Mr Lee, Lyndon Johnson and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue

The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a lifelong admirer of the United States, but not an uncritical fan of the superpower, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a message read out at a private memorial service in New York City on Thursday. The message was read out by Singapore's Ambassador to the US, Mr Ashok Mirpuri. Below is an excerpt from the speech.

Looking back, one could say that my father's relationship with the United States started in the fall of 1967. That was when he made his first official visit as Prime Minister of a young Singapore. He had visited the US once before that, in 1962. That trip had been to the United Nations, to present the case before the UN Decolonisation Committee for Singapore's merger with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. By 1967 the merger had failed, and Singapore had left Malaysia and become an independent republic on its own.

This time, Mr Lee visited the US with a different purpose. The Vietnam War was heating up. US military involvement in Vietnam had deeply polarised American society. Mr Lee sought to impress on Americans that their stand was crucial for the future of South-east Asia. He argued that US military involvement in Vietnam bought the region time, formed a bulwark against the spread of Communism and afforded South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, urgently needed space to consolidate and develop.

During that trip, he did a live interview on the "Meet the Press" show. It was quintessential Lee Kuan Yew. He stood his ground, and expressed his views logically and eloquently. You can find the clip on YouTube, and it is still compelling viewing after nearly 50 years. Mr Lee understood the vital role of American leadership. He knew that without the US presence, there could be no stability or prosperity in Asia. It was a view he steadfastly held for the rest of his life.

On that trip in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) presented Mrs Lee with a jewellery box. Mrs Lee kept the box, and stored in it among other things the name card of a bicycle shop. This was no ordinary bicycle shop. It was the cut-out address for Mr Lee's contact with the Plen. The Plen, short for Plenipotentiary, was the name Mr Lee gave a senior underground leader of the Malayan Communist Party who had negotiated with him, ultimately fruitlessly. Now that it is 2015, I guess you can say that the US succeeded in containing Communism in South-east Asia.

That 10-day visit to the US left a strong impression on Mr Lee. It piqued his curiosity and began his long relationship with the US. He felt that through his life he had come to know Britain and the British people. We were a British colony and he studied in Cambridge as well as spent time in London. But he did not know the United States, which was a superpower and the leader of the free world, and would play a major role in Asia for a long time to come.

Over the years, my father would make many more visits to the US.


The openness, generosity and warmth of the American people left a deep impression on Mr Lee Kuan Yew, whose relationship with the United States began in 1967. -ST FILE PHOTO

On every trip, he would call on the sitting President and meet his principal aides, especially their Secretaries of State, Defence and Treasury, and National Security Advisor. He used those opportunities to get a read on the thinking in Washington. He would also speak as a friend and give the US an objective assessment, not just on Singapore-US bilateral relations, but on developments in Asia. One continuing focus was the US' vital relationship with China.

Mr Lee would also take the opportunity to meet American business leaders and captains of industry, to make a pitch to them to invest in Singapore, and to exchange views on the international economy and geopolitics.

After he stepped down as prime minister, he took on appointments on international advisory boards of JP Morgan and Citibank.

Every trip Mr Lee made brought him new insights and increased his admiration for the US system. He admired America's faith in free enterprise and open competition.

He spoke highly of your country's ability to attract talent, and your inclusiveness and openness which made the American economy and society the most dynamic in the world. He was grateful for the generosity of the American spirit, which made US dominance in Asia a benign and welcome source of stability and prosperity for so many Asian countries.

Even when America experienced crises and downturns, Mr Lee never wavered in his confidence that American creativity and resilience, its ability constantly to reinvent itself, would enable the US to overcome any challenge and retain its leadership role in the world.

But Mr Lee was not an uncritical fan of the US. He saw that not everything was perfect, and did not believe that the US system could be replicated wholesale to other countries, and in particular to Singapore. He thought that "a wealthy and solidly established nation like America can roll with such a system", because it can afford a certain degree of risk.

He saw America as a great country, not just because of its political system, but because the greatest things of America took place outside the system: not just in DC but in the universities, in business, in research laboratories, in local communities. He knew from experience that the best ideas taken to extremes become dysfunctional.

And so, he differed with American conventional wisdom on the issue of the role of the media as a fourth estate, and the relevance of Western liberal democracy in Asia. He believed that every country had to find its own way that suited its history and society.

Not everyone would concede the argument, but he persuaded many Americans that he spoke from experience and conviction, and that he had a point. He relished those occasions for him to put his view across and to spar intellectually. It earned him many admirers, even among those who did not fully agree with him.

But it was the openness, generosity and warmth of the American people that left the deepest impression on my father.

After his first visit in 1967, he decided to return for a short sabbatical in the US. The following year he spent two months in Harvard (from November to December 1968). In his memoirs, he recounted that his greatest benefit from this sabbatical was not more knowledge, but the contacts and friendships he made. It was at Harvard that Mr Lee first met

Dr Henry Kissinger, a memorable encounter that Henry has recounted many times. Henry would become one of his closest friends.

I remember one souvenir my father brought home from his 1967 trip to the US. It was a gift from LBJ, a portable turntable with vinyl LP records of George Gershwin's music, including the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. I am not sure we made much of this sample of American technology and culture at the time, but looking back, that gift symbolised America's spirit of dynamism, spontaneity, generosity and warmth - the American values that my father greatly admired all these years.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 26, 2015, with the headline 'Mr Lee, Lyndon Johnson and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue'. Print Edition | Subscribe