Excerpts from Time interview with Lee Kuan Yew

Some good excerpts from Time interview with Lee Kuan Yew. Time spent two whole days with this grand statesman from Singapore. Many frustrated Indian always feel his execution is what India lacks. His ability to execute in his own democracy where he has managed to improve the standard of living on an island of 4 million people to the best in the world.

TIME: You have said that the people of Singapore are overly reliant on the government to solve their problems, but isn’t the government partly to blame?

LEE: Should I have fostered more free enterprise, more do-it-yourself? Yes. But free enterprise was not working [for us] because we did not have enough entrepreneurs.

Hong Kong started with successful businessmen from mainland China, after ’49. They were the business élite of the coastal regions. They were not just merchants. They knew how to run a shipping line, how to start a textile factory, run a bank and so on. We had traders, not manufacturers. Why did we [the government] start a shipping line? Because we didn’t have a Y.K. Pao or a C.Y. Tung as in Hong Kong. The same with Singapore Airlines, and so with an iron and steel mill. How do we get out of these companies now? To get out, we’ve got to find a buyer who can provide the management to take over. We produced the bright officers who are good at numbers and who learned on the job. They did a great job. We don’t want to do that anymore. If SIA can be run by some corporate group, we want to get out of it. But who in Singapore? Have we got a Li Ka-shing?

TIME: Do you like American society now?
LEE: I admire American society. But I would not want to live there permanently. If I had to be a refugee, like [former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen] Cao Ky, who went to California, I would choose Britain, a less stressful society. [But Americans have] a can-do approach to life: everything can be broken up, analyzed, and redefined. Whether it can or it can’t, Americans believe it can be solved, given enough money, research and effort. Over the years I have watched the Americans revise and restructure their economy, after they were going down in the 1980s, when Japan and Germany looked like eclipsing America, taking over all the manufacturing. Americans came roaring back. [They] have the superior system. It’s more competitive.

TIME: Who’s the most impressive person you’ve met in your public life?

LEE: Deng Xiaoping.

TIME: We knew you’d say that. But tell us why.
LEE: I met this small man when he came to Singapore in November 1978. This small four-foot-eleven man, but a giant of a leader. He gave me a long spiel—the Russian bear, Vietnam was his Cuba in the Far East, danger for you. I had provided him with a Ming vase spittoon, and I put an ashtray in front of him. He neither smoked nor used the spittoon. The same arrangements at dinner. He did not use either. At dinner he said, “I must congratulate you, you’ve done a good job in Singapore.” I said, “Oh, how’s that?” He says, “I came to Singapore on my way to Marseilles in 1920. It was a lousy place. You have made it a different place.” I said, “Thank you. Whatever we can do, you can do better. We are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the mandarins, the writers, the thinkers and all the bright people. You can do better.” He looked at me, but said nothing. In November 1992, during his famous tour of the southern provinces, he said, “Learn from Singapore,” and “Do better than them.” I thought, oh, he never forgot what I said to him.

But what impressed me was, the next day in our talks in Singapore, I said, “You spent all this time to convince me why we should fight the Russian bear. Let me tell you that my neighbors want me to join them to fight you, you’re the man who’s giving us trouble. All this communist insurgency and your broadcasts urging them on and so on.” He screwed up his eyes, peered at me, and asked, “What do you want me to do?” I said, “Stop it.” One young man telling one old grizzly, guerrilla fighter: “Stop it.” He said, “Give me time.” Eighteen months later he stopped it. That man faced reality. I’m convinced that his visit to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, that journey, in November ’78, was a shock to him. He expected three third-world cities; he saw three second-world cities, better than Shanghai or Beijing. As his aircraft door closed, I turned around to my colleagues, I said, [his aides] are getting a shellacking. They gave him the wrong brief. Within weeks, the People’s Daily switched lines, that Singapore is no longer a running dog of the Americans, it’s a very nice city, a garden city, good public housing, very clean place. They changed their line. And he changed to the “open door” policy. After a lifetime as a communist, at the age of 74, he persuaded his Long March contemporaries to return to a market economy.

TIME: Do you think of yourself as a religious man? Do you have a religious faith that keeps you going, sustains you?
LEE: We do psychometric tests on our candidates for important jobs. There is a scale of values: social, aesthetic, economic, religious, etc., six values. I cannot judge myself, but I believe I would not score very highly on religious value. I do not believe that prayer can cure, but that prayer may comfort and help. At the same time, I’ve seen my closest friend [former Finance Minister] Hon Sui Sen on his deathbed; he had had a heart attack and was fighting for his life, doctors were there, the priest was there, but there was no fear in his eyes. He and his wife were devout Catholics. They were both convinced they would meet again in the hereafter. I believe a man or a woman who has deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crises, an advantage in life.

Many years ago I read a book—The Real Enemy by Pierre d’Harcourt, a French Catholic. He recounted his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. There were two groups of people in his camp. Those with convictions survived, and those who had no deep convictions died. The two groups who had convictions were the deeply religious—of whom he, a Catholic, was one—and the communists. They had the same unshakeable conviction that they would triumph. The others—famous doctors, talented musicians and so on—they would trade their food for cigarettes, knowing that if they did that, one morning they would not be able to go out into the cold for the roll call. But they had given up. The communists and the deeply religious fought on and survived. There are some things in the human spirit that are beyond reason.

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