The Nature of Human Society

Bell curve-

Social commentator Charles Murray and Harvard psychologist Richard Herrnstein, in their book, The Bell Curve: Intelligence And Class Structure In American Life, argued that human intelligence is largely transmitted genetically.

Opposite: The young, Lee be Ueved, held the key to the future. Education was a priority for his

vemmenr. The

~inet believed initially that equalising opportunities would narrow the gap between the haves and the have-noes in sooety. But over the seors, many among them were drawn to the conclusion tbo: equality of opponunities alone wOHld not always lead to eq wIlity of res uus .

Wh.en. the controversial Bell Curve hypothesis was published in. 1994, suggesting that some men and ethnic groups were less well endowed intellectually than others, it raised a shrill stir in American political and intellectual circles. The authors, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, were derided as racists, bigots and pseudo-scientists. Critics charged that the book was unhelpful to efforts to improve race relations in the United States, or worse, part of a nee-Nazi plot to keep ethnic minorities down.

For Lee Kuan Yew, however, the book was unremarkable. To him, the hypothesis revealed nothing new. It merely confirmed what had long been commonsense knowledge - that not all men or all races were equally able. He had drawn. this conclusion long ago, from his own observations of the differences in ability within a society and between differing cultures.

The uproar in the West, he believed, stemmed from a stubborn refusal of its politically correct intelligentsia to accept the facts which nature had decreed. The result: policies based on wrong premises, which were doomed to disappointment; grand hopes oflevelling society failed to deliver results because they went against the grain of the inherent inequalities in ability among men.

Lee would have none of this. To him, government policy, be it on education, social spending or the search for talent, could not be a matter of wishful thinking.

"The Bell curve is a fact of life. The blacks on average score 85 per cent on IQ and it is accurate, nothing to do with culture. The whites score on average 100. Asians score more ... the BeU curve authors put it at least 10 points higher. These are realities that, if you do not accept, will lead to frustration because you will be spending money on wrong assumptions and the results cannot follow.



"By the 19705, when we looked at the old examination results and the present, and we saw the pattern in the housing estates - one-room, two-rooms, three-rooms, four-rooms, five-rooms - it fits exactly with educational attainments. That the more intelligent and hardworking you are, the higher your educational levels, the higher your income.

"Supposing we had hidden the truth and taken the American approach and said, all men are equal. Then they (the less able or well-off) will demand equal results. And when the results are not equal, they will demand more equal treatment.

"1 decided If 1 didn't bring it out, my successors will face a problem of credibilitv Because they can't bring it out, they will say we're trying to escape the responsibility. So 1 started giving it to the community leaders, then to the media leaders, then to the teachers - finally brought it out into the open. There's no other way. Not to come to terms with this is to deceive yourself and be pursuing policies which would bring no good."

To Lee, this delicate matter concerning the innate and differing abilities of people was not just of academic interest. His views about the nature of human society were of considerable importance as they would influence profoundly the social and economic policies he pursued in Singapore.

He held strong views on these thorny issues. As a pragmatist, he concluded that they would have to be faced squarely before leaders could decide how best to act so as to achieve the goals of development for their societies.

These ideas evolved as a result of his experience and reading over the years. They were not what he originally believed as a young man at Cambridge drawn to the ideals of the British Fabians, a group of left-wing intellectuals at the vanguard of the Labour Party It the time. They were convinced that inequalities in society stemmed largely from unequal opportunities. If economic and social disparities were removed, or reduced, they assumed that the gap between the haves and have-nots would also close. The concept seemed appealing and noble enough. But reality, he soon discovered, fell rather short of this sanguine belief.

"We were too young, and the experiment in Russia and in Britain had not gone far enough for us to see, which we now see clearly, that there is a limit to what you can do in society.

"With human beings, you can give everybody equal opportunities, but the results will not be equal because they are of unequal abilities. Some people run faster than others, some people can lift more weights than others, some people can play better music than others, and some people are better at mathematics and will score more in the sciences. And I think that has been, for Britain, Russia and China, the real breaking point of the system. For instance, the British Left believed, and v ve believed with them, in the '40s and '50s, that equal opportunities would bring about more or less equal rewards. We did not know about this Bell curve, that it existed in every population from time immemorial.

"Equal opportunities meant that in the first few phases, in the '50s and '60s, we were able to throw up engineers, accountants, doctors from the children of hawkers, taxi drivers,



labourers because they were not given opportunities. And we drew our scholars - 60, maybe 70 per cent of our best scholars were from the very uneducated rungs of society.

"But over 30 years, we can see now that the educated marry each other, as was inevitable, and indeed in our case is not happening enough, to our detriment. The result is, today, out of 10, we're lucky if we get three from the lower-educated groups. Although the higher-educated groups are only about 20 per cent of the population, they provide us with 70 per cent of the scholars. It is a fact of life and you can't change it.

"You see, starting block, a marathon, get ready, all at the same line, fire, off you go. One hour later, you see the wide. differences between those who are still steady, pushing ahead, and the stragglers struggling at the end. Two hours later, five, six, are in front, racing to beat the record. That's the problem of life."

Diamonds in the population

Lee's realisation of this came in the early 19605, shortly after he and his PAP colleagues had taken charge of the government in Singapore. The multiracial nature of Singapore society made any disparity in ethnic achievement starkly obvious. They showed up in the yearly school examination results, which he tracked closely.

He concluded that all societies displayed signs of what he termed a "population diamond". At the centre was the bulk of the people, of average intellect and abilities. Above this, IQ and competence levels rose to an apex. Below the centre, and in about equal proportion to the apex at the top, abilities tapered off, down to the educationally subnormal and mentally retarded.

Despite the difference in ability, he felt that all men were entitled to be treated equally and fairly, and accorded the same dignity and respect as citizens. The government's role was to train each individual to his maximum ability.

The most able in society would have to be drawn into the top rungs, given the most important jobs through a strictly meritocratic system. This group at the top - he guessed that they made up between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of the population in any society - was the yeast which would raise the lot of the entire society. These people would have to be thrown up by a meritocratic system - or sought out by the society's leaders - and nurtured from a young age. To them would fall the responsibility of the top jobs, both in government and the private sector. Lee dismissed suggestions that such a system was elitist. Rather, he contended, it was based simply on a pragmatic recognition that not all men were of equal abilities and talents. He once said, only half in jest, that to bring Singapore down, an aggressor need only eliminate the top 150 or so men on whom the country relied most for it to keep ticking.

The less able would also have to be helped, to enable them to do their best and keep up with the rest of society. But for all its good intentions, social policy, concluded Lee and some of his more pragmatic Cabinet colleagues, could never overcome the underl ying limits in ability that nature had decreed. Nor should it raise false hopes that it could.


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Singapore's first Cabinet-

In 1959, the Cabinet comprised Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Deputy Prime Minister Toh Chin Chye, and these ministers: Yong Nyuk Lin (Education), Ong Eng Guan (National Development),

S_ Ra,jaratnam (Cutture), Ahmad Ibrahim (Health), Ong Pang Boon (Hom.e Affairs), Goh KengSwee (Finance) and K_M. Byrne (Labour and Law)_

Opposite: Lee and

Dr Toh Chin Chye held opposing views on the subject of equality.


Cabinet clash: pragmatists vs "ideologues"

This, however, was by no means a unanimous view, In fact, it split the Cabinet down the line.

"We - Dr Goh Keng Swee, myself, Hon Sui Sen, Lim Kim San - we were the pragmatists. Then we had our, I won't say ideologues, but those who were more emotionally attached to this idea of making it more equal for everybody - in other words, more redistribution. I would say Dr Toh Chin Chye instinctively felt that way. And Ong Pang Boon too- Therefore, there was a certain benign tension in the Cabinet, and we argued these things. And the

I tension and the argument went on right till the end.

"For instance, Dr Toh was against Medisave. He thinks we ought to provide equally for everybody, rich or poor, like the British did and like China has done. I said, 'The British had failed. And you don't get equal treatment in China, you get the pretence of equal treatment.' So the debate was right at the fundamentals.

"We believed, all of us believed, I believed, when. we started off in the 19405, that differences between individuals and individual performance and results were mainly because of opportunities. Given better opportunities of nutrition, food, clothing, training, housing and health, differences would be narrowed. It was much Later, when we pursued these policies in the '60s, in the '70s, that the reality dawned on us, the pragmatists.

"On this issue, even Rajararnam disagreed with us. He believes all are equal arid if we give equal chances, everybody will be equal. And he strenuously disputed that we start off being unequal. But some people can run 100 yards in 10 seconds, others will take 15 seconds, and you can do nothing about it. If you try to give all the same results, then nobody will make the effort to run in 10 seconds."

This posed an acute dilemma for the PAP, a democratic socialist party which rode to power on the wave of popular demands for a more just and equal society. How was a popularly elected socialist government to act against the prevailing egalitarian sentiment? Yet, going the other way was to risk disill.usionment among a section of the party's supporters. More importantly, Lee and his more pragmatic colleagues knew that pandering to this was a futile attempt to overcome inherent limits imposed by nature.

"When we were faced with the reality that, m fact, equal opportunities did not bring about more equal results, we were faced with another ideological dilemma. \Vhat is it that you want? Equal results or equal opportunities I Between the two, we felt that in Singapore, if we were to survive, we could not go the way of equal results; we had to give rewards in accordance with your effort.

"Now, we did try wherever possible, wherever more would bring about better performance. Never mind if it brings about equal results. If better housing, better health, better schools can bring about better results, let's help them. But we know that we cannot close the gap. In other words, this Bell curve, which Murray and Herrnstein wrote about, became obvious to us by the late '60s."


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All men are equal, but how equal?

This crucial distinction between equality of opportunity and outcomes was to become a guiding principle in Lee's approach to policy-making in Singapore, whether in education or welfare.

"If you want equal results, you've got to go one step further and either discriminate against the high performers or give more and better training to the low performers, which was what a section of the Fabian Society recommended.

"They faced the same problem: the gap did not dose although opportunities were equal.

And they said, well, all the more reason why the best teachers should teach the least able to make up for the difference, and the good students should have the less able teachers because they don't require the able teachers.

"I read this in a Fabian pamphlet written by three schoolmasters. After that, I stopped my subscription, because they had gone mad!"

Lee was also to develop a deep mistrust of welfare policies, as practised in Western welfare states. These, he believed, had drifted away from their original socialist goal of gi ving every man, regardless of his social status, an equal crack in the game of life. Instead, they raised false hopes, and furthermore, by promising men equal rewards, they often resulted in some choosing to opt out of the game altogether. He was also acutely aware that Singapore's small, fledgling entre pot economy could til afford such indulgence.

"In Singapore, a society barely above the poverty line, welfarism would have broken and impoverished us. My actions and policies over the last 30 years after 1959, since I was first saddled with responsibilitv, were dictated by the overriding need that they would work. I have developed a deep aversion to welfarisrn and social security, because I have seen it sap the dynamism of people to work their best. What we have attempted in Singapore is asset enhancement, not subsidies. 'vie have attempted to give each person enough chips to be able to play at the table of life. This has kept the people self-reliant, keen and strong. Few have wasted their assets at the gaming table. Most have hoarded their growing wealth and have lived better on the interests and dividends they earn.

"I subsequently read Frederick Hayek's book, The Fatal Conceit: Errors of Socialism. He expressed with clanty and authority what I had long felt but was unable to express, namely the unwisdom of powerful intellects, including Albert Einstein, when they believed that a powerful brain can devise a better system and bring about more 'social justice' than what historical evolution, or econorruc Darwinism, has been able to work out over the centuries."

Hayek, a leading conservati ve thinker and renowned critic of socialism, had dismissed as a "fatal conceit" the idea held by some modern-day intellectuals that human ingenuity could fashion a societal system which was more humane and fair than the invisible hand of the free market. Instead, he contended that an extended social order, such as the


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