Review of Lee Kuan Yew’s “From Third World To First” by Chambers Umezulike

Lee Kuan Yew, at 35, became the Prime Minister of a newly, independent nation of Singapore with a population of 2 million. The double-starred First Class in Law from University of Cambridge, would end up as one of the political miracles of the 20th Century. Lee was a grandmaster of nation building, policy making and implementation, innumerable ideas conceptualization, dedication, discipline, authority, bravery, motivation and consciousness. After 3 decades of running Singapore, he built one of the best miracles of the contemporary world. Lee moved the per capita of Singapore from $400 in 1965 to $12,200 in 1990, when he left office, an economic miracle. “From Third World to First” is Lee’s memoir and a documentation of his works with his team that transformed Singapore. It is a work about his remarkable team, the complex challenges he faced, the results he got; and his role in international politics, relations with other world leaders; and his views about other countries and regions, and the geopolitics of Southeast Asia. I must commend Lee’s style of delivery. “From Third World to First” is a 700 paged book that would keep you glued to it with a beautiful sense of humor Lee wrote with, as well as his bravery, bluntness and comparisons.

In all sincerity, “From Third World” to First is a gift to the world. It is a book about how to build a nation with all challenges and worst of circumstances. It is a book that every leader of especially a developing world should read and internalize. The book is a manual on how strategically and systematically, a nation could be built, millions could be lifted out of poverty; with the intricacies of governance and administration. For merit, “From Third World to First” is the best book that I have read after Laws of Success by Napoleon Hill. As someone passionate about development and from a third world, I read this book shedding tears, smiling and learning a lot. Reading this book was an emotional process, as I connected with him through his style of delivery: his passion for his country, his zeal to change their story and how he achieved that. Mentions he made about his competent, ever ready, witty and talented team of San, Sim, Rajaratnam and Swee, operationalised my understanding of the importance of team work with a great personality at the top. So by merit, this is the bible of building a nation.
And by content, I have never read any other book with so many details about an era of this world. Every single thing is there: from the elements of development economics, the elements of effective leadership and governance, military security, managing a multiracial society to foreign policies and diplomacy.

It is a wonder how a nation with no natural resources, and a water supply that was derived primarily from Malaysia was involved in tapping from friendliness with other nations and complicated international politics. And was also a major player in global economic debates. Lee made it happen. No founding father of any nation can compete with his determination and commitment to make Singapore work. Through his transformational leadership, Singapore moved from a third world to first in one generation with the macroeconomic indices of; GDP (nominal): US$308.051 billion (36th), Per capita: US$56,319, and HDI: 0.901 (9th).

Lee inherited a country with complex challenges, bitter history and went head on to address these challenges with his team. From 1959 – 1962, he narrated how he did his very best with his colleagues to merge with Malaysia because of Singapore’s smallness and the diversity of both countries. He thought that a bigger political union is the only hope of his country. When this did not work because of multiracial crisis and Malay Ultras dictatorship and the social-services-marginalization of the Chinese minority in the bigger Malaysia, the union was dissolved on 9 August, 1965. He was devastated for 6 weeks, and later resolved to develop his country. His immediate challenge was international recognition. He used his Foreign Affairs Minister, S. Rajaratnam to address this and made Singapore a member of the UN and Commonwealth. After this was security. Keng Swee, his colleague and then Minister of Finance showed readiness to help build an army, and he transferred him to the Defense Ministry. They sourced the help of the Israelis in building an army through training and buying weaponry at discounted prices; and Taiwanese in building an air force. By 1971, Singapore had 17 national service battalions (16,000 men) with 14 battalions (11,000 men) in the reserves. By 1990, SAF had grown into a respected and professional force operating modern defense systems that was capable of defending her territorial integrity and independence. Another bigger challenge was the British withdrawal of their Force Base from Singapore, as their presence gave Singapore the confidence to attract investors and export. Lee explained how he did all he could to extend their withdrawal all to no purpose. As at the late 60s, the British Base was contributing 20% of Singapore’s GDP. Lee was heavily concerned that more than 70,000 Singaporeans would lose their jobs if the British Forces left. He set up the Economic Conversion Department, for the conversion of British Assets to their use. He started putting things in place on security and economic development that by the time the British Forces left, there were no job losses and Singapore was in a position to protect itself. By 1971, enough jobs have been created by American Electronics Companies that there was no unemployment. By 1972, Economic growth was at 13%.

The biggest challenge according to him was developing and industrializing the country. After battling with unemployment, he knew that the best thing to do was to industrialize. Unemployment was rising so fast and after some few trials and errors, and with no hinterland, he had to leapfrog his neighbors and source trade and foreign direct investments from the developed nations like Israel did. Lee was soft about socialist ideas. He explained how he re-considered focusing on wealth creation through a market economy rather than wealth distribution. He subsequently created the Economic Development Board (EDB), in charge of attracting investors to Singapore. His clearly narrated how they firmly addressed the occasional race riots, started creating a multiracial society of meritocracy and equality (no matter the race, religion or language), building skilled and advanced labour, regulated the Trade Unions, started programs to change work attitude, and building first world standards of infrastructure in other to attract investors. Lee said in his memoir that he was not a prisoner of any theory, and so dropped the “dependency school” of economists argument that MNCs only come into countries to exploit cheap labour, land, raw materials, evade tax and pollute the environment.

By 1970, there were 390 pioneer certificates in Singapore. By the late 70s, General Electric was the highest employer of labour in Singapore. By 1997, Singapore had nearly 200 American MNCs with over $19 billion worth of investments. Under Lee, Singapore built one of the best airports in the world and started one of the currently best airlines in the world, Singapore Airlines. They maximized their geographical advantage and today built one of the busiest seaports in the world. He narrated how he worked with his cabinet to establish Singapore as an international financial centre. Today, there are more than 7,000 multinational corporations from the United States, Japan, and Europe in Singapore. Singapore has the world’s highest percentage of millionaires, with one out of every six households having at least one million US dollars in disposable wealth.

Corruption has been one of the fundamental reasons why a lot of third world countries have not been able to develop. According to Lee, on entering office, he resolved with his team to run a clean government and administration. They made sure that favoritism, nepotism and corruption were not nurtured in Singapore. He tackled Corruption head on by managing and reforming the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau that was instituted by the British. Under Lee, tried were a former President of Singapore and 3 other Ministers, who were his personal friends but were caught in corrupt practices. Trying them sent the signal that all were equal before the law and deterred the citizens from corrupt practices. The independent anti-corruption system he created, almost tried his wife and son for corruption in 1996. Lee’s administration was also bent on stopping money politics. They built a society where candidates do not need money to be elected. He made certain elections were not of high cost. He made certain candidates did not purchase their mandates. This was an acute description and this is the practice in mostly many developing countries of today. He was convinced that clear and clean no money elections help to preserve a non-corrupt government. Currently, according to the Corruption Perceptions Index, Singapore is consistently ranked as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, along with New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries.

Lee also narrated how he enforced rule of law and order to provide the framework for stability and development. He
instituted the principle of equality of all before the law. He established corporal punishments based on his personal convictions about crimes, punishment and deterrence for crimes related to drugs, arms trafficking, rape, illegal entry into Singapore and vandalisation of public property. He gave an example of how he in 1994 had to allow, Michael Fay, a US boy of 15 to be caned under the vandalisation legislation despite outcries from President Clinton and US Department of State. The judicial caning was intensely publicized in the rest of the world after this. He explained that if they did not punish the boy, that it would have been difficult to enforce the caning practice on his their people.

To make certain that Singapore have first class standards for business and tourism, Lee set out to green Singapore. He made sure from day one that a clean and neat city would be built. He had to through advocacies and discipline stop people from loitering, noise nuisance and rudeness; and get them to be considerate and courteous. Step by step, he was able to clean up the city and remove hawkers and private taxis after enough better jobs have been provided.

Lee wrote that his conviction was to create a fair society where Singaporeans will have access to shelter and basic things. He worked on not creating a winner takes it all society. There were education subsidies. He was preoccupied with giving each citizen a stake in the country and its future. He explained how he redistributed wealth through assets enhancement and not through subsidies. He also started a remarkable Health Insurance Scheme. Today, The World Health Organisation ranks Singapore’s healthcare system as 6th overall in the world in its World Health Report. In general, Singapore has had the lowest infant mortality rate in the world for the past two decades. Life expectancy in Singapore is 80 for males and 85 for females, placing the country 4th in the world for life expectancy. Almost the whole population has access to improved water and sanitation facilities. There are fewer than 10 annual deaths from HIV per 100,000 people. Lee made Singaporeans to own shares in major companies. As at today, 90% of the workforce own Singapore Telecom Shares (the highest in the world). He established the Central Provident Fund (CPF), which was geared at having workers save 40% of their wages for their own pensions and acquire assets and healthcare. He was able to avoid wasteful expenditure and through this kept inflation so low.

Lee worked to make sure that every citizen owned a home. He created a home ownership scheme through the Housing Development Board and engaged, Lim Kim San a competent hand to lead it. They built low cost housing for workers. Workers were offered loans to own houses. As at today, Singapore has one of the best public housing programs in the world. By 1996, there were 725,000 housing units.

Lee’s method was indentifying a problem, coming up with an idea to address it, discussing the idea with his team, making it a policy, establishing an institution to handle it and appointing a competent person to lead the Institution. Other of his methods was learning from other countries. He rarely came back after a trip abroad without borrowing an idea or learning something. He was consistent about learning of practices in other countries, and implementing the great ones in Singapore after an intense analysis.

Ethnic conflict has been one of the problems of developing countries and has prevented united developing nations and development. Lee explained how he came into power, understanding the diversity of Singapore with different races: the majority Chinese, Malays and Indians. He worked on uniting the nation through equality and mending the both races together. At the end of the day, he built a nation motivated by productivity and patriotism. During his re-housing program, he mixed up the races for unity. It could be considered a miracle how different uproarious races were made to live peacefully together.

Lee stated that no leader can succeed without a great team. He referred to his team as the Old Guard. Top of them were: Goh Keng Swee, S. Rajaratnam, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San, Eddie Barker, Toh Chin Chye, Ong Pang Boon, Othman Wok and Albert Winsemius. He moved in with witty, talented and competent fellows that he fought for their independence with. They were all motivated to build a great nation and they did. They shared in his dreams. Lee also clearly expressed his view about African countries, newly independent countries at that time. It was a bitter view, and this view has been proven true, based on today’s realities in African countries. Singapore got her independence in 1965; a lot of African countries also got their independence at the same period. Decades after this, Africa is still marred by a lot of conflicts; with the highest rates of dependency on foreign aid, debt, food importation, hunger, inequalities, poverty, child mortality, unemployment, diseases, acute corruption, poor governance, poor infrastructures; lack of quality healthcare, lack of good and efficient public transportation, low standards of living, and low manufacturing capacities. Lee, in his memoir explained some practices of African leaders that he knew as at then were detrimental to the growth of any nation. He recounted how a former Nigerian Minister of Foreign Affairs, banned the importation of shoes so that his shoes factory could triumph. In Ghana, he painted a picture of a wasteful government, and a Minister that owned an expensive night club and yacht as at then.

I must call Lee a diplomat and one of the towering world leaders ever. Lee had relationships with almost all important leaders during his time, from: Sukano, Suharto, Deng Xiapong, Mao, Magaret Thatcher, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Nehru, Gorbachev, Li Peng, Jiang Zemin etc. He described how fluctuating his relationship with the US was. He bluntly criticized US for exporting democracy and human rights to other countries immediately after the Cold War. His views about democracy in the context of developing countries were clearly put: . . . Unfortunately, both in Asia and Africa, the results have been poor. Even America has not succeeded leaving a successful democracy in the Philippines, a former colony it freed in 1945 after nearly 50 years of tutelage. I suggested that a people must have reached a high level of education and self development, must have a sizeable middle class, and life must no longer be a fight for basic survival, before that society could work such a democratic system . . . He criticized most of the US inconsistent foreign policies. In the 1990s, he was an economic advisor to Vietnamese leaders who were working on abandoning protectionism.

Effective Leadership brings in good governance, rule of law, professionalism and policies that are necessary for development. Under Lee, Singapore made the best use of Foreign Capital. Lee’s achievements in Singapore had a profound effect on the Communist leadership in China, who made a major effort, especially under Deng Xiaoping, to emulate his policies of economic growth, and entrepreneurship. Over 22,000 Chinese officials were sent to Singapore to study its methods. Deng on learning from Singapore said: I went to Singapore to study how they utilized foreign capital. Singapore benefitted from factories set up by foreigners in Singapore: first, foreign enterprises paid 36% of their net profits in taxes which went to the state; second, labour income went to the workers; and third, foreign investment generated the service sectors. All these were income for the state. This would later force China to open up to foreign investors and abandon protectionism. “From Third World to First” is a true documentation of the Singapore’s development Story. Lee, with $50 million compensation in grants and loans from Japan, for their occupation of Singapore in the 1940s was set to develop Singapore.

As Singapore’s Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, Lee presided over many of Singapore’s advancements. The unemployment rate in Singapore dropped from 13.5% in 1959 to 1.7% in 1990. External trade increased from $7.3 billion in 1959 to $205 billion in 1990. In other areas, the life expectancy at birth for Singaporeans rose from 65 years at 1960 to 74 years in 1990. The number of public flats in Singapore rose from 22,975 in 1959 (then under the Singapore Improvement Trust) to 667,575 in 1990. The Singaporean literacy rate increased from 52% in 1957 to 90% in 1990. Telephone lines per 100 Singaporeans increased from 3 in 1960 to 38 in 1990. Visitor arrivals to Singapore rose from 0.1 million in 1960 to 5.3 million in 1990. Singapore also possesses the world’s eleventh largest foreign reserves, and has one of the highest net international investment positions per capita.

Lee was able to develop Singapore by setting objectives and targets and frequent review of these objectives. Lee was a firm and calculated man. This is a story of how Lee efficiently managed a new nation with nothing left untouched. Some have criticized Lee as a dictator that curtailed civil liberties and trampled on the rights of many, but in all honesty, there was no other way he could have developed a new, multiracial nation. A new nation has to be guided to grow like a child. And he did this in the best of ways. There cannot be any human rights without development. No matter how you see Lee, at least he did not monopolize power like most of his founding-fathers-colleagues especially in Africa that ended up putting their countries into series of coups based on their selfishness, did.

“From Third World to First” offers the reader: views and works of one of the greatest players in modern international politics. This is a must read for all politicians, public administrators, civil servants and private sector practitioners of all developing nations.



2 thoughts on “Review of Lee Kuan Yew’s “From Third World To First” by Chambers Umezulike” by Chambers Umezulike (@Umezulike)

  1. This is almost like the summary of the book itself. Nevertheless anyone seriously considering building something out of nothing, this is a guide book to that. It is not just a book, but a life. The life of a man, whom when studied places a spring on your feet, projecting you to exploits!

    @umezulike You did justice to this,

    I remember where his team went abroad in an effort to court investors and pointing at a small dot on the map, the geographical location of Singapore; for they knew not where that is.

    And how dare I forget this line: “The world does not owe us a living. We cannot live by the begging bowl.”

    When Singapore warned against chewing of gum in public, in 1992, that any one caught will face a year in prison and a$5,500 fine, the world thought they were crazy.
    That’s what Lee Kuan Yew built, a disciplined society, where corruption dwelleth not.

    Let me wrap up, Nollywood style: Go Grab Your Copy. NOW!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Thanks so much.
      His story motivates me. Effective Leadership and Clear-Cut public development policies remain what we are lacking in Africa.

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