The fifth chapter of Henry Kissinger’s recently published Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy is dedicated to Singaporean leader Lee Yuan Yew. Titled “The Strategy of Excellence”, it opens with Yew’s arrival in Harvard on 13 November 1968 for a month-long sabbatical. Forty-five years old at the time, Yew had been serving as his country’s prime minister since 1959, when Singapore gained autonomy from British rule.
As Kissinger recounts, “Lee told the Harvard Crimson – the student newspaper – that his aims were ‘to get fresh ideas, to meet stimulating minds, to go back enriched with a fresh burst of enthusiasm for what I do.’” Harvard staff members were quick to oblige and invited him to a meeting of the Faculty of Harvard’s Littauer Centre (now the Kennedy School of Government). Kissinger writes, “Compact, and radiating energy, Lee wasted no time on small talk or introductory remarks. Instead, he asked for the faculty’s views on the war in Vietnam. My colleagues, voicing passionate opposition to the conflict and to America’s part in it, were divided primarily over whether President Lyndon B. Johnson was a ‘war criminal’ or merely a ‘psychopath’. After a number of the professors had spoken, the dean of the Littauer faculty invited Lee to express his views, smiling in a way that clearly anticipated approbation.”
Much to their surprise, Lee responded, “You make me sick.” He said that Singapore, a small country in a tumultuous part of the world, depended for its survival on an America confident in its mission of providing global security and powerful enough to counter the communist guerrilla movements that were then seeking, with support from China, to undermine the young nations of Southeast Asia. As Kissinger explained it, the Singaporean leader articulated the aspiration of a country that lacked oil and other natural resources and sought American goodwill so that Singapore could grow through the cultivation of its “principal resource: The quality of its people, whose potential could develop only if they were not abandoned to communist insurgency, invasion by neighbouring countries or Chinese hegemony.”
Much has changed in the world since Yee’s visit to Harvard. Two of the most significant changes have a direct bearing on my subject of concern. The first is that Singapore has become a prime model for development in Southeast Asia, a region once mired in poverty and civil warfare, which gave rise to emergent economic “tigers” such as South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan. The second is that Communist China and Communist Vietnam drew on the Singaporean experience, and the Japanese experience before that, to accomplish economic miracles of their own and catch up with the others. As a result of the progress in East and Southeast Asia, over a billion people were lifted out of poverty and into the ranks of economic well-being and security, and their nations raised their heads with pride and growing influence.
That inspiring history is important to the Arab reform countries now striving to become a “new Europe”. In addition to learning from the Western experience, they must study more closely the remarkable evolution in the East. Centuries ago that region had experienced a similar burgeoning of wealth, culture and civilisation in the Chinese and Japanese orbits. It then fell prey to successive bouts of French, British and Dutch colonialism, then a couple of world wars and, at various junctures, waves of impoverishment, disease and famine.
Japan and China have many stories of progress and human development to recount. However, a recent and exciting chapter is unfolding in South Korea’s lunar exploration programme. A long time before this, the Vietnamese development experience had captured our imagination. Vietnam’s struggle was truly inspiring, but most useful for us are the lessons learned from its subsequent transformation from a developing nation to a burgeoning emergent economy. When its exports topped $264 billion, that spoke of another successful “struggle”, the struggle for development and progress and for building a Vietnamese person commensurate with the modern developed state. In a world in which the Ukrainian war has spread inflation and economic hardship, Vietnam has sustained a growth of over eight per cent.
I am not suggesting we should ignore the Western model. I recall a discussion I had with a British classmate, when I was a student in the US, about the causes of underdevelopment in the Third World and the causes of wealth and progress in the Western world. At the time, I was still under the influence of theories that laid underdevelopment in the Arab region at the foot of European colonialism and colonial partitioning of Arab lands. After I enumerated such causes to my colleague, he said that much of Western development had been built on the enormous sacrifices of women and children during the first and subsequent industrial revolutions. His explanation brought to mind Charles Dickens novels such as Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. I thought that if such wretchedness held true for Britain, then the same applied to France and Germany, and that this helped to explain two brutal world wars.
My point here is that the new Arab reform drive, which is a chapter of the economic development sciences known as the “Newcomers” to global technological developments, can benefit from a broad array of experiences. The Arab experience, itself, shows that the achievements of a single city, such as Dubai, can be a model to be emulated by other countries of the Gulf, just as the Egyptian modernisation experience of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century inspired other Arab countries in their independence and post-independence periods. In launching the “New Europe” banner today, Saudi Arabia has proclaimed the most extensive and far-reaching reform drive across the Arabian peninsula. The spirit extends into Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. All these Arab reform countries have undertaken the “constitutional” mission of laying the foundations for and building the modern nation state, from the infrastructural groundwork to the renovation of religious discourse, by way of nationwide economic and social development projects.
As they forge their way forward, they not only need to borrow from Asian development experiences, they also need to learn from them. The fact is that practically all our academic institutes and universities were born of the European model. The legacy of the founding fathers of the modern Arab state originated from the academic missions that were sent to Europe in the 19th and 20th century and then to the US and Canada. Certainly that cumulative knowledge and expertise was useful during the periods of early modernisation, independence and the establishment of the post-independence state. But the “New Europe” must not only start with temporary sabbaticals in Harvard; it needs similar sabbaticals in Asian capitals. The drive also needs an Arab strategic studies network with horizons stretching to both West and East, while it monitors and evaluates the progress of the current national megaprojects that have the potential to lay the foundation for a new “Arab regionalism” capable of leading our people to the forefront of nations. If the world is truly changing to the tune of a game of musical chairs, then when the music stops, we will find the prime seats waiting for us.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 5 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly