In a larger country, he could have been a Churchill

November 24, 1996|By Matthew Miller

RICHARD NIXON is still stirring up trouble, even when they're just doing things in his name.

The other night, the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom (an offshoot of the presidential library) bestowed its annual Architect of the New Century Award in Washington. The honoree? Lee Kuan Yew, the 73-year-old former prime minister of Singapore.

Many Americans know Mr. Lee only from the infamous ''caning'' episode, when he insisted a few years back that a young American be punished for vandalism in the Asian way. Given Mr. Lee's authoritarian bent -- he often censored media outlets that criticized his government -- his selection was controversial.

Mr. Lee, who ruled from 1959 to 1991, is among the most compelling figures of our time. It's hard to think of a modern governing achievement that matches Singapore's transformation from poverty to plenty in a single generation. On a per-person basis, Singapore is actually richer now than England, its former colonizer.

Though some find Singapore's social rigidity stifling, all hail its safe streets, excellent schools and widely shared prosperity. Nixon himself said that if Lee Kuan Yew had lived in a major power, he might have ''attained the stature of a Churchill.''

Mr. Lee's fascination lies in his unique experience, and the sweeping perspective on society it affords. Rarely in modern history has one man governed for so long. Thirty-two years! It's as if FDR had been president through 1965. Or Lyndon Johnson stepped down only last year. American presidents scarcely have the chance to nudge history's iceberg during their four years, or eight. Mr. Lee, given a generation, changed his country's destiny.

Counterpoint to campaign

As our own officials catch their breath between the election and the new session of congress, Mr. Lee's provocative views, both on America and on governance, offer an interesting counterpoint to the campaign just passed. (The quotes are from two rare Western interviews with Foreign Affairs and New Perspectives Quarterly).

On liberty. ''The ideas of individual supremacy and the right to free expression, when carried to excess, have not worked. They have made it difficult to keep American society cohesive. Asia can see it is not working. . . . Those who want a wholesome society safe for young girls and old ladies to walk in the streets at night, where the young are not preyed upon by drug dealers, will not follow the American model. . . . To have, day by day, images of violence and raw sex on the picture tube . . . will ruin a whole community.''

On history. ''American society was successful for so long not because of these ideas and principles [individual liberty], but because of a certain geopolitical good fortune, an abundance of resources and immigrant energy, a generous flow of capital and technology from Europe, and two wide oceans that kept conflicts of the world away from American shores.''

On responsibility. ''Westerners have abandoned an ethical basis for society, believing that all problems are solvable by a good government, which we in the East never believed possible.''

On voting. ''I'm not intellectually convinced that one-man, one-vote is the best. . . . We would have a better system if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he's likely to be more careful, voting also for his children. He is more likely to vote in a serious way than a capricious young man under 30. . . . At the same time, once a person gets beyond 65, then it is a problem. . . . They should go back to one vote, but that will be difficult to arrange.'' (Imagine how this would change the politics of Medicare and Social Security reform!)

On media. ''If the media are always putting down and pulling down the leaders, if they act on the basis that no leader deserves to be taken at face value, but must be demolished by impugning his motives and character, and no one knows better than media pundits, then you will have confusion and eventually disintegration. . . . One of America's great problems is that the authority of its key institutions has been undermined by the media. . . . We had to put a stop to that in Singapore before it began to happen.''

Change and constancy. ''I know two fundamental truths: First, in an age when technology is changing so fast, if you don't change we'll be left behind. . . . Second, how you nurture the children of the next generation has not been changed, whatever the state of technology.''

The West. ''Let me be frank: if we did not have the good points of the West to guide us, we wouldn't have gotten out of our backwardness. . . . But we do not want all of the West.''

Matthew Miller is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is

Pub Date: 11/24/96

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