Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, would have celebrated his centenary on September 16, 2023. A slew of articles have appeared to commemorate the event (see, for instance, Han 2023; Chua 2023; Koh 2023), however commentators have missed the chance to emphasise how the examine of Lee Kuan Yew’s political thought can probably contribute to extra scientific insights into worldwide affairs. Though Lee’s international coverage pondering has acquired scholarly consideration (Ang 2023; Allison et al. 2013), the foundations of this pondering, which might greatest be approached as political idea, haven’t but been sufficiently defined (cf. Quah 2022; Barr 2000). A clue might be present in the way in which the Institute of Coverage Research (IPS) commemorated Lee Kuan Yew’s A centesimal birthday in August 2023.e with an occasion with the theme ‘Reinventing Future’. This theme astutely factors to an underexposed motif inside Lee’s political philosophy: the position of historical past.
Lee’s strategy to the topic of historical past, or his overarching philosophy of historical past, is key to Singapore’s self-identification, and subsequently carries important implications for its coverage and total strategy to worldwide affairs. In case you survey his speeches and writings all through his life, you’ll be able to start to stipulate Lee’s advanced philosophy of historical past. This may be summed up because the restoration of energy of small states like Singapore amid the broader tides of historical past. Right here ‘historical past’, or Historical past with a capital H, is taken in a selected sense. It’s typically acknowledged that it’s rooted within the philosophical pondering of the German thinker Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (see Duquette 2019).
By observing world-shaking occasions such because the French Revolution, Hegel sought to grasp the character and affect of historical past and the way it might develop. In the end, he understood historical past not as a sequence of randomly unfolding occasions, however as a purposeful, rational course of. Historical past needed to be understood holistically and embody the whole world. Contributors in historical past had been those who helped transfer this course of ahead. That is the place commonplace understandings of phrases like “historical past is on our aspect” might be traced. It’s this understanding of historical past that subtly underlies the theme ‘Reinventing Future’.
Lee’s dedication to this view of historical past, which formed his personal pondering on the difficulty, might be proven in three key episodes. The primary episode occurred through the Japanese occupation of Singapore, as a part of World Battle II. It was at this level that the most important narratives concerning the appropriateness of Western colonial rule fell aside. Colonial rule was primarily based on narratives of racial hierarchy, with white Anglo-Saxons destined to rule over Asians. These tales had been themselves primarily based on insights into historical past. Hegel had infamously written that Asians had “no historical past,” which means that Asians had been incapable of driving progress and subsequently weren’t members in historical past. As an alternative, the white Anglo-Saxons needed to deliver historical past to Asia by way of colonization.
The parable of British or white superiority was left unchallenged by Lee till the Japanese handily dethroned British energy in Singapore between 1942 and 1945. This stimulated Lee to develop an opposing view, wherein Asians had been additionally in a position to affect the historic course of (Lee 1998). By viewing Asians as historic brokers in their very own proper, Lee started to reject narratives of colonial rule and developed anticolonial sympathies.
The second episode occurred on the peak of the decolonization course of, within the a long time following the top of the Second World Battle. This was a interval when the concepts of Hegel’s most distinguished follower, Karl Marx, had been extremely regarded, given communism’s anti-colonial credentials and promise of a quick monitor to modernity. Many Marxists through the 20e The century had internalized the concept the deliberate finish of historical past was imminent, following the overthrow of the capitalist system of manufacturing. This ‘finish of historical past’ could be a classless society with out exploitation. These Marxists tried to shift this course of and performed the position of handmaidens to historical past (Christie 2000).
Whereas he’s not a Marxist essentiallySukarno, the founding father of Indonesia and anti-colonial revolutionary, was deeply influenced by these concepts and tailored them to his pondering. For Sukarno, the whole eradication of colonial or neocolonial patterns of domination would inevitably usher in a selected imaginative and prescient of the ‘Finish of Historical past’ – a world system primarily based on peace and devoid of battle, what he as soon as described as ‘Pax Humanica’. (see McIntyre 2005). He had beforehand suggested the United Nations to not “be blind to historical past and ignore destiny.”
These concepts knowledgeable the tales surrounding the completely different paths and understandings of decolonization, wherein Lee actively participated. That is most clearly seen throughout Confrontation, when Indonesia had accused the formation of Malaysia in 1963 as a neo-colonial plot and waged an undeclared struggle to hinder its formation. Whereas Confrontation is often understood within the class of safety (e.g. Jones 2001), the occasion was justified by arguments with important philosophical overtones, and it’s value exploring how these arguments legitimized the army motion.
Tales, similar to Sukarno’s, that justified army workout routines towards neocolonialism had been rejected by Lee as idealistic romanticism, or an “oversimplification of socialism” (Quah 2022). Lee shouted amidst Confrontation that Asians “had been individuals just like the others, each prisoners of their previous and apostles of their future” (Christie 2000). Importantly, nations like Singapore, whose survival was not assured, might hardly afford to be seduced by such a imaginative and prescient as a result of it blinded them to the merciless however intractable actuality of worldwide politics. As an alternative, states like Singapore needed to be clear and commit realpolitik. Historical past was no savior.
Though the thought shouldn’t be new, the phrase “The Finish of Historical past” was coined by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama (1989), primarily based on his studying of the Hegelian thinker Kojève. Fukuyama had famously argued that the top of the Chilly Battle had emasculated the Marxist venture. As an alternative, the “Finish of Historical past” was the proliferation of American-style liberal democracy, to which nation-states all over the world would inevitably conform. This was the context from which Lee launched the talk on “Asian values” (see, for instance, Barr 2002). Briefly, Lee and others argued that completely different societal traditions and expectations meant that political preparations, wanting American-style liberal democracy, had been equally viable. Subsequently, on this third episode, Lee challenged the concept historical past needed to culminate in a singular finish level. As an alternative, completely different nations might select their very own divergent paths.
General, Lee famous that historical past has no predestined ending, nor does it prescribe a foregone conclusion. How world affairs develop finally depends upon the alternatives individuals make; historical past shouldn’t be its personal creator. This strategy to historical past supported Lee’s imaginative and prescient of a Singapore that would exert its affect in worldwide affairs regardless of the constraints of its dimension. This pondering has been handed on to each political leaders and public intellectuals in Singapore, with Ministers Chan Chun Sing and Lawrence Wong persistently referring to the truth that Singapore should “proceed to defy the percentages of historical past”.
This philosophy has been subtly handed down and deeply instilled within the minds of many generations of Singaporeans, particularly the elite (see Kausikan 2017). This has created continuity in fascinated with the way in which Singapore sees itself throughout the constellation of worldwide politics, and subsequently the way it conducts its international coverage. On this manner, Lee’s affect lives on even after his loss of life. Lecturers would possibly contemplate exploring how his writings and speeches can present helpful scholarly materials, and a fruitful technique of exploring the nexus between mental historical past and worldwide relations (see Nardin and Bain 2017; Bell 2023).
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