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When MM Lee spoke against one-man, one-vote

Singapore’s first prime minister and current Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew – whose son Lee Hsien Loong is now the Prime Minister – had his reservations about the one-man, one-vote system.

In an interview with Fareed Zakaria for Foreign Affairs magazine in 1994, he said:

I'm not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best. We practise it because that's what the British bequeathed us and we haven't really found a need to challenge that.

But I'm convinced, personally, that we would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he's likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30. But we haven't found it necessary yet. If it became necessary we should do it.

At the same time, once a person gets beyond 65, then it is a problem. Between the ages of 40 and 60 is ideal, and at 60 they should go back to one vote, but that will be difficult to arrange.

He did not say – nor did Zakaria ask – why people over 65 should have only one vote. Is it because they are likely to be retirees?

You can read the interview, Culture is Destiny: A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew, at FareedZakaria.com.

Zakaria, now Newsweek’s international editor, wrote:

The dominant theme throughout our conversation was culture. Lee returned again and again to his views on the importance of culture and the differences between Confucianism and Western values…

I remain sceptical. If culture is destiny, what explains a culture's failure in one era and success in another? If Confucianism explains the economic boom in East Asia today, does it not also explain that region's stagnation for four centuries? …

What explains Lee Kuan Yew's fascination with culture? It is not something he was born with. Until his thirties he was called "Harry" Lee (and still is by family and friends). In the 1960s the British foreign secretary could say to him, "Harry, you're the best bloody Englishman east of the Suez." This is not a man untouched by the West. Part of his interest in cultural differences is surely that they provide a coherent defense against what he sees as Western democratic imperialism. But a deeper reason is revealed in something he said in our conversation: "We have left the past behind, and there is an underlying unease that there will be nothing left of us which is part of the old."

Cultures change. Under the impact of economic growth, technological change and social transformation, no culture has remained the same. Most of the attributes that Lee sees in Eastern cultures were once part of the West. Four hundred years of economic growth changed things. From the very beginning of England's economic boom, many Englishmen worried that as their country became rich it was losing its moral and ethical base. "Wealth accumulates and men decay," wrote Oliver Goldsmith in 1770. It is this "decay" that Lee is trying to stave off…

But to be modern without becoming more Western is difficult; the two are not wholly separable. The West has left a mark on "the rest," and it is not simply a legacy of technology and material products. It is, perhaps most profoundly, in the realm of ideas. At the close of the interview Lee handed me three pages. This was, he explained, to emphasize how alien Confucian culture is to the West. The pages were from the book East Asia: Tradition and Transformation, by John Fairbank, an American scholar.

About the author: Abhijit Nag loves reading, writing and getting news and information online.

  • hakoto Saturday, March 14, 2009, 1:20 am

    i do agree with Mr Lee that one man one vote system i not really suitable for Singapore. Look at our society composition right now. Most singaporeans do not have even basic knowledge of the situation of singapore. There is hardly any civil society activity. People are skilled but are not competent to understand and make good decision on national scales, since most of them do not even know who their MPs are. They know how to fix a com, how to make new drugs, but not how to manage the economy and social stability.