Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World, Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill.

The MIT Press, 2013

Lee Kuan Yew is an authentic giant of South-East Asian history. Rarely has a single individual so shaped a nation as Lee shaped Singapore. In saying this, there is some danger of not giving credit to Singapore’s industrious, thrifty, stable, pragmatic, sensible population. Even a city-state is a complex society and not just one man’s achievement.

But that is not to diminish Lee’s achievement in any way. In leading Singapore to independence and prosperity his hand was not the worst that history has dealt, but it was pretty complex, pretty challenging — a tiny, poor Chinese enclave in a vast Malay sea, surrounded by communist insurgencies, a deeply unhappy relationship with Malaysia, a society divided internally by racial and linguistic differences, and no natural resources to speak of. Yet Singapore, as we now know, is the most affluent society in South-East Asia and one of the most affluent in the world.

I once asked Lee what his most important decision was. He replied without hesitation that making English the main language of Singapore was the key to everything else. First, it allowed Singapore to earn its living in the international economy, providing successively port facilities, manufacturing, and then an ever more sophisticated array of services. It forced Singapore to become, and remain, an international society.

More than that, choosing English had a big social policy benefit. It equalised Singapore’s races, and even more the sub-racial groups. The Chinese had no linguistic advantage over the Malays and the Indians. Within the Chinese, no one racial group was preferred to another. It was top down social policy, a little coercive, not entirely popular, absolutely pragmatic and absolutely right.

I emphasise this single domestic policy, among a complex and always hard-headed, empirical approach to policy generally, because Lee’s later legend as a strategic guru tends to lead to the sheer scale of his achievement within Singapore being somewhat downplayed. The other side of the Lee legend is his extraordinary reputation for strategic sagacity. In a way that is a bit more common in Malaysia and Singapore than you might think, Lee had a wonderful disposition to speak with remarkable directness, bluntness even, on almost any issue that confronted him.

Sometimes this was perhaps carried a little far. His warning to Australians that we risked becoming “the poor white trash of Asia” if we didn’t embrace economic reform was true, and helpful to our debate, but it also went right up to the line of what the leader of one nation may acceptably say about another nation. In some ways Lee was aided in all this by Singapore’s smallness. Lee’s comments were often very tough minded, but because of Singapore’s size, and its absolutely reliable strategic stability, they could never be seriously construed as threatening.

Which brings us to the volume under consideration. It has a most un-Lee like long-winded title: Lee Kuan Yew, The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States and the World: Interviews and Selections by Graham Allison and Robert D Blackwill, with Ali Wynne. This book presents only the strategic guru side of Lee.

I have the greatest possible respect for Allison and Blackwill, who have both made serious contributions to Western strategic policy. But this is a dreadful lemon of a book, almost completely worthless, of no value to people already familiar with Lee, and the worst possible place to start for people — if there are any in the market for a book like this — not familiar with Lee’s broad history and outlook.

The best books on Lee are the ones he wrote himself. The first volume of his autobiography is one of the finest books I have read on Asia and Lee’s singular outlook shines forth from it. The second volume is a bit more bureaucratic and pre-digested, but it gives you the essence of Lee’s views on all the big policy questions.

Allison and Blackwill’s volume is bizarre in format and hopeless in execution. It achieves the remarkable feat of producing a book in which every sentence of the main narrative is intrinsically interesting but the overall book is incoherent and unreadable.

For a start, the way it looks like a North Korean pamphlet about the Dear Leader is most unbecoming. We are treated to pages and pages of introductory encomiums about Lee, from some of the famous statesmen and politicians who have praised him in the past. I agree with all their comments, but really, what editorial purpose do they serve? Also, the authors betray their unconscious bias by having, apart from one Chinese, no Asian leaders quoted in this section. It’s all Americans and Europeans. That startling lacuna tells you more about the difficulties of this volume than the whole section tells you about Lee. This section also contains some quite dotty mistakes. Tony Blair was not the head of state of Britain; he was the head of government.

But the weirdest and worst element of the book’s design is the way it organises what it apparently regards as the divine comments of Lee on various issues. This is a very slim volume, more a pamphlet than a book, and it contains nine main chapters. They are on, respectively, the futures of: China, the United States, US–China relations, India, Islamic Extremism, National Economic Growth, Geopolitics and Globalisation, Democracy, and a final chapter, How Lee Kuan Yew Thinks, all followed by a conclusion which reprints the main bits from the earlier chapters. This is really an amateur website disguised as a book.

But doesn’t it strike you as very strange that the authors get a key figure from South-East Asia and then not ask him about South-East Asia? Is South-East Asia of absolutely no interest to the American audience this book is presumably intended for? Nor is there anything of substance on Japan and South Korea.

The internal organisation of the Lee epigrams renders them completely useless. Allison and Blackwill have cobbled together disjointed quotes from an apparently long series of interviews they did with Lee, plus many other media interviews Lee has done over the years, plus some of his own writings and speeches.

It thus has a “Thoughts of Chairman Mao” quality about it, but, as a result, it lacks all coherence and readability. The authors say their focus is on the future but they include material, without indicating this in the text, from as long ago as 1991. Thus you’ll read along and find that Lee predicts a greatly reduced US military presence in Asia. This is interesting, you think: he must be very skeptical about Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. But then it turns out this prediction was made at the beginning of the 1990s. That is one rare occasion when the authors do indicate in the text the rough date of the comment. But mostly you have to make endless, tedious trips to the footnotes, which themselves are not very enlightening, to find out the most basic information, such as the date when Lee made his comments.

In the chapter on India, for example, Lee says that New Delhi has three to five years to fix its infrastructure problems. That’s interesting, you think: Lee must be commenting on the recent slow down in Indian economic growth. But when you make the obligatory, tedious trip to the footnotes you find that this statement came from 2007. So what is its current status?

Even more maddeningly, you’re bowling along in a section about US policies towards China, which is meant to be contemporary, and you come upon a statement that Washington is risking a breach with Beijing over its threat to cut off Most Favoured Nation status for Chinese exports. Gosh, you think, I hadn’t seen that anywhere. The text gives you no idea that this comes from a radically earlier period. Back to the footnotes and you find it’s a comment from 1994. So what on earth is the value in splicing it misleadingly into a section about contemporary policy?

Similarly, Lee is predicting that China will continue its 10 per cent economic growth rate at a time when China has not achieved that growth rate for some time. Or another section tells us that the great danger in US policy is Japan bashing, a comment decades out of date. In none of these cases does the text tell us the date of these comments.

I can see absolutely no value at all in amalgamating old comments with new comments. It also produces a very repetitive book, as Lee makes the same points over and over — don’t neglect Asia, watch out for debt — something Lee himself would never do in a single conversation, speech, essay, or even book.

The authors have been both too modest and too overweening. They apparently had long conversations with Lee over a short period. An edited version of such a conversation would be highly interesting — although probably online rather than in a book. Many years ago Foreign Affairs did a long interview with Lee and it was riveting and highly influential. Interviews have the integrity of the moment in time when they occur. If they are competently edited, obvious repetitions are avoided. Lee is so lucid, so straightforward, so penetrating, that I found when interviewing him that it was right to run lots of direct quotes. But, still, any competent journalist provides some context and some editing.

However, I would be very interested to read even the unedited transcripts of Lee’s discussions with the editors. But this strange potpourri of chronologically discordant bits and pieces is incoherent, unreadable, and misleading. If Allison and Blackwill, on the other hand, wanted to do all the research about Lee’s past views and how these have evolved with evolving circumstances, they should have given us a proper interpretive essay about Lee’s strategic thinking. I could not in conscience recommend this book to anybody. I don’t see that it has any value at all.