The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore, has spawned many articles in the Korean media. Like elsewhere in East Asia, there certainly was more praise than criticism for the man ― as a political leader and as a person of achievement.
Personally, two things came to my mind when I first heard the news about Lee’s death ― his memoirs and the 1994 debate ― in an American journal ― with the late Korean President Kim Dae-jung over Asian values and democracy.
I have fond memories of Lee’s memoirs: I received the first volume, “The Singapore Story” as a birthday present in 1999 from Singapore’s ambassador to Korea. I liked it very much, and bought the second volume, “From Third World to First,” at a Borders bookstore in Singapore in 2000. In 2011, I also got from another Singaporean ambassador the “Lee Kuan Yew Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going,” a collection of Lee’s interviews with a group of seven editors of the Straits Times.
I love nonfiction, especially biographies and memoirs, and I enjoyed very much reading Lee’s memoirs. It was exciting to follow a statesman recounting how he endeavored to transform the tiny British colonial port into a thriving modern city state with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes.
It was so impressive that, while reading the first volume, I thought it could be excellent reference material for many, not only those in public service like politicians and government officials but also journalists, academics, legal professionals, union leaders and so on.
So I felt like translating it into Korean, but unfortunately ― though fortunately for Korean readers ― there was already a Korean version of the first volume, which was originally published in 1998.
Since then, Lee’s memoirs, along with the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, are kept in the “favorite books” sections of the shelf in my study.
My encounter with Lee’s memoirs came when I was covering the Blue House during the Kim Dae-jung administration (1998-2003), which was why I became interested in the debate between the two leaders over Asian values and democracy.
Lee set the stage for the debate in an interview article of the March-April 1994 edition of the Foreign Affairs magazine, published by the U.S.-based Council on Foreign Affairs.
Under the title “Culture Is Destiny,” Lee argued that Western-style democracy was alien to Asian cultures and that it was not appropriate for Asian countries. He claimed that a patriarchal political system based on Confucian tradition was suitable for Asia and that economic development should have priority over democracy in a developing country.
In one illustrative passage, Lee said that East Asia focused on family greatly, and that a better system would be “if we gave every man over the age of 40 who has a family two votes because he is 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.”
This belief must have emboldened Lee to impose such authoritarian policies as his anti-long hair regulation, which was duplicated by the late President Park Chung-hee during the 1970s, the ban on chewing-gum, caning and lack of truly free media ― which I’m certain do not befit Singapore any longer.
Kim, one of the most prominent dissidents in Asia who later won the Korean presidency and the Nobel Peace Prize, opposed Lee’s arguments in an article he wrote for the November-December 1994 issue of the same journal.
In the article titled “Is Culture Destiny? ― The Myth of Asia’s Anti-Democratic Values,” Kim argued that Asia has rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions that will accommodate the ideals of democracy.
As an example, Kim quoted one of the great Chinese philosophers ― Meng-tzu who preached that “the people came first, the country second, and the king third.”
Kim cited more cases of Asian democratic tradition ― meritocracy in the civil service, boards of censors who checked rulers’ misdeeds and abuses of power by government officials, and the high value placed on freedom of speech, even by civil servants against their monarchs.
“Asia has much to offer the rest of the world; its rich heritage of democracy-oriented philosophies and traditions can make a significant contribution to the evolution of global democracy,” Kim said.
In retrospect, Kim and his aides ― apparently believing that they were on the winning side of the debate ― liked mentioning the article, especially after Kim’s victory in the 1997 presidential election, which made him the first Korean opposition leader to take over the highest elected office.
It is well known that Kim, who put his life on the line in his fight against successive military dictatorships, never had a university education and that he studied English in prison. Perhaps this made Kim and his aides feel more proud of the Foreign Affairs article, which they believed demonstrated the depth of Kim’s intellect and belief in democracy.
Listening to Kim and his associates speaking about the article, I sometimes thought that it would have been very interesting had the two men had the opportunity to hold a person-to-person debate.
I thought about it not because I wanted to determine who is better or who is right or who is wrong. I think this is the wrong attitude to take when comparing men like Lee and Kim. They had their own strengths and weaknesses.
What occurred to me after Lee’s demise was the question of what should be the best model of democracy for Asia in the 21st century. And I wondered which direction Asian countries that have not yet embraced democracy, especially North Korea and China, would go in eventually ― Lee’s, Kim’s or a third way.
By Chon Shi-yong Chon Shi-yong is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.