March 22, 2015

Ambivalent memories

Well, good-bye Mr. Lee.

South China Post has some quotations, which illustrate his maddeningly schizoid outlook.  On the one hand:  we will do whatever it takes to survive.  On the other hand:  freedom, after a fashion.

He built a nation up from nothing.  He was a great servant of Empire, but also of his people, striking bargains of great mutual benefit and making the swampy south end of the Malay Peninsula the most important financial center in the region (Hong Kong, Singapore's only important rival is 1,600 miles away, and struggling to avoid outright takeover by China).

He was also nobody's fool.  This Tweet from John Kerry seems to go beyond normal memorial rhetoric:

But his accomplishments were not just diplomatic.  He ran Singapore as well as any large city has been run, so long as you set aside considerations of civil liberties.  Singapore has ranked as the world's Most Livable City for 16 years.  This is not bullshit, it's nice - hell, I might retire there.

That's a lotta coffee shops! (Original caption lost during debugging -- sorry. LoM)

It is not pleasant to be poor anywhere, but Singapore is better than most places for three primary reason:
  1. Acceptable public housing - for 82% of the population.  This is a critical part of the social contract.  
  2. Better education for non-rich people.  It's not perfect by any stretch, but a lower- or middle-class Singaporean will be better educated, and have a better chance in life, than their counterpart in the U.S. 
  3. It's safer.  A young friend who worked there said she felt she could get drunk with friends and walk home and never really worry about her safety (not recommended).  The 2013 riot in Little India made headlines, not because of its severity, but because it was the first (admitted) riot in Singapore in forty years.

Yes, it really is amazing what you can accomplish with a little pluck, some elbow grease, and the largest money-laundering operation in the world.  No, sorry, City-States don't build themselves, and it's not like the world is lining up for Singaporean motorcycles.  But finance, that's a different matter.  Let's say you're an Indonesian tycoon, or a Thai bureaucrat with a large sum that you would prefer that your employers knew nothing about.  Where might you put that money?  Surely not with those weasels in Switzerland, not after they caved in and ratted out their clients to save their own sorry asses.  Not Hong Kong, with the PRC snooping on everyone.  But Singapore... Singapore is reliable.  Singapore is indispensable.  The United States is investigating money laundering around the world, but not in Singapore.  Do the words "Pivot to Asia" mean anything to you?

But every mercantile City-State has an awkward economic engine, and I really, seriously, am not here to judge.  Singapore's historical economic drivers, however murky, are no murkier than most other wealthy places.  (On this topic, if you'd like to know how to get insanely rich honestly without big money laundering - well, Germany and Japan did it, although the necessary current account surpluses entail their own issues.)

Lee had the good sense to outlive his greatest critic, the principled libertarian-leaning conservative, William Safire.  Twenty years ago Safire engaged in a high-profile feud with Lee, one which Lee shrewdly accepted and managed for several years.  Safire grudgingly gave the devil his due in this column [very bad link that crashed my browser just rendering it -LoM], the conclusion to which summarizes my own feelings about the man and the place he made.
The determinedly irreplaceable Lee Kuan Yew is the world's most intelligent, and to some most likable despot. In our one hour's talk, he offered insights about China to be reported in a future column, unless my publisher gets sued, bankrupted, jailed and flayed with a cane in the meantime.

It is a bit sad for American conservatism, and for America, that after the votes were counted Lee's ideology won in a landslide.  His success gave great comfort to less compassionate authoritarians around the world, men with no intention of emulating his meritocracy, his housing and job programs, or his strict secularity.

I will confess that I find him more admirable as I get older.  He was not my man, and I would not vote for him.  But he held up his end of the deal.  The country he leaves behind does not collapse without him.  What other dictator meets this standard?


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