Lee Kuan Yew: This is who I am

When The Sunday Times asked Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew for an interview as part of a special section in honour of his 80th birthday, he expressed misgivings. He was not interested in 'hagiography', he said - he was opposed to anything too reverential. Political Editor ZURAIDAH IBRAHIM and Senior Correspondent LYDIA LIM took him at his word and asked him questions that were more likely to provoke than flatter.

Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2005.
Founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 2005.PHOTO: ST FILE

ST: Throughout your political life, you have always been combative. It has been said that in the process, you demolish not just the argument, but also the person. Why do you always feel the need to win and win so crushingly in any argument?

SM Lee: I suppose it is the way I am, and I have been conditioned by experiences in my formative years, my early encounters combating the leaders of the Communist United Front, who were tenacious, tough and deadly opponents.

ST: When you fight your political adversaries, it sometimes seems personal. Is it?

SM Lee: No, it isn't. I fought the communists with all the strength and wit I could muster. But I respected their leaders for their idealism, their convictions and their self-sacrifice to achieve their ambitions.

I had nothing personal against Lim Chin Siong, Fong Swee Suan, or the Plen. We maintained correct and cordial personal relations throughout the fight. The clash was completely impersonal - one of beliefs and objectives, but all the more bitter because it was a clash of abiding convictions.

I had vigorous, even heated exchanges in Parliament and the media with Dr Lee Siew Choh, Barisan Sosialis leader.

He was a quick-tempered man - not wicked, just politically naive. He came back to Parliament in 1988 as a Non-Constituency MP.

For my last official visit to China in October 1990, I invited him to accompany me. He and his wife were part of my party for the two-week visit. There was no personal animosity between us.

I find Chiam See Tong, Low Thia Khiang and Steve Chia friendly and agreeable.

There are several others, people who made malicious allegations that I was dishonest and corrupt, when they must have known there was no basis for them. I sued them. I did not regard them as serious political opponents.

ST: You've mentioned only several people - Mr Chiam, Mr Low and Mr Chia.

SM Lee: That's deliberate. No reason to give publicity to people whom I consider unprincipled and opportunistic.

ST: Even though you didn't mention them, one obvious question is that if you don't consider them serious political opponents, the way you have battled them would suggest that you did treat them very seriously.

SM Lee: I don't think so. If we had considered them serious political figures, we would not have kept them politically alive for so long.

We could have made them bankrupt earlier. We showed people that this type of opposition is not productive.

ST: Can I mention one name though? What about people like Mr Devan Nair, for example?

SM Lee: Devan Nair is a totally different case. He was never a political opponent. As I wrote in my memoirs, he made a great contribution to Singapore. There are two Devan Nairs. One, the person I knew, who was a staunch and courageous political colleague; and the other, a person who's been affected by excessive alcohol and is no longer the same person.

But that does not wipe out what he's done for Singapore.

ST: Do you feel any sense of regret, in his case?

SM Lee: Yes, of course. What happened in Kuching, Sarawak, was already the talk of the town. We could not cover it up. Better to admit that he was not his old self, that he was under the influence of alcohol.

ST: Do you see yourself ever being able to withdraw completely from government and politics? When will you retire?

SM Lee: Your question is wrongly phrased. It is not government or politics I am involved in.

I got into politics and government because I wanted to change society and bring about a better life for the people, and give their children a brighter future.

I undertook this responsibility after I won the first elections in 1959, took them into Malaysia in 1963, and took them out of Malaysia in 1965. I still feel a responsibility for them. I can leave office, but emotionally, I will always be concerned about the future of the people of Singapore.

I will retire from office when I am no longer able to contribute to the Government. But as long as I am fit and able, I will stand as an MP.

ST: What about as Senior Minister? How long do you see yourself playing that role?

SM Lee: As long as I'm useful. How long will I be useful? That depends on my DNA, my doctors, and the value of my data bank.

ST: Some people may say that nobody in Cabinet would dare to tell you when that time comes.

SM Lee: (Laughs) I don't think that's true. You don't have to tell me. I can feel it when I am no longer making a contribution.

ST: When Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes over, I can imagine one obvious headline in the world's media will be 'Lee Kuan Yew's son takes over'. How do you feel about that?

SM Lee: The point is he's not taking over as my son, and I am not the one choosing or appointing him. He's been DPM for 13 years, time enough for everyone to get the measure of him.

If he hasn't proved himself, then he should not be PM. My concern is not whether he's the PM, but whether he's the best man for the job. I could have arranged to pass the baton directly to him instead of Mr Goh Chok Tong.

But then I'd have done Singaporeans a disservice, I would do him harm, and blot my copy-book.

I held him back for a purpose, for him to prove himself and for people to judge his worth. He was only 38 years old in 1990 and had time on his side.

ST: But you know the Western press...

SM Lee: I am used to the stereotype reflexes of the Western press; I'm sensitive to how Singaporeans respond to him. He can succeed as Prime Minister only if he establishes rapport with Singaporeans, if people have confidence in him and will follow him. The acid test is: Is he the best person to be PM?

ST: Why do you say, though, that you intend to be MP for as long as you can? Not as SM?

SM Lee: If I'm no longer able to contribute as a minister, but I am still fit, I will stand as an MP. I want to have my say on important issues.

ST: You don't need to be an MP to have your say.

SM Lee: Wrong, I need to have a seat in Parliament. Critical decisions are made in a Parliamentary caucus before the vote. I want to speak my mind when it counts.

If you are an MP, you have a right to be heard. That's why Churchill remained in Parliament long after he retired as PM. Ted Heath also remained as MP right to the end until he retired in the last GE.

ST: But one would assume that as former Prime Minister, Senior Minister, one phone call is all it takes.

SM Lee: No, not quite. One phone call is all it takes when it is to a critical person who's known you for a long time. But when you have 20-plus new MPs at every GE, they have to interact with you before they get the feel of your thinking.

ST: Have they ever dismissed anything you said?

SM Lee: No, they may have reservations, but over time they learn not to reject my views out of hand.

ST: Samuel Huntington and others have said that Singapore will not last long after Lee Kuan Yew. Doesn't your continued role in government suggest that you and the Prime Minister also lack confidence or faith in Singapore's ability to outlast you?

SM Lee: This question is a non-sequitur. Samuel Huntington said that Singapore has a clean, efficient and effective government only because of Lee Kuan Yew, therefore after I am gone that honest and resourceful Singapore will disappear.

We are proving him wrong. My colleagues and I have institutionalised honesty, integrity and meritocracy into the systems we have created. Each generation of leaders has the duty to recruit the people of integrity, ability and commitment as their successors. In 1990, I stepped down as Prime Minister. With every passing year, my involvement in immediate policy matters has decreased. I have concerned myself with the long-term consequence of policies, not the day-to-day running of government.


ST: You're still such a towering influence in the government, shaping so many of the relatively younger minds in there. How do you ensure your presence and your strongly-held views on so many important issues do not cramp their style and allow them to experiment with their own ideas?

SM Lee: The younger leaders have settled on their vision of the future. I suggested both the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the PAP several years ago. I cannot do it because my feel and touch are for those of an older generation, as are my terms of reference.

The younger leaders have to and are doing it. They are setting the goals, driving the policies, and doing the persuading and selling.

They can best answer your question on whether my strongly-held views have cramped their style and prevented them from experimenting with their own ideas.

But if they did not find my inputs useful, this arrangement with me in Cabinet as Senior Minister could not have worked.

ST: But you're still such a dominant influence.

SM Lee: Best ask the young ministers. There are seven of them. I listen to them. I keep my views to myself until I've heard them. Then I'm able to assess whether or not they've got the makings of a good minister.

If I express my views early, they may trim their positions.

ST: You say that you suggested both the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of PAP several years ago. One question, as a lay person, why does it require the Senior Minister to suggest this? Why not the younger leaders? How come you are still the sole visionary?

SM Lee: Because I wanted to make clear that in my view, the old system, the old paradigm, is no longer valid under these new circumstances, and that we have to change.

The PM had already proposed the Economic Restructuring Committee.

I pushed it further, in the social and political realms.

ST: Do you think your presence in Cabinet has slowed the pace of change?

SM Lee: You have to ask the Prime Minister and the other ministers whether they felt my foot was on the brake.

ST: But do you sometimes worry or wonder whether in Cabinet or in government that you are still the sole visionary, that you are the ideas man?

SM Lee: That's not true.

ST: But people have that impression.

SM Lee: Well, I cannot help that, but it's just wrong.

How can anybody believe that at 80 I am a visionary for the 21st century? I have seen the changes that have taken place in the last century. I know that the speed of change has accelerated and will continue to do so. But the younger leaders have to decide where Singapore's place will be in this future scheme of things.

ST: Just to go back to your point about how you may set certain things in motion, but it's up to the younger leaders to feel their way forward...

SM Lee: On the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the party, I wanted to emphasise that we cannot stay put.

The old model is no longer valid. I've seen what happened to Japan, and to Germany. They did brilliantly for over four decades until the 1990s. World conditions and technology then changed dramatically, and they've not fully adjusted to these changes. So they are paying a price.

ST: Mr Rajaratnam once said that one tragedy is that you are confined to a small stage that is Singapore. Have you ever wished you could apply your wisdom and skills onto a larger stage?

SM Lee: I have to play with the cards that have been dealt to me. I once said - only half in jest - in a dinner speech in November 1978 in honour of Deng Xiaoping, that if I were born in China, I would not be among the leaders. But had he been born in Singapore, he would certainly emerge at the top.

It is whimsy to imagine what I would do or be if I were born in a larger country. I am just grateful that I have been able to help make something of Singapore.


ST: Singaporeans are efficient, hardworking and honest. Yet they are also fearful of taking risks and are said to be soft and lacking in initiative after being nannied by an all-embracing state. As a creator of the Singapore system, what is your response?

SM Lee: We can be criticised for many things and the ways we have done them. However, at the end of the day, we have got where we are because of what we did.

The question now is how do we improve on what we have achieved. So I proposed the remaking of Singapore and the remaking of the PAP.

My colleagues and I forged the policies and the methods that got Singapore to where it now is.

It suited the circumstances of the time and helped us to succeed. The global situation has changed. My generation of Singaporeans has moved on.

The younger generation is better educated, and, alas, less Confucianist and more Westernised in their values. Singapore leaders in their 40s and 50s must shape policies that will galvanise those in their 20s and 30s. It is their duty to take Singapore forward.

ST: How do you feel when critics repeatedly describe Singapore as a nanny state? Doesn't it annoy you?

SM Lee: No. If I had allowed these emotive words to annoy me and got thrown off my policies, Singapore would never have succeeded.

Have we failed or succeeded? Look at the British: When I was in England as a student, they were the most courteous and civilised of peoples. Drivers waved to each other at road junctions and people were polite on buses and the Tube. But today they are the football hooligans of Europe.

Civilised living is never permanent. It can change, even within a single generation.

So we've got to make the effort, and we have benefited from making the effort.

Suppose we had not mounted the no-spitting campaign in the 1960s and 70s, during the Sars epidemic we would have been most worried. Taxi-drivers used to lower their windows to spit out. We stopped that 20 years ago.

ST: There's a view that you stamped your imprimatur on Singapore too strongly, and that Singapore is too regulated and clinical because of you. What do you say to that?

SM Lee: I have tried to build into the system certain basic principles which are of permanent value: Integrity in those entrusted with power, a strong sense of duty in the exercise of that power, no abuse of power in the interest of self or family; and the best person for the job, that is, meritocracy.

If the younger leaders think this is too regulated and clinical, they can change these precepts, but it may be costly. It is their judgment call to make.

I believe if we lose integrity, bend rules on meritocracy and have no constancy of purpose, or govern by taking straw polls, Singapore will not thrive.

On other less fundamental issues, Singapore is visibly loosening up. But it has to be at a pace which Singaporeans can accept, and it must not lead to us losing cohesion and social discipline.

ST: You mentioned that on less fundamental issues, Singapore is visibly loosening up. What are these areas, in your view?

SM Lee: Whether it's bar-top dancing or new censorship rules, I am of a different generation. I don't think these changes necessarily add to civilised living. But if this adds to tourism and makes for buzz, well, so be it.

ST: What about the press? Do you see the press loosening up, being able to loosen up?

SM Lee: The press in Singapore always has to remember that we are not a Western society. You start a slanging match, systematically denigrating the leaders, the leaders will take you on. I do not believe the attitudes of people in the HDB heartlands have gone Western. If, day after day, they read of their leaders being denigrated, and these leaders put up with it, then they will lose respect for them.

Look at Zaobao, they have completely different attitudes. They are Chinese in their courteous approach: they criticise policies, not the persons of ministers.

You look at the way the British press went for Cherie Blair, they poked fun at her. In their culture, they scored a point against their PM. She was pilloried for no rhyme or reason other than being the Prime Minister's wife. She harmed nobody, she did nothing wrong, except that she befriended someone who had a friend with a criminal record in Australia.

ST: You appear obsessed with academic results. Why do you have such faith in academic grades?

SM Lee: In our society, parents push their children to do their best. Academic results are the simplest indicators of ability and application.

You may have ability, but if you do not put in the effort or have the stamina to stick to a task, you will not have good academic results.

Academic results by themselves are not a sufficient indicator of future success. Character and motivation are crucial in deciding the outcome. Unfortunately, there is no single test that can analyse character, or personality, or motivation, or commitment.

Over the years, the PSC, at my urging, has administered on applicants for scholarships SATS (Scholastic Assessment Tests), PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test) and six personality and character tests, and for males, PSC considers also their appraisal ratings in Officer Cadet School by their officers and their peers.

Even so, these tests are not infallible. Only after working with them for 2-3 years, watching how they tackle problems, especially unexpected ones, can we be certain we have the measure of the person.

At each election we have recruited 4-8 outstanding candidates who have high academic scores and success in their professional life. We put them through all the psychological tests.


ST: How do you feel about turning 80? Have you been in a reflective mood these last few days as you approach your 80th birthday?

SM Lee: I have never been a great one for birthdays. (Laughs)

ST: There are many parties being planned for you.

SM Lee: Yes. It reminds me that time has passed and I take more time to do my daily chores. I get up, I take breakfast. I take smaller and smaller breakfasts because I can't burn it up.

Then I go through my daily exercises to make sure that my joints are working and so on. That takes an hour. Then I go to the computer to respond to emails. I do this and that, and before I know it, the day has passed.

What I miss most is the high levels of physical energy I had up to 10 years ago. I used to dash around, meet people, talk, dictate, get things done. I used to have working lunches with you journalists, with MPs, businessmen and trade unionists, right?

But now I wake up late, and no more working lunches.

ST: What time do you wake up?

SM Lee: About 11. I sleep at about 2, 3 am. I have a different biorhythm. I still meet people, but less of them.

Fortunately, I still can travel, but less often because I suffer from jet lag.

ST: When you see your contemporaries dying, becoming frail, either mentally or physically or both, how do you feel? Do you ever think of dying and fear it? Do you believe in God? Have you become more spiritual with age?

SM Lee: Growing old, becoming weaker and eventually dying are part of life. I have watched my contemporaries fade away. I am not afraid to die.

What I fear is a series of increasing disabilities before I die. The worst is a crippling diminution of my mental capacity from a series of strokes.

I have some dear friends. The heart is ticking, but the mind is blank. I have stopped visiting them. It means nothing to them, and it is very sad to see them in this state.

I am an agnostic. I believe in Darwinism, that evolution is how humans came about.

But who created this universe? There may be a God. We will never know. However, I do not accept that any written book, whether the Bible, Old or New Testament, or the Quran or the Buddhist scriptures has the last words on it.

I do not know whether I have become more spiritual with age. More philosophical, yes. I seek perfection, knowing it is something to strive for, but never to attain.