Mr Lee Kuan Yew: An Interview

If I were asked to name one national political leader — contemporary or in the past — who is deserving of deep respect I would answer “Mr Lee Kuan Yew.” There is something about him that puts him in the top of the heap, in my opinion. It could be his basic intelligence, his deep insight into politics, his masterly understanding of world affairs, his breadth of vision, his obvious scholarship, his impish wit and his Confucian wisdom. The more I read him — and read of him — the deeper my appreciation of the man and his accomplishments become.

I have one piece of advice to all. Stop wasting so much time on news. If you stop reading the newspapers and watching TV news for a few days, you will not have missed much. Things that matter are not news; they persist. So by not wasting too much time on news, you free up some time to gain some insight into deeper issues. Knowledge of the deeper issues would help you makes sense of the news when you do get around to the news eventually.

That advice applies to reading stupid blogs as well (including this one.)

I appear to have made an abrupt left turn after the first paragraph. Getting back on topic, here’s the point. LKY is a very smart guy, and is head and shoulders above the crowd of stupid nincompoops that pretend to lead almost all countries around the world. I know that these idiot leaders are too busy doing their best to wreck whatever little good there is in their countries to have time to read Lee Kuan Yew. But you should rise above these fools (and that is not a very high bar) and read LKY whenever you get the urge to learn something about the nature of the world, how it works, and how to make it work better. Forget the news for a bit. That’s why I took that hard left turn in the second paragraph.

You may ask what am I going on about? I was coming to that.

I was reading the transcript of an interview that LKY gave last year in September at his office in Singapore. The interviewers were Tom Plate of the UCLA Media Center and new-media expert Jeffrey Cole of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future.

Reading the transcript is a bitter-sweet experience for me. Sweet that LKY is going strong even past his 80th birthday; bitter that LKY was not the guy in charge of India since its political independence. If only, lord if only, Lee Kuan Yew had been India’s prime minister! Even today, if somehow the BT were to take orders from LKY instead of the SoT, India would take off like a interstellar rocket ship headed to the stars. But no such luck.

Stupidity is humanity’s common lot. It is hard to not be stupid. But there are grades of stupidity. The zeroth grade is “Not Stupid.” The first grade is “Stupid — and know it.” The second grade is “Stupid — and don’t know it.” 1st grade stupid know that they have to ask the not stupid for advice. 2nd grade stupid are too stupid to even ask for advice from smart people. Most of us cannot avoid being 1st grade stupid. The problem is that Indian leaders appear to be 2nd grade stupid.

A country which has a few 0th grade stupid and the rest 1st grade stupid is not in too much trouble. After all, the rest can depend on the wisdom of the few smart ones. But if the majority are 2nd grade stupid, there is no way that the smart people would even be consulted. Impose democracy on a population of 2nd grade stupid, and you have the makings of a colossal disaster. Evidence: Exhibit A — India. (For Pakistan and others of its kind, the stupidity meter breaks under overload.)

Anyway, back to the interview. At one point, LKY is asked about his choice in the US presidential elections of 2008.

Q: You have a candidate in the coming American presidential election that you prefer? You’d like to endorse whom? I have my candidate, but you’ve got to get American citizenship!

Lee: Who’s your candidate?

Q: You! You’ve helped run this pretty well country for so many years.

I would write LKY in if I were voting at the US elections.

Go read the transcript. I will quote some of my favorite bits here, for the record.

On China and the challenges to the leaders Rongji and Zemin.

Lee: Their problem now is convincing the world that they’re serious about a “peaceful rise.” These are thinking people. You’re not dealing with ideologues.

I don’t know if you’ve been seeing this or heard of this series that [the Chinese] produced called The Rise of the Great Nations. It’s now on the History Channel. I got our station here to dub it in English and show it. It was quite I would say a bold decision to tell the Chinese people this is the way the European nations, the Russians and Japanese became great. Absolutely no ideology and they had a team of historians, their own historians. To get the program going, they went to each country, interviewed the leaders and historians of those countries.

You should watch the one on Britain, because I think that gives you an idea of how far they have gone in telling their people this is what made Britain great. I was quite surprised. The theme was [doing away with] the Divine Right of Kings, a Britain that was challenged by the barons who brought the king down to Runnymede and then they had the Magna Charta, and suddenly your “Divine Right” is based on Parliament and [the barons] are in Parliament. That gave the space for the barons to grow and the middle class eventually emerged. When the King got too uppity, Charles the First got beheaded.

Now this series was produced in a communist state, you know. In other words, if you want to be a great nation, so, if the leader goes against the people’s interests, you may have to behead him! They also said that because there was growing confidence between the people and the leaders, the country grew.

It is in fact a lesson to support their gradual opening up and their idea of how they can do it without conflict — the “peaceful rise.” They have worked out this scheme, this theory, this doctrine to assure America and the world that they’re going to play by the rules.

On the US:

Q: What about inside America itself? Do you see any indices that worry you, whether it’s education?

Lee: For the next 10, 15, 20 years what you have will keep you going as the most enterprising, innovative economy with leading-edge technology, both in the civilian and military field. You have got that already.

You will lose that gradually over 30, 40, 50 years unless you are able to keep on attracting talent and that’s the final contest, because what you have done, the Chinese and other nations are going to adopt parts of it to fit their circumstances and they are also going around looking for talented people and wanting to build up their innovative enterprising economies. And finally this is now an age where you will not have military contests between great nations because you will destroy each other, but you will have economic and technological contests between the great powers.

I see that as the main arena of competition by 2040, 2050 and it’ll be the U.S.; China for sure; Japan, keeping up with the U.S. and trying to retain its separate position from China, closer to the U.S. and hoping to maintain a special position; India, somewhat behind China, trying to catch up. I don’t know about Brazil.

Q: Charles de Gaulle had a great comment about Brazil. His advisers said to President de Gaulle that he had to go to Latin America — Brazil. He said why? They said Brazil has great potential. De Gaulle said, “Ah, yes Brazil has great potential … and always will.”

Lee: I put my money on China, India and Western Europe. If Western Europe can get past the welfare approach to society and get their unions modernized, I think they have got the technological basis and the talent to rise again, not as a military power because I don’t think they got the stomach for that, but as an economic power which they can do. I think they’ll give the world a run for their money.

Can they do it? I don’t know. Their history is so deep, you never know. Under pressure, as they feel they’re being left behind by history, they may decide to do it. I mean, you look at [French President] Sarkozy, he may or may not succeed, but he’s convinced himself and he’s convincing quite a group of the French elite. The CEOs of the big multinationals in France don’t need convincing. They know it. It’s the broad think-tanks, the media, the intellectuals who still feel that they have a superior system. They loath having to give that [welfare approach] up, but they may, you know, because that’s the only way to catch up.

Russia may become a player if they are able to find a way to convert the oil and gas into a more enterprising economy. I don’t know if they can get out of their corruption and the mismanagement of the resources, but they have got talented people.

But long-term for America, if you ask me, say, project another 100 years, 150 years into the 22nd century, say, 2150, whether you stay on top depends upon the kind of society you will be because if the present trends continue, you’ll have a Hispanic element in your society that’s about 30, 40 percent. So, the question is do you make the Hispanics Anglo-Saxons in culture or do they make you more Latin American in culture.”

On Singapore’s future, and matters related to Western Europe, and India:

Q: I read somewhere recently that you actually have a bit of a worry about your country’s survivability over the long run? Are you serious?

Lee: Singapore is not a 4,000-year culture. This is an immigrant community that started in 1819. It’s a migrant community that left its moorings and therefore, knowing it’s sailing to unchartered seas, guided by the stars, I say let’s follow the stars and they said okay, let’s try. And we’ve succeeded and here we are, but has it really taken root? No. It’s just worked for the time being. If it doesn’t work, again, we say let’s try something else. This is not entrenched. This is not a 4,000-year society.

Q: You really have a sense of the country’s endangerment.

Lee: Yes, of course.

Q: It’s amazing, you come in here and you walk around here in one of the great cities in the world. Yet you are worried about survival.

Lee: Where are we? Are we in the Caribbean? Are we next to America like the Bahamas? Are we in the Mediterranean, like Malta, next to Italy? Are we like Hong Kong, next to China and therefore, will become part of China? We are in Southeast Asia, in the midst of a turbulent, volatile, unsettled region. Singapore is a superstructure built on what? On 700 square kilometers and a lot of smart ideas that have worked so far — but the whole thing could come undone very quickly.

For this to work, you require a world where there are some rules of international law and there is a balance of forces of power that will enforce that international law and the U.S. is foremost in that. Without that balance of power and international law, the Vietnamese will still be in Cambodia and the Indonesians will still be in East Timor, right? Why are they out? Because there were certain norms that had to be observed. You can’t just cross boundaries. This little island with four and a half million people, of whom 1.3 are foreigners working here, has got to maintain an army, navy and an air force. Can we withstand a concerted attempt to besiege us and blockade us? We can repel an attack, yes. Given the armed forces in the region and our capability, we can repel and we can damage them. Three weeks, food runs out, we are besieged, blockaded.

Q: Who will come after you? 

Lee: There are assets here to be captured, right?

Q: Some unnamed bad regime?

Lee: When [Malaysia] kicked us out [in 1965], the expectation was that we would fail and we will go back on their terms, not on the terms we agreed with them under the British. Our problems are not just between states, this is a problem between races and religions and civilizations. We are a standing indictment of all the things that they can be doing differently. They have got all the resources. If they would just educate the Chinese and Indians, use them and treat them as their citizens, they can equal us and even do better than us and we would be happy to rejoin them.

Q: Do you think it’s healthy for the citizens of Singapore to feel that pressure, that tension that it all could change quickly? Do you think that makes them run this country more effectively, be better citizens by not getting complacent?

Lee: My generation, the ones above 50, who have lived through the first part, they know. The ones under 30, who’ve just grown up in stability and growth year by year, I think they think that I’m selling them a line just to make them work harder but they are wrong. The problem is they don’t believe. They think I’m wrong. That’s a problem that all countries face. You look at the Japanese, I remember their parents. After their defeat, they had great leaders not just in politics but in business at every level. They travel, they work, and they sold their goods like mad to rebuild Japan. Now you look at them … You look at the younger generation, will they work like some of the fathers did? I don’t think so, but in a corner will they do it again? I think yes because it’s a deeply-imbedded culture. They will fight. That’s the difference between an ancient culture and a new one. Theirs is embedded, ours is not. At the same time that ancient culture is preventing them from making rational decisions about migration, immigration and meeting the problems of ageing.

Q: Singapore’s armed forces are in pretty good shape, right? So when are you all planning to invade neighboring Indonesia?

Lee [laughing]: All we want is a quiet peaceful world. We have made something of our lives and we’ll be quite happy to carry on like this and help them get along and do better. We started this LKY School of Public Policy, giving them scholarships to prove to them it’s done by good governance. It’s not by robbing you.

Q: I (Plate) graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. And so I’m a big fan of public policy schools. I think you all are doing a great job at the Singapore policy school. I think you chose a wonderful dean [former U.N. Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani]. I was recently there to offer a humble seminar. The quality of the students knocked me out.

Lee: I think that’s an investment worth making because [students from the region] will go back and they will tell their media chaps and their leaders and say, look this country works because it’s working like this: first, it’s honest; second, it’s rational; third, it makes decisions and follows through on those decisions. The decisions are made after very careful consideration of all options and consequences.

Q: I agree with you and if you look at the course list, it’s a very impressive course list. Now, you were educated in England and many of your top people were educated in America or England, so Western education for a long time has been the cutting edge, has been the leader, the place you wanted to go to. Is it your sense that American higher education is still terrific?

Lee: It will stay like that for as long as you keep on getting talented people into your country and staying on, but will you do that? I think yes for 10, 20 years, but 30, 40, 50 years, I’m not sure because other countries will become more attractive or as attractive. It is the extra inputs you get.

Let me explain how I see it. If Singapore depended on its own domestic talent, we wouldn’t have made it, but we were the center for education in this region from British days and many came to be educated and many stayed behind. Our top layer was drawn from a larger base and in my first Cabinet of 10, there were only two of us who were born and bred in Singapore. The others came from Malaysia, China, Ceylon, from India and elsewhere. It’s a talent pool that was drawn from a bigger region, and that’s the secret of your success. You drew in first your talent from Europe because you offered them opportunities. In the last few decades, you’ve been drawing your talent from all over the world, including Asia. If you can continue to do that, you will continue to succeed.

Not only must you attract them, you must get them to stay.

Q: How are you doing on that?

Lee: We give a lot of scholarships to Chinese and Indians. If one quarter stay on here in Singapore, we’re winners, especially with the Chinese. They come in here, they get an English education, they get our credentials and they’re off to America because they know that the grass is greener there. The Indians, strangely enough, more of them stay here in Singapore because they want to go home to visit their families, America is too far away. We are net gainers for how long? I think in the case of China, maybe another 20, 30 years and then the attraction is gone. We can’t offer them that difference in opportunities and standards. India, maybe longer — 50, 60 years before their infrastructure catches up. Anyway, this is not my worry anymore!

Q: On India, there’s been a lot of hype in America, in foreign affairs publications and so on, about India becoming the next superpower. I was in New Delhi about three months ago — it seems to me India’s got a long way to go.

Lee: They are a different mix, never mind their political structures. They are not one people. You can make a speech in Delhi; [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh can speak in Hindi and 30, 40 percent of the country can understand him. He makes a speech in English and maybe 30 percent of the elite understand him.

In China, when a leader speaks, 90 percent will understand him. They all speak one language, they are one people. In India, they have got 32 official languages and in fact, 300-plus different languages. You look at Europe, 25 languages, 27 countries, how do you? The European Parliament? Had we not moved into one language here in Singapore, we would not have been able to govern this country.

We have to pay attention to what Lee Kuan Yew is saying. One important point: deep culture matters. If you don’t value it, it can get eroded. There’s a caution that India needs take seriously. Another point: the dangers of becoming complacent.

A great point that LKY made is the investment in education. Just the other day, my friend Alok told me that his cousin who is studying in Singapore has received a Singapore government scholarship to go to Stanford for a year. The catch? After graduation, she has to work for a Singaporean firm in Singapore or abroad for a couple of years.

India has the potential to become a giant collection of universities. Unfortunately, indications are that India will have that potential to perpetuity, unless the government lets go of the stranglehold it has on Indian education.

It is all karma, neh?

[There is a good collection of LKY related links at One of my blog posts is also included in that set.]

Author: Atanu Dey


7 thoughts on “Mr Lee Kuan Yew: An Interview”

  1. >>Manmohan Singh can speak in Hindi and 30, 40 percent of the country can understand him. He makes a speech in English and maybe 30 percent of the elite understand him<<

    Lee is being polite .

    MMSingh puts me to sleep instantly.


  2. For a population of rougly 5 million (Singapore) there is 1 LKY, for India we need at least 250 LKYs.

    Or may be even more – when LKY started off in 1965, he just had a baggage of 200 years, while in India, there is a burden of 5000 (or more) years.

    Last 50 years have been worse than the previous 5K or 5M years…

    We need LKYs enmasse…


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