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Tom Plate's Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew: Some Wise Words for Dysfunctional Western Democracies

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There are two types of courage among journalists. Some might risk their lives crossing paths with an IED on an arid back road in Afghanistan. Many fewer risk their reputation by going against the herd of conventional opinion.

Tom Plate, America's only syndicated columnist who focuses on Asia and a former editorial director of the Los Angeles Times, has taken the second risk in his Conversations with Lee Kuan Yew, just published by Marshal Cavendish. And it has been a risk well worth taking.

When the history of the 21st century is written, Afghanistan will matter little. But the rise of China modeled on the pragmatic, soft-authoritarian template of Lee Kuan Yew's Singapore will be seen as the game changer of our time. Plate has had the uncommon vision, for a Western journalist, to see this. And his book could not be more relevant at a moment when recession, debt and dysfunction are plaguing the West while Asia strides boldly into the future.

At a time when it appears that democracies are becoming ungovernable, a discourse on the ways and means of good governance by the neo-Confucian master thinker of modern Asia could not be more useful.

Much to the credit of Plate's talent, this book reads breezily, despite its heavy themes. It is broken into many easily digestible chapters with titles mimicking movies or television shows such as "Father Knows Best," "The Year of Living Dangerously (with Indonesia)" or "Citizen Lee." Even if Plate's "new journalistic" self-insertion sometimes annoys (we learn about his episode with Prozac and his weight gain), overall this was the right choice to make what could easily have been a wonkish drudge into an enjoyable read.

From a journalistic standpoint, what has always been great about Lee Kuan Yew is that he never minces words, whether his target is China or the West. While he has no problem taking credit for his influence over Deng Xiaoping's policy of "opening up and reform" or understanding the necessity of the Tienanmen crackdown, he also has no bones pointing out that China's corruption is out of control because prosecution rests in the hands of the Communist Party Discipline Commission instead of the state. Since cronies tend to scratch each other's back, corruption, virtually non-existent in Singapore, flourishes in China. For Lee that is its great Achilles heel, and he has no compunction saying so.

From the outset, Plate tries to squeeze Lee into Isaiah Berlin's box of either being a "one big idea" hedgehog or a small idea, tactical fox. After many attempts, it is clear that Lee can't even think in these terms. In his mind, the only big idea is the smallest one: what works in a particular circumstance.

In the West we call that "utilitarianism" or "pragmatism." In the Confucian tradition, it is the well-known principle of "non-universalism" -- that truth is grounded in concrete conditions and is not universally applicable or codifiable into an ideology.

Deng's famous one-line slogans could have come as well from the mouth of Lee Kuan Yew: "Seek truth from facts;" "white cat, black cat, what does it matter as long as it catches the rat;" "feeling our way stone by stone across a shallow river." Deng and Lee certainly came from the same civilizational DNA.

Though putting it into terms of the Western mind, Plate gets it right in the end: Lee Kuan Yew is a mix of Plato and Machiavelli. Lee, he points out, not only believes in the reasoned rule of a learned elite. Over the years, he has employed the practical political genius of a city-state Prince to make it a reality.

Here is how Plate sums up Lee's worldview: "Sustained and sustainable progress is possible only when a gifted, empowered elite is in more or less in complete control of policy. The complete corollary to that is his belief that politics that includes significant decision-making by the unqualified -- or by well-organized narrow interests, the lobbies -- is the enemy of superior public policy. This leads to the third forbidden thought: that democracy, at its one-man, one-vote purest, is almost always the enemy of a practical, here-and-now, best-we-can-get utopia."

Such a view no doubt is anathema to those who believe history has ended with liberal democracy. Yet, it is hard to argue these days with the view, held in both Singapore and China, that liberal democracy ends up being captured by the special interests and short-term mentality instead of functioning effectively for the long-term good of society as a whole.

Lee Kuan Yew only seems off base when he violates his own rules. For example, he projects from his experience with Malaysians that America will inevitably decline as Latinos dilute the Anglo-Saxon core America once was. Looking across the Pacific through the lens of China's ancient mindset, he can't see that a new culturally and racially-hybrid civilization has been born in the US, one that lifts up and enriches talents and imagination, not diminishes them, through mixing it up.

But mostly, Lee Kuan Yew's wisdom makes sense. Tom Plate has done a fine job of conveying it for a Western audience that ought to be paying attention.