For whom the bell Dengs, it Dengs for Lee


Elite mouthpiece Charlie Rose once asked former Singapore Prime Minister Lee “Harry” Kuan Yew which of the many, many, many, many world leaders he’d met in his long, long, long, long career he most admired. Lee chose Chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Syauping. Lee especially admired Deng for Deng’s world-historic “adaptability”.

Flashback: 1978. Deng makes Deng’s first state visit to Singapore. Deng is flummoxed by Singapore’s prosperity (Deng’s briefings were inadequate). Deng asks Lee how Lee made Singapore prosperous. Lee tells Deng how Singapore climbed the food chain: First, attract foreign direct investment with cheap labor. Second, become subcontractors. Second, became contractors. Third, become competitors. Fourth, learn as you go. Veteran Marxist Deng muses aloud: Singapore’s created an egalitarian society using capitalism. Lee happily seconds Deng thought. Deng flies back to China. Deng applies the Lee model to China. Everyone lives happily ever after.

Appian records:

10. It is said that at one of their meetings in the gymnasium Scipio and Hannibal had a conversation on the subject of generalship, in the presence of a number of bystanders, and that Scipio asked Hannibal whom he considered the greatest general, to which the latter replied, “Alexander of Macedonia.”


To this Scipio assented since he also yielded the first place to Alexander. Then he asked Hannibal whom he placed next, and he replied, “Pyrrhus of Epirus,” because he considered boldness the first qualification of a general; “for it would not be possible,” he said, “to find two kings more enterprising than these.”


Scipio was rather nettled by this, but nevertheless he asked Hannibal to whom he would give the third place, expecting that at least the third would be assigned to him; but Hannibal replied, “To myself; for when I was a young man I conquered Spain and crossed the Alps with an army, the first after Hercules. I invaded Italy and struck terror into all of you, laid waste 400 of your towns, and often put your city in extreme peril, all this time receiving neither money nor reinforcements from Carthage.”


As Scipio saw that he was likely to prolong his self-laudation he said, laughing, “Where would you place yourself, Hannibal, if you had not been defeated by me?” Hannibal, now perceiving his jealousy, buysoma replied, “In that case I should have put myself before Alexander.” Thus Hannibal continued his self-laudation, but flattered Scipio in a delicate manner by suggesting that he had conquered one who was the superior of Alexander.

Like the great Carthaginian (as framed in Appian’s fable) but with greater circumspection, Lee gives Lee a hearty high-five for the ages here by promoting Deng to virtual Lee, making Deng almost a Lee Kuan Yew, Jr. Deng is great for “adaptibility”. Translation: Deng is great for “adaptibility” because he adapted by following Lee, who is also great for “adaptibility”. Deng is great because Lee is great. While Deng did great things, Lee claims, also circumspectly, a greater priority: Lee’s been there, done that, got the T-shirt.

Lee’s case has merit. If Lee’s memory was as accurate as it was convenient, Lee was one of the most significant figures of the twenty first century. Deng Syauping took his foot off the throats of one fifth of humanity, letting them rise from absolute poverty to genteel poverty. For that, Deng is one of the most adequate leaders of the twentieth century. If Lee helped Deng rise to adequacy, he deserves an adequate share of significance.

Lee is a frequent candidate for great authoritarian of the late twentieth century, the sort of man that, if produced on demand, would doom republican government. That great authoritarians are not produced on demand continues to be a problem for great authoritarians. Lee proved resolutely traditional in his struggle with his version of the problem: Placeholder minion. Check. Dynastic succession. Check.

Whether history gives Lee as hearty a high-five as Lee (through Deng) gave Lee depends on whether Lee’s great authoritarianism continues to be great authoritarianism without its great authoritarian. Cárdenas’perfect dictatorshipendured 54 years. Joseph Steel’s dead cat bounce reached 1991. Mau’s dead cat bounce carried a Deng, a Jyang, a Hu, and now a Syi. And those cabals had some component of rotation of elites built in. Lee’s die is cast with old school hereditary monarchy. His dynastic successor has an heir and two spares (three spares if Singapore doesn’t follow Salic Law). Time alone will tell if Lee Kuan Yew wins the genetic lottery now that he’s no longer around to play retired emperor.

9 thoughts on “For whom the bell Dengs, it Dengs for Lee”

  1. My impression is that all the British who had dealings with Harry Lee were much impressed. Apart from his political craft, they all thought him highly intelligent, which is not, it’s fair to say, all that common in politics.

    I notice that his WKPD entry reports “Lee graduated from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University with a rare double Starred-First-class honours in Law.” Not the sort of chap who would hire someone else to write an undergraduate dissertation for him, or would attend a leading university without anyone noticing his presence.

  2. Lee certainly did better for Singapore than Arthur Percival did. His biography is quite interesting. I did not realize that he had just died. Thanks.

    The failed merger with Malaysia is another example of the roll of Chinese in Asia as Jews. Many were expelled from Indonesia.

    My wife asked me last night why so many Jews ended up in eastern Europe. I have to reread Paul Johnson’s book. She started to read it but bogged down.

  3. I follow Jay Ulfelder on twitter, and he tweeted out this graph a few weeks ago from a study on autocracies. “Probability” is a loaded term, but it does show the observed longevity of different types of despots.

    A monarchy is the most enduring tyranny, obviously, because it enshrines a line of succession. However, modern times being what they are, it’s just not as easy to establish a royal court nowadays. The next most robust method is the form a party, which allows for absorbing any leverage points into the party umbrella. The forms with the shortest lifespans are dominated by militaries, presumably because they’re the most iron-handed and most brittle.

    The key to Singapore’s success, it’s efficient and corruption-free bureaucracy, is indeed a tribute to Lee and the political apparatus he set up. Their unique situation, size, and position in the world definitely helped, so I wouldn’t look for it to be replicated in too many other places. It’s not guranteed that Lee’s unique political formula will even continue in Singapore now that he’s gone.

    But if previous dictator-party systems are a guide, his son has a decent shot of keeping it going, but they will really be bucking the odds if it lasts much past him without major personnel changes at the top.

  4. The key to Singapore’s success, it’s efficient and corruption-free bureaucracy

    I doubt it will stay that way in the long run. Bureaucracies tend to run amok after a couple of generations.

  5. The key to “corruption free bureaucracy” is corruption’s centralization at the top with rapid and certain punishment of lower ranks in the bureaucracy for trying the corruption game.

    Please study the outbreak of Indonesian piracy near but not in Singapore’s waters.

    Strong Criminal Fences generally don’t have crime in their local neighborhood.

  6. They replayed this interview from 2000 along with another one from 2012 on Bloomberg last night. I know that Charlie Rose is an easy interview, but I haven’t see so many softballs since I quit the 16″ beer leagues.

    Charlie actually sort of recognized the humblebragging, and he followed up with, “so you admired Deng because…[pregnant pause]…”

    which allowed Lee to add that Deng was able to overcome the entrenched communist system with his reforms, etc.

    Lee made some revealing points despite the breezy, over-accommodating interview. The one thing that I noticed was in both interviews he repeatedly mentioned the need to protect against “riots” and “strife”. He basically said Singapore’s entire social and civil order was constructed expressly to guard against the mid 60’s political atmosphere and any return to it.
    The British had segregated the races during colonization, but he understood that the divisions couldn’t last. He enacted rigid centralized control instead.

  7. Clearly the best place to live is in an enlightened, benevolent, dictatorship, at least in the short run. A moderate, relatively liberal (compared to all other forms of government that have ever been) republic may be best for the long run. A liberal democracy won’t last long and is only better than the tyranny that it eventually devolves into.

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