Lee Kuan Yew on America

Lee Kuan Yew: One Man's View of the World
Lee Kuan Yew: One Man’s View of the World

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, is celebrating his 90th birthday today. I like to read his books and speeches because he can be so perceptive.

In his latest book, One Man’s View of the World, he rightly praises America for its resilience and dynamism.  He says:

America is not on the decline. Its reputation has suffered a setback as a result of the long and messy military occupations  in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a severe financial crisis. But perceptive historians will point out that a seemingly weakened and weary America has bounced back from far worse situations. It has faced great trials and challenges within living memory: the Great Depression, the Vietnam War, the rapid post-war rise of industrial powerhouses Japan and Germany. Each time, it found the will and energy to recover its position at the front of the pack. America has prevailed. It will do so again.

The success of America lies in its dynamic economy, sustained by its uncanny ability not just to produce the same with less, but to constantly innovate – that is , to invent completely new goods and services that the rest of the world soon finds to be useful and desirable. The iPhone, iPad, Microsoft, the Internet – these were created in America, not elsewhere. The Chinese have many talented individuals compared to the Americans, but why have they not been able to come up with similar inventions? Clearly, they lack a spark that America possesses.  And that spark means that the Americans can be expected to throw up game-changing innovations from time to time that will again put them in the forefront…

America is not likely to go donw. Relative to China, it may become less powerful. Its power projection in the Western Pacific may be affected and it may not be able to equal the Chinese in numbers and in total GDP, but the Americans’ key advantage – their dynamism – will not disappear. America is, by far, the more creative society. And the fact that the Americans are having an internal debate about whether or not they are declining is a healthy sign. It means they have not become complacent.

Why do I believe in the long-term success of the US?

Firstly, the US is a more attractive society than China can ever be. Every year, thousands of bright and restless immigrants are allowed into America, settle and become successful in various fields. These immigrants are innovative and usually more adventurous, or they would not have left their own countries. They provide a constant source of new ideas and bring about a certain ferment within American society, a buzz that you will not find in China…

America is a society that attracts people and retains them… That is why I am in favour of sending students on scholarships to Britain instead, because I am sure they will come back. In the UK, you do not stay behind because you are not welcome.  And because the economy is less dynamic, there are fewer jobs for you.

One reason why China will always be a less effective magnet for talent is language. Chinese is a much harder language to learn than English… The Chinese have tried to popularize their language among foreigners through the establishment of Confucius Institutes worldwide, but the results have been patchy at best. People still go to the British Council and to the American outfits. The American government does not even have to try. At one time, they had the United States Information Service, but even that was closed down because there was no need for it. There is already a plethora of publications, television shows and movies that performs that function. So in soft power, the Chinese will not win.

Another source of American competitiveness are the many competing centres of excellence throughout the country. In the East Coast, you go to Boston, New York, Washington; in the West Coast, you go to Berkeley, San Francisco; in Middle America, you go to Chicago and Texas…

Every centre believes it is as good as any other, and all it needs are money and talent which can be sourced… Because of this, there is a certain diversity in society, a competitive spirit that throws up new ideas and new products that survive the test of time. China, of course, takes a completely different approach. The Chinese believe that when the centre is strong, China prospers… Everyone is expected to march to the same drummer.  Even Britain and France cannot match the Americans on this. In France, everyone who is bright ends up in the grandes ecoles.  In Britain, it is Oxbridge.  These countries are relatively small, compact and therefore more uniform…

Americans run a leaner, more competitive system. They file more patents. They are always striving to make something new or do something better. Of course, this has to come at a price. American unemployment fluctuates like a yoyo. In times of bust, 8-10 per cent unemployment is par for the course.  An underclass has developed as a result…

But you cannot have your cake and eat it. If you want the competitiveness America currently has, you cannot avoid creating a considerable gap between the top and the bottom, and the development of an underclass. If you choose instead the welfare state, as Europe did after the Second World War, you naturally become less dynamic.

Finally, America has a culture that celebrates those who strike out on their own. When they succeed, they are admired as talented entrepreneurs and accorded the social status and recognition they rightly deserve. When they fail, it is accepted as a natural intermediate stage, necessary for eventual success, so they pick themselves up and start afresh.  This culture distinguishes it from Britain, a more static society where everyone knows his proper place. Britain is far more European in this respect. The British used to make great discoveries – steam engines, textile machines and electric motors. They won many Nobel Prizes for science. But very few of their discoveries were developed into commercially successful ventures. Why is that so? Long years of empire over two centuries shaped a society in which old wealth and landed gentry were held in high esteem. The noveau riche was regarded with disdain. Bright young students aspired to become lawyers, doctors and professionals – people who would be admired for their intellect and the use of brains rather than hard work and the use of hands. The US, on the other hand, is a frontier society that did not have class barriers. Everybody celebrated getting rich – and wanted to get rich. There is a great urge to start new enterprises and create wealth.