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Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew Talks about America's Strengths and Weaknesses

Both in the United States and abroad, many influential observers argue that the U.S. is in systemic decline. Lee Kuan Yew, the sage of Singapore, says that it isn’t the case.  

Lee is not only a student of the rise and fall of nations; he is also the founder of modern Singapore.

As prime minister from 1959 to 1990, he led its rise from a poor, small, corrupt port to a first-world city-state in just one generation.

Today, Singapore’s six million citizens have incomes higher than those of Americans.  He has served as a mentor to every leader of China since Deng Xiaoping initiated China’s march to the market, and every American president since Richard Nixon has sought his counsel about the U.S. role in Asia. In Forbes and everywhere else, he has consistently emphasized America’s resilience.

Mr. Lee spoke at a wide-ranging dialogue session organised by Standard Chartered Bank on Wednesday evening. Joining Mr Lee for the dialogue was former chairman of the US Federal Reserve and former chairman of US President Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, Paul Volcker.

This was the first time Mr Lee spoke about Singapore's changing demographics since the Population White Paper was endorsed in Parliament.

In Lee’s assessment, demographics are also an increasingly important factor.  Noting that America’s total fertility rate of 2.0 exceeds that of most western European countries as well as that of its chief challenger, China, he recently observed that “the U.S. could become the slowly aging leader of a rapidly aging world” this century.  Thus, he believes that “America will remain the sole superpower” for at least two to three more decades.

Nonetheless, Lee is frank in describing what he considers to be fundamental problems with U.S. government and culture. It has been unable to tackle its exploding debt, he asserts, because presidents do not get “re-elected if they give a hard dose of medicine to their people.” In a social-media fuelled era of 24/7 news, furthermore, those who prevail in elections are not necessarily those who are most capable in governing, but those who can present themselves and their ideas “in a polished way.”  He doubts that such contests “in packaging and advertising” can produce leaders in the mould of “a Churchill, a Roosevelt, or a de Gaulle.”

Instead, he laments conditions in which “to win votes you have to give more and more. And to beat your opponent in the next election, you have to promise to give more away.”

Lee warns about the growing risk of America’s losing its “self-help culture” and going “the ideological direction of Europe.” If it continues that slide, he says bluntly, “the U.S. will be done for.” He also gives U.S. immigration practices a failing grade, declaring that “multiculturalism will destroy America.”  The key question is: “do you make the Hispanics Anglo-Saxons in culture or do they make you more Latin American in culture?”

"To have a nation, you must have people and you must have young people to be able to drive the economy and young people buy the products - all these gadgets and fine dining - and if you don't have that, and you refuse migrants as the Japanese do, you will just dissolve into nothingness! I think before that comes, they may change (their) policy.Mr Lee said that China is heading in the wrong direction with this policy as a shrinking and ageing population will mean assets, such as property prices, will go down.

"Property prices will go down, assets will go down. There is no younger generation to put the pressure up so I think it is heading towards the wrong direction," said Mr Lee.

 He added Singapore is in a similar position with its low total fertility rate but the difference is that Singapore takes in migrants to make up for the numbers.

Mr Lee pointed out that authorities here maintain a "certain quality of control" and that is one reason why he feels other emerging ASEAN economies are unlikely to surpass Singapore anytime soon.