The world according to two old friends: Lee Kuan Yew and Helmut Schmidt

 Former West German leader Helmut Schmidt interviewed former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for a book he is writing.
Former West German leader Helmut Schmidt interviewed former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew for a book he is writing.PHOTO: ST FILE

Ex-West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt and ex-PM Lee Kuan Yew discuss China's rise, Europe's crisis and key issues in the East and West

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Sept 22, 2012

SINGAPORE - Once again, one last time the old friends wanted to speak to one another. At the beginning of May, Mr Helmut Schmidt and Mr Lee Kuan Yew met for three days in Singapore. The former chancellor, 93, and "Harry Lee", 89, the longstanding former prime minister and founding father of modern Singapore, had agreed to meet for a broad survey of world politics.

China's claim to power, America's self-doubts, Europe's crisis - these were the topics of a discussion in which both took stock of a total of 60 years of foreign policy.

The talks took place at the Shangri-La Hotel and always started at 2.30pm with a break after 11/2 hours. Mr Schmidt would then smoke a cigarette, Mr Lee would have a rest in his hotel room. After that, another hour of talk.

During dinner in a bigger circle, Mr Schmidt and Mr Lee led the discussion. The others would quietly speak to their neighbours.

They are friends and they once were powerful, each in their own way. Now, they take stock of their political career.

Helmut Schmidt: When I came to Beijing the first time, I was welcomed by the Emperor of China - it was Mao Zedong by the way.

Lee Kuan Yew: (Laughs)

Schmidt: Mao was a harsh fellow.

Lee: He was a great guerilla fighter who liberated China. But he also destroyed China with the Cultural Revolution. Eighteen million people died of hunger because they were supposed to melt down all knives, forks and spoons. The man was crazy. He thought after liberating China, he could just simply change the world.

Schmidt: He thought: "We don't need the industrial proletariat; we will take the rural proletariat."

Lee: Yes.

Schmidt: But normally people in villages are not revolutionary.

Lee: I am not so sure about that. Now that people have iPhones, Internet and nationwide television, I think they are very dissatisfied because they can see the prosperous cities on the coast and their own pathetic houses.

Schmidt: When did you actually become Confucian?

Lee: I have already asked myself this question too. I think I was educated as a Confucian. Concerning family and values. There is a Chinese proverb which goes like this: If you care for yourself, you care for your family; if you are loyal to the Emperor, the country will be successful. This means, first of all, that you need to care for yourself and be a gentleman. This is a basic need. Every individual should try to be a gentleman.

Schmidt: I was raised as a Christian and, in the end, I believe in nothing.

Lee: Well, Europeans are different from the Americans. Americans are still religious...

Schmidt: Terrible! In such a naive way!

Lee: ...and they think evolution and Darwinism are nonsense, that the world was created by God.

I think Europeans are mentally far developed, as a consequence of two world wars. They were witnesses of pointless feuds and hostilities, hope and ambitious plans, that have led to nothing but tragedies. Napoleon tried to unify Europe, later Hitler did as well.

German newspaper Die Zeit: Especially against this backdrop: Is the European Union that we have today not a great achievement and an inspiration for other regions in the world, despite all its flaws?

Lee: No, I do not view the European Union as an inspiration for the world. I view it as an enterprise that was conceived wrongly because it was expanded too fast and it will probably fail.

Zeit: So Asia cannot learn from the European integration?

Lee: We cannot achieve integration in the same way, that is for sure. But what we can draw from this is the growing insight into our common interests, free trade zones, and then we can build up on it step by step. The problem in Asia is China's dominant position.

Zeit: So is free trade the maximum of what can be achieved in Asia?

Lee: Free trade and a feeling of belonging together; we do not fight each other. We settle differences, that is a fact. We meet regularly; we do not threaten each other.

Zeit: Couldn't the current crisis bring Europe one big step forward towards political unity?

Schmidt: In theory, you may be right, but in reality, we need leadership figures. We need people like Harry Lee or Jean Monnet.

Zeit: Like Angela Merkel?

Schmidt: No. Who was the greatest political leader during your time?

Lee: Deng Xiaoping.

Schmidt: I agree. I think Deng Xiaoping was the greatest of the political leaders I met.

Lee: He was 150 tall but as a political leader, he was a giant.

Schmidt: And he was a smoker! (Broad laughter)

Lee: Yes he was. And he did not have pulmonary emphysema.

Schmidt: I had a discussion with him in 1983. We were sitting together, the two of us and an interpreter. We had known each other for almost 10 years then. That is why we were somehow familiar with each other and were speaking openly.

I teased him by saying that when being realistic the governing people in Beijing were not very sincere people; they claim to be communists but, in truth, they are rather Confucians.

And somehow he was shocked, he needed a few seconds, and then he replied the following, only two words: "So what?" (Lee laughs) I agree, he was a great man!

Lee: And he was prepared to learn. He came to Singapore and found this small island without resources, wealthy and rich with goods; people were doing shopping, their purses were full.

He looked at it, asked precise questions and came to the conclusion that it was our openness towards investment that brought technology and new markets to our country.

He returned home and set up six special economic zones with Singapore as a role model. He was successful and opened China step by step. This is what saved the country.

Schmidt: The 20th century was called the American century. Will the 21st century be a Chinese century?

Lee: If we are looking at GDP, yes. By 2035, the Chinese GDP will be higher than the American one. I am not so sure about soft power, the force of attraction because the Chinese language will be a problem for anyone who wants to integrate in China.

Zeit: There is a lot of talk about the "global shift" from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. Is the Atlantic the ocean of the past and the Pacific the ocean of the future?

Lee: No, I don't think one should see it this way. I think that from the point of view of the Americans, Europe is a relatively safe ally today. Their problem will be China. So what does this shift mean?

It means that Americans need to concentrate their economic investments and military activities on the Pacific. It does not mean a shift of power in the world. It means that the American perspective shifts to a new threat to America's dominating position.

Schmidt: Yes. But their supremacy will not be as important as it was at the end of the 19th century and during the 20th century; it will decline step by step, and China will become stronger step by step, and Russia will not change step by step. (Lee laughs)

Lee: I agree with the last point. Yes, China will get stronger but I do not think China can get so dominating that it will control the Pacific.

Schmidt: No, this will take a very long time. It will take longer than one century.

Lee: It is impossible.

Schmidt: I am not sure if it is possible. But it is impossible in the 21st century.

Zeit: Where will Europe be in this new Pacific world? Which role does it play in the 21st century?

Schmidt: The word "role" reminds me that it comes from the world of theatres. In a theatre, there is either a tragedy or a comedy. We have seen enough tragedies; two world wars in one century, now is the time for a comedy. (Laughter) And there is a grain of truth in this nonsense.

Europeans are making fools of themselves. For 60 years, they have tried to unify Europe and now, we are in a deep crisis.

I have been convinced about the necessity for a European Union since 1948, I was 30 back then. But I underestimated the difficulties, mainly those of the national psychology and I underestimated the fact that there are 35 languages in Europe, on the basis of which Europeans define their national identities. On the other hand, Europeans will not suffer from their future. They will become less important...

Lee: ...but they will lead a pleasant life.

Schmidt: Yes - and they will get very old. Older than you and me!

Zeit: One of the biggest success stories of Europe is that it is a peaceful continent today. I think one can rightly claim that Europe has learnt from its history.

What about Asia? There are still tensions between China and Japan. There are many political flashpoints: Korea, Taiwan, Kashmir.

Lee: Asia has its own national interests which are in conflict with each other. There are two main forces: One is the importance of the Chinese economy, which is swallowing the Japanese, Korean and those of the rest of Asia. The wealthier and stronger the Chinese get, the more confident they are. That is why the other countries want America to be present as a counterbalance.

Schmidt: I think that one achievement of the Europeans, namely the welfare state, will spread out to other regions, to parts of Asia and definitely to the United States. The welfare state will definitely have a future.

Lee: The welfare state has to become more modest. As a student I grew up in Great Britain, immediately after the war. Back then, the Beveridge Plan was in place, according to which the British should be cared for from the cradle to the grave. I witnessed how this system failed.

When I went back to Singapore, where the British had introduced the same system, I silently ushered in the volte-face and said: No, no. First you rely on your family and when the family has used up all its resources, I help you.

Schmidt: Such a turnaround, namely that Europeans turn to their families, will not happen.

Lee: No, once you have lost this fundamental structure, you cannot rebuild it.

Zeit: In The Ballad Of East And West by Rudyard Kipling, it says "East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet". Is this ancient wisdom still true?

Lee: It is not true any more due to the possibilities of travelling and communication. The East is slowly changing and maybe the way the West perceives the East will also change.

Schmidt: I think the perception of the East by the West is lagging behind.

Lee: Well, I cannot judge that because I don't live in the West. I only visit. But the people I meet, who travel, are familiar with the West.

Schmidt: If they travel. Not everyone who travels understands what he sees. Especially if he is a foreign minister! (Laughter)

Zeit: Since the beginning of industrialisation, the Western model has been the dominating economic and political role model. It also influenced Asia. Is the West still an example for Asia or doesn't Asia need this role model any more?

Lee: Asia had to become industrialised because it was surpassed, because it initially refused to accept the industrialised mechanisation of the West. You know what the Chinese Emperor Qianlong told the British Ambassador Macartney in 1793: "We do not need these toys." Now, China tries to learn as fast as possible; the change in China is progressing because the political leaders think that the country has to catch up with the West and because it is underdeveloped.

Schmidt: I think around the year 1500, the Chinese civilisation, including sciences, was ahead of the European state of the art. Then the Europeans slowly developed something called democracy, something the Americans call capitalism, something that the Americans call responsibility to protect today, by which they mean the protection of human rights in other countries. It seems to me that Europeans understand these three elements as something that needs to be applied everywhere. And of course the Chinese, the people of Singapore, and a lot of other peoples, for example, in the Arab world, don't buy it. They are prepared to take over industrialisation but not democracy or human rights.

Lee: The Japanese and the Chinese and also the Koreans do not believe that it is their job to tell others what they have to change in order to better govern themselves. They say: "This is your responsibility. I do business with you on a neutral basis. I am not trying to change you."

The West has this missionary tendency, you think you have a system of universal values: democracy and human rights.

For some strange reason, democracy established itself in India, but not human rights. The most extreme human rights violations take place in India. In China, the idea of human rights is only starting to flare. But the idea that the state ranks highest and is untouchable is still very strong.

Schmidt: I think the Confucian system, which is still existent according to how I see it, has a big advantage because it barely has any religious aspects.

Lee: That's true. That is also why there have not been any wars due to religious reasons in China.

Schmidt: This is a huge advantage. The missionary eagerness of the Christian Americans, for example - one should try to find out where this is justified in the Bible. Because it is actually not deeply rooted in the Holy Scripture.

Lee: But it belongs to the culture of a people and its leaders to want to improve the government of other peoples. From my point of view, the West has the urge to think: I have been enlightened; I want you to be enlightened too.

But you can turn this motivation into the positive - that they think they would make the world a better world.

Schmidt: Yes.

Lee: On the other hand, one can also perceive it as arrogance, namely that you think your system is better and you want to impose it on me. (Schmidt lights himself a cigarette)

Schmidt: Please excuse me, I was absent-minded and lighted a cigarette. Because I know that you are allergic to tobacco smoke, I did not smoke during the last two days and I will not smoke on the third one.

Lee: Thank you!

Zeit: Which human rights are universal and which are not?

Lee: The right of every individual to live his life as he wants, the right of every individual to security for himself and his family, the right of every individual to work, to education, to medical care and schools for his children - that, I think, the Chinese would accept.

But the individual right to go to court before being sentenced and put into jail, that is not a right which fits into their imagination. They decide whether one is a threat and then they lock one up.

Zeit: What about the right of free assembly, freedom of speech, freedom of religion?

Lee: The freedom of assembly is very limited in China.

Zeit: Should the West defend this right?

Lee: How can the West intervene here?!

Zeit: It is the Chinese themselves who ask for these rights. In 1989, demonstrators put up a "Goddess Democracy", a portrayal of the Statue of Liberty at Tiananmen Square.

Lee: Yes, but they were very idealistic young men who either had their heads chopped off or ended up in America. And the people just see it as an incident.

Schmidt: I think even as an old lad, I would fight with my own arms against people who try to abolish individual rights, and not only the right to life but all rights. But I would strictly refrain from intervening in another country to defend individual rights in the other country.

I have to say that I am very worried about the current catchphrase, responsibility to protect.

Lee: Like in Libya - if you kill a dictator by air strike, you have many little military leaders in the end and every one of them becomes a dictator.

Schmidt: Or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Lee: Yes. At the end of the day.

Zeit: Aren't there cases where you would have considered "the responsibility to protect" for the right answer? For example, in the case of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia or in the case of the genocide in Rwanda?

Lee: I think genocide is not acceptable today at the international level. And if you kill people because of their race and you want to decimate the race, there is a right to intervene. Especially if a large country decimates a small one. Otherwise, there would be lawlessness in the world.

Schmidt: There is a danger that the responsibility to protect is unlimited. We probably would have had a good reason to protect the people in Rwanda.

It was a too-difficult enterprise, which is why it did not happen. Probably we even had a moral obligation, like with the people in Chechnya. It did not happen. Probably we had a moral obligation in the case of Tiananmen Square. There was no help. We did fulfil the duty where it was easy or where we would have propaganda advantages.

Lee: It must be practicable. One could not intervene at Tiananmen Square because it would have meant starting a fight with a very strong opponent. Rwanda - I think the Americans regret not to have intervened.

Schmidt: Do you regret that we have not intervened? (Long pause)

Lee: If you ask me whether I would send troops to stop the conflicting parties, I would give a negative answer. But when you ask me, whether I think that what you do is wrong, I would say: "Yes it is wrong."

Schmidt: I guess you are aware of the double-standard character of your answer yourself.

Lee: Yes.

(Schmidt reaches out for his cigarettes again)

Zeit: Careful! (Laughter)

Schmidt: From time to time, I reach into my pocket automatically…(laughs)

Zeit: For 500 years, the West has reigned over the world. This era is now coming to an end. Which era starts now? The Pacific century?

Lee: I do not share the view that this is the Pacific century. I believe it will be a century in which the Chinese and the Americans are competing for power across the Pacific. If Europe is capable of unifying, the world will have three poles. And with the Russians - should they recover - it will be a world with four poles.

The centre of gravity has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That's true. You must not forget that until 300 years ago, China produced 50 per cent of global GDP and it is step by step getting there again, unless something happens internally.

Zeit: That would mean that this is not really a rise, it is more of a reincarnation of China?

Lee: Whichever way you want to put it, it means a stronger China, a louder voice in the various organisations of the world and more military strength to keep others away from the country's borders.

Schmidt: It appears to me that this concept of a shift of power centres from the Atlantic to the Pacific originates in America and it has, in a way, been used to legitimise a shift in the strategic positioning of the US navy and the air force.

Today, the Americans have an air base on Australian soil and they have a permanent fleet reaching from the Persian Gulf, through the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the East China Sea right to the coastal regions of Canada. In my view, the Americans are exaggerating.

I fully agree with Harry's answer. If we hadn't had the immense financial crisis in 2008, I would still repeat my old slogan that we are approaching a tri-polar world. It would have consisted of China, the US and Europe.

Lee: That could still happen.

Schmidt: It could still happen. Since that profound financial crisis, I am not so sure any more.

Lee: Europe can only move in two directions. If it is to preserve its unity and the euro, there must be more integration. It must not stop half-way. That's why I believe that the Greek crisis gives Europe the time to decide whether it wants to divide up into small states again and exist without influence, or whether it will unite and have one voice in this world.

Schmidt: I agree with you completely. The problem is that there are no outstanding leading personalities in Europe at the moment.

Lee: Yes, but crises can bring about leaders.

Schmidt: That is also correct. World War II produced Winston Churchill. But that does not happen in every century.

Lee: One never knows. This crisis will not come in two or three years, it will come in 10 to 20 years. When it comes, Europeans can make the decision: We will either get closer together or we won't matter any more. And once they have decided this question, there will be the opportunity for new leaders to appear.

Schmidt: We both won't live that long.

Lee: That's right, but I think I can make relatively certain prophecies. If that does not happen, Europe will not have a real weight and that would be a great pity for the world.

Schmidt: But it can still carry on living happy and satisfied in its little corner.

Lee: Yes, that is true. But it will not be part of the council of the world in which decisions over big events are made.

Schmidt: That's true.

This piece was translated from German. It was first published on Sept 6 in Die Zeit, a German national weekly newspaper.