Lee Kuan Yew

The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World

by Graham Allison


Brilliant condensation. Pragmatism is the core virtue of the statesman.


His views on China are measured and founded on lived exposure to Confucianism and Communism. On the one hand, it is the world’s most populous country, with an immense capacity for innovation and statecraft. On the other, its rule of law was (is?) shaky, and he suggests the cultural divide between East and West is larger than most give it credit for:

Straight-line extrapolations from such a remarkable record are not realistic. China has more handicaps going forward and more obstacles to overcome than most observers recognize. Chief among these are their problems of governance: the absence of the rule of law, which in today’s China is closer to the rule of the emperor; a hunge country in which little emperors across a vast expanse exercise great local influence; cultural habits that limit imagination and creativity, rewarding conformity; a language that shapes thinking through epigrams and 4,000 years of texts that suggest everything worth saying has already been said, and said better by earlier writers; a language that is exceedingly difficult for foreigners to learn sufficiently to embrace China and be embraced by its society; and severe constraints on its ability to attract and assimilate talent from other societies in the world.

Will China become a democracy?

No. China is not going to become a liberal democracy; if it did, it would collapse. Of that, I am quite sure, and the Chinese intelligentsia also understands that. If you believe there is going to be a revolution of some sort in China for democracy, you are wrong. Where are the students of Tiananmen now? They are irrelevant. The Chinese people want a revived China.

I do not believe you can impose on other countries standards which are alien and totally disconnected with their past. So to ask China to become a democracy, when in its 5,000 years of recorded history it never counted heads; all rulers ruled by right of being the emperor, and if you disagree, you chop off heads, not count heads.

On Xi Jinping:

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 judgement. In other words, he is very impressive.

On the younger generation:

It is vital that the younger generation of Chinese, who have only lived during a period of peace and growth in China and have no experience of China’s tumultuous past, are made aware of the msitakes China made as a result of hubris and excesses in ideology.

Kids never listen to their grandfathers.


America’s strengths: a Reaganite can-do approach to life, entreprenurial culture, its status as a frontier society, fatter tails, and English. Immigrants assimilate easily, so the nation can rely not only on homegrown brains but also those found abroad.

These are the four salient features of America’s entreprenurial culture: (1) a national emphasis on personal independence and self-reliance, (2) respect for those starting new businesses, (3) acceptance of failure in entrepreneurial and innovation efforts, and (4) tolerance for a high degree of income disparity.

America’s weaknesses: long-term governance, effective governance, law and order, cultural arrogance, and multiculturalism.

Multiculturalism will destroy America. There is a danger that large numbers of Mexicans and others from South and Central America will continue to come to the U.S. and spread their culture across the whole of the country. If they breed faster than the WASPs and are living with them, whose culture will prevail? Will the WASPs change them, or will the immigrants change the existing culture? They will change each other, but it would be sad for American culture to be changed even partially.

Also, America is not Europe. To become European (as government charity becomes entitlement, deficits run larger, and self-help culture disappears) is to become stagnant. For instance, take Britain:

But it was not inevitable that the enterprise and the drive of Britons to achieve would be hobbled by welfarism, introduced in 1945 with the noblest of motives by the British Labor Party. Cradle-to-grave welfarism blunted the ambition of many budding entrepreneurs. Worse, high personal taxes dampened the desire of many to achieve wealth and success.

The more European America becomes the more it runs the risk of losing its status as the global superpower.

To hold ground in the Pacific, the U.S. must not let its fiscal deficits come to grief. If they come to grief and there is a run on the dollar for whatever reason…and the bankers and all the hedge funds and everybody come to a conclusion that the U.S. is not going to tackle those deficits, and they begin to move their assets out, that would spell real trouble…America’s debt is what worries me most, because it will absolutely strike at the heart of America’s global leadership.

Pacific Relations

Lee Kuan Yew believes most of the economic growth in the 21st century will come from the Pacific. As such, the optimal evolution of U.S. - China relations is for America to cooperate with and accomodate the rising CCP. Xenophobia and distaste for Chinese values and Chinese governance will create unnecessary animosity, and there is little chance of America retaining its current influence on Southeast Asia.

Can U.S. policies significantly influence China’s trajectory?

Yes indeed. If the U.S. attempts to humiliate China, keep it down, it will assure itself an enemy. If instead it accepts China as a big, powerful, rising state and gives it a seat in the boardroom, China will take that place for the foreseeable future. So if I were an American, I would speak well of China, acknowledge it as a great power, applaud its return to its position of respect and restoration of its glorious past, and propose specific concrete ways to work together.


India cannot succeed in the long-term because it is fragmented. It is 32 nations under the imposed banner of one, toiling under self-imposed limitations such as the caste system and a monstrous socialist bureaucracy.

It will lose to China:

After Indira Gandhi’s son died, I said to her…“Take this chance, open up India, change the policy. Look at Indians overseas, see how well they are doing in England, in Singapore, all over the world. You are confining and conscribing them by your policies, by your bureaucracy.” She told me: “I cannot do it. This is this. That is the way India is”…And at the time, I saw China rising…breaking away from communism. So I knew that the race would not be an equal one. I gave up.

After independence, India lost its first-rate universities (by and large. IITs are the exception). It is capped at perhaps 60-70% of the GDP of China. However, it does have a decent rule of law (in contrast to the Chinese), but its civil servants are “regulators not facilitators.”


Yew’s views on the development of Singapore are first-rate, by virtue of their efficacy. They are quite strange though, at least to Western eyes.

First, he views much of his policy through the lens of race and culture. He limited the amount of Indian schools in Singapore to three, he is keenly aware of the detrimental effects multiculturalism can have on societal cohesion & trust, and believes that perhaps 70% of one’s ability is due to nature rather than nurture.


My definition of a Singaporean…is that we accept that whoever joins us is part of us. And that is an American concept. You can keep your name, Brzezinski, Berlusconi, whatever it is, you have come, join me, you are American. We need talent, we accept them. That must be our defining attribute.

Instead of catering to the preservation of familial culture, he managed to teach a generation English:

But I offered every parent a choice of English and their mother tongue, in whatever order they chose. By their free choice, plus the rewards of the marketplace over a period of 30 years, we have ended up with English first and the mother tongue second.

And he wishes to kickstart risk-takers, as America does:

Where do you produce your entrepreneurs from? Out of a top hat? . . . There is a dearth of entrepreneurial talent in Singapore . . . We have to start experimenting. The easy things—just getting a blank mind to take in knowledge and become trainable—we have done. Now comes the difficult part. To get literate and numerate minds to be more innovative, to be more productive, is not easy. It requires a mindset change, a different set of values.

Greatest Problems

First, the Greek debt crisis and the eurozone. Second, North Korea and Kim Jong-Un. Third, Japanese aging and stagnation. Fourth, the Middle Eastern powder keg and Iranian nuclear development.

Russian population decline, the negative effects of globalization on developing countries, and keeping generational values with the advent of the internet as well.


The role of a government is to provide well for its people, not maximize ‘equality’ or ‘liberty’.

I understood Deng Xiaoping when he said: if 200,000 students have to be shot, shoot them, because the alternative is China in chaos for another 100 years . . . Deng understood, and he released it stage by stage. Without Deng, China would have imploded.

The rule of law talks of habeas corpus, freedom, the right of association and expression, of assembly, of peaceful demonstration: nowhere in the world today are these rights allowed to be practiced without limitations, for blindly applied, these ideals can work toward the undoing of organized society. For the acid test of any legal system is not the greatness or the grandeur of its ideal concepts, but whether, in fact, it is able to produce order and justice in the relationships between person and person, and between person and state.

Humans are inherently vicious and must be restrained. No two humans are ever equal, and to believe so is folly. A thriving society must capture the attention of the most talented and direct it towards what is good for the world, not just in an ivory tower:

It is amazing how many highly intelligent persons in the world make no contribution at all to the well-being of their fellow people.

And finally:

Anybody who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.