Op-Ed: The sayings of Lee Kuan Yew, the sage of Singapore

People pay their respects at Singapore General Hospital after the death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
(Mohd Fyrol, AFP/Getty Images)

Lee Kuan Yew, the former prime minister of Singapore who died Monday, was more than his country’s founding father. Not only did he raise a poor, notoriously corrupt port from the bottom rungs of the Third World to a modern First World nation in a single generation, but he was also one of two certifiable grand masters of international strategy in the last half century (Henry Kissinger being the other).

No one outside China had such a profound influence on that country’s meteoric rise to become the second-largest economy in the world. No one outside the U.S. has had greater impact on U.S. policy toward a rising China, from Richard Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to Mao Tse-tung in the early 1970s to President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia. And when it comes to helping other national economies actually grow and lift millions of citizens from abject poverty, it is difficult to identify anyone whose words and actions in demonstrating what competent, clean, determined leadership can do have had more impact.

Amid the flurry of words about Lee Kuan Yew, much more interesting and instructive are the words of Lee Kuan Yew. For that reason my colleague Robert Blackwill and I published a book two years ago titled “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.” I recommend it as a “great book” without embarrassment — because all we did was pose the questions we think most internationally minded people would find most interesting. Ninety-five percent of the words in the book are Lee’s answers.


Lee was the world’s premier China watcher. Every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, including current President Xi Jinping, have called him “mentor.” For anyone interested in where China has come from or where it is heading, his insights offer the best guidance available.

We asked Lee whether China’s current leaders are serious about displacing the U.S. as the No. 1 power in Asia in the foreseeable future. He answered: “Of course. Why not? How could they not aspire to be No. 1 in Asia and, in time, the world?” Moreover, while recognizing that past performance is no guarantee of future results, he put the odds of China’s success in this quest at 4 in 5. To the question of whether the U.S. could stop China’s rise, he replied, “No. It will just have to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the U.S., since no country has ever been big enough to challenge its position.” But in the case of China, as he frequently said, it is “the biggest player in the history of the world.”

On the other hand, he was never pessimistic about the United States. I recall several conversations in which the topic was whether the U.S. was in “systemic decline.” On one occasion, about two or three years ago, I asked him: If the U.S. were a stock, should we sell it short? He answered immediately: “Absolutely not.” He believed that the U.S. was going through a bumpy patch with deficits, debt and a dysfunctional capital. But he was counting on Americans recovering our senses as we have done previously, and the country returning to the path that made it great.

Is war between the U.S. and China inevitable, or can they escape the Thucydides Trap? That phrase reminds us of the inescapable structural stress that occurs when a ruling power is challenged by a rising power that threatens to displace it. A century ago, when Germany rose to rival Britain, the result was World War I. Lee recognized the challenge and the risks it entails. But he was always sanguine about leaders’ capacity to learn from history, including mistakes made by previous statesmen to find a better way.

Kissinger has had the opportunity to meet virtually every leader in the world over the last half-century. As he attests in the preface to the “Grand Master,” the one from whom he learned most was Lee. Kissinger admires most of all Lee’s “singular strategic acumen.” As many observed, Lee could “see the future.” Indeed, in Singapore, he built the future. As mentor to successive Chinese leaders in their fast march to the free market, and every American president since Nixon, his counsel shaped the future. Would-be nation-builders, from Paul Kagame in genocide-ravaged Rwanda to Nursultan Nazarbayev in post-Soviet Kazakhstan to Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj in Mongolia, have not just read his writings, but also repeatedly sought guidance from the sage of Singapore.

As we pause to mourn the loss of a great leader, we can be grateful that he has left us so many insights that we can apply across the international agenda today.


Graham Allison is director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and coauthor of “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights On China, the United States, and the World.”

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