The late Lee Kuan Yew was Singapore’s first prime minister, and he controversially led the 1965-founded city state for 31 years, shepherding it from the Third World (his description) to First. Whether you love him or hate him, you can’t argue with the fact he was largely responsible for the development of the tiny country that was once just a British colonial trading post to a world economic power.
Yes, Singapore today might in many ways be bland in the opinion of travellers to rougher and more unpolished parts of the world, but Lee — who died in 2015 — remained proud of his achievements: "If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one,” he wrote.
Lee was rather prolific, writing seven books in later life; From Third World to First is the second of his two-volume memoirs, covering the period from 1965 to the late 1990s (the book was published in 2000). It’s a big book, but a fascinating read by a leader who kept careful notes and drew on unpublished papers to round out his recollections.
You might not agree with his philosophical outlook (or maybe you do), but either way his perspective will throw light on why Singapore is, well, Singapore. He describes the total transformation of the country, as well as how it came to punch above its weight internationally. He covers meeting Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, George Bush (he hosted six US presidents at the Istana, his official residence) and Deng Xiaoping, among others. While his approach to human rights certainly has reason to be criticised, the nation’s achievements certainly have a reason to be praised (perhaps while remembering those whose rights have been trampled on over the years, thus contributing to the rise of the state in very real ways).
Lee’s writing is far more refreshing, honest and forthright than other political memoirs we’ve read (let’s just say we put down Clinton’s My Life after a chapter). It’s not a generalist read, but anyone with more than a passing interest in Singapore and Southeast Asian politics will find it compelling.
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