Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charlie Munger on Lee Kuan Yew

Over this past weekend news came that Lee Kuan Yew had died at the age of 91.

During his three decades as Singapore's founding prime minister, GDP per capita increased dramatically. In fact, GDP per capita grew from roughly $ 500 in the mid-1960s to recently among the highest in the world.

Back in 2010 Charlie Munger said the following things about Singapore's founding father:

"My favorite political system in terms of being adapted to its particular circumstances, successfully, is Singapore. I think Singapore is the single most successful governmental system that exists in the world."

"If you will make a study of the life and the work of Lee Kuan Yew, you will find one of the most interesting and instructive political stories written in the history of mankind. This is better than Athens...and you will learn a lot that will be useful in your whole life."

" the life and work of Lee Kuan Yew, you're going to be flabbergasted."

Munger praises Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew

This parable written by Munger back in 2010 is another indication of the respect that he had for Yew (and some others).

In the parable, the politicians, facing a "brutal new reality...asked for advice from Benfranklin Leekwanyou Vokker, an old man who was considered so virtuous and wise that he was often called the 'Good Father.' Such consultations were rare. Politicians usually ignored the Good Father because he made no campaign contributions."

Who Munger considers "virtuous and wise" obviously isn't exactly a mystery.

Vast experience and a high IQ doesn't necessarily go hand in hand with great virtue, wisdom, and other critical talents. Still, I don't think it's all that difficult with a little effort to separate the Charlie Mungers or Lee Kuan Yews of the world from those who think they've got it all figured out but, well, really just do not.

James Grant wrote in his book Money of the Mind that "Progress is cumulative in science and engineering, but cyclical in finance."

This cyclicality doesn't just apply to finance.

Put another way, the world may continue to become more technically sophisticated, but the aspects of human nature that cause even very smart individuals to make big and costly* -- though often largely unnecessary -- mistakes don't fundamentally change all that much.

"Smart, hard-working people aren't exempted from professional disasters from overconfidence. Often, they just go aground in the more difficult voyages they choose..." - Charlie Munger speaking to the Foundation Financial Officers Group in 1998

Overconfidence is just one example among many.

Naturally, there are lots of smart people in business, finance, and politics. Unfortunately, this offers no guarantee they'll act with as much virtue and wisdom that one might like and end up doing great things for the world.

So that means, at least for me, when someone like Lee Kuan Yew comes along some appreciation is warranted and deserved. Perfection doesn't exist in the real world but, overall, his accomplishments seem rather astounding by almost any standard.

Much can be learned.

Few would seem to possess the combination of characteristics required to achieve what he did during his lifetime.

Here's a recent article that has a short collection of Lee Kuan Yew quotes.


* The costs, of course, aren't necessarily only measured in financial terms.

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