Looking back, one could say that my father's relationship with the United States started in the fall of 1967. That was when he made his first official visit as Prime Minister of a young Singapore. He had visited the US once before that, in 1962. That trip had been to the United Nations, to present the case before the UN Decolonisation Committee for Singapore's merger with Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia. By 1967 the merger had failed, and Singapore had left Malaysia and become an independent republic on its own.
This time, Mr Lee visited the US with a different purpose. The Vietnam War was heating up. US military involvement in Vietnam had deeply polarised American society. Mr Lee sought to impress on Americans that their stand was crucial for the future of South-east Asia. He argued that US military involvement in Vietnam bought the region time, formed a bulwark against the spread of Communism and afforded South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, urgently needed space to consolidate and develop.
During that trip, he did a live interview on the "Meet the Press" show. It was quintessential Lee Kuan Yew. He stood his ground, and expressed his views logically and eloquently. You can find the clip on YouTube, and it is still compelling viewing after nearly 50 years. Mr Lee understood the vital role of American leadership. He knew that without the US presence, there could be no stability or prosperity in Asia. It was a view he steadfastly held for the rest of his life.
On that trip in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) presented Mrs Lee with a jewellery box. Mrs Lee kept the box, and stored in it among other things the name card of a bicycle shop. This was no ordinary bicycle shop. It was the cut-out address for Mr Lee's contact with the Plen. The Plen, short for Plenipotentiary, was the name Mr Lee gave a senior underground leader of the Malayan Communist Party who had negotiated with him, ultimately fruitlessly. Now that it is 2015, I guess you can say that the US succeeded in containing Communism in South-east Asia.
That 10-day visit to the US left a strong impression on Mr Lee. It piqued his curiosity and began his long relationship with the US. He felt that through his life he had come to know Britain and the British people. We were a British colony and he studied in Cambridge as well as spent time in London. But he did not know the United States, which was a superpower and the leader of the free world, and would play a major role in Asia for a long time to come.
Over the years, my father would make many more visits to the US.
On every trip, he would call on the sitting President and meet his principal aides, especially their Secretaries of State, Defence and Treasury, and National Security Advisor. He used those opportunities to get a read on the thinking in Washington. He would also speak as a friend and give the US an objective assessment, not just on Singapore-US bilateral relations, but on developments in Asia. One continuing focus was the US' vital relationship with China.
Mr Lee would also take the opportunity to meet American business leaders and captains of industry, to make a pitch to them to invest in Singapore, and to exchange views on the international economy and geopolitics.
After he stepped down as prime minister, he took on appointments on international advisory boards of JP Morgan and Citibank.
Every trip Mr Lee made brought him new insights and increased his admiration for the US system. He admired America's faith in free enterprise and open competition.
He spoke highly of your country's ability to attract talent, and your inclusiveness and openness which made the American economy and society the most dynamic in the world. He was grateful for the generosity of the American spirit, which made US dominance in Asia a benign and welcome source of stability and prosperity for so many Asian countries.
Even when America experienced crises and downturns, Mr Lee never wavered in his confidence that American creativity and resilience, its ability constantly to reinvent itself, would enable the US to overcome any challenge and retain its leadership role in the world.
But Mr Lee was not an uncritical fan of the US. He saw that not everything was perfect, and did not believe that the US system could be replicated wholesale to other countries, and in particular to Singapore. He thought that "a wealthy and solidly established nation like America can roll with such a system", because it can afford a certain degree of risk.
He saw America as a great country, not just because of its political system, but because the greatest things of America took place outside the system: not just in DC but in the universities, in business, in research laboratories, in local communities. He knew from experience that the best ideas taken to extremes become dysfunctional.
And so, he differed with American conventional wisdom on the issue of the role of the media as a fourth estate, and the relevance of Western liberal democracy in Asia. He believed that every country had to find its own way that suited its history and society.
Not everyone would concede the argument, but he persuaded many Americans that he spoke from experience and conviction, and that he had a point. He relished those occasions for him to put his view across and to spar intellectually. It earned him many admirers, even among those who did not fully agree with him.
But it was the openness, generosity and warmth of the American people that left the deepest impression on my father.
After his first visit in 1967, he decided to return for a short sabbatical in the US. The following year he spent two months in Harvard (from November to December 1968). In his memoirs, he recounted that his greatest benefit from this sabbatical was not more knowledge, but the contacts and friendships he made. It was at Harvard that Mr Lee first met Dr Henry Kissinger, a memorable encounter that Henry has recounted many times. Henry would become one of his closest friends.
I remember one souvenir my father brought home from his 1967 trip to the US. It was a gift from LBJ, a portable turntable with vinyl LP records of George Gershwin's music, including the Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris. I am not sure we made much of this sample of American technology and culture at the time, but looking back, that gift symbolised America's spirit of dynamism, spontaneity, generosity and warmth - the American values that my father greatly admired all these years.
Mr Lee told Americans what they ought to do
5 Oct 2015
Mr Lee Kuan Yew was a conscience of the international system and a man of great sensitivity, said former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger of Singapore's late founding prime minister at a private memorial service in New York City on Sept 25. Here is an excerpt of his speech.
I met Lee Kuan Yew when he came to Harvard in 1967. Singapore had just become an independent country, and Lee its Prime Minister. At that time, all the Harvard faculty knew about him was that he was the head of a semi-socialist party, so they assumed he was a "brother" who would agree with their political judgments. He came into the room, dynamic, electric, as he always was, and he said, "I'd like to hear what you all think about Vietnam." They proceeded to debate whether Lyndon Johnson was a psychopath or merely a war criminal. They did not come to a final conclusion. The Dean turned to Lee expecting great approval. He said: "Now, Mr Prime Minister, we would like to hear what you think." Lee Kuan Yew replied: "You make me sick."
Those were the first words that I ever heard him say. He went on to explain why a strong, self-confident America was essential to the balance of his region. He said Singapore could not survive in a world in which America, out of self-doubt, did not play its indispensable role.
Lee Kuan Yew and I maintained our friendship since that time. I visited him often in Singapore and he stayed in my house, I think five or six times, when he came to the US.
Lee Kuan Yew created his country. Relying on nothing but the spirit and commitment of his people, Lee helped Singapore prosper domestically and, at the same time, become influential in world affairs. Singapore was evicted from Malaysia on the theory that it would never be able to take care of itself - indeed, that it would have to come crawling back to a communal country in which ethnic Chinese, the majority of Singapore's population, would be discriminated against. But necessity demanded that Lee accomplish his mission. He did not despair, he did not beat his breast, and he did not allow Singapore to become dependent upon the international community for help.
He did not develop a kind of autarky or protectionism. He said that Singapore's comparative advantage would be the dedication of its population and the intelligence of their performance, and the country would build its society on that basis. At that time, it was conventional to say multinational companies become great or prospered because they exploited workers all over the world. Lee Kuan Yew said, "go ahead, exploit our labour". He said it in those words. He said "that is the way we can build ourselves up".
He started first with industries that were primarily dependent on labour, but he managed to convince Hewlett-Packard and other major companies to invest in Singapore on the proposition that they could have profitable operations there. And within 10 years, Singapore was leaping from the Third World into the First World; they were jumping over the Second World. Great achievements require great vision. They also require strength of character to be able to do things which the average person either does not conceive or does not dare.
Lee Kuan Yew literally rebuilt his society. Some of his rules made it easy to write nasty articles about him - about chewing gum, flushing toilets and being on time. I remember that whenever I was taken to see Lee Kuan Yew, his driver worried that if he was late, he would never drive anyone again. Being early was not good either. He tried to time the traffic lights so that we would be precisely on time. But when Lee Kuan Yew began, he had nothing.
Equally extraordinary as his domestic transformation of independent Singapore was that Lee became a kind of conscience of the international system. In essence, if the Ambassador will forgive me, Lee Kuan Yew was the mayor of a middle-sized city. His city prospered economically but there are other mayors of towns like this. One of Lee's strengths was that he never came cap in hand. I do not remember that he ever, in the many, many conversations I've had with him over the years, asked anything for Singapore from me. He would explain the significance of Singapore in the international system, then he would trust that smart people would invest in it and help it endure.
I often arranged his visits in Washington, but it was not easy to put in order the many applicants who wanted to see him. That he would see the President was a matter of course. But in addition, he would see key Cabinet members. Senators, too, wanted to see him. And why did they want to meet him? He did not talk about Singapore. He told them what they ought to do. He facilitated their reflection on their own role in the world.
His position towards China was extremely ambivalent. On the one hand, he was Chinese and, I think, spoke Mandarin at home. But on the other hand, he was well-versed in history, so he knew that a powerful China would automatically seek to reduce the other countries in the region into, sort of, tributary states. He thought that was in the nature of things; he did not try to reform the Chinese, but accepted their traditional conception of the "Central Kingdom" as a fact of life. The way to deal with this reality, he said, was to keep America in Asia, and then the Chinese, being smart, and the Americans, hopefully, being smart, would be able to achieve a kind of equilibrium between themselves in which Singapore could live.
This was during the early Deng Xiaoping period; we did not know very much about China. But I remember very clearly early conversations with Lee, in which he said "thank god for the Cultural Revolution in China, which will hold them long enough for us to develop our own economy and our own identity". I looked at him as a teacher. I learnt much from him.
Lee placed great emphasis on loyalty. When Watergate started, he was in Canada, so he called me up and asked if he could come down to meet me informally in New York. He wanted to know whether America's authority would be weakened. What will it do to us? We spoke as friends, then he returned to Canada, but, shortly, he came to Washington officially to demonstrate that he would not abandon his friends. He did it partly out of personal loyalty, but he did it also out of his sense of duty.
I want to speak briefly about his human qualities; there was much more to Lee Kuan Yew than intelligence, pragmatism, or candour. I tell people he was a great friend. But if you asked me for examples, if you asked, "did he ever tell you he was a great friend of yours?", I would not be able to respond affirmatively. Lee Kuan Yew was just there when he was needed. To Lee, our relationship - like all of his relationships - did not require great affirmation, but it lasted nearly five decades.
In particular, I want to mention one thing about his relationship with his wife, to whom he was extremely devoted. She suffered a horrible tragedy; she had a stroke that left her unable to communicate. And it was impossible to tell if she could receive communication. But Lee did not leave her in the hospital. In fact, he insisted on taking her home. And for three years, he went to her bedside every evening and read to her because he was convinced either that she would hear him or that he needed to do it.
Lee Kuan Yew was a man of enormous sensitivity. I have sometimes thought that when he was travelling the world, imparting to us his lessons, we were somehow in the position he was in with his wife. He did not always know if we understood or even heard him, but he believed in us. He believed that we would hear. And all of us in this room did hear him. It is why we are here today.
[Thank you, Dr Kissinger.]