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Samuel Huntington on Lee Kuan Yew

Anyone with an interest in world affairs should read The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order by Samuel P Huntington. It is heavy-going. I found it boring when I first tried to read it after the 9/11 attacks when critics disputed his theory of a world polarized on racial and religious lines.

But a year after his death — he died in December 2008, aged 81 — I am amazed at his percipience. Long before 9/11— the book was published in 1996 — he wrote:

A civilization-based world order is emerging: societies sharing cultural affinities cooperate with each other; efforts to shift societies from one civilization to another are unsuccessful; and countries group themselves around the lead or core states of their civilization.

The West's universalist pretensions increasingly bring it into conflict with other civilizations, most importantly with Islam and China; at the local level fault line wars, largely between Muslims and non-Muslims, generate "kin-country rallying", the threat of broader escalation, and hence efforts by core states to halt these wars.

Huntington was writing with the Bosnian war in mind, which pitted the Muslims against the Serbs.

But note that he also spoke of conflict with China. He wrote at length about the rise of China and East Asia. I will blog about that later.

This post is on what he had to say about Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. He figures prominently in the book.

"The best bloody Englishman east of Suez"

In the fourth chapter of the book, The Fading of the West: Power, Culture and Indigenization, Lee Kuan Yew is one of the three leaders mentioned who deliberately went native, casting off their colonial legacies. Huntington wrote:

As Western influence recedes, young aspiring leaders cannot look to the West to provide them with power and wealth. They have to find the means of success within their own society, and hence they have to accommodate the values and culture of that society.

The process of indigenization need not wait for the second generation. Able, perceptive and adaptive first generation leaders indigenize themselves. Three notable cases are Mohammad Ali Jinnah, Harry Lee and Solomon Bandaranaike. They were brilliant graduates of Oxford, Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn, respectively, superb lawyers, and thoroughly Westernized members of the elites of their societies. Jinnah was a committed secularist, Lee was, in the words of one British cabinet minister, "the best bloody Englishman east of Suez". Bandaranaike was raised a Christian. Yet to lead their nations to and after independence they had to indigenize. They reverted to their ancestral cultures, and in the process at times changed identities, names, dress and beliefs. The English lawyer MA Jinnah became Pakistan's Qaid-i-Azam. Harry Lee became Lee Kuan Yew. The secularist Jinnah became the fervent apostle of Islam as the basis for the Pakistani state. The Anglofied Lee learned Mandarin and became an articulate promoter of Confucianism. The Christian Bandaranaike converted to Buddhism and appealed to Sinhalese nationalism.

Economic development and rise of religion

One of the central themes of the book is, in Huntington's phrase, "the resurgence of religion". Here he quoted from the interview Lee Kuan Yew gave to Fareed Zakaria in 1994. The interview, Culture is destiny: A conversation with Lee Kuan Yew, can be Fareed Zakaria.com.

Lee Kuan Yew linked the rise of religion to economic development. He said:

There is acute change in East Asia. We are agricultural societies that have industrialized within one or two generations. What happened in the West over 200 years or more is happening here in about 50 years or less. It is all crammed and crushed into a very tight time frame, so there are bound to be dislocations and malfunctions. If you look at the fast-growing countries — Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Singapore — there's been one remarkable phenomenon: the rise of religion. Koreans have taken to Christianity in large numbers, I think some 25 percent. This is a country that was never colonized by a Christian nation. The old customs and religions — ancestor worship, shamanism — no longer completely satisfy. There is a quest for some higher explanations about man's purpose, about why we are here. This is associated with periods of great stress in society. You will find in Japan that every time it goes through a period of stress new sects crop up and new religions proliferate. In Taiwan — and also in Hong Kong and Singapore — you see a rise in the number of new temples; Confucianist temples, Taoist temples and many Christian sects.

Discovering Confucius with China

Lee Kuan Yew began to praise the virtues of Confucianism about the same time as the Chinese leadership, according to Huntington. He wrote:

In the early twentieth century Chinese intellectuals, independently paralleling Weber, identified Confucianism as the source of Chinese backwardness. In the late twentieth century, Chinese political leaders, paralleling Western social scientists, celebrate Confucianism as the source of Chinese progress. In the 1980s the Chinese government began to promote interest in Confucianism, with party leaders declaring it "the mainstream" of Chinese culture. Confucianism also, of course, became an enthusiasm of Lee Kuan Yew, who saw it as a source of Singapore's success and became a missionary of Confucian values to the rest of the world. 

When Lee Kuan Yew spoke in English in Beijing

Huntington also told an amusing story about Lee Kuan Yew's change in attitude towards China as it grew in economic importance.

In the seventh chapter, titled Core States, Concentric Circles, and Civilizational Order, Huntington wrote:

Until the late 1970s relations between staunchly anticommunist Singapore and the People's Republic were frosty, and Lee Kuan Yew and other Singapore leaders were contemptuous of China's backwardness. As Chinese economic development took off in the 1980s, however, Singapore began to reorient itself toward the mainland in classic bandwagoning fashion. By 1992 Singapore had invested $1.9 billion in China and the following year plans were announced to build an industrial township, "Singapore II", outside Shanghai, that would involve billions of dollars of investment. Lee became an enthusiastic booster of China's economic prospects and an admirer of its power. "China," he said in 1993, "is where the action is." Singaporean foreign investment, which had been heavily concentrated in Malaysia and Indonesia, shifted to China. Half of the overseas projects helped by the Singaporean government in 1993 were in China. On his first visit to Beijing in the 1970s, Lee Kuan Yew reportedly insisted on speaking to Chinese leaders in English rather than in Mandarin. It is unlikely he did so two decades later.

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