The benevolent dictator, much like Communism, seems to be one of those semi-mythical things that seem to be good in theory but rarely if ever pan out in practice. But every so often there occurs an exception. If there was one man who embodied the archetype, it was Lee Kuan Yew, who passed away earlier today at the age of 91. The only other leader in today’s world who even begins to approach his stature is Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.
Under Lee’s 50 years of formal and informal rule, Singapore went from being a Third World backwater with no natural resources to a gleaming technopolis and the world’s third major financial hub after London and New York. GDP per capita increased by several orders of magnitude. It refuted the modern idea, or rather dogma, that democracy and individual liberties are indispensable components of economic modernization. A clever foreign policy enabled great relations with both the US and China. Visible corruption is all but non-existent; the story might be apocryphal, but apparently Lee once even went as far as allowing the execution of a friend for stealing from the state. This kind of severe, impartial justice is all but unimaginable under Putin, whose top political elites enjoy literally palatial lifestyles, or even under Xi Jinping, where the anti-corruption campaign is real but has to take into account that some political clans must remain untouchable.
He was famously disdainful of democracy – “with few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries… What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value.” That this might not be taken well by Singapore’s more Americanized youth was of minimal concern to the elder statesman: “It’s irrelevant to me what young Singaporeans think of me. What they think of me after I’m dead and gone in one generation will be determined by researchers who do PhD’s on me.”
As Michael Anissimov’s and [AK: Redacted on request]‘s NRx blog More Right points out, “Lee Kuan Yew was the living politician that most exemplified the neoreactionary philosophy.” I would also argue that he is also now the dead politician who most exemplifies neoreaction, right down to his son inheriting the Prime Ministership. On this, they are absolutely correct; it is very much worth pointing out that Singapore’s political culture is defined not only by authoritarianism and clean, effective public service, but by an unapologetic elitism that is quite shocking to Westerners used to politicians who pander to the masses.
Example: Singapore is a small state, a city-state, and space is at a premium. So new cars face exorbitant taxes so that only the superwealthy can afford them. In this sense, it is heavily regulated and unapologetically pro-oligarchic. But that doesn’t preclude Singapore’s ordinary citizens from enjoying one of the best public transport systems on the planet. It is also rated by the World Bank as the world’s easiest country in which to do business, so at least getting rich is perfectly within everyone’s reach – provided he has the requisite ability, of course. Not everyone does, as Lee pointed out with brutal honesty:
If I tell Singaporeans – we are all equal regardless of race, language, religion, culture. Then they will say,”Look, I’m doing poorly. You are responsible.” But I can show that from British times, certain groups have always done poorly, in mathematics and in science. But I’m not God, I can’t change you. But I can encourage you, give you extra help to make you do, say maybe, 20% better.
If you think this hints at a dangerously un-PC worldview, you would be correct. Here are some more quotes that you will not see in the glowing obituaries of him in the mainstream press:
On evolution and human biodiversity:
I started off believing all men were equal. I now know that’s the most unlikely thing ever to have been, because millions of years have passed over evolution, people have scattered across the face of this earth, been isolated from each other, developed independently, had different intermixtures between races, peoples, climates, soils… I didn’t start off with that knowledge. But by observation, reading, watching, arguing, asking, that is the conclusion I’ve come to.
There are some flaws in the assumptions made for democracy. It is assumed that all men and women are equal or should be equal. Hence, one-man-one-vote. But is equality realistic? If it is not, to insist on equality must lead to regression.
Contempt for demotism:
I ignore polling as a method of government. I think that shows a certain weakness of mind – an inability to chart a course whichever way the wind blows, whichever way the media encourages the people to go, you follow. You are not a leader.
On the necessity of pro-eugenic policies:
If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.
On IQ and black people:
The Bell curve is a fact of life. The blacks on average score 85 per cent on IQ and it is accurate, nothing to do with culture. The whites score on average 100. Asians score more… the Bell curve authors put it at least 10 points higher. These are realities that, if you do not accept, will lead to frustration because you will be spending money on wrong assumptions and the results cannot follow.
Had he dared express any of these ideas as an American politician, he would have been hounded out of public life by any of the newspapers who now sing his praises. Instead, to the extent racial issues are at all raised, he gets praised for creating a functioning multicultural society, with some of its less “wholesome” aspects, such as a cognitively elitist immigration policy that specifically targetted ethnic Han, getting glossed over. Part of the reason for this is surely the banal fact that he is a non-white foreigner who can says that which is forbidden to others. But an even bigger reason, and one that helps enable the former, is simply success; it is success, not so much cannons, that is the last argument of kings.
But lest you think this is just another neoreactionary ode to Lee Kuan Yew, prepare for disillusionment. Leaving aside the more subjective and ideological factors, such as the restrictions on political and civil liberties, there are at least several spheres in which Singapore’s performance was rather underwhelming.
1) The rise in Singapore’s GDP per capita was no doubt phenomenal, but it was broadly in line with those of the other East Asian tigers. A vast increase in wealth was inevitable even without Lee Kuan Yew, which is not to say that he did not do a lot to help it along. Singapore is now much richer than Taiwan or South Korea, but the latter are proper countries with substantial agricultural hinterlands, and far too populous to specialize as global trading and financial hubs, so the comparison is not necessarily valid. Singapore does not really stand out when compared to other global cities: Its GDP per capita (PPP) in 2014 was $67,000, which is not cardinally higher than that of London, Paris, or Hong Kong, all three of which were at $57,000, and lower than leading American cities such as Boston ($76,000), Seattle ($73,000), San Francisco ($72,000), New York ($70,000).
Moreover, when you adjust for differences in working time – on average, Singaporeans work 2,300 hours a year, relative to 1,800 in the US and as little as 1,400 in most of Western Europe – there develops a very real difference in productivity. This is especially stark when you consider that it almost tops the international PISA tests, suggesting very high levels of human capital.
But two arguments can be made in mitigation. First off, economic underperformance relative to human capital seems to be common to all of East Asia; for instance, Japan “should be” at least as wealthy as the US or Germany per capita by a simple extrapolation of its national IQ, but instead it is only just as wealthy as Italy. Why? Beyond the scope of this post, but there it is. The other argument is that the above cities, especially major national capitals like Paris and London, draw the cognitive elites of those countries, such that their average IQ and economic potential is well above their national averages and thus perhaps similar to Singapore’s anyway. But leaving aside that Singapore is also a magnet for regional cognitive elites, the GDP per capita and especially the productivity data still indicate that Singapore remains unremarkable or perhaps even subpar in its economic performance.
2) The long grind at work might explain why Singapore’s citizens are apparently the least emotional on the planet, according to a 2012 report by Gallup. Even hardened neoreactionaries, I would imagine, would attach some value to people’s happiness, be it out of paternal beneficence or at least concern for the longterm stability of the state.
3) This isn’t a exactly a failure in my opinion because it’s not like Singapore lacks for people. It’s a very wealthy citystate and will easily find more than enough high quality immigrants to make up any demographic gaps. But it’s nonetheless worth pointing out that Singapore, with a total fertility rate of 1.3 children per woman, hardly lives up to neoreactionary natalist ideals.
4) I certainly do not wish to pretend to be any kind of expert on Singapore, so feel free to correct me here if you consider me seriously misguided on this. But it seems to me that – for its respectable GDP per capita and prodigal level of human capital – Singapore is home to remarkably few scientific and cultural accomplishments. No Nobel Prizes, no Fields Medals, etc. This, of course, might also be a general East Asian thing; the achievements of Japan, Korea, and China in fundamental science are all very modest in comparison to what they “should be” compared to the European IQ-innovation correlation curve. Again, a discussion of this is well beyond the scope of this post. Still, speaking of Singapore specifically, at least Japan, Korea, and China all produce tons of patents per capita for their respective levels of economic development. In contrast, Singapore’s patents per capita is an order of magnitude lower than in Japan and Korea, being lower than in China, and wedged in between Belgium and Russia.
Finally, all societies die sooner or later, but they are remembered for the great art and culture that they produce. A valid counterpoint from the onset is that much of Western culture today is crap – Justin Bieber, 90% of modern art, what passes for “literary” novels. But there are still many flashes of genius and true creativity around. Sci-fi is undergoing its second golden age. Game of Thrones. Abandoning the postmodernist dreck that has infected too much older artistic media, the creative types are flocking to new technology-enabled pastures like video games. I am not aware of any major cultural products from Singapore. Hong Kong, much more liberal and freewheeling than Singapore, became famous for Jackie Chan and action movies.
What’s Singapore’s most recognizable cultural achievement? Is it… Lee Kuan Yew?
Above all, neoreactionaries should bear in mind that their Asian idol couldn’t care less for formal ideologies, most likely including their own. He was, above all, practical. “Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one,” as he told the NYT in an interview in 2007.