04 March 2015
The “Great Man Theory of History” most eloquently articulated by the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle (1797-1881) is perhaps not very fashionable with historians today. It was Carlyle who penned the memorable quote – “the history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle might have exaggerated the role of great men and undervalued the social, economic and other forces that shaped his “heroes,” but I do not think we should completely disregard the importance and influence of certain individuals. Rather, a more nuanced approach is warranted. Indeed, as the American psychologist and philosopher William James argued in his October 1880 lecture to the Harvard Natural History Society, great men do have the capacity to influence and shape the thoughts of society.
Thus, I believe it is not out of place to approach the study of Singapore’s foreign policy through the perspective of Lee Kuan Yew. According to S. Rajaratnam, the first and longest serving foreign minister of Singapore, Singapore’s foreign policy was shaped principally by him and Lee Kuan Yew, with contributions from Dr. Goh Keng Swee (the first defence and finance minister) when there were economic implications. Indeed, historians who have perused the archival documents, both in Singapore and abroad, would attest that it is impossible to re-construct the history of Singapore’s foreign policy without constant reference to Lee because he figures so prominently in most of the documents. Lee’s influence owed to both his strong character and longevity is without doubt. Rajaratnam died in 2006 at the age of 91 and Goh in 2010 at the age of 92. Both had been inactive politically for many years prior to their passing. Although he retired as prime minister in 1990, Lee assumed the position of senior minister and later minister mentor until 2011. Second-generation leaders like Goh Chok Tong (who became Singapore’s second prime minister) gained much from Lee’s “mentoring sessions” – usually over lunch. Goh recalled that the lunches were always “serious affairs,” where “we didn’t discuss light topics. It was always political… what was happening in the region and how (these events) would affect us.” In the words of another mentee, Lim Chee Onn (Minister and NTUC Secretary-General), Lee Kuan Yew “passed on a lot of his experience, his way of thinking, his way of analysis and of course, his own interpretations and assessments of situations. Not just the related facts, but also the way you look at things.” Indeed, Asad Latif in his 2009 book described Lee as still a guiding force in Singapore’s foreign policy.
…Ang Cheng Guan is presently Head of Graduate Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. He is the author of numerous books, including Lee Kuan Yew’s Strategic Thought (London: Routledge, 2013). He is currently working on two book projects: Southeast Asia and the Cold War, 1945–1991: An International History and its sequel, Southeast Asia and the Post-Cold War: The First Thirty Years.
GPO / Online
Last updated on 23/11/2015