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  • Victor C. Bolles

The Junzi Way

Henry Kissinger’s latest book, Leadership, Six Studies in World Strategy (2022) is an amazing tour de force. In it he describes the attributes of six great leaders of the twentieth century that had made them, not just great leaders, but transformational figures that shaped the future of their countries and the world around them. Amazingly, he had met with all of these leaders and was friends with a number of them. I mean, he first met Konrad Adenauer, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1946 to 1963 (we called it West Germany back then) in 1957! That was sixty-five years ago, and he is writing about it now! The man is not only super smart but at 99 years of age, prolific. I also recently read another book of his, The Age of AI, and Our Human Future (2021) that he co-authored with Eric Schmidt and Daniel Huttenlocher.

In his book, Mr. Kissinger profiles the leadership of six important twentieth century heads of state, Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle (President of France 1959-1969), Richard Nixon (President of the United States 1969-1974), Anwar Sadat (President of Egypt 1970-1981), Lee Kuan Yew (Prime Minister of Singapore 1959-1990), and Margaret Thatcher, (Prime Minister of Great Britain 1979-1990). But I was most interested in learning more about Lee Kuan Yew who I knew little about.

I was interested in Lee Kuan Yew because I knew that he had transformed Singapore from a swampy colonial backwater into a wealthy and important city state primarily through the force of his own will, but I didn’t know how he did it. Mr. Lee was born in colonial Singapore in 1923 to English speaking parents of Chinese descent. Mr. Lee excelled in school and hoped to study law at Cambridge University in England, but his plans were interrupted when Japan invaded Malaysia on December 8, 1941 (the day after Pearl Harbor), eventually conquering Singapore in February 1942.

Surviving the brutal occupation of the Japanese through luck and grit, after the war he was able to win a Queen’s scholarship to attend Cambridge, graduating in 1949 with first honors. He returned to Singapore and gained a solid legal reputation defending trade unions and left-wing students. In 1954, with the support of the trade unions that he had helped, Lee formed the People’s Action Party (PAP) and was elected to the legislative assembly during the transition to independence.

After independence, Singapore briefly joined Malaysia in a confederation, but Malaysian suspicion of majority-Chinese Singapore led to a breakup in 1965 and Singapore became an independent nation. During the colonial period Singapore was considered mostly a swamp with a British naval base. How did Mr. Lee raise Singapore’s GDP per capita from $517 at the time of independence to $72,794 now? Especially since Malaysia right next door raised its GDP per capita of $310 to only $11,371 in the same period.

Mr. Lee and PAP rose to power as a left-wing party promoting a social democratic agenda just a few steps short of communism. The main focus of his efforts was to improve the poor housing of the city (only a third of inhabitants had adequate housing) and fighting the rampant corruption only made worse by the Japanese occupation. Mr. Lee set about building high rise apartments that the residents could eventually purchase from the housing board (a very non-left-wing strategy). Home ownership is the basic building block of creating prosperity. Mr. Lee also stamped out corruption by ruthless measures and stiff penalties. Corrupt government is at the root of a system of impunity for perpetrators that violates the social contract and destroys the people’s trust in government. Rooting out corruption gave Singaporeans the belief that the government was indeed working for the benefit of the people.

But Singapore is a jumble of ethnicities (almost three-quarters are from the Chinese diaspora but also includes Malays, Indians and others) and religions (including Buddhist, Christians, Muslims, Hindus and many others). Very serious race riots hammered the city just before independence killing and injuring many people. Lee Kuan Yew had to forge this hodgepodge of peoples and cultures into a nation. How did he do it?

One way was to create a plethora of civic organizations to service the wide-ranging needs of his diverse population, similar to the civic organizations that so amazed de Tocqueville during his visit to America in 1830, but which Singapore lacked. He also poured money (a third of the government’s expenditures) into education. In a city where many people only spoke their native tongue (various dialects of Chinese, Malay, Tamil and English), he mandated that all schools teach at least two languages, one of which must be English.

Mr. Lee believed that only a tightly knit, rugged, adaptable people united by a common national identity could resist internal disorder. The sacrifices that had to be borne to eventually achieve independence and prosperity could only be sustained by a sense of common belonging and shared destiny. The people must speak a common language so that citizens could communicate with each other. They must also share a common Singaporean culture along with their individual native cultures, a culture that Mr. Lee hoped would inspire Singaporeans to become junzi, the Confucian concept of a gentleman or moral person.

But how to grow the economy so that the people could achieve the prosperity they desired. While many developing countries denounced capitalist exploitation and investment by international corporations, Mr. Lee stated, “All we had was labor…so why not, if they want to exploit our labor? They’re welcome to it.” Lacking capital, there was no other way. Basic industries at first, to take advantage of a willing but unskilled workforce. But over time, excellence in education developed a more sophisticated workforce that attracted more advanced industries and provided more promotions into management for highly skilled and well educated Singaporeans.

This is how Lee Kuan Yew converted an economic backwater with little land and no resources, still reeling from wartime occupation, with a polyglot population of many ethnicities into a modern, dynamic city state. Building a unique Singaporean culture overlying a welter of disparate native cultures, developing a meritocracy that extended from grade school to university to industry and commerce (number two in OECD PISA rankings), relying on free market economics to develop wealth and prosperity (even poor Singaporeans are better off than their Malaysian neighbors), and aligning with the West and America as the best way to help his people thrive.

Some of Mr. Lee’s methods might not sit well with many Americans. He passed very strict laws about how to behave in public (much more strict than the broken windows policies of NYC). Mr. Lee believed (much as John Adams did) that people needed a moral code of conduct in order to be successful. His thirty-one years in office rivaled that of many monarchs and dictators. But in a democracy, people will reelect a leader if they continue doing a good job. Problems arise only when the leader does not do a good job but refuses to relinquish power. The People’s Action Party Mr. Lee founded (now considered a center-right party instead of a far-left party) continues to govern Singapore even after his retirement and death.

But America does not have to mimic Mr. Lee’s methods to be successful. America would be better off by revitalizing its Western culture that led it to become the richest most powerful country in the world, than by discarding it for economic and political systems that have been abysmal failures to the extent that they have even been tried. And America is not just rich and powerful, it has been a beacon of hope for billions of people around the world.


President Biden touts his blue-collar background, but he has discarded America’s middle class values in favor of the progressive values of academics and elitists. Doctor Kissinger emphasizes in his book about how the great leaders of the twentieth century that he describes all claimed a middle class upbringing, but he also focuses on the characteristics that led them to greatness.

People from middle class backgrounds can only rise to leadership in a meritocratic system. In a meritocratic system it is a person’s talents and abilities and not aristocratic birth that grants the opportunities for advancement. But intelligence, while essential, is not sufficient. These leaders evinced a strong code of conduct and sense of morality and high purpose. As Doctor Kissinger noted, “Both the school system and the broader society in which they were raised put a premium on academic performance, but both, above all, placed a strong emphasis on character.” Lee Kuan Yew aimed to become junzi, a Confucian gentleman or moral person, while de Gaulle always aspired to be “a man of character.” It was this type of character by which Martin Luther King dreamed his children would be judged.

These middle class values included “personal discipline, self-improvement, charity, patriotism and self-belief.” Each of the leaders held a strong sense of national identity that motivated them to serve their fellow citizens. Doctor Kissinger quotes historian Christopher Lasch as saying, “middle-class nationalism provided a common ground, common standards, a common frame of reference without which society dissolves into nothing more than contending factions.” It was these values that Lee Kuan Yew encouraged his fellow Singaporeans to adopt because without them his nation would be doomed to third-world mediocrity like many of his neighbors.

It is exactly these values that are being disparaged by the progressive left in their woke ideology. Quotas replace advanced placement testing. Ideological conformity trumps free speech. Victimhood supersedes empowerment. Redistribution is substituted for production. The individual is subsumed into group identity. This is a recipe for third-world mediocrity, not global leadership.

Doctor Kissinger concludes his book by bringing us back to the twenty-first century with a some reflection about the future we face. “It now seems possible that a liberal rules-based order, however worthy in its conception, will be replaced in practice for an indeterminate period of time by an at least partially decoupled world.”

We need to be prepared for that world and woke ideology will not do that. He concludes, “Lacking a moral and strategic vision, the present age is unmoored. The vastness of our future as yet defies comprehension.”

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