Singaporean pragmatism offers lessons

Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-18 23:43:02

Graham Allison

Graham Allison

Editor's Note:

Lee Kuan Yew, the "founder of Singapore," is a figure much admired in both US and Chinese political circles. But do the lessons of a geographically advantaged city-state really apply to larger nations? What can China learn from Lee's philosophy of paternal authoritarianism? Global Times (GT) reporter Liu Zhun talked to US political scientist Graham Allison (Allison), author of Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master's Insights on China, America, and the World and director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, on these issues.

GT: Why is Lee's philosophy so valued by leaders in many countries? Are his experiences in Singapore really relevant to nations with very different circumstances?

Allison: Lee's understanding of the role of government is rooted in his own experience. He took a poor, corrupt, third-world city-state, and made it into a vibrant, efficient, first-world country that serves as a major hub in the Asia-Pacific region.

Lee has little interest in ideology, or theory. His only criterion for evaluating a given policy is: Does it work? As he explains: "The acid test is in performance, not promises."

He is as candid in discussing those characteristics of US governance that he admires as he is in spotlighting the qualities that he finds troubling; the same holds for his observations about Chinese governance. Nor is Lee beholden to a particular style of governance.

Whether a country operates by democracy or one-party rule, in his view, it requires "guardians" - the most talented, groomed individuals in society - to succeed.

Ruthless pragmatism and objective analysis have made his analysis indispensable to leaders over the past half century.

Lee has been a mentor to every US president since Richard Nixon and every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping.

Indeed, as Ezra Vogel explains in his biography of Deng, when Deng was contemplating China's march to the market in the late 1970s, he visited Singapore to solicit Lee's advice.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping attempts to take on powerful State-owned enterprises and others that have vested interests in resisting a major transition to a more consumption-based growth model, he would do well to heed Lee's advice: Do what is right, even if it may be unpopular.

GT: In the book, Lee argues that China, as a rising power, is unlikely to engage in a war with the US, an established power. Unlike the Soviet Union and the US in the Cold War, he says both China and the US will see each other as a competitor, not an enemy. Do you think China and the US will avoid what you call the "Thucydides' trap," when a rising power causes fear in established powers that moves toward war?

Allison: As I argued in a recent Financial Times article, "If we were betting on the basis of history, the answer to the question about Thucydides's trap appears obvious. In 11 of 15 cases since 1500 where a rising power emerged to challenge a ruling power, war occurred."

There are reasons to hope that the US and China will do better: Both are familiar with this sobering record, both have nuclear weapons, and both understand that conflict would jeopardize the thick economic interdependence from which they both benefit immensely.

Nonetheless, accidents and miscalculations can occur. How the territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea play out will say a lot about the two countries' ability to address friction in their relationship and forge what Xi has called a "new type of major power relationship."

GT: Singapore's political system was founded by Lee himself. It's not a typical democratic regime, but a de facto one-party state. China has also developed its own political system. Why, does Singapore get much less criticism than China?

Allison: Singapore is a tiny country whose outlook is primarily regional. China is a continental-sized country that contains one-fifth of humanity, and it is currently the only credible rival to the US for global preeminence.

If the two countries' positions were reversed, there is little doubt that Singapore would receive comparable, if not identical, criticism.

While Singapore is a one-party state, its legislators actively engage the citizens in their districts, listen to their grievances, and compete for their votes. Over time, expect elections in Singapore to become increasingly competitive.

GT: Although Beijing stresses that the nation is pursuing a "peaceful rise," there are still concerns in many countries, especially its neighbors, that China is a threat. Why does India, another rising power in Asia, seldom receive such criticism?

Allison: The rapidity of China's ascent is one factor. Never has a nation moved so far and so fast up the international rankings on all dimensions of power. In a generation, a state whose GDP was smaller than Spain's has become the second largest economy in the world.

History is another factor. India never related to its neighbors as a vassal does to supplicants; China did, for much of its history, so its neighbors question whether a stronger, more assertive China will seek to restore that arrangement.

GT: Lee has argued that while China will eventually become the most powerful country in the region, the US needs to be more active at present. How can this balance be struck?

Allison: The US has been the preeminent power in the Asia-Pacific region since the end of WWII, so China should not expect that it will acquiesce in its exclusion from the region.

On the other hand, it is only natural that an increasingly powerful China will demand more say and greater sway in the geopolitics of its backyard and, in time, of the world.

The two countries would do well to revisit the landmark communiqué that they signed in 1972: They agreed that "neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region" or undertake "to divide up the world into spheres of interest."

As the old quip goes: "Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future." While the US is in relative decline, a unipolar Chinese world seems highly unlikely on current trend lines. More likely is that the US and China will remain the two pillars of the international system indefinitely, if both can be wise enough to avert Thucydides's trap.

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