A talk with the man who made Singapore

The debate over the sentencing of Michael Fay, the Ohio teen-ager who vandalized cars in Singapore and faces being flogged on the bare buttocks with a rattan pole, illustrates the precarious balance between order and liberty in the small Asian nation.

Singapore is probably the safest city in the world, albeit at the expense of many individual rights.


Lee Kuan Yew, who ruled as prime minister and virtual dictator for 31 years, took the country from poverty to plenty in one generation. Its per capita gross national product is higher than that of its erstwhile colonizer, England.

Upon leaving office in 1990, he took the title of senior minister and remains enormously influential.


He has also embarked on a career of sorts as a pundit, speaking his mind with impolitic frankness. In January I interviewed him.

Q: Do you view the United States as a model for other countries?

A: I find attractive and unattractive features. I like the free, easy and open relations between people regardless of social status, ethnicity or religion.

And the things I have always admired about America: the openness in argument about what is good or bad for society; the accountability of public officials and the lack of secrecy and terror that are part and parcel of communist government.

But as a total system, I find parts of it totally unacceptable: guns, drugs, violent crime, vagrancy, unbecoming behavior in public -- in sum, the breakdown of civil society.

The expansion of the right of the individual to behave or misbehave as he pleases has come at the expense of orderly society.

In the East, the main object is to have a well-ordered society so that everybody can have maximum enjoyment of his freedoms. This freedom can only exist in an ordered state and not in a natural state of contention and anarchy.

Let me give you an example that encapsulates the whole difference between America and Singapore. America has a vicious drug problem. How does it solve it?


It goes around the world helping other anti-narcotic agencies to try and stop the suppliers. It pays for helicopters, defoliating agents and so on.

And when it is provoked, it captures the president of Panama and brings him to trial in Florida.

Singapore does not have that option. We can't go to Burma and capture warlords. What we can do is pass a law which says that any customs officer or policeman who sees anybody in Singapore behaving suspiciously, leading him to suspect the person is under the influence of drugs, can require that person to have his urine tested.

If the sample is found to contain drugs, the man immediately goes for treatment. In America, if you did that it would be an invasion of the individual's rights and you would be sued.

I was interested to read that Colin Powell, when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. military followed our approach because when a recruit signs up he agrees to be tested.

Now, I would have thought this kind of approach would be quite an effective way to deal with the terrible drug problem you have. But the idea of the inviolability of the individual has been turned into dogma. And yet nobody minds when the Army captures the president of another state and puts him in jail. I find that incomprehensible. This approach will not solve America's drug problem.


Whereas with Singapore's way, we may not solve it, but we will lessen it considerably, as we have done.

Q: Would it be fair to say that you admired America more 25 years ago? What, in your view, went wrong?

A: Yes, things have changed. I would hazard a guess that it has a lot to do with the erosion of the moral underpinnings of a society and the diminution of personal responsibility.

The liberal, intellectual tradition that developed after World War II claimed that human beings had arrived at this perfect state where everybody would be better off if they were allowed to do their own thing and flourish.

It has not worked out, and I doubt that it will. Certain basics about human nature do not change.

Man needs a certain moral sense of right and wrong. There is such a thing called evil, and it is not the result of being a victim of society.


You are just an evil man, prone to do evil things, and you have to be stopped from doing them. Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed possible.

Q: Is such a fundamental shift in culture irreversible?

A: No, it is a swing of the pendulum. I think it will swing back. I don't know how long it will take, but there's already a backlash in America against failed social policies that have resulted in people urinating in public, in aggressive begging in the streets, in social breakdown.

Q: You say that your real concern is that this system not be foisted on other societies because it will not work there. Is there another viable model for political and economic development? Is there an "Asian model"?

A: I don't think there is an Asian model as such. But Asian societies are unlike Western ones. The fundamental difference between Western concepts of society and government and East Asian concepts is that Eastern societies believe that the individual exists in the context of his family.

He is not pristine and separate. The family is part of the extended family, and then friends and the wider society. The ruler or the government does not try to provide for a person what the family best provides.


In the West, especially after World War II, the governments came to be seen as so successful that they could fulfill all the obligations that in less modern societies are fulfilled by the family.

This approach encouraged alternative families, single mothers for instance, believing that government could provide the support to make up for the absent father.

This is a bold, Huxleyan view of life but one from which I as an East Asian shy away.

I would be afraid to experiment with it. I'm not sure what the consequences are, and I don't like the consequences that I see in the West. You will find this view widely shared in East Asia.

It's not that we don't have single mothers here. We are also caught in the same social problems of change when we educate our women and they become independent financially and no longer need to put up with unhappy marriages. But there is grave disquiet when we break away from tested norms, and the tested norm is the family unit. It is the building brick of society.

Governments will come, governments will go, but this endures. We start with self-reliance. In the West today it is the opposite. The government says give me a popular mandate and I will solve all society's problems.


Q: What would you do instead to address America's problems?

A: What would I do if I were an American? First, you must have order in society. Guns, drugs and violent crime all go together, threatening social order.

Then the schools -- when you have violence in schools, you are not going to have education, so you've got to put that right.

Then you have to educate rigorously and train a whole generation of skilled, intelligent, knowledgeable people who can be productive.

I would start off with basics, working on the individual, looking at him within the context of his family, his friends, his society.

But the Westerner says: "I'll fix things at the top. One magic formula, one grand plan. I will wave a wand and everything will work out."


It's an interesting theory but not a proven method.

Fareed Zakaria is managing editor of Foreign Affairs. This is adapted from a longer article in the current issue of the magazine.