Lee Kuan Yew: “We’re only the descendants of illiterate, landless farmers in Fujian and Guangdong”

Despite their differences, Singapore and China share similarities and will continue to learn from each other.

Both Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese paramount leader credited with the opening up of China 40 years ago, and Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, believed “a country should be led by competent people and a strong leader with a global view”, according to Dinggang writing in the Global Times.

Dinggang is a senior editor with People’s Daily and currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.

He wrote: “If one claims Singapore is always an example for China to emulate, it might sound exaggerating. You may list several reasons for which China cannot simply learn from Singapore. The tiny country is just a middle-sized city with only several million inhabitants compared to China’s big cities. Its legal system is based on the British model, and most of its civil servants had received traditional British education when Singapore became independent in 1965.


“However, you might find one of the most important similarities – the majority of people in both countries are Chinese and have same cultural roots.

“In China’s striving for modernisation, finding a way to keep the balance between economic development and social and political stability has always been crucial.

“The Chinese Communist Party as the ruling party has been looking for a way to achieve the efficient use of capital and at the same time control its negative impact on the Party and the society.

“The political system must be consistent with the cultural and social environment of Eastern countries. That’s why Chinese leaders always take Singapore’s experience very seriously and send many middle-level officials to the country for training. Singapore’s Chinese newspaper Zaobao once reported that current Chinese leader Xi Jinping had visited Singapore four times when he served in Fujian Province.”

Dinggang added:  “The long-term stability, effectiveness and clean governance of the Singaporean government are the keys to the success of this Oriental country.

“Although Lee Kuan Yew was a member of an ethnic Chinese family who was away from China for five generations, Chinese history left a significant impression on him, which primarily through the traditional imperial examination system influenced the way Singapore selected its officials and later formed Lee’s elite governance philosophy.”

Singapore’s housing scheme and public security were among the first things that struck Deng Xiaoping when he visited Singapore in November 1978, just before the CPC decided to initiate the policy of reform and opening-up late that year. This visit steeled Deng’s determination for China’s development and raised his confidence in leading billions of Chinese to realise their dream in the generations to come.

Wrote Dinggang: “It is easy to find books and written records about that historic visit, and among these the most important book is Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Harvard Professor Ezra F Vogel. According to the book, Deng was impressed with the order and the high living standard the city-state enjoyed.”

After Deng’s visit, from the articles about Singapore published by China’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, opening up to the outside world, attracting foreign investment, making the city greener, and providing public housing for every citizen became examples for China to follow.

In 2015, President Xi Jinping paid a state visit to Singapore and mentioned Deng’s visit in his speech. He said, under the leadership of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore succeeded in pursuing a development path suitable to its national conditions by combining Eastern values with an international vision. After seeing Singapore’s economic achievements, Deng said that China needed to learn from Singapore.

But Dinggang noted: “A detail of Deng’s conversation with Lee deserves more attention.

“You’re able to catch up with us, even better than Singapore, and there’s no problem at all,” Lee said.

“We are only the descendants of illiterate, landless farmers in Fujian, Guangdong and other places, but many of you are the descendants of officials and scholars,” Lee continued, as Deng listened quietly.

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