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Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World

10 Mar 2014
reviewer Patrick Hill
The Grand Master's Insights on China, the United States, and the World

When the Grand Master states “human beings…are inherently vicious” and “power politics in Asia is as old as the first tribes” one hopes he has some remedies available. Lee Kuan Yew (LKY) offers his perspective on the future trajectories of China, America and world politics that few scholars can articulate with greater clarity. The former Prime Minister of Singapore (1959-1990), who transformed a third world country into the economic powerhouse that it is today, inspires the engaged reader to contemplate the  future course of relations between the two great powers of the 21st century: the US and China.

LKY contends that whilst China aspires to be the world’s most powerful nation and competition is inevitable, conflict is not a certainty and much depends on how America and, to a lesser degree, China accommodate one another.  This book does not limit itself to providing strategic advice regarding diplomatic, economic and cultural interactions to political leaders navigating relations with powerful nations; it provides insights into how states can transform themselves through effective leadership or be crippled by the absence of it.

This book is a compilation of LKY’s public communications, cataloguing his future predictions on diverse topics into nine chapters. The selections, made by a team of authors at the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs (based at Harvard University), are directly relevant to the future course of direction of the particular topic  and provide a comprehensive indication and understanding of LKY’s viewpoint. The topics range from China, America, China-America relations, India, Islamic extremism, economic growth, geopolitics and globalisation, democracy and  LKY’s own ideas on policy and governance. If there is to be a criticism, it is that there is not enough matter on some topics; for instance, there is a distinct absence of discussion on how countries such as Japan, South Korea and others may affect China-US relations.

After finishing this book, one gets the impression that LKY is to the field of governance as Sun Tzu is to the arena of strategy. Interestingly, he refrains from calling himself a statesman and remarks that “anyone who thinks he is a statesman needs to see a psychiatrist.” With a foreword by Henry A. Kissinger and eleven pages of praise for LKY’s advice by presidents and global leaders, this is a volume aimed for the bookshelves of the influential and powerful. However, the readability of the book and clarity of LKY’s ideas make it equally suited to those with a general interest in strategic thinking and great power relations.

Lee Kuan Yew- The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World, Interviews and Selections by Graham Allison and Robert D. Blackwill, with Ali Wyne, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs,  The MIT Press, Cambridge, 2012

Reviewed by Patrick Hill, AIIA National Office