From Third World to First – A book review

Lorong Cat - Singapore's Literate FelineBy Lorong Cat

From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000
by Lee Kuan Yew

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

Lee Kuan Yew, From Third World To First -

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

You know you have 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 justify the means”. To this end, the selfish in me is 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 had these selfless and spirited men who stood up for what they believed 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 foes 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 easily have turned out differently.

I don’t feel comfortable reading how 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 had 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 had to be done and like Jack Bauer from one of my favourite TV series 24, you did what needed 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 had dealt with in your career — even those whom you found no room for. Communists and Chinese student activists had earned your respect for their simple lifestyles, quiet confidence and fiercely patriotic spirit. This is opposed to the English educated masses (here I suppose 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 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.


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