I think people get very passionate about Great Humans and find it hard to separate their emotional connection with what they have seen with the silent evidence of what they have not seen.
At its heart, the great man fallacy is this– we do not know who would have risen to the occasion. Her biography is not written. Her amazing decisions were never tested. It’s not that “Lee Kuan Yew Is Not Special”.
Yes, SG might have failed without LKY. Or it might have succeeded still, or even succeeded better. It’s far more likely that the outcome of Singapore has been affected more by external events beyond LKY’s control than anything LKY has done.
I was doing some reviews of the Discovery Channel’s documentary of SG, and it becomes painfully clear that this is so. Here are some snippets of historical events that no Singaporean had control over:
- Suez Canal opened in 1869. Instantly transformed how goods were transported. Used to sail around Cape of Good Hope. 50% increase in trade in SG in 5 years. Main means of getting to Asia. Singapore suddenly rose in prominence in the entire region, not just as a stopover between India/China. Singapore had become SEA hub. First port of call for Western ships wanting to operate in the region.
- 1877: 6 small trees were smuggled out of brazil and sent to the botanical gardens in SG. Scottish botanist, Henry Ridley- recognized that they were rubber trees. Told all the planters (local and british), “You plant rubber.” He’d supposedly take some rubber seeds and put into everybody’s pockets wherever he went. He devised a system of tapping latex from rubber trees- cut in a v-shape. At that time it was white gold in Southeast Asia. Brought in tonnes of money.
- Not enough land in SG, so businesmen in SG made rubber estates in Malaya. Boom in Malayan tin mining- popularity for canned food (which was because of war, IIRC). Tin and rubber were exported to the factories of Europe and America. Idea of Malaya as SG hinterland started here already. SG too important to be left to the EIC. Island was turned into a Crown Colony- subsidized by the British Govt in London. Given a facelift, befitting important colony- new roads, new public buildings, police station, law courts, post office?
- Japan / China, Japanese Occupation, Sook Ching – 12 august 1945. Hundreds of people welcomed the British. “bakeyaro”- huge crowds shouting at the Japanese. Convicted of war crimes, most deported, not executed. Incensed Chinese community- they felt the Japanese spilling so much Chinese blood on the island gave them a moral claim to the island that didn’t exist before.
- LKY on Lim Chin Siong: “Modest, Soft Spoken, Quiet. Powerful hokkien speaker. Charismatic. Women loved him. “I was not the crowd puller, nor my English educated friends. He was.” – LKY.
- British Navy leaving – Military base was the largest employer in SG, generated 1/6th of the economy. Provisonshops, dry cleaners, bars, etc. “We were in a pickle! Lo and behold, we were helped by the Chinese cultural revolution.” – LKY
- Cultural revolution -> investors prefered SG to HK and Taiwan. SO OFTEN as in Singapore’s history, events beyond her shores played a decisive role. Outburst of evolutionary fever in China scared off western companies from investing in hong kong and taiwan. Late 60s- electronics companies set up assembly line in SG. 70s sillicon chips. 80s- consumer electronics. (?) Everybody treat MNCs as evil- SG welcome. Set up your factories, full freedom. 100%.
The point I’m trying to make here is that history is VASTLY more complex and complicated than individuals, and that our human psychology is wired to focus on individuals. So we have to consider that whatever the role indviduals play on history, our perception of it is DEFINITELY inflated. However great LKY might be, bless him.