BY 2009, Lee had stepped down as Prime Minister for almost 20 years. Hence, our interviews would be a golden opportunity for a stock-take on what he thought of the political system and the challenges ahead, or so we believed. We booked two interview dates to discuss 'politics' and sent him a list of questions a week ahead.
At the appointed hour, Lee walked in and whipped out another 'submission'. He read aloud a collective response from his younger Cabinet colleagues to our questions, which he had forwarded to them. The younger ministers found our queries to be 'standard' fare from critics.
Lee dropped another bombshell. He was not interested in talking about politics, he said emphatically, as he tossed our printout of questions back across the table at us. 'I am no longer in charge,' he declared. Pose those queries to the younger ministers, he said with a dismissive wave of the hand. He inhaled deeply and puffed out his cheeks. Lips pursed, silence. He glared at us through narrowed eyes. But there was a flicker of amusement on his face, as if he too realised the irony of the guru, the master strategist, the mentor, muzzling himself from, of all things, talking politics.
We tried to press on. Younger Singaporeans deserved to know what he thought of the current system and the leadership, one of us said. 'No, no, I cannot in any way be condescending on the younger ministers. My job is to support them,' he replied.
So it was that Lee remained reticent on political leadership and liberalisation throughout the two sessions. Even when he did relent, he never strayed from talking about just his own role in the past and what he considered to be Singapore's perennial fundamentals.
Lee then surprised us again, now not only with what he omitted, but also with what he stressed repeatedly. Time and again he returned to this unexpected theme: the inevitability of the PAP some day losing power. This is despite the absence of any apparent cracks in Singapore's dominant-party system. While the PAP has never regained the monopoly of Parliament that it enjoyed until 1981 when J.B. Jeyaretnam won the Anson by-election, the opposition has not gone beyond the record four seats it won in 1991 and today has only two seats. The PAP's share of the valid vote has ranged from a decent 61 per cent to a thumping 75.3 per cent in the five general elections since 1984.
Yet Lee refuses to take the PAP's continued success for granted. He does not care whether the PAP exists in perpetuity, he said. What is important is that Singapore perpetuates itself. He is not interested in seeing the PAP victorious at all costs, he told us. If the party lost the voters' trust and let another more capable group take over, so be it. To Lee, the PAP would sow the seeds of its own destruction if it deterred the best people from rising to the top or failed to deliver what the electorate needed.
Lee also sticks to his government's line that it is not its job to ease Singapore towards a two-party system and ensure a less traumatic handover if that came to pass. After all, his party had clawed its way up from the ranks of a rowdy opposition, succeeding against the colonialists and leftists in its own nest.
Lee believes that the same kind of pitched battle is possible in today's Singapore. Any opposition party can challenge the PAP and knuckleduster its way into power. The worthy will prove themselves in conflict. Contrary to what the critics claim, the opposition's main problem has nothing to do with the state of civil liberties. It is that the PAP has left no stone unturned. Any credible opposition would not be able to come up with a truly alternative platform because if it were made up of smart people who want to do what is best for Singapore, it would arrive at similar conclusions to that of the PAP's, he said. While others may be troubled by whether Singapore is a full-fledged democracy and if people enjoy full civil liberties, Lee is seized by more pragmatic concerns: Are people's lives improving from year to year, election to election? Is Singapore continuing to attract investments and create well-paying jobs for its citizens? Do people have opportunities to make it in life?
The current system of government may evolve, but not towards a Western-style liberal democracy. Of this Lee is adamant: Democracy as practised by the West is not a universal good.
Is there any virtue at all in democracy, then? Only one, he replied: It allows governments to be thrown out without violence.
Over the years, commentators have described how Lee's own personality has left a mark on Singapore politics - hard, combative and unforgiving of the vanquished. He is who he is, he told us. He might have said and done 'some sharp things', but his battles were never about the person but what he stood for, he is certain.
A TEAM of seven Straits Times journalists interviewed Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew on 16 occasions for his views on Singapore politics, global issues and his family. The interviews are published in a new book, Hard Truths.
Here are Q&A excerpts from the book where Mr Lee takes on questions on democracy, political change, and whether the People's Action Party (PAP) will lose power.
If we do not envisage losing, we would not have to put these safeguards in place. I envisaged at some point, people will get tired of a stable government and say, let's try the opposition. It's bound to happen some time. I don't know when. I don't think it will happen in the next five, 10 years because you've got a competent government. But supposing in this recession, we had an incompetent government and jobs were massively lost, then you're going to get a rebellion of some sort...
I took the draft questions you sent and I sent them to the other ministers for comments because I'm not making the changes now. This is their joint comment:
'SPH (Singapore Press Holdings) have put down the standard issues which critics raise. They do not necessarily believe in all these criticisms but are raising them just to elicit your response. We're not claiming our present position is fixed and must never be changed. It will evolve over time with new generations of leaders and voters. Leaders and voters must work the system in their own way. The test of our election system is not whether there is an independent elections commission, but whether voting is honestly administered and whether it produces governments which enjoy legitimacy and govern the country well.'...They're thinking of all the possible ways to break down a seemingly impregnable PAP. Open up the press, dissolve the NTUC, don't have the symbiosis. You'll end up dissolving institutions we have created that have made Singapore successful. Anybody who takes over should work those institutions. And I do not see any opposition team emerging in the next election that is capable enough remotely to do the job. I do not see it, neither does the present leadership.
The future, I can only determine in my lifetime - and in this case my political lifetime. You may or may not believe me, but I'm no longer the decision-maker. Yes, I have influence. Yes, I make them pause and think again. But they make the decisions because it is they who will have to carry the ground and be responsible for the future. I tell them that I no longer have the same feel.
No system lasts forever, that's for sure. In the next 10 years to 20 years, I don't think it'll happen. Beyond that, I cannot tell. Will we always be able to get the most dedicated and the most capable, with integrity to devote their lives to this? I hope so, but forever, I don't know.
So, I can't tell you what it will be in 30 years. It could well be after it's broken up or threatens to break up, the people with a stake in it will either pack up and leave or take over and say, look, let's run this.
The more we're being tested, the more I have to be around to make sure we pass the test. No, no, this is a life-long commitment. What are the things important to me in my life? My family and my country. My family, my wife looked after. She brought up the children. I spent some time with them, trying to impart some values. Twice a year to hill stations, when I could go off on leave. I think they've grown up with the right values. But Singapore is an ever-going concern. Singapore is my concern till the end of my life. Why should I not want Singapore to continue to succeed?
I had a supervisor who taught me criminal law. He used to be a lecturer but, you know, he became old, so he only did supervisions and he had a fireplace that did not give out any smoke because he was gassed in the First World War, and he had a lung problem. He also had a large family. He had leather patches on his coat elbows, knees of his trousers. One student was bold enough to ask him, 'Sir, are you lacking in clothing?' He took it gracefully. He laughed and said, 'That college porter at the gate has to be dressed well. He wears a top hat, always to look smart. I don't have to dress to impress anybody.'
As I listened to that, I said, 'It's inverted snobbery.' But it makes sense. I see no reason why I should impress people by having a big car or changing my suits every now and again to keep up with the latest styles.
The trouble is my wardrobe is now full up. I've got many new suits that are absolutely in good condition because I seldom wear them. I don't go to office every day wearing a suit, except for formal functions or when I am abroad. They are of finest worsted wool. In fact, the older I get, the less willing I am to spend time putting on a suit and tie. I just have a blouson or a buttoned-up Chinese jacket, and it saves a lot of trouble. I have had them for many years and they are very comfortable.
I mean, you look at our Prime Minister. He wears a new shirt every year for the National Day Rally. Look, I have no reason to want to impress anybody.