Lee Kuan Yew and Oz: white trash or white tribe of Asia (2)
9 Apr 2015|

In Memoriam Lee Kuan YewLee Kuan Yew thought he had every right to lecture Australia. After all, he said, Australians were always lecturing Asia. And when LKY gave voice, quite a few amongst the great and good of Oz got an inkling of how Asia resented being patronised and lectured.

My last column set out five phases in the evolution of LKY’s thinking about Australia—from the 1960s to the first decades of the 21st century—marking the gestation, birth and evolution of his warning that Australia risked becoming ‘the poor white trash of Asia’.

As previously noted, this was a classic Lee shaft, designed to hit and hurt, to be heard and heeded. Come now to track that ‘white trash’ gestation and evolution.

Singapore’s leader first visited Australia in April 1965, an immersion tour lasting nearly three weeks. In a lecture on ‘Australia and Asia’ delivered in Sydney in April 1994, Lee recalled how, ahead of that 1965 trip, Bill Pritchett, an Australian diplomat in Singapore, gave him a new book by Donald Horne, The Lucky Country.

This column has written about The Lucky Country as a foundational text for thinking about an Asian future for Oz. Certainly, it had an impact on LKY and he turned some of Horne’s arguments to his own uses. Horne always said his title was meant ironically. Like many others, LKY missed the sarcasm and thought Lucky Country was an accurate description of the Oz mentality.

Horne’s most famous sentence launches the final chapter of his book: ‘Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck.’ Then follows a meditation on an egalitarian democracy created by adaptable ordinary people—‘the most evenly prosperous society in the world’—achieved despite leaders in all fields who ‘so lack curiosity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.’ In the Horne vision, ordinary Australians—sceptical and delighting in improvisation—make and remake Australia, despite mediocre leaders. This is not an insight to appeal to that epitome of strong leadership, Lee Kuan Yew.

Lee reversed the weight of Horne’s central thought. Talking as he usually did to Australian politicians, diplomats and business executives, Lee went easy on the leaders and put all the blame on the society of laconic, adaptable Australians that Horne so valued. And worst of all in LKY’s demonology were those motifs of the Oz workers’ paradise, the trade unions and the right to strike.

As LKY remembered in his 1994 speech:

‘After several more visits in the 1960s I concluded that Australia was indeed a lucky country with an embarrassment of riches, and there was no reason why it should not continue to prosper, on and on, effortlessly. But the world’s economy underwent basic changes after the quadrupling of the price of oil in 1973…Britain’s membership of the European Community in 1971 hastened the decline in Australia’s primary exports to Europe. The underpinnings of a comfortable Australian way of life were slowly but inexorably dissolving. The Lucky Country thesis was not valid for all time.’

Add to this 1970s picture the figure of Gough Whitlam. LKY and Gough were two of the quickest tongues and sharpest minds, each monumentally sure of his own abilities. The sparks flew and the barbs bit. As an expression of this, see Alan Moir’s 1974 cartoon of LKY and Gough, entitled ‘Burying differences’, showing the two throwing flowers at each other. The fun in the image is that the two were always throwing stuff, but more thorns than petals.

Richard Woolcott offers this wonderful anecdote:

‘Gough Whitlam and Lee Kuan Yew are men of substantial intellect, ego and self-confidence. They tended to compete and tensions between them became evident from time to time. Lee regarded Gough as a ‘new boy’ at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Ottawa in 1973. He also considered Gough to be impulsive, especially in his repartee. Gough regarded Lee as rather self-important and a leader who occasionally chose to lecture Australia. Over a tea break Gough said to Lee that when the history of the 1970s was written it would be recorded that he (Lee) had made a unique contribution to political science and governance. Lee looked pleased and a little bit suspicious. ‘Why do you say that?’ he asked.

Whitlam replied: ‘I have two matters in mind. One, you formed a coalition with the communists and, once in power, you prevented them taking over and successfully dumped them.’ Lee acknowledged this and smiled.

‘Second,’ Gough continued, ‘you are the first political leader to use the Westminster system to create a one-party state out of a democracy.’ There was no smile this time.’

Zip forward to Lee’s visit to Australia in April 1994, when his argument for distinctive and different ‘Asian values’ was well-developed. Lee said Australia was resource rich, making it a relaxed society, with high consumption, low savings, low competitiveness, high current account deficits and high debt. Asia was the opposite. The Asian values champions—Japan, China, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam—were resource poor, creating intense societies, with low consumption, high savings and competitiveness, current account surpluses and low debt. In the race between the relaxed Oz society and the intense Asian societies, he thought, the intense side was gaining.

In the interview I did with Lee for the ABC’s AM program on 18 April 1994, he argued that Australia lacked Asia’s drive to succeed and Australia still had no emotional pull to Asia:

 ‘No Asian expects Australia to convert itself into an Asian nation, either linguistically, in language, culture or religion or by race. But there are certain parts of the old Australia, the old Australian culture and attitudes which will not be compatible with this easy relationship with Asia. For instance, if I could broach a very delicate subject, this idea that all Asians need to be told how to behave and conduct themselves, that their ways of doing things are crude, that they are culturally inadequate, that they are politically immature, that they run oppressive regimes, that they have such deplorable standards of human rights; generally not up to standard.’

The interview then turned to the issue of white trash, starting from the premise that LKY had renounced authorship of the line through much of the 1980s.

Dobell: That quote, or that warning, about Australia becoming the white trash of Asia. I know that you have, in some senses, have disowned that quote or…

Lee: No I’ve never disowned it. It was said in 1978, 79.

Dobell: Do you think Australia, because of its economic changes, has Australia moved past that danger of being the white trash of Asia?

Lee: Well, Paul Keating said something not very far different when he also tried to shock Australia, which was my intention, from a sense of complacency, when he said, ‘Watch out, we’re going to become a banana republic.’ I think it is a problem you will always have to live with. You know that you are sitting on an enormous wealth of riches. All you need do is dig it up from the ground – coal, uranium, diamonds, gold. You name it, Australia’s got it. Australians go on strike from time to time when digging for it, but the Japanese will come with more automated machines and will not require many Australian workers. And so all you’ve got to do is collect the rent.

Dobell: Is it still a danger you see for Australia, as it goes to Asia?

Lee: Well I think, culturally, in you work attitudes, in you motivations, because of your circumstance, you will not have that same drive, that same intensity of purpose, to make up for the lack of resources. Most East Asians—Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese—are resource poor, and they’ve just got to make up for it by the extra effort. So they gear themselves and become very intense and highly determined people, out to do better, because that’s the only way they can improve their lives.

Three years after that interview, the Asian Financial Crisis swept through the region and the exceptionalism of LKY’s Asian values thesis was one of many things burnt by the financial firestorm.

The last time I put the trash question to Lee, in 2007, his view was that Oz had changed. (The full quote can be found here.) There was still a bit of a barb in the tail of his concession that Australia could make the Asian grade. The essential point, though, was that LKY was always prepared to see Australia having a role in Asia. It was just a question of: what role?

In the end, Lee gave grudging acceptance to elements of Donald Horne’s argument that one of Australia’s saving characteristics is the ability to adapt, improvise and change course to avoid danger. Perhaps—and here I really am putting into LKY’s mouth words he never said—if Australians were not the white trash, they could instead be the white tribe of Asia.