Analysis & Opinions -

Lee Kuan Yew: The Sage of Asia

| March 28, 2015

The death of Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, is an occasion for reflection. Lee, who died Monday, was more than just his country's founding father. He did not just raise a poor, notoriously corrupt port city from the bottom rungs of the Third World to a modern First World state (with clean streets and clean government) in a single generation. He was also one of only two true grand masters of international strategy in the last half century (Henry Kissinger being the other), and a wise counselor to the leaders of the world.

Margaret Thatcher once said “he was never wrong.” This week, Barack Obama called him “one of the legendary figures of Asia,” and Xi Jinping called him an "old friend of the Chinese people."

No one else outside of China had such a profound influence on China’s rise and restoration. In 1978, before launching far-reaching economic reforms, Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore to consult with Lee Kuan Yew and study his Singapore Model. Even today, thousands of Chinese officials still make the same journey annually for the same reason.

Likewise, no one else outside the U.S. has had greater impact on U.S. policy toward a rising China, from Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger's opening to Mao Zedong in the early 1970s, to President Obama's "pivot" to Asia today. Every president since Nixon has sought Lee’s counsel about Asia and the world.

Now that he has passed away, there has been a flurry of words about Lee Kuan Yew. Much more interesting and instructive are the words of Lee Kuan Yew himself. For that reason my colleague Robert 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, in which we posed to him questions on the most important issues of our time. Here are some of those questions, and his answers.

What did he think of Xi Jinping? Does he have what it takes to lead?

“He has iron in his soul… I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons. A person with enormous emotional stability who does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In a word, he is impressive.”


Is China’s goal to replace the United States and become the predominant power in Asia?

“Of course. Why not? They have transformed a poor society by an economic miracle to become now the second-largest economy in the world.” But, “unlike other emergent countries, China wants to be China and accepted as such, not as an honorary member of the West. The Chinese will want to share this century as coequals with the United States.”

Will China succeed?

“The chances of it going wrong in China are about one in five. I would not say zero because their problems are weighty ones: system change, business culture change, reducing corruption, and forming new mindsets.”

Can the U.S. stop China's rise?

“The U.S. 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. ”

Is the U.S. in systemic decline?

“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?

“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.”

Henry Kissinger has had the opportunity to meet virtually every leader in the world over the last half-century. As he attests in the preface to The Grand Master, the one from whom he learned most was Lee. Kissinger admires most of all Lee's "singular strategic acumen." As many observed, Lee could "see the future." As mentor to every Chinese leader since Deng, and every American president since Nixon, his counsel shaped the future. Indeed, in Singapore, he built the future. As we pause to mourn the loss of a great leader, we can be grateful that he has left us so many insights that we can apply across the international agenda today.

English translation by Belfer Center; published originally in Chinese by Caixin

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Lee Kuan Yew: The Sage of Asia.”, March 28, 2015.