Whatever the eulogists of Lee Kuan Yew told you about the Singapore he created or the Asia that seems resurgent, the praise of him says just as much about America. In editorials, essays, television commentaries and just plain conversations, we appear to be suffering from an acute case of authoritarian envy.
Lee was a disciplinarian. He ran Singapore like a severe private school. He brooked no dissent, bad manners, corruption, recreational drugs, sloth, laziness or rambunctious teenagers. He was famous for using the cane to punish vandals and the death penalty for drug dealers. He knew his city-state had only one natural resource and that was the industriousness and discipline of its people. They were his students and he was the headmaster.
The suppression of dissent is not praiseworthy. The application of the death penalty is abhorrent. The lack of political opposition and press freedom is not to be admired, and one-man rule — Lee was in major office for about 52 years — is hardly admirable. Lee ran a one-man state and he ran it, on occasion, repressively.
But his administrative brilliance and his economic success are what earned him such adulation. He rose in stature not just on account of what he did but on account of what we could not. Lee, as they once said of Mussolini, made the trains run on time. America’s trains too often don’t run at all.
We suffer from an excess of democracy. We have a Congress that has been gridlocked for as long as anyone can remember. It is at the mercy of any extremist from anywhere in the country who can threaten a primary fight. Our infrastructure is eroding, yet we seem incapable of doing anything about it. Lee Kuan Yew knew what to do about it. If you need a bridge, build it.
Lee also knew the value — the sheer utility — of education. So, for that matter, does any U.S. chief executive you can name. Yet the left and the right are united in opposition to national education standards — conservatives because the word national gives them the willies and liberals because standards might result in an unequal outcome. America is flunking common sense.
Henry Kissinger eulogized that “Lee’s domestic methods fell short of the prescriptions of current U.S. constitutional theory. But so, in fairness, did the democracy of Thomas Jefferson’s time, with its limited franchise, property qualifications for voting and slavery.” It is deeply flattering to Lee that Kissinger’s admiration for him produced such an odd comparison. Lee was a man of the 20th and 21st centuries, Jefferson of the 18th and 19th centuries. Lee had little respect or tolerance for a free press; Jefferson said he could not live without one. (“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”)
Lee’s pragmatism is what commended him to so many thoughtful people. He believed in education, a rigorous meritocracy and, most critically, his own people. Singapore had nothing in the way of mineral wealth, but it did have a culture based on Confucian precepts. (Singapore may be ethnically mixed, but it is 75 percent Chinese.) This meant that hard work, discipline, family values and obedience were cherished.
In the United States it is considered highly offensive and deeply retrograde to value one culture over another and to search always for economic reasons for disparities. In Singapore, Lee knew he had a winner in the Chinese culture and promoted it. Indeed, he made it the national ethic. In this country, the national ethic is not to work too hard and to denigrate those who do. Self-esteem sometimes seems more important than attainment. We are, as we keep saying, No. 1 — at self-delusion.
The veneration of Lee is not based on any one attribute. Among other things, he was personally charming, and I know of no one who met him who did not come away enamored. But the cult of Lee, which has been building for years, is partly in admiration of him and partly due to the rueful feeling that our own democracy has grown absurdly chaotic. (Shall we shut down the government one more time?) Lee got the job done. Too often, it’s more than we can say for ourselves.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.