chapter  3
Narrow histories: Lee Kuan Yew and
Pages 16

Those who regard the ‘Asian values’ argument as a sign of insecurity point to the fact that its earliest manifestations emerged from Singapore – one of the most insecure, multicultural, modern and Western specks of land on the continent. At another level it is significant that the argument for illiberal democracies emerged from what have historically been two of the most democratic countries of Pacific Asia: Singapore and Malaysia. Upon reflection this is not surprising, since a secure dictatorship would have little reason to engage in such a dialogue unless it was for purely external consumption. On the other hand, a regime that answers to an electorate without actually allowing truly democratic competition must continually rationalise its rule to its own people. Without discounting the value of such insights, we are fortunate that we can be much more precise in tracing the origins and development of the ‘Asian values’ reaction, because in each country the ‘Asian values’ agenda was written by a particular person: Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. Since each of these men has spent decades in public life – and in fact in the seat of power – their personal histories enable the reconstruction of an unusually intimate picture of the development of a major cultural and political phenomenon. If the ideas espoused in the previous chapter are broadly valid, then such a study should uncover evidence of deep-seated social and political outlooks based on hierarchy, order and communitarian virtues, along with at least a latent sense of disdain for ‘the West’. Even a superficial knowledge of these two men assures us that we will be able to find these characteristics, but it is nevertheless surprising just how deeply the agenda of ‘Asian values’ seems to be embedded in their respective worldviews.