Munger and Lee Kuan Yew: Figure Out What Works and Do It

Charlie Munger, age 97, recently held forth at the annual meeting for Daily Journal Company. Blunt and entertaining as ever. “Amateurs talk about Buffett, professionals talk about Munger” as the old saying goes.

Our long fascination with Munger has been a frequent topic on this site, resulting in some wonderful communication and connection with the secret world of Mungerists out there.

Munger was asked a question that got me thinking. It was about the founder of modern Singapore, long time prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew:

Question: Charlie, you have been a long-time admirer of Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. You once said to study the life and work of Lee Kuan Yew. You are going to be flabbergasted. I would be curious to know how you started your interest in Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew. Have you met Lee Kuan Yew in person? And if there is one thing the world could learn from Singapore, what would that be?

Charlie Munger: Well, Lee Kuan Yew had the best record as a nation builder. If you’re willing to count small nations in the group, he had probably the best record that ever existed in the history of the world. He took over a malarial swamp with no army, no nothing. And, pretty soon, he turned that into this gloriously prosperous place.

His method for doing it was so simple. The mantra he said over and over again is very simple. He said, figure out what works and do it. Now, it sounds like anybody would know that made sense. But you know, most people don’t do that. They don’t work that hard at figuring out what works and what doesn’t. And they don’t just keep everlastingly at it the way he did.

He was a very smart man and he had a lot of good ideas. He absolutely took over a malarial swamp and turned it into modern Singapore—in his own lifetime. It was absolutely incredible.

He was a one party system but he could always be removed by the electorate. He was not a dictator. And he was just so good. He was death on corruption which was a very good idea. There’s hardly anything he touched he didn’t improve.

When I look at the modern Singapore health system, it costs 20% of what the American system costs. And, of course, it works way better than our medical system. That’s entirely due to the practical talent of Lee Kuan Yew. Just time after time, he would choose the right system.

In Singapore, you get a savings account the day you’re born. If you don’t spend the money, you and your heirs get to spend it eventually. In other words, it’s your money. So, to some extent, everybody buying medical services in Singapore is paying for it themselves. Of course, people behave more sensibly when they’re spending their own money.

Just time after time he would do something like that. That recognized reality and worked way better than what other people were doing. There aren’t that many people like Lee Kuan Yew that have ever lived. So, of course, I admire him. I have a bust of Lee Kuan Yew in my house. I admire him that much.

Sometimes Munger’s harsh rationality has an edge that makes me a little uncomfortable. The unabashed admiration of Singagore’s Lee Kuan Yew is an aspect of that. I’ve never visited Singapore. I’d like to, and see these weird tree buildings and eat the street food. In my travels I’ve met several people from Singapore. What discussion we had of Lee Kuan Yew was pretty ginger, because I’m too ignorant to have much of an opinion, because it’s polite to be sensitive when discussing another country’s main founding guy, and because, well, I get the sense in Singapore you don’t really criticize Lee Kuan Yew. Though LKY is dead, his eldest son is still in charge. That sense that we’re dealing with a bit of an authoritarian is what makes me uncomfortable.

Thomas Meaney has a review of Michael Barr’s history of Singapore in the LRB which gives me just the kind of context I need.

Lee Kuan Yew, by contrast, made no such attempt. ‘That’s the end of the British Empire,’ he told one of his classmates at Raffles College when the first blasts were felt over the city. Lee, then in his late teens, not only learned Mandarin and Japanese during the occupation, but worked as a translator of Allied news reports for the main Japanese propaganda bureau in the Cathay Building. A few floors down, Yasujirō Ozu, freshly arrived in Singapore, produced propaganda about the Indian National Army’s fight against the British Empire. ‘The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life,’ Lee wrote in his memoirs. He admired the ruthlessness of the Japanese, and believed it had toughened up his generation. The efficiency of their brothels impressed him. Spotting the head of a Chinese looter hanging from the marquee of a movie theatre, he thought: ‘What a marvellous photograph this would make for Life magazine.’

how about this?:

The key was to make Singapore appealing to US investment by ensuring laws favourable to corporate capital, and prioritising economic prerogatives over political freedom. With no local capitalist class to discipline the workforce, independent Singapore resorted to what Christopher Tremewan calls ‘forced proletarianisation’. The city-state’s notorious public order laws – lashes and prison for spitting, graffiti and public urination; swift execution for drug possession – were part of a breakneck effort to make Singapore’s citizens the most cowed and reliable semi-skilled workforce in Asia. ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’ was the way William Gibson described it. Free hospital care – which scandalised Milton Friedman when he learned of it – was ended. Lee consolidated all the trade unions into a single union under his control. With the Central Provident Fund, he could force workers to save part of their salaries for retirement, adjusting amounts at will, which allowed him to raise and lower wages in co-ordination with the needs of foreign industry. American corporate elites marvelled at such a partner. Lee personally escorted visiting CEOs around the island. The result was a boom of massive proportions, with Singapore leading the region in electronics assembly, ship repair and food processing. Full employment was achieved within a decade.

I don’t want anyone making me cowed, even if I am at best semi-skilled.

Here is Balaji Srinivasan on the Tim Ferriss podcast, articulating why CEO types seem to like LKY so much:

What Lee Kuan Yew did, really, the reason I think he’s so important, is I think he’s a piece of the 21st century that fell into the 20th, to paraphrase. Basically, I think he was the first startup CEO of a country, of a city state. And I think we’ll see a thousand more like him.

So he’s a very important person to study, his life and history, because here’s the thing: he did what he did with minimal coercion. He’s not famous for winning some giant violent conflict. He’s not famous for some activist movement. He stands for delivering results. That’s actually really, really interesting. He’s famous for boosting prosperity and zero-to-one-ing a society. He was really a lion, really a great guy.

But what about the collaborating with the Japanese?

In any case, I am trying to figure out what works in my own life, and do it. Munger’s right, it’s not that easy! Of course, there’s a question of how we’re measuring what works.” Posting thought-provoking stuff here on Helytimes works, that’s for sure, so I’ll keep doing it. Let us know what you think! We’re working to keep the posts “medium length.”


2 Comments on “Munger and Lee Kuan Yew: Figure Out What Works and Do It”

  1. 1111 says:

    Love your blog! I always learn something new. Thanks for keeping it going!


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