Lee Kuan Yew’s culture of discipline


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 American CEO 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 US 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, in 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. One can see the effect of that in New York, for instance, where a minority of Asians disproportionately wins admission to the city’s elite public high schools.

In America 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 America, the national ethic is not to work too hard and to denigrate those who do. Self-esteem sometimes seems more important than actual 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.

Richard Cohen’s email address is cohenr@washpost.com.



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  1. What can a Singaorean say after reading the article and comments. Thank you very much. We are fortunate to have him as our guiding light in times of turmoil and darkness. If he and his colleagues were any less I would not be around to add anything.

  2. Lee Kuan Yew was not ready for American style democracy. Maybe he died
    still not ready for it. He did not want to delude his countrymen that it is the best kind of democracy for any people.
    I think it is very difficult to implement because it follows the principle of survival of the fittest most of the time leaving lives behind.
    They have freedom but should be used constructively.
    A populist leader LKY was not and no leader should be.

  3. Whatever one says, the best ideas, innovations, and discoveries of the world continue to occur in US. This could only be explained by the culture that nurtures such feats.

  4. I had a dream…that one day a foreign power of sorts would invade this country. Its leader would only have one vision for occupation, to bring order and discipline to an unruly nation which has lost its sense of purpose. I had always told my wife this country has lost its moral compass. “WYSIWYG”: “What you see is what you get.” There is no hope. It is headed nowhere. WYSIWYG is planted deeply in the subconscious of the people. It is there forever until the day the Lord God raises up a leader who can deliver us from this sad reality.

  5. Eddie de Leon on

    Mr. Cohen, you forget to mention that Lee Kuan Yew and his meritocratic team were also men of the old fashioned virtues–not merely people with the Confucian ethic, they were also adherents of the Western ideals of honesty, probity, integrity, lawfulness whose roots are in the Christian religion.
    But the Western liberal elite, holders of political, media and academe power, abandoned Christianity little by little through the centuries.
    That abandonment is why most people in US and Western societies have lost the necessary disciplinarian outlook and have become wild, spoiled practitioners of freedom without responsibility.