Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: 'I did my best'

The following is an extract from the book Lee Kuan Yew: The Man And His Ideas, published in 1998, in which Mr Lee reveals details about his personal life in his own words

Four thirty on a Saturday afternoon and the Istana is quiet, save for the steady, sleepy sound of cicadas snuggled deep in the trees on the sloping lawns.

The Istana, Malay for "palace", stands on what was once part of a massive nutmeg estate belonging to a British merchant named Charles Robert Prinsep.

In 1867, Governor Harry Ord, who was in charge of Singapore from 1867 to 1873, acquired the land and built Government House on it.

The stately white building, a mix of Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders, was constructed by Indian convicts from Bencoolen in Sumatra.

Over the years, other structures were added to the grounds.

One of them, Sri Temasek, is the official residence of the prime minister of Singapore, though no prime minister has ever lived in it.

There is also the Istana Annexe, Istana Villa and Istana Lodge.

The main Istana building houses the president's office, while the Istana Annexe serves as the prime minister's office.

On the second floor of the Annexe, all is busy on this humid afternoon.

Plainclothes security officers tread the narrow carpeted corridors, buzzing each other periodically over their walkie-talkies.

In a brightly lit room, a secretary works at her computer, one ear peeled to an intercom linking her to an adjoining office where Lee Kuan Yew works.

It is an L-shaped room with an attached bathroom. It is free of personal paraphernalia. No family photographs decorate his table, no personal mementoes line his walls.

He sits behind a desk, his back to a computer. A low cabinet next to it is stacked with books and files.

A wood-panelled wall camouflages the door to the room where his two secretaries work.

A teak table for eight stands 4m from his desk, a jade dragon jar in the middle.

Lee works in this office six days a week, from about 10 in the morning to 6.30 in the evening, when he puts his work aside for his daily exercise in the Istana grounds.

He has been known to come back to the office on Sundays and public holidays.

He is about 1.8m tall, and slim. His trousers, which are usually in light hues, are loose, and he tugs at the waistband frequently.

He is at least 10kg lighter than when he was in his 40s.

His shirts are well-pressed though well-worn, and he wears a windbreaker, usually beige, when he is in the office.

At 74, his hair is white.

The once wiry black mop has thinned considerably over the years, accentuating a broad, high forehead under which small, piercing eyes stare.

His face is pink in tone, the skin mostly unlined, though tiny creases criss-cross the skin on his eyelids. His nails are neatly trimmed.

Even in a private setting, he is a forceful personality. His facial expression changes quickly and his hands often chop the air to emphasise a point. His voice rises and falls according to his emotions.

He is quick to show impatience, and slow to smile. He has never suffered fools lightly.

Who is this man who, more than anyone else, has shaped the history of modern Singapore? Who is the person behind the personality Singaporeans regard with awe, respect, love, fear or hate?

How would he describe himself? How does he see his 40 years of political life? What is his role now? What is his family life like? And what are his dreams and fears?

Lee revealed his personal life in these interviews with the authors, weaving in events that took place 40 years ago as if they had happened only yesterday.

I have to be taken seriously

Asked to describe himself, Lee is careful and takes his time to answer the question.

"I would say that I'm very determined when I set out to do something.

"First, I've got to decide whether something is worth doing. If it's not worth doing, well, I'm not prepared to spend the time over it, to make the effort. Then I just coast along, it doesn't matter whether it succeeds or doesn't succeed, it's of no consequence.

"But if I decide that something is worth doing, then I'll put my heart and soul into it. I'll give everything I've got to make it succeed.

"So I would put my strength, determination and willingness to see my objective to its conclusion.

"Whether I can succeed or not, that's another matter - but I will give everything I've got to make sure it succeeds.

"If I've got to get good people, I get good people. If I've got to change tack, I will change tack. But the objective is the same. The presentation may change... If you have decided something is worth doing, you've got to remove all obstacles to get there."

What others think of him - many commentators have had a field day writing about him, and coffee-shop gossip about his life constantly hovers in the air - is water off a duck's back.

He has always relished a fight with his critics. He puts it this way: "I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.

"If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind...

"You will go where the wind is blowing. And that's not what I am in this for.

"Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless. When I say something, to make it easier for me to govern, I have to be taken very seriously.

"So when I say 'please don't do that', you do it, I have to punish you because I was not joking when I said that. And when I punish, it's to punish publicly.

"And people will know the next time, if you want to do that when he said 'no, don't do it', you must be prepared for a brutal encounter.

"What the crowd thinks of me from time to time, I consider totally irrelevant... The whole ground can be against, but if I know this is right, I set out to do it, and I am quite sure, given time, as events unfold, I will win over the ground...

"My job as a leader is to make sure that before the next elections, enough has developed and disclosed itself to the people to make it possible for me to swing them around. That's the business of a leader - not to follow the crowd. That's a washout. The country will go down the drain!"

The makings of a leader

Lee has strong views about what makes a good and effective leader, what qualities are important and will make a difference to the way a country is run.

"You need, besides determination, all the other attributes that will push a project along. You must have application, you must be prepared to work hard, you must be prepared to get people to work with you.

"Especially for political leaders, you've got to have people work for you and work with you. You've got to enthuse them with the same fire and the same eagerness that pushes you along.

"I think that's a very big factor in leadership: At the end of the day, you must also have idealism to succeed, to make people come with you. You must have that vision of what is at the bottom of the rainbow you want to reach.

"But you must have a sense of reality... to feel when this vision is not practical, that it will ruin us.

"But a leader without the vision, the idea to strive to improve things, is no good. Then you'll just stay put, you won't progress."

He also saw the importance of reading and exchanging views with experts.

"You must read. It's one way of getting information. But you've got to read what's relevant, not only what you're interested in.

"My wife reads Jane Austen. She was a student of English language and literature so she likes to read books in which she had found joy as a student.

"I wouldn't read Jane Austen, not because I don't admire her style, but because I would not have the time.

"I suppose there are times when I get so tired and browned off with certain problems, I want to take my mind off them, so I'll read something totally different, about South American tribes or whatever.

"Occasionally, I would read little biographies or autobiographies. There's one about an English lady in Kashgar. My wife would have read it, she'd say, "Oh, this is interesting!" It's a totally different world. It transports me for one, two hours to a different world.

"Unless the book is riveting, I don't read it from cover to cover. I'll read it and if I see something else, I'll pick it up.

"You must not overlook the importance of discussions with knowledgeable people. I would say that is much more productive than absorbing or running through masses of documents.

"Because in a short exchange, you can abstract from somebody who has immense knowledge and experience the essence of what he had gained.

"In a one-hour exchange over dinner with some people who are knowledgeable in certain fields, you get the hang of a particular problem."

I can live frugally

When he decided to enter politics in 1955, Lee knew that he had to prepare himself for a life of uncertainty. He set about this in a characteristically practical manner.

"When I went in, I had to be comfortable with my own self, that I can live with failure. And failure means it has failed, the communists have won and I'm in deep trouble.

"Either I have to flee, or they will brainwash me, break me. I don't think they will just kill me because by that time, I would have become a prominent fellow. They want to use me like they used Henry Pu Yi, the last emperor. They brainwash you and break you. And I knew all that!

"I prepared myself for the possibility of failure, for the possibility of being able to live with failure. In other words, if you want a soft life, better not get into this.

"So I led a pretty disciplined life; if the worst came to the worst, I could survive. I don't need caviar for breakfast, or for dinner, or for supper. I can live on soya beans. I can live quite frugally if I need to.

"It became a way of remoulding my life in a direction or in a way which would withstand a sharp attack on it.

"Even today, I would still drive my car in the Istana grounds. If tomorrow I have no driver, I can just pick up my car and drive. Occasionally, on a Sunday, I drive myself outside the Istana.

"I carry my own bag as a matter of principle, because otherwise, for 30, 40 years, with everybody pushing chairs for you, your limbs will atrophy.

"And I was very keen that that shouldn't happen to my children, that nobody pushed chairs for them. If a ball fell down and the Istana boy wanted to pick it up, I would stop him and say, 'No, that's his ball. Ignore him. He will go to the drain and pick it up.' They had to learn that, and I think they have benefited from it."

Politics also meant he had to give up a potentially well-paying career as a lawyer, which one of his brothers went into.

"When I decided to go into politics, Bashir Mallal, the man who ran the Malayan Law Journal, came to see me. He wasn't a lawyer, but he was a lawyer's clerk and he knew a lot about law. Had there been night courses, he would have been a very good lawyer. His son and I were schoolmates, so he knew me as a teenager. He liked me.

"I was doing well then as a lawyer in Laycock and Ong - '54, '55 - but I was getting involved in politics, all those unions and clan associations.

"He said to me, 'Make your name at the law first and make your fortune, then go into politics', which was what people of his generation did. That was conventional wisdom. You make a name at the law, you make your fortune, then you go into Congress politics, as in India.

"He didn't understand that something dramatic had happened to my generation, that making a fortune, playing safe, doesn't add up when the system is wrong.

"I was dead set against the system. But going into politics meant a hazardous, peril-fraught career.

"It's not a career, it's a vocation. You're taking a plunge, no return. And if you fail, you pay for it with your life. The communists, if they fix you, they fix you good and proper."

But, he admits, he had the luxury of allowing his convictions to rule his decision as his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, was herself a successful lawyer.

"My great advantage was I have a wife who could be a sole breadwinner and bring the children up. That was my insurance policy.

"Without such a wife, I would have been hard-pressed. To be fair, I was able to make these decisions because I had this fall-back position, I was insured."

I would do a lot for a friend, but ...

As prime minister, he has had to take tough action against friends.

When President Devan Nair, a long-time ally, was found misbehaving because of alcoholism in 1985, for example, he had to be removed from office.

Then, in 1986, he let the law take its course when National Development Minister Teh Cheang Wan was discovered to be accepting bribes.

"Let me put it in a simple way. I would do a lot personally for a friend, provided what we set out together to do is not sacrificed. We set out to get this place up.

"If I sacrifice that now, we are doing harm to what we've been trying to do; that cannot be done.

"But if you need a hundred thousand dollars, I'll sign it out of my own resources or raise the money. Good luck to you.

"And that's a different matter, that's a personal relationship. But that personal relationship cannot be transmuted into a concession that will jeopardise state interests.

"That cannot be done because that's what we're trying to establish - a system where people act in accordance with certain principles.

"The purpose is not just to be righteous. The purpose is to create a system which will carry on because it has not been compromised. I didn't do that just to be righteous about Teh Cheang Wan. But if I had compromised, that is the end of the system."

Stepping aside

On Nov 28, 1990, Lee handed over the reins of government to Goh Chok Tong. The event was televised, and many observed that he looked emotional.

Since then, there has also been talk about whether he has really relinquished power and whether his influence behind the scenes has diminished.

To him, all this misses the mark completely. Those who indulge in such idle speculation, he said, do not understand what his stepping aside as prime minister meant to him and the country.

"I had prepared for it for a long time, so I was impatient for it to take place... The Western press, they write up these things projecting their reactions into me, that to give up power was a disastrous loss of authority and so on. Whereas my approach was totally different.

"I had a job to do. I had come to the conclusion by about '76 that my most important job was to get a team that could carry on the work, otherwise we would fail...

"So I spent a long time hunting for good men, working out a system that will produce a team of good men, comparable, at least as competent as what I had in place.

"They may not be as tough and tough-minded, or as imaginative or creative because that's in the luck of the draw. But they must be able to run the place. They must first know the problems. So we set out headhunting.

"I set the target at 1988, when I would be 65, believing that the sooner I give up, the younger I will be and the more active I can be to make sure that the team succeeds. I'll be around to make sure that the team can succeed. The later I give up, the older and slower I will be, the more risky its success.

"When '88 came, Chok Tong wasn't confident of taking over from me and dealing with our immediate neighbours, Suharto and Mahathir. He felt he would be at a disadvantage.

"So he said, 'Better give me two years; meanwhile I can get a feel of the job.' Meanwhile, I had been passing over more and more of the work to him. And I said, 'What do you think? What's your view?', pushing him to make decisions and then supporting him. Or if I disagreed, I would explain the reasons.

"So when 1990 came, he wanted me to stay on for the 25th anniversary of Singapore's independence, for a sentimental reason, 1965 to 1990. So I finished my term in August and he was ready to take over by November, after I'd tidied up some odds and ends.

"My job after that was to make sure that an error which is avoidable because of my experience should not be committed if I can help it. I think the team in place is functioning. And I believe, without me, it can function as well. That is a triumph!

"The Western correspondents don't understand that this is a completely different approach to the problem of succession. For him and his team to fail, it's my failure.

"I brought this team together. If they succeed, it is I who brought about the success. It's a very serious business, of ensuring the continuation of good government."

It was for this reason, he says, that he went public in 1988 to give an assessment of whom he thought could best take over from him. He had rated Tony Tan his first choice, even though Goh Chok Tong was then First Deputy Prime Minister.

"When I went public to say, 'Look, this is my assessment', I did that deliberately to make sure people understood that this was an open exercise, that they, Goh's peers, had chosen him.

"In other words, having chosen him, they have to support him. I had not appointed him. If I appointed him and they disagreed, they could withhold support and he would not succeed...

"Having seen what went wrong, particularly in the communist countries, and even in Britain, where Churchill handed over to Anthony Eden, Eden failed and Macmillan picked it up.

"I did not believe that if I appointed the leader, they would give him the same wholehearted support. So I forced them to decide amongst themselves. I had said to them, 'Look, my assessment is as follows.'

"This was after the 1984 elections. I watched them run the elections and I watched their press conferences. I said the most decisive leader was Tony Tan. He would say 'yes or no' and he would stick to it.

"Goh Chok Tong would try to please you. You can see him in a press conference, even today. If he sits back and talks to his Cabinet, then he comes out with a firm position, after long discussion. But if you engage him in a press conference, you might get him to make some concessions.

"You will never get Tony Tan to do that. You won't get me to do that. You can talk to me till the cows come home; if I have decided that this is no go, it is no go.

"You may be unhappy, but I am quite convinced, after six months, maybe after six years, you will know that I was right.

"But he (Goh) has one advantage - he has their support. They've got to support him because they elected him. And I think that that was a wise move. I made it public to let people know that the choice was that of his colleagues.

"There was a reason and method behind what people thought was a casual passing of judgment. I was seriously placing the weight on the shoulders of his colleagues. They have worked with me, I have pointed out this is right, that is wrong.

"I thought at that time that Deng Xiaoping made a mistake getting rid of Zhao Ziyang. Maybe he had compelling reasons, I don't know... must have been powerful reasons. After working with a man for 30, 40 years, why knock him down like that?"

Does he miss being the prime minister?

"Frankly no. Supposing I'm prime minister, I have to attend to all the day-to-day problems, I've got to go to all these conferences, Asean summit, Apec, visit so many countries.

"I have done all that for so long. What's the point of it? I have outgrown it. I don't hanker to go to an Asean summit or an Apec summit, or to have a state visit to America or Britain.

"I've been through all that. I have been the guest of honour at formal dinners, state visits - from President Johnson to Nixon, to Ford to Reagan and Bush. Well, that's enough!

"The prime minister has to work with Clinton. It's not my job. He's a younger man. Supposing I were the prime minister and I had to deal with Clinton, I would find it quite an effort dealing with a Vietnam War generation, a man who was against the Vietnam War.

"I was for the Vietnam War and had encouraged the President of the United States, both Johnson and then Nixon."

On his role as senior minister and his life now, Lee sees himself as a guardian to the younger team running Singapore.

"At 70-plus, what do I need? Time to reflect. I need enough to keep me engaged and interested in life.

"What is it I want to do? What can I best do with the balance of my time? I don't know how much time I've got left. If, let's say, I have another five or 10 years - if I am lucky, and am like my father more than like my mother, who died when she was 74. But it's 10 years in which my energy levels will be declining, year by year.

"What I'd like to do now is to give this Government the benefit of my experience in avoiding mistakes.

"I can't tell them what to do as their great achievements, their great breakthroughs. That's for them to work out with younger Singaporeans. But I know that certain things are sure paths to trouble, so avoid them.

"It's not by accident that we got here. Every possible thing that could have gone wrong, we had tried to pre-empt. That's how we got here, that's why we have substantial reserves.

"Because if we don't have reserves, the moment we run into trouble, who will lend you money when you've got no gold mines or oil fields? We've got nothing.

"All we have is this functioning organism which requires brains, specialised skills put together in a very intricate form, with inputs from many nations and their experts in financial services, manufacturing, tourism, all sorts of economic activities put together. It's not easy to replicate.

"I consider this as the best contribution I can make, the most worthwhile thing to do."

I've been a lucky man

Lee describes himself as an agnostic, but he appreciates that there are those who regard religion as a main pillar of life. Others, like himself, are guided by certain personal beliefs.

"I was brought up as an ancestor worshipper, Taoist, Buddhist - the traditional Chinese family. If I visited a funeral wake of a Chinese family, I would perform the necessary rituals with joss sticks in respect.

"At home, after some years, around the 1960s, we stopped the rituals in memory of my grandfather on certain days like Qing Ming, with the offerings, candles, joss sticks.

"If you ask me, 'Is there a God?', my answer is 'I don't know.' But I do know that those who believe in God - like Hon Sui Sen and his wife - they derive great strength and comfort from their religion.

"They do not believe that this is the end of the world. Their behaviour and their hopes do not end with this life. That gives them enormous reserves of stamina and serenity of mind.

"I would not dismiss religion as so much superstition. The communists have failed in stamping out religion because it is part of human nature.

"I don't think I have ever, in times of great danger or peril, gone down on my knees to pray, or gone to the temple and hoped for some miracle.

"I do not believe strength comes, necessarily, from a belief in God. You must have some belief in a philosophy, in an idea, in a concept.

"It is a question of faith which, in the case of the communists, had nothing to do with God. It is a question of faith, the belief that something is right and they're going to do it.

"So if you ask me, what is my faith, I'll say, well, I believe certain things are worth doing and let's do it... People are made that way."

Would he describe himself as a happy man?

"Ask a man in his 70s like me what is happiness, and I would say, a certain serenity of mind, a certain satisfaction with having done things which were worth doing and in not having more than one's normal share of tragedies.

"Everybody goes through the vagaries of life. I am fortunate that I escaped death at the hands of the Japanese, and death and injury in a nasty accident when my car turned over at Thomson Road, at Caldecott Hill, near Radio Singapore.

"It was a bad turn. It's no longer there now. There was a deep ravine on the side with iron waterpipes. And on a very rainy day - this was in '51 - I was going to play golf at the Island Club.

"The car just skidded and then rolled over two times, but landed on soft grass and soft earth!

"If I had hit that pipe, that would have been the end of both of us, and my wife was expecting her first child then. So I think it was deliverance.

"Life has an unfair, unpredictable quality about it and you must take it as it comes.

"But then, that's not what I would have thought if you had asked me when I was 30 years old. Now it's a different perspective. How many of my generation are alive, never mind being fit and mobile and still compos mentis?"

Lee said his greatest personal achievement is his family.

"I'm very happy that I've got a good, happy family. I've got a happy marriage, I've got three children I'm very proud of, I can't ask for more. That's my personal achievement."

Of his political achievements, he pointed to a thriving Singapore.

"What I have to show for all my work is Singapore, and Singapore is still working. It would have been better if we had Singapore as part of a successful Malaysia. I still believe that, but it wasn't possible, so that's that."

Would he live life differently if he had to do it all over?

"Among those of my generation, very few are alive, very few have been as fortunate as I have been, very few have taken the risks I have taken and survived. Why do I want to live my life all over again?

"A golf pro once demonstrated a trick shot. He took an egg, put it on a tee and he took a sand wedge. And he said, 'I'll hit that tee, snap it and the egg will drop on the grass unbroken.' And he did it.

"He snapped a tall wooden tee and the egg dropped down unbroken. I wanted to see how actually it was done. I thought he turned the blade, so the blade snapped the tee, and did not touch the egg.

"So I said, 'Do that again.' He said, 'No, I may not be as lucky the second time.'

"I think I will give you that answer. I may not be as lucky a second time in so many things... All I can say is, I did my best.

"This was the job I undertook, I did my best and I could not have done more in the circumstances.

"What people think of it, I have to leave to them. It is of no great consequence.

"What is of consequence is, I did my best."

hanfk@sph.com.sg

warren@sph.com.sg

sumiko@sph.com.sg