Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had close ties with Britain, but was never a 'colonial nostalgic'

IT IS by now largely forgotten that the first electorate Mr Lee Kuan Yew ever had to face and the first votes he ever canvassed were not, as one may expect, in Singapore but in Britain.

Soon after graduation from Cambridge, Mr Lee and his wife volunteered to help a university friend who was then standing as parliamentary candidate for the Labour Party in Totnes, a charming, rural part of western England. The fight was hopeless: The constituency had been a bastion for the Conservatives for at least one century, and remains so to this day.

Still, the young Mr Lee plunged into the electoral campaign with gusto and, although "voters were intrigued to see a Chinese speaking" - as Mr Lee subsequently recorded in his memoirs - they listened to him intently. Mr Lee and his parliamentary candidate friend were duly defeated, but the British sense of fair play and Britain's openness to foreigners were qualities that Mr Lee always praised about the British.

That first parliamentary battle also showcased his other side: a willingness - some would say even an irresistible desire - to criticise the British whenever he thought they were erring.

Back in 1950, he reminded Totnes voters that the British were receiving at that time more money from Malaysia's rubber plantations and tin mines than war-torn Britain was getting in subsidies from the United States. Britain, he argued, had to pay attention to Malaysia and take the administration of its colonies seriously. It also had to prepare for life after the empire.

Mr Lee always regarded such criticism as just a friendly advice to a close friend, and he shrugged off warnings that many British politicians did not relish the experience.

Yet few of his British critics - of which there were many - were ever aware of how deeply personal and how enduring his links with Britain really were.

It was British education that fashioned his adult life, a conscious choice he made despite the availability of many other options, and one repeated by both his sons.

It was in Britain that he tied the knot with his life-long partner; their decision to marry at the registry office in Stratford-upon- Avon, Shakespeare's birthplace, was a tacit acknowledgment of their love for British literature.

Throughout their adult lives, they came back to Britain to relax, and to be photographed in the same spot, on the same bridge in Cambridge, recalling that black- and-white picture taken in the first, carefree year of their married life.

As fate would have it, it was also during such a trip that Madam Kwa Geok Choo suffered her first stroke: They were united on British soil, and they were also given the first warning that their lives were going to be parted on the same British soil.

Notwithstanding all these extraordinary links, Mr Lee was never a "colonial nostalgic", if only because, as veteran commentator Philip Bowring noted, "he saw enough of British failures not to want to ape them".

He admired Britain's National Health Service, the prototype of a state-funded welfare system copied by most other industrial nations, and recounted his surprise when, during his Cambridge days, he was given both a pair of spectacles and dental treatments for free.

But he also swiftly concluded that the system is unaffordable, and that it discourages economic enterprise. Britain's political experiments inspired him, yet also served as a warning: Like the red government documents box that he, like all British ministers carried around, and which continues to be produced by the London-based company Barrow & Gale, Mr Lee kept the outward structures of Britain's political model, but its contents were entirely Singaporean.

Yet one of the most important lessons which he drew from the British - and one which, sadly, is seldom recalled today - is that independence neither required a complete break with the old colonial power, nor was an automatic ticket to prosperity.

"The choice lies between a communist republic of Malaya and a Malaya within the British Commonwealth led by people who, despite their opposition to imperialism, still share certain ideals in common with the Commonwealth," he told a group of fellow students members of the Malayan Forum in London in 1950.

The overwhelming majority of the British politicians who coincided with Mr Lee's tenure in power are now gone: Out of the 10 prime ministers who governed Britain since Mr Lee was first swept into office in 1959, only four are alive today, and all experienced power after he stepped down as prime minister.

Many British politicians who knew him found him annoying; they were not used to a foreigner reminding them just how badly Britain was doing. But not one doubted his formidable intellect and knowledge: "His quick brain", reported London's Evening Standard daily in the late 1960s, "make him a good match" for the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

"Luckily," the newspaper added, "the two are friends."

Yet one relationship stands out as unique: that between Lady Margaret Thatcher and Mr Lee.

"Prime Minister, an hour's talk with you is itself worth a journey halfway round the world and further still," she said at a banquet held in her honour at the Istana in April 1985. "There is no other world leader I have met in my time in office whom I have admired more for the strength of his convictions, the clarity of his views, the directness of his speech and for his vision of the way ahead."

Both leaders fervently believed in the creativity of market economies, and both knew that good governance cannot be accomplished by doing only what is popular.

Lady Thatcher once remarked in Mr Lee's presence, that those like her born in the Year of the Ox "are capable of anger and show an implacable side to our natures".

"Well well," she added, "there are some things one should be implacable about."

After she resigned as prime minister, Mr Lee was one of the first foreign leaders to pay her tribute: "I admired and respected her combativeness. There's a certain willingness to rough it out with the toughest around the place and to take on all corners," he said.

And, again, fate added a strange twist. For different reasons and circumstances, both stepped down from office on exactly the same day - Nov 28, 1990. He was the world's longest-serving prime minister; she was Britain's longest-serving prime minister of the 20th century. They remained close friends for life.

Britain honoured Mr Lee in every official way. Queen Elizabeth II undertook no less than three state visits to Singapore: in 1972, 1989 and 2006, a rare honour bestowed on only a few other countries.

But it is also true that, as the decades since independence went by, fewer and fewer of Britain's politicians knew of their links with Singapore, or of the enormous contributions Mr Lee personally made to nurturing them.

At one point, there was pressure in the British Parliament to sell Eden Hall, the grand residence of the British High Commissioners in Singapore; Sir Antony Acland, the then head of the British diplomatic service, had to appear in person before lawmakers to persuade them that the British representative in Singapore needed something more than just a unit in a communal housing with the occasional access to the void deck.

And, when Britain's Home Office introduced a new requirement demanding from all those applying for a long-term residence in Britain to pass an English language test, its officials needed some persuasion before agreeing that Singaporeans should not be required to prove that they can speak English.

Finally, while the Five Powers Defence Arrangements, a network of treaties, formally bind Singapore and Britain in a military alliance, the moment these treaties were mentioned in London, British officials usually preferred to change the subject and talk about the weather. Familiarity did ultimately breed contempt.

British knowledge of Singapore remains poor. As British newspapers marked Mr Lee's departure, they recycled all the usual cliches about Singapore, such as the "banning" of chewing gum or the allegedly draconian fines.

But in all the obituaries published on Mr Lee, only one mentioned Britain's decision to break a promise and pull back its forces from Singapore, exposing the island-state to economic and security problems.

For the Brits, this "East of Suez" withdrawal is history best forgotten; to Mr Lee, this rankled for long.

Still, as Singapore's founding father embarked on his last journey this week, all the ceremonials, from the gun carriage, the music, the troops, the lone bagpiper playing Auld Lang Syne and the lying in state, were British-inspired.

Mr Lee would have approved, for he believed that the best example of a secure nation is one which does not run away from its history.

Nor can one forget an episode back in the late 1960s, when during a garden party Mr Lee started criticising the rotten state of modern Britain before Mr George Brown, the visiting British Foreign Secretary.

Mr Brown listened with an amused grin and, when Mr Lee finished, he turned to him and replied: "Harry, you're the finest Englishman east of Suez."

For one of the rare moments in his life, Mr Lee was stumped for words.

Jonathan.eyal@gmail.com