Events & News


Lee Kuan Yew’s views on Europe


Etienne Davignon (left), Member of the CEC in charge of Internal Market and Industrial Affairs and Customs Union, with former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. PHOTO: EC Audiovisual Service

A PDF version of this commentary can be found here.

By Dr Yeo Lay Hwee and Simon Tay

Lee Kuan Yew emerged as a nationalist in the wider, post-WWII movement against European colonialism. Yet he largely declined to look further back in history of colonial empires, and was not inclined to take a dim view of colonialism seeing the British rule as very much a part of the Singapore history. In fact, in his interview in One Man’s View of the World, he noted “the British left institutions behind them, including in Singapore”. His views on Europe were perhaps less extensive and less well known than his perspectives on the US and China, the current and emerging powers of the last decades.

Even his admiration for European statesmen was limited towards Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill, both nationalists of the WWII period. Of Churchill, he opined in The New York Times in 2007 that while Churchill “made a Herculean effort to save the British Isles and the British Empire… the forces were already set in motion for the dissolution of that empire and making Britain an island off Europe”.

Rather than looking back, he developed close ties with Europe’s leaders of his period. Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl of Germany were friends, despite coming from different sides of their country’s political divide. There was also, of course, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, in a relationship that could be said to be one of mutual admiration.

In many ways, Lee’s emphasis on the US and China was because of the forward-looking and pragmatic outlook that characterised his character and his world view as a practitioner of politics. In his book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, he valued Europe as a trading partner, but said that “they are fading away as a strategic partner… they can’t even settle the Balkans without American assistance”. European influence and presence was primarily seen in economic terms and not on questions of hard power.

Lee and Thatcher

On a personal level, Lee and Thatcher were kindred spirits, sharing perhaps the same “ideological convergence” on many issues with regards to government and economy. This included the need to trim back state excesses and rely more on market mechanisms.

Both believed in the importance of hard work and enterprise. Singapore under Lee has eschewed social welfarism, seeing it as a system that saps the work ethic of people on welfare. Hence, he was all praise for Thatcher for trimming the excesses of the welfare state in Britain during her years in Downing Street. He also praised her for taking on and taming the trade unions, and privatising major sections of the British economy that resulted in more economic vitality for the country.

Thatcher was also all praise for Singapore’s success under Lee. She once said: “… Singapore, when Harry Lee took over, was comparatively small, could never have sustained the number of people it has now in prosperity unless he ran the economy and politics which he does; which is an enterprise economy with incentives, lower taxation and not one that is nationalised from top to bottom.”

Lee’s views on global developments and events were well sought after, particularly his views on China. Thatcher was an admirer too, saying: “In office, I read and analysed every speech of Harry’s. He had a way of penetrating the fog of propaganda and expressing with unique clarity the issues of our time and the way to tackle them. He was never wrong…”

She was also known to have asked for Lee’s advice when Britain was negotiating with China on the handover of Hong Kong. In her memoirs, The Downing Street Years, she said: “…This was what we should do, send a very senior minister or emissary to convey our proposals at the highest possible level of the Chinese government. It was crucial, he said, that we should adopt the right attitude – neither defiant, nor submissive, but calm and friendly. We should say clearly that the fact was if China did not wish Hong Kong to survive, nothing would allow it to do so.”

The ideological convergence between Thatcher and Lee might have accounted somewhat for the less sanguine view that Lee had on Europe and European integration. In his book From Third World to First, Lee wrote that his views of the Europeans had been much influenced by British attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s. He saw rightly that Britain’s motivation to join the European Economic Community (EEC) then was “to get out of its recurring economic difficulty of slow growth”, compared to the EEC member states, hoping that the larger market would spur growth.

Lee, German leaders and the European Union

In contrast, Lee noted in From Third World to First that in his interactions with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the latter’s “single-minded pursuit of the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU)” was related to the question of war and peace, believing that the Euro would make the process of European integration irreversible. He praised Kohl as a “great German who reunified Germany and as a greater European who wanted Germany as part of a supranational Europe to avoid the disastrous European wars of the last century”.

Lee’s astute observations of Britain’s motivations for joining the EU and Germany’s commitment to European integration as a project of peace in many ways can inform us about the debates over the crisis in the Eurozone and where the EU is heading. The UK wanted an EU that is more focused on the economics aspect of the single market, and not one with grand political vision. That was the reason behind British Prime Minister David Cameron’s demand to renegotiate parts of the UK’s relations with the EU, and to “claw back” some of the power given to the EU. The British vision of the EU is one of flexibility and cooperation, and not the same as those “who want to build an ever closer political union”. Cameron has also opened up the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if a referendum on British membership of the EU is called in 2017.

In contrast, German leaders want Germany to remain at the heart of the EU, and believed that deeper integration is inevitable if the EU is to emerge out of the debt crisis stronger. Indeed, European leaders in 2012 set out an ambitious vision toward deeper integration by agreeing to a banking union to strengthen the banking sector, a fiscal compact with budget oversight and greater fiscal discipline, and agreeing that ultimately, the EU needs to move towards some sort of political union.

Lee was, however, pessimistic about the euro and the European Union when he was interviewed for One Man’s View of the World. He believed that without real fiscal integration, the euro in its current form is doomed, and that without deeper integration into a sort of United States of Europe, “Europe will be reduced to the role of supporting actor”. While it was clear to him that the best course for the EU was to integrate further, he also noted that it was going to be difficult at the same time, almost impossible even. Countries in Europe are too caught up in its past and history. The EU has also grown too large and disparate to be able to reach a consensus on the future. Lee believed that the EU was likely to fail because of “too fast an enlargement” and that the euro in its “present form” cannot be saved because “you cannot have monetary integration without fiscal integration”. He also remarked that “the euro’s record will be seen by posterity as a dismal one, and any attempt to salvage political credit for the single currency project will come up against cold, hard reality”.

Yet, Lee was quick to add in the same interview that he wrote “more in sorrow than in derision about Europe’s inevitable decline”. He was not against the EU. Indeed, even when he was discussing Singapore in The New York Times in 2007, he was of the view that: “If we were Malta, we would have joined the EU.” He believed that “integration holds great promise apart from just peace”, and concluded that if the Europeans were to deepen its integration efforts, it “would have much greater economic clout” and “a much bigger voice in international affairs”.

Yeo Lay Hwee is Director of the EU Centre, and Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs