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Why, according to Lee Kuan Yew, are Western democratic systems unsuited to East Asia?

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Why, according to Lee Kuan Yew, are Western democratic systems unsuited to East Asia? Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore between 1959 and 1990, and now Senior Minister of his country, commands much respect and influence in both the East and the West. This respect and influence reaches to the highest echelons of world leaders, to the vast multitude of academics, commentators and development strategists, and to the millions of people who live in East Asia. Regardless of whether or not this esteem is justified and deserved, ti is real, and therefore must be analysed, interpreted, criticised or praised while not forgetting the importance and effect his beliefs and proclamations have had, and will have. Any discussion of world politics, especially in East Asia, cannot ignore the hows, whys and wherefores of the current situation and the influence that current ideas and thought may have on the future. Lee's views have undoubtedly shaped his own country, certainly have influenced other governments in the region, and will definitely bear their markon the short- to mid-term future of East Asian politics. This explains the reasons why this essay solely deals with him. The essay is divided into three main sections. Firstly, I will discuss Lee's ideas and policies, and why he believes in an 'Asian values' view of the politics of the region. Secondly, I will explore some of the responses that have been made in opposition to his views, and thirdly, I will present some observations and conclusions of my own. ...read more.


These three main features of Lee's take on East Asia's political and social climate - culture, the place in society of the individual, and a well-ordered society - are admittedly affected and influenced by the West over time, and are not seen as developing without the impact of colonial rule and imperialism. ...our Confucianism has been attenuated by 120 years of British rule and education in British and other English-speaking universities (IHT, 2001). But, despite this impact Lee steadfastly denies any further infusion of Western democracy into East Asia, especially Singapore. ...this doesn't mean we are going to be like a Western society. The values are different (de Borch, 2001). Lee is not the torch-holder for everyone though. Whilst he receives praise from his counterparts around the world, there are many in the academic and development strategist world that strongly disagree with him. Of course, it is not just a simple case of disagreeing over a matter of opinion, there are many valid and strong arguments against Lee's ideas. From this myriad of arguments, I have identified three main strands of contestation - historical arguments against Lee's 'Asian values', the theoretical arguments concerning discussions of what democracy should be and how it should be followed in East Asia, and the problems and criticisms of the actually existing governing style of Lee. First then, arguments against Lee taken from history. ...read more.


Lee makes much of the need for a 'well-ordered' society. The heavy-handed way this society is brought about blatantly contradicts Lee's notions of freedom. He talks of East Asians being able to have "maximum enjoyment of his freedoms" but Lee's notion of what is behaving and what is misbehaving sets a Singaporean's realm of freedom for him. This is certainly not the freedom that John Stuart Mill wrote about. It could be argued that it is better to have a society that is not so 'well-ordered' but democratic, than it is to live in a society such as one that Lee envisages; faith must be placed with society to check its members' activities rather than have all aspects of life limited by an all-seeing government. Lee's ways may also only be suited to a small state such as Singapore. Even he admits that, within that small population, total control is practically impossible. This for me leads to the heart of the importance placed by Lee on 'Asian values' and why Western ideas of democracy are unsuited to East Asia. It is very hard to escape the conclusion that the justification of 'Asian values' is solely a political smokescreen to maintain power. It is even harder to escape this conclusion when the man himself proclaims: So when Americans tell me: you ought to govern in this way, I say thank you very much, I have listened to you very carefully, if I don't think we are ready for that, I have to do it my way (IHT, 2001, my emphasis). ...read more.

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