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Charismatic Leaders and Political Reforms: The Case of Ho Chi Minh

& Lee Kuan Yew


Russell H.K Heng (王贤勤)

(Draft version not for citation without permission of writer)


The term “charismatic leaders” has its origins in Max Weber’s notion of “charismatic authority” as one of three ideal types of authority; the other two being legal or rational and traditional.1 The 20th century seemed to be distinguished by the large number of charismatic leaders appearing on the global scene and so half a century after Weber, academic writings on world politics used the term widely. These were national leaders who had a mesmerizing effect on their constituents and appeared to enjoy a degree of power and influence far beyond that which was vested in their formal political status. In the developed nations, they included Adolf Hitler of Germany, Franklin Roosevelt of the United States, Winston Churchill of the United Kingdom and Charles de Gaulle of France. In the newly independent countries of the Third World, India had Mahatma Gandhi and then Nehru, Egypt had Nasser and Indonesia had Sukarno. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestations of charismatic authority were seen in the Communist countries, e.g., Stalin of the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong of China, Kim Il Sung of North Korea and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam. The list including examples from Africa and Latin America can run much longer.

Since then, many of these leaders are dead or have their legacy discredited by events. However it would be fallacious to think that the world has seen the last of charismatic leaders. Southeast Asia still holds major examples of charismatic authority in national politics that range from living leaders (e.g., Singapore’s Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew and Thailand’s King Bhumibol) to dead ones kept alive (e.g., Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh) to aspiring candidates (e.g., Thai Prime Minister Thaksin).

This article does not aim to revive the study of charismatic leaders and will not attempt to find answers to the many unanswered theoretical questions about charismatic authority. The focus of this paper is to look at the democratization processes in today’s Vietnam and Singapore. In my personal experience, many people  both Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese  have been curious to know if the Singapore reality of a single political party entrenched in power successfully running a market economy can provide inspiration or lessons for Vietnam. The simple answer is no but both countries although long separated by ideology share some major political features. Both the founding fathers Ho Chi Minh and Lee Kuan Yew continue to cast their shadows over national politics. Both the governing regimes of Vietnam and Singapore are facing pressures to democratize. This begs the question what sort of impact the two charismatic leaders would have on the democratization process. This is a tentative paper and its modest aim is to explore whether the political charisma of Ho or Lee can achieve what it seeks to achieve. In so doing, I hope to take a look at the dynamics of political reforms in Vietnam and Singapore. This paper is not meant to be a biographical study of Ho and Lee.

The data I draw from would be the speeches/writings of these two leaders and what researches have said about them. Another level of data comes from my own research on present-day politics in Vietnam and Singapore.


The academic literature dealing with the issue of how to define “charismatic authority” has covered extensive grounds. It is too vast a subject to attempt a summary and neither is it necessary. In the opening paragraph, I have provided a working description of what I mean by “charismatic leaders” referring to their inordinate level of power and the emotional impact they have on their audience. This is not a perfect definition but will suffice for the purpose of this article. However it is useful to set down a few points to clarify some of the popular misconception that tend to colour people’s understanding of what is charismatic authority. First, charisma is closely related to but not synonymous with “power”. There have been cases of leaders losing their power but retaining their charismatic impact, e.g., N’krumah of Ghana or Sihanouk of Cambodia. There is also a tendency to place a value judgement on whether political charisma is virtuous or wicked. That should not be the case. Use of political charisma can lead to appalling (as in the case of Hitler) or inspiring (as in the case of Gandhi) outcomes. Another popular misconception is to link charisma directly to the personality of the individual who is credited with it. Charisma has different sources and any attempt to pin it down to a specific set of human qualities would be futile. A better working definition of charisma is to view it not so much as what a leader is but what people see the leader as.2

Ho’s Political Creed

Ho Chi Minh’s guiding role in Vietnamese politics today is undeniable for the plain reason that the Vietnamese government formally promotes it as a state ideology. Whatever Ho Chi Minh said or wrote in his lifetime have been compiled into an operating ideology known as Ho Chi Minh Thoughts (Tu tuong Ho Chi Minh). A state-funded industry of research programmes and publications generates a huge amount of writings about the man. Ho Chi Minh Thoughts is a compulsory item in the formal training of party cadres and civil servants. In his lifetime, Ho had charismatic appeal both domestically and internationally. He has a large reputation as a nationalist hero but the charismatic cult that has grown around him is based on the image of a simple clean-living old man who loves children and shows great wisdom in everything he did. Ho has irrefutable answers for a vast range of national or local issues. Ho is also never blamed directly for any of the less desirable actions of the Vietnam Communist Party (VCP). Vietnam, like most socialist countries, had periods of state-imposed radicalism that inflicted suffering and violence on its people. There were the Land Reforms programme of 1955-1956 and two rounds of purges of liberal intellectuals in 1958 and then from 1963 to 1968. However popular accounts of Ho’s role in these events was that he played a moderating role as far as he could and the excesses were the fault of his younger colleagues in the Politburo. At most Ho was guilty of not being able to rein them in.3

Hence the charismatic legacy that continues today basically uses him to promote policies and decisions that the present regime deems to be desirable. In 1986, Vietnam formally adopted a wide-ranging reforms programme known as doi moi (which means reforms). Primarily, the programme aims to shift the country’s central-planning socialist economy into one that runs on free market principles. It also recognizes the importance of loosening the tight control that the VCP has imposed on the country. This means having to give a far greater measure of freedom to people to organize their life independently and to critique the state for its many shortcomings. Since then, media and academic writings have highlighted the attempts by Vietnam to democratize its politics. In the context of doi moi, Ho’s teachings have been cited by today’s leaders to soften hard ideological positions and argue for the more moderate and sensible approaches which doi moi is trying to promote. Given that doi moi comes with a “democratization” agenda, it is relevant to examine just what comprise Ho’s democratic values and what do they contribute to the country’s democratic reforms.

First it must be pointed out that Ho did not exactly theorize about democracy (Nguyen Khac Mai 1997:20). What has been passed down is not a coherent systematic body of thoughts. The intellectual legacy is really no more than what party intellectuals have teased out from the speeches and articles that have been credited to Ho in his lifetime.4 It is often presented as slogans or pieces of rhetoric. Here are some examples:

  • Lam sao cho nhan dan biet huong quyen dan chu, biet dung quyen dan chu cua minh, dam noi, dam lam (How do we let people know their democratic rights and and in using their democratic rights, they dare to speak and dare to do)

  • Phai mo rong dan chu that su voi nhan dan (Open up democracy to include the people truly)

  • Neu nuoc doc lap ma dan khong huong hanh phuc tu do, thi doc lap cung chang co nghia ly gi (If people in an independent country do not enjoy happiness and freedom then independence has no meaning)

A theme that runs through most of Ho’s rhetoric is the need to place the welfare of the people above everything else. On that hangs the argument that Ho was a passionate democrat, steeped in a belief that the will of the people must always be served and allowed to prevail.

The following narrative is typical of the state-promoted argument on the usefulness of Ho’s democratic legacy: Vietnam has not lived up to the best of this democratic legacy by failing to institutionalize Ho’s teachings as laws, ingrain them into party cadres, and adopt them as the conventions of society (Nguyen Khac Mai 1997:26). There continues to be instances when the VCP fails to heed Ho’s legacy of serving the people first. Therefore today’s democratic enterprize needs the guidance of Ho.

However, if one reads the vast selection of quotations from Ho, it is clear that the notion of democracy embedded in them is closely welded to a socialist revolutionary goal. The following quotation provides an evident example: “Co phat huy dan chu den cao do thi moi dong vien duoc tat ca luc luong cua nhan dan, dua cach mang tien len” (Only when we have developed democracy to its highest point then can we mobilize all of the strength of the people to bring revolution to the fore) (Nguyen Khac Mai 1997:29-30). There is nothing wrong with that but it is important to make the distinction between a Western liberal democracy model and the Marxist-Leninist variety. Official discourses in Vietnam tend to mix up the two.

Basically, what we are dealing with is an “ideology” that is artificially constructed. It rides on the residual charisma of a leader who was much respected and loved in his lifetime but given the reality of Vietnam today, a question needs to be asked: Just what is the usefulness, if any, of packaging and promoting ideology in this way? Here I borrow an insightful observation by Thomas F. Remington (1988) about the role of ideology in the Soviet Union in its final years. Remington found plenty of evidence that even as ideological indoctrination was falling on deaf ears, the propaganda machinery dispensing it was growing. His answer was that the content of the message was not as important as the structure of its organized dissemination. Even if they did not believe in what they were doing, members of the intellectual and managerial elite who made up this ideological machinery persist because they were drawn into a nexus of power and privilege. This was important for promoting elite solidarity and doctrinal cohesion. It was not that ideology was no longer important; rather the system should be seen as increasingly not dependent on what ideology had to say, but neither was it free of ideology.

If Remington’s words apply to Vietnam, then Ho Chi Minh Thoughts, whatever its content, is basically not important for what it has to contribute to the democratization discourse. It is the creation of the Vietnamese political system to play a part in perpetuating that system. Within that context, it can be used as a tool to further the democratization agenda if the political system wants to use it that way. In the long run, if democratization is to make any headway in Vietnam, other objective conditions have to be met, with or without Ho’s legacy.

Lee’s Legacy

In terms of their impact on democratization in their respective country, a fundamental difference sets Lee Kuan Yew apart from Ho Chi Minh. Ho is promoted and seen as a positive influence on democratization. In the case of Lee, he is seen as an obstacle. This is not just a perspective coming from the opposition in Singapore or the critics of Lee. Even Lee’s successors  Goh Chok Tong and then Lee’s son Lee Hsien Loong  hold this view even if they do not say it so directly. When Goh became Prime Minister, one of his main policies was to promote a “kinder and gentler” Singapore. This basically meant giving Singaporeans more space because for so long space has been restricted. This was frequently perceived as a measure of how much the man was prepared to deviate from Lee and be his own man. Similarly, before Lee Hsien Loong succeeded Goh, a strand of popular discourse was how much would he would be his father’s son and roll back the liberalization agenda of Goh. Therefore, at a certain level, democratization in Singapore can be described as synonymous with a “de-Lee Kuan Yew-ization” process.

Even if anybody wants to promote Lee’s credentials as a great champion of democracy, Lee would probably step forward to correct the mis-representation. Lee has not been shy to tell everybody that he is not a fan of Western-style liberal democracy. This is a very consistent stand if you tracked what he said from his early years as Prime Minister to the present.5 He argues that the democratic system that Western imperialist powers tried to introduce round the world in their ex-colonies had more failures than successes. That means many societies were just not ready for them. Hence, the Western democratic model must adjust to local conditions and not insist on a common standard for all societies. Neither is the universal desirability of Western democracy proven. Asian societies, not having the same democratic traditions, do not necessarily value what Westerners value such as “freedom and liberties of the individuals”. Lee said that he, as an Asian of Chinese cultural background, wanted “government which is honest, effective and efficient in protecting its people, and allowing opportunities for all to advance themselves in a stable and orderly society, where they can live a good life and raise their children to do better than themselves.” The last is Lee putting things diplomatically. On another occasion, he had said in more rugged terms:

Nobody doubts that if you take me on, I will put on the knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac…Anybody who decides to take me on needs to put on the knuckle-dusters. If you think you can hurt me more than I can hurt you, try. There is no other way you can govern a Chinese society” (Han et al. 1998: 126)

What Lee is after  on which he has based his political charisma  is good governance. His notion of good governance privileges law and order for the masses over democratic principles and individual rights. One biographer (Barr 2000:211-22) has discussed this “essential Lee Kuan Yew” in terms of Confucianism as political ideology, which is distinct from Confucianism as a code of personal ethics or a mode of scholarship. The core notion of this ideology is that what is critical to good governance is the quality of the ruler and his advisors. This why the Singapore that Lee has passed on to his successors has a system of governance based on an educated elite that is groomed to govern. This system does not set out to destroy democracy or individual rights but it would not allow these abstract principles to get in its way of fulfilling its own vision of a good and stable government.

If “democratization” is integral to the political future of Singapore, then it is clear from the above that Lee’s legacy would have little, if anything, to contribute to that development. As I pointed out earlier, the post-Lee era has included a strong element of “de-Lee Kuan Yew-ization”. However, as much as the younger generations of leaders in Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP) may want to make political capital out of the need to liberalize Singapore, they are also deeply influenced by Lee’s political legacy of the imperative of a strong good government. Embedded in this legacy is a belief that only the PAP can provide that kind of government and so the PAP monopoly of power must be maintained at all cost. This legacy will persist after Lee is dead and would be a measure of how Lee’s charisma has so consolidated one-party rule in Singapore.

Before ending I would like to point to one methodological shortcoming when comparing the legacies of Ho and Lee. One man is dead and the other is still alive. A dead leader has no say over how his legacy is used by the current political regime. A more appropriate comparison will have to wait till Lee is no longer around. My guess is when that happens, there will still be differences in form and substance between the two legacies as much as there are commonalities.

After Lee is gone, it is unlikely that the PAP government will elevate his teachings to an “ism”, generate a regular stream of books on him and have him on school curriculum and training manuals for civil servants. The Singapore system was never structured like that. What we are seeing with the cult of Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam is a common feature with societies that are structured in the Marxist-Leninist historical tradition.

It is important to recognize the real substance of a political legacy no matter how a present-day political regime chooses to use it. Ho’s legacy is based on his contributions to the nationalist struggle for independence and the socialist revolution both at home and abroad. The claim to a strong democratic component in this legacy is a tenuous one. Basically Ho’s charisma is being deployed to help the VCP strengthened its ailing legitimacy by laying claim to old nationalistic and revolutionary achievements. On the other hand, Lee has chosen not to lay claim to democracy as part of his legacy. Good governance under one-party rule is. So traveling by two different routes, both charisma legacies have reached a common endpoint: they help to perpetuate an authoritarian ideology aimed at perpetuating an incumbent political regime.



Barr, Michael D. 2000. Lee Kuan Yew – The Beliefs Behind the Man. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Dang Xuan Ky (chu bien). 1997. Phuong phap va Phong cach Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi: NXB Chinh Tri Quoc Gia.
Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan. 1998. Lee Kuan Yew – The Man and His Ideas. Singapore: Times Edition Pted Ltd.
Nguyen Khac Mai. 1997. Dan Chu Di San Van Hoa Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi: NXB Lao Dong.
Nguyen Van Tran. 1995. Viet Cho Me & Quoc Hoi. Westminster, California: Van Nghe.
Pham Thanh & Nguyen Khac Mai. 1991. Tu tuong dan chu cua Ho Chi Minh. Hanoi: NXB Su That.
Willner, Ann Ruth. 1984. The Spellbinders – Charismatic Political Leadership. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

1 Max Weber, Economy and Society, ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, 3 Vols. (New York: Bedminster Press, 1968) 1, pp. 213-301, and 3, pp. 941-1211. For a summary of Weber’s concept of authority, see Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), pp. 298-99, 301-10.

2 For a good account of these issues related to defining “charisma”, see Ann Ruth Willner, The Spellbinders – Charismatic Political Leadership (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 1984), pp. 1-17.

3 Many Vietanamese are increasingly aware that Ho’s saintly image is not everything it is made out to be. There is a considerable rumour mill about his relationship with women and that he may have had a son. The following eye witness account by a senior party cadre (Nguyen Van Tran. 1995:187-88) of what happened at a Hanoi university illustrates how Ho Chi Minh can be the iron fist in the velvet glove when he wants to. In 1956, Ho visited the university at a time when the students were making wall posters in support of two magazines Nhan Van and Giai Pham that were bravely critical of the regime and socialism. One of the posters posed the question: "What is democratic centralism?" Ho looked at all these and just smiled. When it was time for him to address the students, he took the opportunity to answer the question on democratic centralism. He said, "If all of you own property or wealth, you are the master of what you own. That is democracy. But you do not know how to keep your wealth and I look after it on your behalf. I centralize everything by throwing all your possessions into a trunk, lock it and then put the key in my pocket. That is centralism!" The students were reduced to silence.

4 For those interested in getting a flavour of such books see Tu tuong dan chu cua Ho Chi Minh by Pham Thach and Nguyen Khach Mai and Phuong phap va Phong cach Ho Chi Minh edited by Dang Xuan Ky. The list of titles goes much longer than these two examples.

5 For the purpose of this article, I refer to Lee Kuan Yew – The Man and His Ideas, edited by Han Fook Kwang, Warren Fernandez and Sumiko Tan, 1998. Singapore: Times Edition Pte Ltd. pp. 365-83. This is a selection of Lee’s views on major political and social issues. In it were four extracts from Lee’s interviews and speeches that were quite specific about the subject of democracy. They spanned three decades from 1962 to 1992. None of them indicated any enthusiasm for Western liberal democracy. I believe that if Lee had anything positive to say about “democracy”, the three editors would have dug them out.

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