News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Lee Kuan Yew: Graham Allison Reflects on the Man and His Impact

| March 23, 2015

The death of the founding father of Singapore, and its prime minister for its first three decades, is an occasion for reflection. Not only did Lee Kuan Yew raise a poor, notoriously corrupt port from the bottom rungs of the third world to a modern first world nation in a single generation. He was also one of two certifiable grand masters of international strategy in the last half century (Henry Kissinger being the other), and a wise counselor to the world.

No one outside of China had such a profound influence on China’s meteoric rise to become today the second largest economy in the world. No one outside the U.S. has had greater impact on U.S. policy towards a rising China, from Nixon and Kissinger’s opening to Mao's Communist China in the early 1970s, to President Obama’s “pivot” to Asia today. And in helping other national economies actually grow and lift millions of citizens from abject poverty, it is difficult to identify anyone whose words and actions in demonstrating what competent, clean, determined leadership can do has had more impact.

Amid the flurry of words about Lee Kuan Yew, much more interesting and instructive are the words of Lee Kuan Yew. For that reason my colleague Bob Blackwill and I published a book two years ago entitled Lee Kuan Yew: the Grand Master’s Insights On China, the United States, and the World. I recommend it as a "great book" without embarrassment—since all we did was pose the questions we think most internationally-minded people would find most interesting. 95 percent of the words in the book are Lee Kuan Yew’s answers.

  • Asked whether China's current leaders are serious about displacing the U.S. as the number 1 power in Asia in the foreseeable future, he answers:

    LKY: "Of course. Why not? How could they not aspire to be number 1 in Asia, and in time the world?”
  • Will they succeed?

    LKY: “The chances of it going wrong in China are about 1 in 5.”
  • Can the U.S. stop China's rise?

    LKY: “The US cannot stop China’s rise.  It just has to live with a bigger China, which will be completely novel for the U.S., as no country has ever been big enough to challenge its position…. It is not possible to pretend that this is just another big player.  This is the biggest player in the history of the world. ”
  • Will China become a democracy?

    LKY: “No.  China is not going to become a liberal democracy. If it did, it would collapse.  Of that, I am quite sure.”
  • Is the U.S. in systemic decline? Should we sell the U.S. short?

    LKY: “Absolutely not. The U.S. is going through a bumpy patch with its debt and deficits, but I have no doubt that America will not be reduced to second-rate status.”


  • Is war between the U.S. and China inevitable?

    LKY:  “No. This is not the Cold War. The Soviet Union was contesting the U.S. for global supremacy. China is acting purely as China in its own national interests. It is not interested in changing the world.”


For more about Lee Kuan Yew: the Grand Master’s Insights On China, the United States, and the World, see here. Read an excerpt from the book on the future of U.S.-China relations here.

See a sampling of recent articles about Lee Kuan Yew in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Washington Post. Henry Kissinger and Ali Wyne also offer their thoughts on Lee Kuan Yew.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham. “Lee Kuan Yew: Graham Allison Reflects on the Man and His Impact.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, March 23, 2015.