Man at His Best

Opinion: Where Will History Place Lee Kuan Yew?

Professor Tom Plate asks if Lee Kuan Yew is a fox or hedgehog in a Berlin-Tolstoy dichotomy?

BY Tom Plate | Mar 21, 2016 | Culture

Illustration by Yohei Yamaguchi

My differences of opinion with Lee Kuan Yew (which included views about the future role of China’s Communist Party, but no matter here) included one over the character of his political genius. For that, as any fair-minded observer of the founding father of bustling modern Singapore knew, was what he was. But what was its nature?

Lee and his followers, which most of the time included most of the people of Singapore, showed the world that economic self-improvement had to have public policies grounded in best-practice, real-world pragmatisms rather than in ideological schematics. It also had to have hardworking citizens sharing the vision. Whether your political system was argumentative-parliamentarian, messy-direct democracy or shut-up authoritarian, the people had to be brought along and had to believe in the leader’s way of moving forward if they were to give it their best.

LKY (as he used to sign his notes, at least to me) convinced people that his way—hard work, scientific public policy, political-party monopoly, clean government and media as ally, not as smarty-pants second-guesser—would work. And it did. In his own phraseology, Singapore went from Third World to First in a generation’s time, never stopping for a rest, much less to entertain a second guess or tolerate second-guessers. 

I once offered him the formulation of the late Isaiah Berlin, the great Oxford don who imagined political genius in the manner of Tolstoy. The great ones were either “hedgehogs” or “foxes”. Their political sense was either multi-faceted (the ultra-alert fox who knew a thousand ways to survive) or the one-big-idea porcupine (with but a single survival move—yet it was a doozey!). The wartime Winston Churchill with all his many tricks was a fox; Albert Einstein, who could barely cross a street without help, was nonetheless the hedgehog with his one world-changing idea.

LKY only grudgingly accepting my Berlin-Tolstoy dichotomy and insisted he was a fox, not a hedgehog. “You may call me a ‘utilitarian’ or whatever. I am interested in what works.” He had a strong argument. Really good and sophisticated governance requires a map of multiple routes to the future, as well as mature management of the present. Critics belittled it as a “nanny state”, but not every nanny was as competent and diligent as this one. Little Singapore’s journey also needed a team of like-minded colleagues and talented people, with their Confucian culture tolerant of exceptionally strong singular leadership.

So I accepted his demurrer and had to face facts; Einstein, after all, had worked more or less alone, not with a Cabinet full of ministers and dozens of pressing problems daily. Besides, who would know him better than himself? Perhaps only his late wife Choo understood what was behind that iconic public face that at one hour could be so gruff and cold and intimidating—and two hours later, so charming and gracious and reasonable. I told him I marvelled at how well Singaporeans understood him, but he shook his head and snapped back: “They think they know me, but they only know the public me.”

My sense is that, for all his writings and interviews, and for all the media on him, he was right about that. So we await the breathtakingly definitive biography that gets to the real flesh-and-bones human behind the larger-than-life public figure. I tried—probing him with annoying questions about his son, the current well-performing prime minister; his daughter, the brilliant medical professional; and of course, his late wife. And that did let in some light. But when once asked whether there was anyone alive who was like him, he answered without apology: “I do not know of any person who is most like me.”

He may very well be right, but if so, that helps make my case for awarding him hedgehog honours despite everything. Sure, I’m stubborn about this, but let us note that in one conversation he summoned up the notable figure Jean Monnet (1888–1979), whom history reveres for his prophetic vision of European unity, by way of a Common Market and European Union. For this one singular contribution, Monnet gets marked as a political hedgehog. So how is Lee Kuan Yew a modern Monnet, as I suspect history will say?

We will require more time to helicopter upwards for the illuminating panoramic view. But in my mind, with each year in power, he grew into a composite figure, a dual icon of sorts where a modern-day Plato (glowing with the vision of an ideal city-state run solely by the virtuous) fused with a modern-day Machiavelli (coldly calculating strategies to keep the “soft-headed” utopian vision from getting its head chopped off).

To govern in these fraught times—I am afraid to say it—you need to be both. The political hedgehog in effect must have two sides to his political being. As Machiavelli insisted, it was best if the leader was both feared and loved. Because Lee Kuan Yew had it all, he became a political giant of his time. Personally, over the decades, I have met no one most like him.

From: Esquire Singapore's May 2015 issue.