Singapore: In international affairs, no individual has been more eagerly sought out, more regularly consulted, and more carefully listened to by a generation of American, Chinese, and other world leaders than the “sage of Singapore".
So wrote Council for Foreign Relations senior fellow for US foreign policy Robert D. Blackwill and director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs Graham T. Allison in their book, Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.
Indeed, few politicians in recent history have received the kind of unanimous respect and admiration of global leaders as Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding father, who died on 23 March at the age of 91.
And, for good reason; his creation, modern Singapore, has grown from a third-world malarial island that suffered the brutalities of Japanese occupation and the humiliation of expulsion from Malaysia into an unparalleled economic powerhouse in Asia.
Even Lee Kuan Yew’s harshest critics have grudgingly conceded the astonishing achievements of the “Singapore experiment" that he audaciously embarked on five decades ago. He has been hailed as an unparalleled statesman, a philosopher king and an embodiment of the wisdom of the East, who secured Singapore’s future for times to come.
Still, true to his visionary spirit, some in the city-state are already peering ahead at what the next 50 years will look like without Lee Kuan Yew’s remarkable leadership.
While most seem optimistic about Singapore’s future, its success is neither taken for granted, nor lightly, and especially by those who worked closely with the first Prime Minister of Singapore, and are carrying on his life’s work and mission.
One such individual is Kishore Mahbubani, founding dean of Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy since 2004, and Singapore’s two-term ambassador to the United Nations, who recently launched his new book, Can Singapore Survive? It could not have been better timed, as this precise question is gaining some momentum after the man who is synonymous with Singapore was laid to rest.
Mahbubani, who worked closely with Lee Kuan Yew for many decades, poses the question in his book that Singaporeans must wrestle with now more than ever: Can Singapore survive as an independent city-state? And in his usual, provocative and technocratic rationalist style, he gives three answers: Yes, No and Maybe!
He says: “Singaporeans must always ask the question because constant reflection and self examination should be a part of the core DNA of all Singaporeans."
The assumption, of course, is that without it, Singapore seriously risks losing its hard earned success; a notion that Lee Kuan Yew alluded to often.
He once famously said: “We got here by the skin of our teeth. But if you believe that your success is permanent, it will come tumbling down, and you will never get a second chance."
A point of view that Mahbubani perhaps reflects on more deeply than most.
His book embodies a consciously cultivated sense of insecurity about the future of Singapore, precisely with a view to secure it.
Mahbubani is one of Asia’s most provocative thinkers and public intellectuals. The dean of the fastest growing school of public policy globally, his guest book is filled with the names of international political and financial leaders, and influential global editors and writers, who seek him, much like Lee Kuan Yew, for better bridging the East and West.
At his book launch recently, Prof Tommy Koh, another prominent Singaporean diplomat and thinker, called him the most famous Singaporean abroad after Lee Kuan Yew. He said, “Kishore loves Singapore and believes in it. He is worried about its future and whether success has made ordinary Singaporeans complacent today."
Like his former boss and mentor, Mahbubani is ideology-free and possesses an unsentimental pragmatism. He seeks to confront history head on, so as to prepare adequately for the future.
“History is not comforting. Many successful city-states have disappeared from the face of the earth," he says.
Mahbubani cities the example in his book of Venice, Athens, and as far back as Lan Fang Republic founded by Hakka Chinese in West Borneo in 1777, to illustrate his point.
And also quotes Lee Kuan Yew, who said, “I’m concerned that Singaporeans assume that Singapore is a normal country, that we can be compared to Denmark or New Zealand or even Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. We are in a very turbulent region. If we do not have a government and a people that differentiate themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood in a positive way and can defend ourselves, Singapore will cease to exist."
Mahbubani clearly agrees with Lee Kuan Yew on this world-view.
“It would be absolutely disastrous if Singaporeans were to be ignorant of our historical and geopolitical contexts, and assume that Singapore would naturally survive no matter what happens," he says. “Instead, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has often stated, a certain degree of paranoia is healthy for Singapore."
As the iron man of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, also himself once said: “Survival requires you to change; if you don’t change, you become marginalized and you become extinct".
Mahbubani’s timely book, at a moment of national catharsis, encourages Singaporeans to reflect deeply, in order to survive and thrive for the next 50 years.
He is of the view that the city-state can prepare for the future by telling stories about what it could look like by doing scenario planning. “An intelligent planner should consider Singapore’s options against each of the three scenarios of yes, no and maybe, because, sadly, each of these scenarios represents a possibility," he says.
Edited excerpts from an interview:
Can Singapore surive?
Nobody knows. The transformation of Singapore in the last 50 years has been exceptional, and it cannot, and will not remain exceptional. It is so unusual for any nation in history to have such continuous political stability and economic growth.
Still, there are a lot of things going our way. We have invested so much in developing the physical and human infrastructure in the last five decades. Also, Southeast Asia, which was once regarded as the Balkans of Asia, has become calm and stable. Further, the centre of gravity is slowly moving to Asia. All these are positive developments. But there is also so much in flux globally today, and in some ways, much more than ever before, so we have to plan and prepare. We need to ensure that we will not squander the legacy the pioneering generation has bequeathed on us.
What is a big geopolitical challenge for Singapore to negotiate for its survival?
The challenge is the negotiation of power between the world’s No.1 power USA and emerging power, China. So far it is a geopolitical miracle that there is a missing level of high tension that accompanies such rebalancing of power. With more enhanced geopolitical competition though in the future, it may become more challenging for Singapore, which is a very good friend to USA in defence, trade and investment, and also has close ties with China, due to the predominantly Chinese population of Singapore. If there is a big split between USA and China, the hardest thing will be to make a choice between the two.