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From Third World to First: The Singapore Story - 1965-2000 Hardcover – October 3, 2000

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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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 752 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; First edition (October 3, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060197765
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060197766
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 2.2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (93 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #41,407 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 82 people found the following review helpful By Foobar on October 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
Lee, Singapore's Prime Minister from the 50s to 1991, continues where he left off in his previous book of memoirs. After expulsion from Malaysia in 1965, Lee's government took the island nation from the Third World to its current First World status.
"From Third World to First" is organized by themes. In one chapter, he recounts four decades of progress in (say) building an armed forces. Then, at the beginning of the next, the timer is reset to the 1960s and a new narrative begins about attracting investors to Singapore. This format better allows Lee to explain his motivations in each area, but readers who are unfamiliar with Singapore's history will likely be disconcerted.
The impression one gets is of a government that meticulously addresses each problem area, working with a cool efficiency: a sharp contrast with the tumultous events of the first book.
While Lee is generous with praise, especially for his colleagues, the narrative is often self-serving. It's not exactly boasting - the man's achivements are very real - but it left a sour taste in my mouth. His trademark scathing criticisms, often directed at political enemies, are also less than graceful. His often ruthless treatment of the opposition is glossed over.
Still, the book is a good read, particularly for its gripping subject matter: the journey of a tiny, resource-poor island into affluence, set in the midst of the Cold War. Non-Singaporean readers will be particularly interested with the second half of the book, which is entirely devoted to Lee's personal dealings with assorted international leaders.
A minor annoyance: the editing is sloppy. Grammatical quirks are scattered throughout the text, which is surprising considering Lee's usually excellent grasp of the language.
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66 of 73 people found the following review helpful By Ramsundar Lakshminarayanan on February 18, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There are two parts to this book.
First part is about development of Singapore - social, economic and political. The second part deals with foreign relations.
As an Indian, I truly admire Singapore. From what it was in 1965 to what it is today, is an educating experience. Awesome to most third world nations - fighting poverty, population growth and other social maladies.
Lee Kwan Yew had a clear vision, set himself clear goals. Above all, what led to his success is his execution skills.
Rule of law certainly helped. What I adore is the team he surrounded with to create such laws and ensure its implementation regardless of obstacles.
Singapore is a wealthy society today. Secure economically and politically.
In my observation, he had 3 primary principles towards building a nation
a) Rule of Law
b) creating a fair society (not welfare society)
c) Expenses less than income (as simple as that)
All his domestic policies were based on above principles.
I like the way he treated hawkers in Singapore's streetwalks. While ensuring cleanliness of Singapore, he provided alternative solutions so that hawkers continued their business for livelihood in a better environment. Contrast this to Maharashtra government's (Indian state) efforts in cleaning and sprucing up Mumbai's Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus area. Vendors keep coming back.
Singaporeans enjoy high savings rate, because of CPF. A guaranteed security for its citizens when they retire. Contrast this to America's 401k. When Enron collapsed, savings of many employees evaporated even as executives pocketed millions in bonus pays!
Although Singapore is a free market economy, its philosophy concerning workers and employees are caring and genuine, unlike in the United States.
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24 of 28 people found the following review helpful By MrSherlockHolmes on January 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Singapore is one of the few nations in recent history, which has managed to transform itself from a struggling third world nation to a high tech society in less than fifty years. All this was possible - aside from many other factors - because of the genius of one man: Lee Kuan Yew. This book is the story of his quest to change Singapore.
The first part of the book deals with the various projects he initiated or oversaw that changed Singapore. Lee Kuan Yew gives an overview of what he did to deal with those problems facing every developing nation - crime, education, housing, investment etc...
Reading his memoirs, one cannot help but admire this man's moral character and sense of purpose, other leaders of developing nations would do well to learn from this man.
The second part of the book gives Mr Yew's views on nearly every country Singapore has had significant dealings with. His views are, as he himself says on many occasions, not meant to be politically correct. This means that those fluent in `diplomatese' may find his language crude and some of his views upsetting.
Not surprisingly the last part of the book, which deals with his family and his personal life is very brief. Given the formal tone throughout, it would not be in keeping to speak at length about his own personal life, although no doubt that would be interesting reading.
For those students of economics or politics and for those curious about Singapore or the Asia-Pacific region in general, I would highly recommend this book. The writing is extremely clear and the chapters are arranged in a logical order, (unlike the haphazard ranting in other memoirs) which makes reading a pleasure rather than a pain. Read this book to be inspired.
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