Book Review: From Third World To First

From Third World To First:  The Singapore Story:  1965-2000, by Lee Kuan Yew

This is a big book, coming in at about 700 pages.  In reading this book I was struck by both its similarities and its differences with Margaret Thatcher’s own memoir of her time in office [1].  The similarities are fairly obvious; both books are very long and very detailed and show the authors to be interested in the little details of how electoral majorities are cobbled together and maintained and how a leader can avoid being corrupted by high office while encouraging the well-being of the people not only economically but also morally and spiritually through encouraging hard work and responsibility.  The differences, though, are equally fascinating, in that Thatcher discussed a great deal of the internal politics of Great Britain and how one had to manage local, national, and global affairs.  This book focuses on Singapore’s foreign relations and the struggle that a small city state has in maintaining its dignity and honor in a world full of larger and more powerful nations.  The author makes no secret of his nationalism and intense pragmatism in dealing with the leaders of more powerful nations as well as his efforts in promoting security and the well-being of his people and it is an admirable book in discussing the importance of diplomacy in the survival of a city state like Singapore.

This large book has three parts.  After an introduction by Henry Kissinger and a preface and acknowledgement, the first part of the book consists of fifteen chapters that address the basics of ruling Singapore that the author experienced over the course of thirty-five years of rule over the independent city-state (I).  These chapters include Singapore’s efforts to build an army with Israeli help, their ejection from Malaysia, their abandonment by Great Britain, and how Singapore’s ruling PUP party managed to win over the unions and avoid a communist takeover while also keeping government clean and managing the media.  The second part of the book consists of the author’s insights about foreign countries (II), and includes some rather pointed commentary on the strengths and weaknesses and challenges that the author had to deal with regarding Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei (about whom the author is generally very complementary), Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Commonwealth, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, India and Pakistan, the European Union, the Soviet Union, the United States, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.  Throughout these chapters the author shows himself to have been shrewd and insightful but polite and gracious at the same time.  Finally, the book ends with three chapters that look at the author’s stepping down from power and his family as well as an epilogue, after which there is an index.

Overall, this book has a lot of wise counsel for those who are interested in matters of political affairs.  The success story of Singapore relied not only upon the location of Singapore as an island entrepôt in a critical area but also to discipline and sound laws that encouraged economic growth and prosperity and the construction of infrastructure that allowed Singapore to have a large influence in world trade despite being a tiny city state surrounded by poorer nations like Malaysia and Indonesia.  The author shows himself to be both polite and wary in his foreign policy efforts, understanding the need to avoid causing offense to more powerful neighbors–and honestly, who would not be more powerful than Singapore in a pure military fight–but also understanding the need for even a small nation to defend its own dignity and honor in the face of bullying.  The author deals graciously with the complaints that Singapore received from others and is especially savvy about the failures of postcolonial Africa as well as the problems that neighboring countries have to deal with and aspects of their national culture and psyche.  As an insightful and personal discussion of a lengthy and successful political career this book is well worth reading if one has an interest in the history of contemporary Southeast Asia.


About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, International Relations and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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