Say what you like about him but Singapore’s late first Prime Minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, had a genius for manipulating the Western narrative when it came to all things Chinese. Mr Lee, the original WOG (Western Oriental Gentleman) started out as “Harry Lee” and had made a point of only wanting to speak English as an Englishman and refused to speak “Singlish” or anything resembling a Chinese dialect. However, he realised that the English educated would never help him get into power and so he taught himself the language of the streets, ensured the name Lee Kuan Yew would be the one the public knew and before you knew if he was “Chinese.” Once in power, he then tried to redefine Chinese culture to his own liking. He kept the public persona of Lee Kuan Yew but went to war on Chinese dialects. It was a mixture of wanting to ensure the Chinese-dialect street agitators would never do to him what they had to done to the colonial government but at the same time wanting to stay Chinese enough to capitalise on a Chinese market should it ever grow.
Singapore’s meteoric rise is well documented and Mr Lee saw to it that his colleagues went on a process of “leadership renewal,” while he had himself hired as a well-paid consultant in the cabinets of his successors. Mr Lee, who had shamelessly used Western expertise (particularly that of Dr Winsemius) and capital to build Singapore, proceeded to promote the Singapore Success story as a success story of Asian Values under a wise Asian ruler. He told his “fellow Asian Leaders” that he had the secret formula for success and at the same time he promoted himself across the Western world as the man who knew Chinese and Asian culture. How successful was he? Mrs Margaret Thatcher, former prime minister of the UK, talked about how she’d ask her friend “Harry Lee of Singapore” about Chinese culture.
As the so-called premier expert of all things eastern and western, one of Mr Lee’s greatest lines was to announce that “Democracy was incompatible with Chinese culture.” The motivations behind this message were obvious. To his Western audience, it was the message that they could pump capital in Asia and not worry about what the common folk felt because they would follow their leaders. To the Asian audience, there was a message to follow the leadership and prosperity would follow.
It’s tough to argue against Mr Lee because he was right in so many ways. Singapore remains a fairly pleasant place or at least pleasant enough for you to get looks of “what the heck are you complaining about” from your American and European friends — and the Asian countries that prospered like Taiwan and South Korea also did so under strong authoritarian rule. Then, there’s the giant story of China, which has gone from a backwater in the 70s to a world power set to change the nature of geopolitics and remains under one-party rule. Mr Lee has been described as probably the best nation builder by none other than Charlie Munger, the number two man of Berkshire Hathaway.
While it’s hard to argue with Mr Lee and his track record, he was, however, not perfect. As a Singaporean who grew up with Mr Lee in the 80s, it was clear that while Mr Lee set high standards for many things, age somehow mellowed Mr Lee into being, how do you say it, a bit more flexible. The Prime Minister who said he always sacked and replaced the chief when things went wrong, actually started berating the public when members of the public were not pleased with the minister in charge of security when a terrorist was allowed to limp out of a highly secured facility.
Mr Lee’s flexibility in the high standards and good planning were particularly visible in the area of Chinese culture and democracy. As the proclaimed “father of the nation,” Mr Lee stressed that it was a Singaporean Singapore rather than a Chinese Singapore. He also threw his weight behind a pledge to “build a democratic society based on justice and equality.” However, once he got himself his consulting position, he felt that Chinese culture and democracy were somehow incompatible.
Unfortunately, that’s not quite true. If you look at the other two places outside Mainland China, namely Hong Kong and Taiwan, things like democracy and individual liberties are taken very seriously. In the last two years Hong Kong, which is Chinese sovereign territory (Despite one country two systems, it is clear that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive reports to China’s President), you’ve seen things like the Umbrella Movement, where ordinary people have taken to the streets in protest against draconian surveillance laws. In Taiwan, which claims to be China (Taiwan’s position is that it is the government of China in exile in Taiwan, whereas China claims that Taiwan is a renegade province) is famous for legislators who are so passionate that they end up brawling.
Needless to say, Singapore gets rather smug when scenes of the mess in Hong Kong and Taiwan get shown on TV. Our calm and clean little pond compares well with their rather less calm and clean places. It’s especially true with Hong Kong, which is Singapore’s largest rival for banking business. Our private banking sector has been particularly blessed as the wealthy take their money out of Hong Kong and park it in Singapore.
However, this smugness fails to take into account two key factors. The first is geopolitics. Singapore is an independent and sovereign nation. Our immediate neighbours are Malaysia and Indonesia. While there was “Konfrantassi” in our early years, Singapore has had a relatively peaceful relationship with its immediate neighbours in the last 40 years. Malaysia and Indonesia are unable to make laws for Singapore nor can they bar other countries from recognising the existence of Singapore.
Taiwan and Hong Kong by contrast have a different relationship with their big neighbour, China. Hong Kong was a Crown Colony and then it became a “special administrative” region of the People’s Republic. In theory, Hong Kong is allowed to operate under its own set of rules and only leaves defence and foreign policy to Beijing. In theory, the Chinese government has signed a treaty agreeing to leave Hong Kong alone under a system of “One Country-Two-Systems”.
Practice is a different story. Much as Hong Kong readers will protest it, the fact remains “ONE COUNTRY two systems.” Hong Kong is China and its very reason for existence is China. People go to Hong Kong to get into China and while the Chinese government has refrained from sending tanks into Hong Kong the way it sent them into Tiananmen Square, it’s capable of doing its part to see that the investors head for Shanghai, which is China-China – or One Country: One System.
There’s a different twist with Taiwan. Unlike Hong Kong, Taiwan is not a part of China. For many years, Taiwan under the Kuomingtang (KMT) claimed to be the rightful government of China which was in exile in Taiwan, whereas the Communist Party (CCP) claimed that Taiwan was a renegade province of China. While Taiwan is to all intents and purposes a sovereign nation, it is not recognised as one. While Taiwan has plenty of money, China freezes out Taiwan from just about every recognisable international body. The rules of geopolitics are simple – size matters. While Taiwan is democratic and has plenty of money, nobody is going to get on the wrong side of a billion consumers. Even pro-independence Taiwanese politicians tread carefully to avoid unnecessary conflict with China.
So, comparing Singapore with Hong Kong and Taiwan is an “Apple-versus-Oranges” comparison. Singapore has a certain amount of control over its economic and political destiny in the same way that Taiwan and Hong Kong do not.
The second point that one should take note of is that despite the relative difficulties that Hong Kong and Taiwan face when compared to Singapore, neither appear to be rushing towards a Singapore style of “Daddy knows it all” government. Taiwan in particular takes pride in its democratic system of government:
Many years ago, the Economist stated that if you looked at East Asia with ethnographic lenses, you would notice that outside of Japan and South Korea, the countries that have done best are primarily Chinese. Of the Chinese majority countries, Hong Kong put everything into overpriced real estate, Singapore put everything into government, China put it into the party apparatus. Taiwan by contrast had entrepreneurship. Think of the semiconductor industry, which had a heavy presence of Taiwanese entrepreneurs. Is there a link between democracy and value-creating entrepreneurship and is it sustainable: Well, it appears that Taiwan has done well given that it’s not even a recognised nation.
Democracy and individual liberties are not bad for business and Chinese culture has shown that it is not against business. Chinese people steeped in Chinese culture have also shown that they treasure individual liberties and democratic process as much as other people who have experienced democracy and the protection of individual liberties. This is something that non-Chinese people should remember whenever they talk about how Chinese culture is incompatible with democracy.
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