Copyright Notice

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other non-commercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the author, at the address below.

Sakmongkol ak 47

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Lee Kuan Yew’s Progressivism


The progressivist ideas of Lee Kuan Yew

At the root of Lee Kuan Yew's idea of progress is competition. Competition is necessary to allow us to differentiate. Competition is the only mechanism by which one overtakes another. Planning for progress means, you commit your resources so that you get ahead of the others. It's always a position relative of others. Progress is not just improvements in material wellbeing in isolation. It is always planning to be ahead of others.

In 1962, Lee Kuan Yew spoke to some students in London. He recalled that when he was studying in the UK, he could always tell the Malayan student apart from an Indian or West Indian. The Malayan student had more money, better clothed, had better girlfriends and could take their girlfriends to better restaurants.

At that meeting, speaking in terms understandable to young students, that was the idea of progress. The underlying theme is always, progress means getting ahead of others. He went on to caution: But if these advantages are fritted away, then the others will overtake us.

Progress means that in 10 years, the nation takes a stride, in 20 years, it becomes an industrialised nation, in 30 years, it is no longer an emerging but emerged nations. In the 1990's Singapore had become an emerged nation.

How did it become so? Are there lessons we can learn from Singapore's' success? I am aware that Singapore has often been derisively referred to as the little red dot. But suppose we can suspend our angst against Singapore for a moment, can we learn some principles that we can apply in our own case?

Lee kuan yew had predicted correctly that India and China will become emerged nations and if the countries in this region do not put their act together, China and India will be ahead. When that happens, young Malayan students will find those Indians who were behind them, would now have better girlfriends, have more money, better clothed, had better shoes...

The lessons there are as follows. There is no doubt that every country will progress. The example given in the speech by Lee Kuan Yew to Malayan student sin 1962 established the following observations. All students (Malayans, Indians and West Indians) will definitely experience progress. What can enable those once left behind getting ahead of the then leaders, is the refusal on the part of the underdogs to take THINGS FOR GRANTED. One could almost say, their ideas about progress are driven by pessimism. Pessimism drove them not to take things for granted.

On the other hand, those who fritter away the advantages as exemplified by the initial leaders were those who took things for granted because they are overly optimistic. Being optimistic, they believe that progress would naturally filter through, thus enabling them to enjoy the same.

Those who progress and get ahead of the others are those who do not assume they will benefit from the general progress of humanity. Those who progress are always those who exert preparations and prepare for the worst. The idea of progress then must involve:-

  1. The desire to get ahead of others
  2. Never assume you will benefit from general progress
  3. Planning and preparation to overcome worse case scenarios


We can also look at the approaches of the two groups of people above, in this way. One group (those who find themselves left at the wayside taking things for granted) were normative progressivists. They belong to those who feel that general progress will come no matter what and willy nilly and that they will be the recipients. Not so for the second group who did not take things for granted. They are the positivist progressives. They believed that progress is a deterministic and purposeful proactive process.

The adoption of science and technology for instance is an integral part of this positivist approach to progress. It represents a purposeful endeavour to push ahead of others. On the opposite then, the only way we can slow down progress is to arrest technological mastery. The choice is open to us. It is instructive to note what Arnold Toynbee said in this respect (bearing in mind that Toynbee's influence on LKY is not insignificant).

Technological progress is not an automatic process, it is a deliberate and a consciously designed human activity; and Man is free to reverse this man-made movement; we are free to choose technological regress instead. However, our freedom of choice is this sphere is most unlikely to be exercised in favour of economic regress...Change and Habit, Arnold Toynbee.


Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 11:31  

itu sebab kita kena robohkan tambak johor, ganti dgn jambatan tinggi yang baru supaya kapal dagang boleh amik shortcut terus ke selat tebrau dan port tanjung pelepas boleh amik alih port Keppel.

competition mcm ni le yg malaysia patu bikin.. baru boleh progress... kalau nak amik hati je, memang sampai kiamat takleh nak progress.

jual air pun murah.. 3 sen setiap seribu gelen. competition maknanya bikin competitor susah sikit nak buat bisness sebab kita play hardball.

sampai bila kita nak play second fiddle to singapore bila kita ada upper hand dlm byk perkara tp tak mau guna atas dasar 'menghormati jiran'?

nak jadi competitive atau tak?


Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 13:57  

Failure to plan is the plan for failure.

Result, semuanya ok, no problem.

Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 16:43  


Your competitor is not S'pore but the world. Don't be a jaguh kampong. S'pore port is the busiest in the world, beating even Rotterdam, the second busiest. So wake up.

Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 18:57  

Lots of people says S'pore is efficient,transparent and practise free market meritocracy.
I have dealt with Singaporean companies..and some government people.Do I see a big gap between them and us?Not really..
And is their quality of life better than us?...not really unless ur the ultra rich..
And are the common people happy with the government?

I guess they have a good start as a trading and services hub.and the bulk of the existing Chinese fraternity in the Asean zone was centred in S'pore.Malaysia focussed on agriculture and later sub assembly a result we took more risks and gestation period..

Thats my opinion..and i wish someone can tell me in what aspects that they're so far ahead of us..and should we really model our country to s'pore?

ajoyly 10 June 2009 at 18:59  

Rightly said. Without competition, there is no progress. And without progress, there is no prosperity.

walla 10 June 2009 at 22:30  

The Skytrax index put our KLIA at number seven....same as last year. HKIA is number two. I remember a year ago in one of HKIA's rooms; in walked one of their supervisors. He barked into his mobile: 'Are you happy with that kind of KPI? I want you to move on the problem. Right now!'.

Since the big contributors to the HK and Singapore industries are their services sector which is the sector we are trying to build up, it is instructive to study their success factors shorne of any sentimental frippery. Maybe some of you can comment on them.

If HK and Singapore are interests, then China and Malaysia are their respective principal sums. So all the more reason we should be doing better. But we aren't, so something is wrong somewhere.

And while the latest asiarisk report does say that Singapore is right up there again, her public sector has lately been acting somewhat protective. Maybe it's because they also put in place a strong confidence-building hype machine. But the difference is that when things are bad, they say so upfront, not wait until their folks have already been socked in the face.

An economist has noted that our new thrust towards the services sector can also play up our growth rate because it is hard to discern real growth contribution to the whole economy by the services sector. So our govt will have to be extra-careful in the light of our performance not to overplay its hype machine. Because it has been overdoing it, the rakyat are now disbelieving especially after some of the reality has finally hit home.

The bottomline seems to say:

- we need real transformation, not politically-motivated hype even if that's supposed to be probusiness;

- to get that, the rakyat need to know the real situation so that they won't hold expectations that cannot be met, or make demands that are counter-productive;

- since the whole world is down except for China and a few states, it's alright to spit out the real situation now; no one is going to be unduly alarmed, except the clueless around;

- if the rakyat know, they may be able to give good suggestions through blogs and so on, and from there, you may get the mindset change that is needed;

- the government has to walk its talk that it really doesn't know best anymore;

- we need lots of new ideas, new ways of doing things, prioritization of focus, spending and so on;

- you can't reform, transform or change mindsets if people don't know why and what they will have to fight for because they are unaware of the real situation.

For instance, the government has raised a lot for the public sector; if there's a drop in revenue, how will they be able to fund that sector in the future when many in that sector will be growing older, and that includes maintenance of equipment and so on?

- if one thing the look-east policy could have done better, it's to sell that continuous-improvement is mandatory; one should do everything, inclding foresighting and scenario-building, all the time to the best of one's ability, not just mark time or contribute by payscale; that's another way of looking at progressivism.

I leave you with two quotes; depending on how you interprete them, they may be germane to this discussion...

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

(George Bernard Shaw)

"In the short-run, the market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it is a weighing machine."

(Warren Buffett)

In the face of his state's perennially precarious situation, LKY has practised never-say-die unreasonable resolve that has added more weight for its size than many an other nation in modern history.

We can no less if we can just stay focused on the key success factors of nation-building and not get distracted individually and collectively.

..over to you, then.

Anonymous,  10 June 2009 at 23:39  

After this trip, Lee Kuan Yew will be very happy. Malaysia will never be able to be at par with Singapore.

Everything in Malaysia runs kalang kaput. Building fall by it self before demolition starts. Stadium roofing falls before one year. Stranger still, no certificate of completion in one year. Swimming pool that leaks. New hospitals that leaks. on and on and on.

Singapore is not scared of Malaysia.

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 00:17  

Anon 16.43,

So according to your logic, we can compete with the world, but not with singapore. Isn't singapore part of the world?

What kind of stupid logic is this?

Since we know singapore has the busiest port, the rise of ptp port thru the frequent use of selat tebrau will ensure we can compete with singapore n ensure our own progress.

Is your patriotism lies with spore? R u singaporean? Sine when singaporean govt do things to the benefit of malaysia?

Some ppl really have twisted agenda. Looking out more for singapore rather than malaysia.. Jeez!

Are You Gonna Go My Way,  11 June 2009 at 01:50  

LKY had the luxuries and advantages of :-

1. Ruling Singapore with authoritarian style without being branded as a dictator.
2. using ISA without being branded as undemocratic
3. enacting law like do not eat chewing gum without being branded as childish
4. ruling Singapore with almost non existence opposition party
5. having multicultural citizen of Malays, Indians and some Europeans that never question Ketuanan Cina.
6. Having only 1 school for all..without being accused of trying to wipe out people’s own language
7. giving out endless fines without being accused as oppressive
8. curtailing the press without being accused as trying to stop freedom of speech
9. expending its military capabilities without being accused as provoking its neighbors (unlike North Korea)
10. Having his son as the Prime Minister without being accused as cronyism or the latest in word “the ruling elite’

Sounds like communism but without wearing any uniform……

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 09:14  

The question of ‘the rise of ptp port thru the frequent use of selat tebrau’ keep poping up now & then.

Wondering whether the people who keep quoting this question know geography & simple logic. Or could be worst, they just quote without understanding – a sort of blind leading the blind!

For the umpteen times, even if the Causeway is NOT there in the first place, selat tebrau CANNOT be used as a maritime waterway for containership/oil fleet. It’s too narrow due to the many diversions along the way, & too shallow due to the continental shelf structure. Engineering restructure to adapt for the proposed maritime traffic will probably bankrupt the economic of S’pore, if she is going to undertake the job.

Ya, demolish the Causeway to open up this section of the ‘blockage’ seems to be an easy option. What about the second link?

Really pariah thinking!

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 09:22  


easy la kot... just dig up the selat tebrau like what they did in rotterdam so that big ships can pass through...

modified the second link.. heck, if people can built the tallest building or the longest bridge, why cant they modified the 2nd link?

sure, cost to do all these is big, but in the long run, if ptp can overtake singapore's port, the money coming in will surely be bigger than the initial cost incurred.

thinking outside the box la brader..

too chicken to do the outrageous ah? no wonder you can only complain yet unable to find solutions.

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 09:48  

Walla, just for a starter;

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

(George Bernard Shaw)

Now contrast this with this;

‘The Malays seem to regard success as doing what their forebears have approved and practised, but doing it as well as they can.

Wealth and economic advancement are desired by the Malays, but not at the expense of renouncing utterly the traditions and traditional occupations of their forebears to which they have grown accustomed.’

(Thanks flyer168 - Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez, Sumiko Tan. Lee Kuan Yew: The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times, 1998.)

Based on Shaw’s definition & flyer’s quote , Malay is trapped within a ‘reasonable man’ mind-set.

Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, iff one live within the safety net of the ‘tempurung’ culture.

Unfortunately, M’sia is not an island & SHE is a trading nation. Her people NEEDS to adopt & adapt to the world, rather then keep herself closing in.

The new generation of the Malays is open to the world. They want what OTHERS r enjoying. The peril of the human envy is hanging like the sword of Damocles. There is also the constant challenge of their religion doctrines. One just cannot keep living into two sets of worlds within a same spacetime.

With these set of constrains, could it be why we r seeing the current Malay psyche that fits exactly well within Buffett’s quote of;

"In the short-run, the market is a voting machine; in the long-run, it is a weighing machine."

Market or nature has a tendency to find her own equilibrium. So what will that lead the Malay to in the long term?

Over to U, the learned one!


Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 09:54  

Anon11 June 2009 09:22,

Thinking out of box? More like trying to change nature to fit into a selfish & shallow scheme.

Feasibility? Economic considerations, with return from ptp? Demolish the 2nd link & modified? Similar geological factors between Rotterdam & selat tebrau?

With this sort of thinking, I just have to rest my case!

ajoyly 11 June 2009 at 10:06  

It cannot be denied that LKY'S Rugged Society has achieved its objective and is now moving on to greater heights.

Why can't we achieve the same for Malaysia. We are not short of smart people and in fact Malaysians with Singapore's PR are in the forefront of this dynamic development.

Malaysia's loss is Singapore's gain. Malaysia's best brains is just across the causeway. Why? Because we don't practice meritocracy in the public/government service. Instead we practice the Clique System.

Unless you belong to this particular group, you cannot move up even if you are very intelligent, clever and capable. Remember there is such a thing as Demoralising Effect. A person who is not competent leads a group of intelligent people. What do you think would be the situation for the subordinates in this case?

Yes, they will feel demoralised. How can they repect and follow the direction of a head who is not capable. In fact, they can do better than him.

That's why meritocracy is the best policy. Picking the cream, the ones that are creative and can deliver whose solving skills are also very effective.

This is what is needed for Malaysia to be on par with Singapore and other developed countries.Even if we have the most modern services and facilities but the people running the show are third class. We will still be where we are. Unmoving, stagnant in time.

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 10:22  

My apology, the following should read;

Based on Shaw’s definition & flyer’s quote, Malay is trapped within a ‘unreasonable man’ mind-set.



Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 12:12  

11 June 2009 09:54,

ur motto in life is "Juz say no!" izzit?


"dont ever try"
"big bodacious goals r out of the question!"
"grumble all the time yet dont dare to do anything"
"im scared of singapore's success"

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 13:31  

Are You Gonna Go My Way,

You are being paranoid. At least they don't put their opposition politicians under ISA and the police are fair. Everyone has to take a second language known as your 'mother tongue' and you have to pass the subject with a credit to go into a local university and they do have madrasahs.
Wonder how many other countries explode nuclear bombs without being condemned ? Chewing gum is a non-issue unless it is vital for your survival.
At least they are adapting and are realizing that the opposition cannot be shutdown completely.
The point is, with so much natural resources and talent, why is Malaysia worst off than Singapore economically when in 1965, most were expecting them to fail ?

For the PTP supporters, say bye-bye to your plans if and when Thailand digs a canal through the Isthmus of Kra (may be wrong with the name.)

Anonymous,  11 June 2009 at 15:16  

Anon 11 June 2009 00:17,

There is no agenda, whether twisted or otherwise. Singapore gave me an opportunity to further my tertiary education when my own country would not. Having seen both sides, it is easy to compare the differences. While S'pore is not perfect, it has better avenues and opportunities for the individual to grow economically without political interference (policies). The main criteria is hardwork & honesty.

Having said that, I still have strong ties to Malaysia and would prefer to see her prosper than to languish in largess. When everyone is prosperous, than chances of the country growing and developing is better. Malaysia is doing S'pore a favour by not being competitive. The tools and resources are all at your disposal. It is how you use them that matters most. You control your destiny to a big extent. So please don't blame others for your own failures. Remember, TDM used to benchmark Japan. So aim higher.


  © Blogger templates Newspaper III by 2008

Back to TOP