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From Third World to First: The Singapore Story: 1965-2000 Hardcover – Illustrated, 3 October 2000
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Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world's number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world's fourth–highest per capita real income?
The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore's charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign forces, Singapore now is hailed as a city of the future. This miraculous history is dramatically recounted by the man who not only lived through it all but who fearlessly forged ahead and brought about most of these changes.
Delving deep into his own meticulous notes, as well as previously unpublished government papers and official records, Lee details the extraordinary efforts it took for an island city–state in Southeast Asia to survive at that time.
Lee explains how he and his cabinet colleagues finished off the communist threat to the fledgling state's security and began the arduous process of nation building: forging basic infrastructural roads through a land that still consisted primarily of swamps, creating an army from a hitherto racially and ideologically divided population, stamping out the last vestiges of colonial–era corruption, providing mass public housing, and establishing a national airline and airport.
In this illuminating account, Lee writes frankly about his trenchant approach to political opponents and his often unorthodox views on human rights, democracy, and inherited intelligence, aiming always "to be correct, not politically correct." Nothing in Singapore escaped his watchful eye: whether choosing shrubs for the greening of the country, restoring the romance of the historic Raffles Hotel, or openly, unabashedly persuading young men to marry women as well educated as themselves. Today's safe, tidy Singapore bears Lee's unmistakable stamp, for which he is unapologetic: "If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one."
Though Lee's domestic canvas in Singapore was small, his vigor and talent assured him a larger place in world affairs. With inimitable style, he brings history to life with cogent analyses of some of the greatest strategic issues of recent times and reveals how, over the years, he navigated the shifting tides of relations among America, China, and Taiwan, acting as confidant, sounding board, and messenger for them. He also includes candid, sometimes acerbic pen portraits of his political peers, including the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the poetry–spouting Jiang Zemin, and ideologues George Bush and Deng Xiaoping.
Lee also lifts the veil on his family life and writes tenderly of his wife and stalwart partner, Kwa Geok Choo, and of their pride in their three children –– particularly the eldest son, Hsien Loong, who is now Singapore's deputy prime minister.
For more than three decades, Lee Kuan Yew has been praised and vilified in equal measure, and he has established himself as a force impossible to ignore in Asian and international politics. From Third World to First offers readers a compelling glimpse into this visionary's heart, soul, and mind.
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If only most world leaders had/have the pragmatic wisdom of Lee, many countries in this troubled world would fare better and more peacefully. Lee created a state of benign (such as it is) authoritanism, which might, perhaps, be preferable in many places to militant anarchy, corruption and terrorism, if not downright civil war and sectarian strife, which are all too common in this world.
I am rather sure that what has been achieved, and how, in Lee's Singapore, in some ways has had a profound influence on the development in China since 1979, and for that matter in some of the neighbouring countries as well. (Even though nobody will admit it, of course). Lee's legacy is far greater than what is usually acknowledged, and this book describes, in plain language, what is behind that legacy and how is has been achieved. What Lee and Singapore have done and achieved in the last 50 years is astounding, and without parallel in modern world history. Like it or not.
The language is simple making it an easy read, the writer is engaging so much so that you want to keep reading. There are interesting anecdotes about various British and Asian politicians from east and south asia..
At times, reading the book you can see the limits of his arguments. He points out that alternative centres of power besides the Government (e.g. the press) are self-interested and will often make things hard for a reformist government, without giving proper credit to their genuine ability to check a corrupt or simply tired and incompetent government. The defence is that the Singaporean Government wasn't tired or corrupt but, of course, you cannot establish a society on the basis that your leaders will be (and continue to be) the right people, you plan for the wrong people being in and avoiding them being in too long. But still, the idea that a press that sees corruption everywhere might remove the political rewards for not being corrupt is powerful.
In other cases, he makes an argument that at first seems wild but then becomes more and more plausible when you think about it, like that the Vietnam War, for all its faults, bought time for the Asian Tigers to strengthen their societies and then boom into prosperity. That's an enormous upside with implications for billions of people. It is a powerful example of how little we understand the implications (good and bad) of foreign interventions.
I cite those two examples to illustrate how I think this book should be read: as a source of stimulation to challenge your own thinking. The structure, around issues rather than purely linear, makes that easier. A vital read.