Monday, September 13, 2010

Doing 'nasty' things for the greater good

Sep 13, 2010

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was interviewed by Seth Mydans of The New York Times on Sept 1. We carry today edited excerpts of the interview

The public view of you is as very strict, cerebral, unsentimental. Catherine Lim says of you: 'An authoritarian, no-nonsense manner that has little use for sentiment.'

She's a novelist. Therefore, she simplifies a person's character, makes a graphic caricature of me. But is anybody that simple or simplistic?

Sentiment, though, you don't show that very much in public.

Well, that's a Chinese ideal. A gentleman is someone who is always composed and possessed of himself and doesn't lose his temper and doesn't lose his tongue. That's what I try to do, except when I got turfed out from Malaysia. Then, I just couldn't help it.

One aspect of the way you've constructed Singapore is a certain level of fear, perhaps in the population. You described yourself as a street fighter, knuckle-duster and so forth.


And that produces among some people a level of fear. I want to tell you what a taxi driver said when I said I was going to interview you. He said: 'Safer not to ask him anything. If you ask him, somebody will follow you. We're not in politics, so just let him do the politics.'

How old is he?

Middle-aged, I don't know.

I go out. I'm no longer the prime minister. I don't have to do the difficult things. Everybody wants to shake my hands, everybody wants me to autograph something. Everybody wants to get around me to take a photo.

Because I'm no longer in charge, I don't have to do the hard things. I've laid the foundation and they know that because of that foundation, they're enjoying this life.

So when you were the one directly in charge, you had to be tough, you had to be a fighter.

Yes, of course. I had to fight left-wingers, communists, pro-communist groups who had killer squads. If I didn't have the guts and the gumption to take them on, there wouldn't be a Singapore. They would have taken over and it would have collapsed. I also had to fight the Malay ultras when we were in Malaysia for two years.

Well, you don't have a lot of dissidents in prison but you're known for your libel suits which keep a lot of people at bay.

We are non-corrupt. We lead modest lives, so it's difficult to malign us. What's the easy way to get a leader down? He's a hypocrite, he is corrupt, he pretends to be this when in fact he's that. That's what they're trying to do to me. Well, prove it, if what you say is right, then I don't deserve this reputation. Why must you say these things without foundation? I'm taking you to court. You've made these allegations, I'm open to your cross-examination.

But that may produce what I was talking about - a level of fear.

No, you're fearful of a libel suit? Then don't issue these defamatory statements or make them where you have no basis. The Western correspondents, especially those who hop in and hop out, got to find something to show that they are impartial, that they're not just taken in by the Singapore growth story. They say we keep down the opposition. How? Libel suits. Absolute rubbish. We have opponents in Parliament who have attacked us on policy - no libel suits against them. And even in Parliament, they are privileged to make defamatory allegations and cannot be sued. But they don't. They know it is not true.

You told Tom Plate: 'I'm not serious all the time. Everyone needs to have a good laugh now and then to see the funny side of things and to laugh at himself.' So what makes you laugh?

Many things, the absurdity of it. Sometimes, I meet witty people, have conversations, they make sharp remarks, I laugh.

And when you laugh at yourself?

That's very frequent. I'm reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure and it's an effort. Is it worth the effort? I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It's become my habit. I just carry on.

So it's the whole broad picture of things that you find funny?

Yes, life as a whole has many abnormalities, of course.

Let me give you a Chinese proverb: 'Do not judge a man until you've closed his coffin.' Close the coffin, then decide. Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.

So you're waiting for the final verdict?

No, the final verdict will not be in the obituaries. The final verdict will be when the PhD students dig out the archives, read my old papers, assess what my enemies have said, sift the evidence and seek the truth. I'm not saying that everything I did was right. But everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things - locking fellows up without trial.

For the greater good?

Well, yes, because otherwise they are running around and causing havoc playing on Chinese language and culture, and accusing me of destroying Chinese education. You've not been here when the communists were running around. They do not believe in the democratic process. They don't believe in one man, one vote. They believe in one bullet, one vote. They had killer squads. But they at the same time had a united front exploiting the democratic game. It gave them cover.

But my business, my job was to make sure that they did not succeed. Sometimes you just got to lock the leaders up. They are confusing the people. The reality is that if you allow these people to work up animosity against the government because it's keeping down the Chinese language, because we've promoted English, keeping down Chinese culture because you have allowed English literature, and we suppress our Chinese values, the Chinese language, the Chinese press - well, you will break up society. They harp on these things when they know they are not true.

[Comment: But they do believe it's true. These are visceral matters of race and language. If they had gained control of Singapore, they would have worked toward a Chinese, Communist Singapore, and this region would have become another unstable hotspot.]

So leadership is a constant battle?

In a multiracial situation like this, it is. Malaysia took a different line. Malaysians saw it as a Malay country; all others are lodgers - 'orang tumpangan'. The bumiputeras, sons of the soil, run the show. So the sultans, the chief justice and judges, generals, police commissioner, the whole hierarchy is Malay. All the big contracts for Malays. Malay is the language of the schools although it does not get them modern knowledge. So the Chinese find their own independent schools to teach Chinese, the Tamils create their own Tamil schools, which do not get them jobs. It's a most unhappy situation.

So your career has been a struggle to keep things going in the right way and you've also said that the best way to keep your health is to keep on working. Are you tired of it by this point? Do you feel like you want to rest?

No, I don't. I know if I rest, I'll slide downhill fast. No, my whole being has been stimulated by the daily challenge. If I suddenly drop it all - play golf, stroll around, watch the sunset, read novels - that's downhill.

We are social animals. Without that interaction with people, you are isolated. The worst punishment you can give a person is the isolation ward. You get hallucinations.

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