Testament to power: remembering Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew

sean-jacobsSean Jacobs discussed Lee Kuan Yew’s legacy, and the lessons we can learn:

‘We start with self-reliance,’ said the late Lee Kuan Yew in a 1994 interview. ‘In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society’s problems.’

On 22 March 2015 Lee passed away at age ninety-one. The end of his remarkable life offers a sobering reflection on what it takes to actually build an economic pie and not just cut it up – a practice many of today’s democratic practitioners appear exceptional at.

Singapore now thrives alongside the Silicon Valleys and Tel Avivs of the world. Back in the 1960s, however, Malaysia effectively dusted its hands of the small nation by forcing it to break away.

A future of poverty and desperation appeared likely until Lee, warding off communist subversion and the revolving emergence of security threats, turned Singapore’s slim fortunes around. ‘He did not just pilot Singapore to prosperity,’ added Margaret Thatcher, ‘he became the most trenchant, convincing and courageous opponent of left-wing Third World nonsense in the Commonwealth.’

In his revealing memoir The Singapore Story Lee admits to flirting with socialism and Marxist theories of development – a legacy, perhaps unsurprisingly, of his Cambridge years. When taking the reins of Singapore, however, at just 35 years of age, he shed the vogue fascination of government-sponsored egalitarianism. He came to ‘realise’, unlike his post-colonial African peers, that individual self-agency and not government largesse was the true ‘driving force for progress throughout human history.’

‘That realisation had to wait until the 1960s,’ he wrote, ‘when I was in charge of the government of a tiny Singapore much poorer than Britain, and was confronted with the need to generate revenue and create wealth before I could even think, let alone talk, of redistributing it.’

His template for success had two planks – stability then education. ‘First, you must have order in a society,’ he reflected. ‘Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent and knowledgeable people.’ Lee, of course, meant a real education and real skills – more engineers and entrepreneurs, for example, versus flower-arrangers and personal fitness trainers.

Armed with an uncomfortable frankness Lee never shied away from cultural or racial explanations for Singapore’s Confucian-inspired success. As a young boy, observing sweating Indian and Chinese labourers building Singapore, Lee recorded his own cross-cultural comparisons. ‘One Chinese would carry one pole with two wicker baskets of earth,’ he told Australian journalist Paul Sheehan, ‘whereas two Indians would carry one pole with one wicket basket between them. Now that’s culture.’ This kind of steely resolve, welded to a good education and a commitment to family, meant Singaporeans developed in leaps and bounds.

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REVIEW: Kim Carr, A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASean Jacobs reviews Kim Carr’s, A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor, Melbourne University Press, 2013:

Australian Senator Kim Carr’s A Letter to Generation Next: Why Labor is a rare addition the shallow pool of books encouraging young Australians to be more involved in politics. Carr – a federal Senator for Victoria since 1993 – clearly sees much more of a role for government in his appeal for the next generation to join the Australian Labor Party’s cause.

The role of government, Carr recalls in George Black’s words from the New South Wales Chamber in 1891, is to ‘make and unmake social conditions.’ The barometer of progress within these pages is not individual enterprise but the state – ‘intervening’, ‘meddling’, ‘agitating’ and challenging ‘the entrenched conservatism in Australian politics.’

Carr’s appetite for the redistribution of wealth is undisguised, alongside a distrust of capitalism and a desire to pummel the status quo. Driving these views is a deep attachment to social democratic instincts that; are interventionist and not utopian; respects the power of science and technology (to harness for social and economic innovation); rejects nostalgia and scaremongering; and challenges privilege and inequality.

Appealing to young Australians to be more involved in the political process is commendable. But the interventionist recruitment theme does little to attract younger Australians who see sense in the cultural maintenance of Australia’s institutions, or view politics as more than simply an exercise in redistribution.

Additionally, for an instinctively liberal younger generation, doused by consumer and career options, a run at politics is unlikely on the cards. So when Carr writes that ‘Australia needs more agitators meddling and interfering with the status quo,’ and then asks, ‘Are you up for the job?’ many young Aussie hands are likely to stay down.

A fundamental question to ask is why the loathing of the status quo? As a western liberal democracy, Australia has clearly prospered over its relatively short history. There is certainly much to reflect sensibly and proudly upon in Australia – from a thriving Westminster system and rule of law to an opportunity society built on free enterprise. Continue reading

Floors and ceilings

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASean Jacobs writes on the importance of mobility and opportunity:

It’s no surprise that many would like to be as good at basketball as Kobe Bryant or at golf as Tiger Woods. And it’s equally no surprise that this isn’t possible.

But there’s one way to make us ‘more equal’ and that’s to make those better off much worse. To continue with sports, for example, let’s say we limit the amount of time Bryant and Woods train each day. This would disrupt their performance and, in doing so, reduce the gap between our abilities. But the objective has been achieved – we’re now more equal (although still a great deal apart).

The same handbrake on ability, skills and opportunity can be applied to virtually any arena, from academia to business. But some political leaders and policymakers have seen the harmful effects of this thinking on society and the economy.

Ronald Reagan, for example, in his 1957 Eureka College Commencement Address said that ‘an economic floor beneath all of us so that no one shall exist below a certain level or standard of living’ in reality means ‘building a ceiling above which no one shall be permitted to climb.’ Reagan thus pursued economic policies that unleashed people’s talents and not the other way around.

At around the same time, by contrast, Indian policymakers struggled with the effects of taxes designed exclusively to take from the rich and give to the poor. As Fareed Zakaria reflects, ‘the top marginal tax rate in India in 1974 was 97.5 percent. (Really.)’ And the Indian economy, now well regarded for its growth and poverty reduction, thus lay stagnant for decades. Continue reading

Journeys in a Vanishing World

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASean Jacobs reviews Theodore Dalrymple’s, The Wilder Shores of Marx: Journeys in a Vanishing World, Monday Books, 2012:

‘The most decisive thing that’s happened in my political lifetime,’ said John Howard in a 2009 interview, ‘is the collapse of Soviet imperialism. It dwarfs anything else.’ This is significant from Howard, whose political life covers nearly half a century.

His observation, however, is lost on a generation of younger Australians. Certainly, oppressive regimes exist today but are fewer in number, while command and control economics have been trounced by liberal market capitalism and globalisation. For anyone under forty the idea of growing up on a planet of rivalling superpowers with conflicting ideologies is no doubt strange.

Tearing around New Zealand on a recent trip I found time to wade through Theodore Dalrymple’s The Wilder Shores of Marx. Dalrymple first published this back in 1991 after visiting the heights and ruins of communism in Albania, North Korea, Romania, Vietnam and Cuba. With usual wit and insight, he elucidates both the absurdity and grimness of life under the banner of Marxist-Leninism. Continue reading