s a lot to like about it. (It’s certainly far more coherent and serious than magic pudding style laffer curves). For the left, these kinds of schemes do offer some challenges, but anything that ensures that we can guarantee long term social support, means tested to ensure that we focus state resources on the most needy is worth seriously exploring.

(This also gives some support to the claim of Adrian Wooldridge and John Micklethwait in The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State - which I’ve reviewed here - that the East has supplanted the West as the locus of re-thinking governance)

But back to the book. After covering the affairs inside the state, the second and longer part of the book details Singapore’s relations with the rest of the world. Southeast Asian and key large states get their own chapters (or several in the case of the US and China) and there’s some fascinating detail about how this city state has tried to avoid being squashed by the elephants around it.

That said, this section does also fall into that trap of other ‘great man of history’ books by detailing the many travels and meetings with dignitaries that your narrator held over the years. After a while, it can drag on, and for the general reader I’d recommend just skimming quickly through. Then again, if Singapore-Thailand relations are your real passion in life, do go right ahead and read it closely.

For few people is the term ‘Father’ of their nation quite so true. According to a friend from Singapore, the sense of loss after LKY’s passing is just like that of a family member’s death. A student of mine currently studying over there reports lines running kilometre after kilometre of people waiting to pay their respects.

Such images might bring to mind the fakery and fanaticism of dictators. And while LKY was happy to use the cane (or detention without trial) to further his cause, he was not just feared but loved. He took a desperately poor ‘tropical slum’ and made it coherent, rich, influential and safe.

A remarkable tale, and a remarkable book. Highly recommended.
161 reviews
October 14, 2019
Very disappointing book

It's hard to ignore, diminish or taint LKY's many achievements, however I think this book does not contribute to strengthening his legacy.

My problems with it:

- Way too much mundane details (Do we need to know what he had for breakfast on one unremarkable day in 197X?), which is particularly frustrating considering that LKY criticizes some world leaders for focusing too much on detail. In my view the book could easily be 10-20% shorter without all these useless detail. In other situations, this could be ignored, but at close to 700 pages, this volume is already way too long.

- The important side-effect of the mind-boggling level of detail is that it becomes pretty clear that some anecdotes where antagonists are named and described, are really mostly meant to settle scores with people who have crossed him in the past. This simply doesn't help to convince us that LKY is thick-skinned, classy or able to forgive silly grievances. The result is that he belittles himself.

- The book's first part is dedicated to Singapore's achievements and predicaments, but the second part digs into the detail of relationships with important foreign partners. The problem is that these relationships, while important to Singapore, are mostly indicative of LKY's own personal views and biases around world events and relationships with its leaders. While it definitely is instructive from a historical standpoint, it doesn't really do much to help us understand why or how Singapore became successful.

- LKY's healthy ego transcribes throughout the book. There is not much humility here and while there is some acknowledgement of past mistakes, they are not described anywhere. He does not have the biggest ego that I have ever encountered and in many ways, it is hard to expect that someone with his record of achievement would also be able to temper said ego, it is still overall disappointing. It also makes the book very painful to read: every single word or thought of his is demonstrably perfect and on-point and if this is not realized immediately, it is over time.

- The book doesn't help race relations considering the veiled racism embedded in it, I would be amazed if it did not hurt many readers of affected nationalities and ethnicity.

Overall, glad I found the wherewithal to finish the book but it was one of the most painful reads I have had and it has significantly belittled LKY in my mind.
Profile Image for Deanne Dumo.
31 reviews21 followers
June 14, 2015
Mr. Lee's memoirs first narrates how his team took the reins and built Singapore from scratch when the city-state was expelled from Malaysia in mid-1960s. His team was organized in crafting policies, such as targeting investments and building up key high-tech manufacturing industries, building up their defense capabilities, devising an efficient health care and housing system, promoting tourism through building up airport infrastructure and nurturing its national airline, improving tertiary education and language fluency of its students, to greening Singapore. All while Singapore faced racial clashes and riots, and the threat of communism in Southeast Asia.

But what is more interesting is his intuitive telling of the history and developments in Asia, Europe and the US in the 1950s-90s through interesting anecdotes of his interactions with the countries' leaders that time. His anecdotes on Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, Suharto of Indonesia, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping of China, Jawaharlal Nehru of India, and the Vietnamese guerrilla leaders after the war are my favorites.

His main thesis in his memoir is that East and Southeast Asia were able to develop their economies during that period because of the security blanket of the Western forces checking the spread of Soviet and Chinese communism in the region. Also an interesting discovery I had is that one of the reason why ASEAN was formed is to unite the original five member states against the threat of communism in the region. And now ASEAN is the largest economic cooperation in the developing world.

I have learned much from Asian history from Mr. Lee's memoir. He has an intuitive assessment of the challenges of the countries he visited. This is a must-read book for students interested in public policy, from an Asian development perspective.
62 reviews2 followers
July 1, 2018
From Third World to First by Lee Kuan Yew (My Rating 3*)  This is a beast of a book with over 750 pages. I read it for three reasons: one I am totally fascinated by Singapore's development; secondly, I remember the national mourning that enveloped Singapore when Lee Kuan Yew passed away and so I wanted to understand more about his person; and thirdly, I have read that there are a good number of leaders of developing nations in the world today that use this book as their quasi-bible. I can definitely tell why. If I had to rate this book just on part 1, it would get a 5 star. It illuminates so many of domestic policy decisions that Yew made including his reasoning behind it. Incredibly fascinating! But raises the questions once more, whether development, at that speed, and civil liberties have to be antitheses to each other.  The second, and substantially longer part, outlines Singapore's foreign relations with an incredible number of countries. This I found a bit tedious (hence the rating), but it is an interesting commentary, from his perspective, of the history of various regions at that time. Therefore, if anyone wants to understand so-called "developmental dictators" of our time, I would recommend reading at least part 1 of this book.
Profile Image for Tulga G.
195 reviews28 followers
June 29, 2017
Lee Kyun Yew was very visionary man with great intelligence, braveness and talent.
He founded the modern Singapore and changed it to one of the biggest economy country. There was no other country like Singapore where its leader had very big ambition to build the first world country from just an island, that is why his new methods and schemes for the development had been never tried before. His decisions in his prime time sounded like a cruel and hard one at that time, but from today's perspective, he had worked hard and led effectively to bring the bright future of Singapore today.
He had very powerful and right soul because each time his decisions faced the critism wall, he explained his reason and showed his vision and led his people on his shoulder and just made Singapore very fortunate and strong, not himself. In my opinion, He was the fairest and the most ethical politician in modern world.
Most favourite quote of the book was "Leadership is more than just ability. It is a combination of courage, determination, commitment, character and ability that makes people willing to follow a leader."
Profile Image for Islam Midov.
11 reviews1 follower
January 27, 2019
Expected much more.
LKY is a truly capable man, but it's not making him a role model or even an inspirational leader. He is among a lot of other life dictators who believes he knows what's the best for others. He was different that he actually led the nation to prosperity and didn't become corrupt during the ruling time. It's quite a unique, but nevertheless don't find him to be that type of leader which I would like to become or hope to follow.
The book itself and writing style are rather boring.
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