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.
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.
That's their position. It's not very far removed from mine but then there's been osmosis all these years. They've been running the system, they have been going down to the ground. They have held the ground. Your questions should be put to them.
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.
I mean, the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan carried on from the 1950s until now. I think they took over in 1955. (The LDP held power from 1955 to 2009 with an 11-month interruption between 1993 and 1994.) That's four years before we did, but they have come apart partly because they carried on with old ideas.
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.
I can see the change in my grandchildren's generation. It's a change in values and attitudes of a different generation who feels that, you know, I'm not going to spend my life in public service like my father or my uncle. I see no reason for that. The place is running, let somebody else do it. Who is that somebody else? Have we got such a plethora of talent, capable, honest, dedicated? We haven't.
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.
'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.'
MM Lee is known in Singapore for his simple, down-to-earth lifestyle. He lives in a house which has not been renovated for decades in Oxley Road, prime real estate in the city area. He wears the same worsted wool suits when travelling on planes to go overseas. He was, in a sense, an ecologically conscious consumer long before such a concept became fashionable. Never in favour of the disposable society, he believes in the value of thrift, not over-consuming resources. The day this interview took place, he was wearing a jacket so old, he confessed that the man who tailored it for him had died. His lifestyle is so spartan, he considers it an extravagance for the Prime Minister to wear a new shirt each year for the National Day Rally.
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.