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From Third World to First : The Singapore Story - 1965-2000

Few gave tiny Singapore much chance of survival when it was granted independence in 1965. How is it, then, that today the former British colonial trading post is a thriving Asian metropolis with not only the world’s number one airline, best airport, and busiest port of trade, but also the world’s fourth–highest per capita real income ?

The story of that transformation is told here by Singapore’s charismatic, controversial founding father, Lee Kuan Yew. Rising from a legacy of divisive colonialism, the devastation of the Second World War, and general poverty and disorder following the withdrawal of foreign forces, Singapore now is hailed as a city of the future. This miraculous history is dramatically recounted by the man who not only lived through it all but who fearlessly forged ahead and brought about most of these changes.

Delving deep into his own meticulous notes, as well as previously unpublished government papers and official records, Lee details the extraordinary efforts it took for an island city–state in Southeast Asia to survive at that time.

Lee explains how he and his cabinet colleagues finished off the communist threat to the fledgling state’s security and began the arduous process of nation building : forging basic infrastructural roads through a land that still consisted primarily of swamps, creating an army from a hitherto racially and ideologically divided population, stamping out the last vestiges of colonial–era corruption, providing mass public housing, and establishing a national airline and airport.

In this illuminating account, Lee writes frankly about his trenchant approach to political opponents and his often unorthodox views on human rights, democracy, and inherited intelligence, aiming always "to be correct, not politically correct." Nothing in Singapore escaped his watchful eye : whether choosing shrubs for the greening of the country, restoring the romance of the historic Raffles Hotel, or openly, unabashedly persuading young men to marry women as well educated as themselves. Today’s safe, tidy Singapore bears Lee’s unmistakable stamp, for which he is unapologetic : "If this is a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one."

Though Lee’s domestic canvas in Singapore was small, his vigor and talent assured him a larger place in world affairs. With inimitable style, he brings history to life with cogent analyses of some of the greatest strategic issues of recent times and reveals how, over the years, he navigated the shifting tides of relations among America, China, and Taiwan, acting as confidant, sounding board, and messenger for them. He also includes candid, sometimes acerbic pen portraits of his political peers, including the indomitable Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the poetry–spouting Jiang Zemin, and ideologues George Bush and Deng Xiaoping.

Lee also lifts the veil on his family life and writes tenderly of his wife and stalwart partner, Kwa Geok Choo, and of their pride in their three children –– particularly the eldest son, Hsien Loong, who is now Singapore’s deputy prime minister.

For more than three decades, Lee Kuan Yew has been praised and vilified in equal measure, and he has established himself as a force impossible to ignore in Asian and international politics. From Third World to First offers readers a compelling glimpse into this visionary’s heart, soul, and mind.

Editorial Reviews Review

In this memoir, the man most responsible for Singapore’s astonishing transformation from colonial backwater to economic powerhouse describes how he did it over the last four decades. It’s a dramatic story, and Lee Kuan Yew has much to brag about. To take a single example : Singapore had a per-capita GDP of just $400 when he became prime minister in 1959. When he left office in 1990, it was $12,200 and rising. (At the time of this book’s writing, it was $22,000.) Much of this was accomplished through a unique mix of economic freedom and social control. Lee encouraged entrepreneurship, but also cracked down on liberties that most people in the West take for granted—chewing gum, for instance. It’s banned in Singapore because of "the problems caused by spent chewing gum inserted into keyholes and mailboxes and on elevator buttons." If American politicians were to propose such a thing, they’d undoubtedly be run out of office. Lee, however, defends this and similar moves, such as strong antismoking laws and antispitting campaigns : "We would have been a grosser, ruder, cruder society had we not made these efforts to persuade people to change their ways.... It has made Singapore a more pleasant place to live in. If this is a ’nanny state,’ I am proud to have fostered one."

Lee also describes one of his most controversial proposals : tax breaks and schooling incentives to encourage educated men and women to marry each other and have children. "Our best women were not reproducing themselves because men who were their educational equals did not want to marry them.... This lopsided marriage and procreation pattern could not be allowed to remain unmentioned and unchecked," writes Lee. Most of the book, however, is a chronicle of how Lee helped create so much material prosperity. Anticommunism is a strong theme throughout, and Lee comments broadly on international politics. He is cautiously friendly toward the United States, chastising it for a "dogmatic and evangelical" foreign policy that scolds other countries for human-rights violations, except when they interfere with American interests, "as in the oil-rich Arabian peninsula." Even so, he writes, "the United States is still the most benign of all the great powers.... [and] all noncommunist countries in East Asia prefer America to be the dominant weight in the power balance of the region." From Third World to First is not the most gripping book imaginable, but it is a vital document about a fascinating place in a time of profound transition. —John J. Miller

From Booklist

Yew is not an endearing figure. He is arrogant, self-righteous, and seems unduly sensitive to criticism by "outsiders" of Singapore’s record on human rights. Despite occasional efforts to hide his less-than-pleasant characteristics, they often burst through in his long and often fascinating account of the dramatic transformation of this island nation into a stable and prosperous society. As prime minister for more than three decades, Yew certainly merits credit for Singapore’s emergence, and there is much to be learned from his version of his stewardship. This is a detailed and sometimes difficult read, particularly if one lacks a strong grounding in macroeconomics. Still, his description of the difficulties of nation building in a multiethnic society has great value ; his efforts to mesh Western concepts of free enterprise with Third World traditions of a "guided economy" may not have universal applicability, but they deserve close scrutiny. This is an essential contribution in efforts to understand why some societies seem so successful in becoming important players in the global economy. Jay Freeman
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"Lee Kuan Yew is one of the brightest, ablest men I have ever met. This book is a must read for people interested in a true Asian success story. From this book, we also learn a lot about the thinking of one of this century’s truly visionary statesmen."
— George Bush
"In office, I read and analysed every speech of [Lee’s]. He had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time sand the way to tackle them. He was never wrong."
— Margaret Thatcher
"Lee Kuan Yew deserves recognition ? Under his leadership, Singapore... equipped schools with one computer for every two students, and connected every home to a broadband network. On top of all that, he’s a great storyteller."
— Scott McNealy, Chief Executive Officer of Sun Microsystems Inc.
"There are two equalizers in life : the Internet and education. Lee Kuan Yew is a world leader who understands this and is using the power of the Internet to position Singapore for survival and success in the Internet economy...His engaging memoirs discuss his efforts to reshape Singapore, integrating information technology into the country’s businesses, government and homes."
— John Chambers, President & CEO, Cisco Systems
"Whenever I met Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, I was deeply impressed by his intellect, his vision and the depth of hisunderstanding on history and society. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, you will see in this book how a political leader of insight has led a tiny country to a prosperous modern society amid the tidal waves of world politics. And you will also find his ingenious views on Asia and the world to be a source of deep inspiration."
— Kim Dae-jung, President of the Republic of Korea
"Lee Kuan Yew is one of the seminal figures of Asia, and this book does justice to his extraordinary accomplishments. Describing the motivations and concepts that have animated his conduct and explaining specific actions, he will undoubtedly raise many controversies. But whether one agrees or not, one will learn a great deal."
— Dr. Henry A. Kissinger
"Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has gathered around himself the most brilliant minds, transforming the most exacting standards into a system of government. Under his leadership, the primacy of the general interest, the cult of education, work and saving, the capacity to foresee the needs of the city have enabled Singapore to take what I call ?shortcuts to progress."
— Jacques Chirac
"This is a personal history of a man who, almost single-handedly, built a great nation from a small island ? this is the first textbook in the world on how to build a nation."
— Kiichi Miyazawa
"Lee Kuan Yew’s vision, astutepolitical judgement and strategy turned Singapore from a trading post into the successful thriving nation that it is today, respected by others. For those interested in politics and economic development, his memoirs should be required reading."
— Tun Daim Zainuddin
"Lee Kuan Yew is a statesman who created a successful nation. He has known everybody. He has achieved impossible things and his memoirs tell the truth."
— William Rees-Mogg
"The title of this book, From Third World to First, expresses an aspiration of all developing countries but so far, alas, an achievement of very few. Singapore is one of those few. This account of its first years of independence written by its founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, will therefore be of great interest to people of other developing countries and to all those who are interested in their fate. It is also told with great clarity, in a refreshingly direct style. I found it a gripping read."
— Kofi A. Annan, Secretary General of the United Nations
"More than 40 years ago, Lee Kuan Yew transformed what was a poor, decrepit colony into a shining, rich and modern metropolis — all the time surrounded by hostile powers. With his brilliant, incisive intellect, he is one of the world’s most outspoken and respected statesmen. This book is a ?must read’ for any student of modern Asia."
— Rupert Murdoch, Chairman & Chief Executive, NewsCorporation
"A man of vision and calibre, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew can be credited for laying much of the foundation behind Singapore’s present day success story. As one of Asia’s most prominent leaders, he has also done much to help promote closer economic ties between the countries of Southeast Asia as a whole. His latest memoir, well articulated and highly interesting, provides a thought provoking insight and a new interpretation of the region’s history and politics."
— His Excellency Mr. Chuan Leekpai, Prime Minister of Thailand
"Lee’s narrative is refreshingly free of the self-congratulatory tone of so many political memoirs...Useful reading for those with an informed interest in geopolitics."
— "Kirkus Reviews
"Lee’s role as a thinker, political philosopher, pragmatist and social observer emerges...strongly...this book (offers) ample, vivid and often startling accounts of Lee’s numerous dealings with other world leaders. It is a veritable portrait gallery of statesmen, rogues, nationalists, and political ingenues."
— "Far Eastern Economic Review
"Filled with precious insights into Lee Kuan Yew’s thinking...after digesting this tour de force, whether they agree with him or not, readers will recognize in Lee a true Asian legend."
— "Asiaweek
"Theheroic story of forging a thriving nation out of a piece of rock at the end of the hostile Malay’s a story to warm a lot of the cockles of the heart of a ... democrat."
- "The Washington Times
"Blunt at times to the point of undiplomatic rudeness, Lee..remains.."part Confucius, part Calvin."..(his) scoldings made his country, his region, and thus the world a better place."
- "Boston Globe
"These are rich memoirs, the legacy of an extraordinary man, and in many ways, this book is like Lee himself : smart, thoughtful, blunt and provocative."
- "The New York Times Book Review
"Fascinating...even Mr Lee’s critics must concede his courage and vision."
- "Wall Street Journal
"(A) fascinating account of the dramatic transformation of this island nation into a stable and prosperous essential contribution (to understanding) why some socieities seem so successful in becoming important players in the global economy."
- "Booklist
"Fascinating...Lee is perhaps the greatest Asian strategic thinker of the modern world...(his)powerful memoir reveals a great deal."
- "Business Week
"Blessed with a powerful mind, driving energyand a strong personality (Lee Kuan Yew) made the Singapore story one of success, and established himself as one of the world’s great pundits...a political memoir that is written with a trenchant, lucid style and a flair for the exciting tale."
- "The Economist

About the Author

Lee Kuan Yew was born in Singapore on September 16, 1923, a third-generation descendant of immigrants from China’s Guangdong Province. He read law at Cambridge University, England. In 1954 he formed the People’s Action Party, which won the first Singapore general election five years later. Lee became the country’s first prime minister in 1959, at the age of thirty-five. In November 1990 he resigned the office to assume the post of senior minister in the Singapore cabinet.

Product Details

  • Hardcover : 752 pages
  • Publisher : Harper ; First edition (October 3, 2000)
  • Language : English
  • ISBN-10 : 0060197765
  • ISBN-13 : 978-0060197766