Saturday, January 22, 2011

'S'pore is my concern till the end of my life'

Jan 22, 2011

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.

  • At no point in history do we have so many democratically elected governments around the globe. Doesn't that suggest democracy has its attractions? 
  • No. The greatest attraction is, you can change governments without violence. In China, the greatest disadvantage was that you can only change governments by rebellion, qi yi. Qi yi means righteous uprising. That means the ruler has lost his mandate and deserves to be overthrown. Here, we can be voted out if we are no longer fit to govern. If we're voted out, the system is still working. It is our duty to ensure that. And the elected president is to add another layer of safeguard to give the country a chance for recovery. 

  • How so? 
  • The new government cannot frivolously change the top men with its own sycophants nor spend the country's past reserves without the president's consent. They need to govern within these rules. If they can win a second election with an overwhelming majority of two-thirds, they might change the rules. But I don't think that's easy. And if they are incompetent, they will lose after one term.
    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...

  • As we're talking about the opposition, may I ask, why are you reluctant to open up the system? You don't see any need for a two-party system? 

  • You're just reflecting the views of the Western-educated intelligentsia that we need an opposition so it can take over the government. There's no chance of the opposition having enough capable people to take over. It's as simple as that. We can't find enough good people to run the government, we are constantly looking for such candidates. You can see the quality of the people that Low Thia Khiang has found. He's tried very hard. We get the constant critics. I say, 'Come on, form an opposition. Drive round the place. Go down and meet the people and see whether you can win them over.'

    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.

  • Just in the next election or several more? 
  • This is the view of the younger ministers: 'In recent GEs (general elections), many seats have been uncontested and the PAP has won an overwhelming majority in Parliament. We should not assume that this is a permanent state of affairs. For a start, the increase in the number of NCMPs (non-constituency MPs) will encourage more opposition candidates to stand, especially in the GRCs (group representation constituencies), and try their luck. If voters elect more opposition MPs, so be it. But we do not believe that helping to build an opposition, to buy insurance in case the PAP fails, will work. Instead, it will lead to more party politicking and distraction from long-term issues.'
    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.

  • So, you don't see any opposition being able to offer an alternative? 

  • Is there an alternative? I don't see it. One way is for the PAP to break up into two parts. Will that help? For one, two elections? Then what? And then the opposition that doesn't get into power will say, I want to come back to the PAP. I don't want to sit out in the opposition benches. Makes no sense, right? We're going to tap the same limited talent pool...

  • So you believe Singapore cannot have an alternative set of leaders because of a lack of talented people rather than what the PAP has done to fix the system, as it were? 
  •  Because the talent is not there. In the opposition you ask questions and you vote no and so on, just posturing. What's the alternative? They can come up with an alternative? Rubbish. They know that. Sylvia Lim (non-constituency MP) acknowledges that they're in no position to run the government.

  • What do you mean when you said earlier that there will come a time when people will tire of the PAP government? 
  • There will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let's try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let's try the other side. That day will come.
    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. 

  • Don't you see it as beneficial to you to create the conditions for a more gradual evolution for the sake of the sustainability and stability of the system going forward? I do not believe for one moment that if we can get a small group of two or three, it will grow, because how are they going to grow? Chiam See Tong found Chee Soon Juan and it collapsed. Jeyaretnam found Francis Seow. Who else? Low Thia Khiang found who? Sylvia Lim.

  • Some people would say the barriers to contesting elections are so high. All you need is your deposit and a lot of sweat.

  • If you look at the political system today, are you satisfied with the level of competition that exists now? We'll be quite happy if we get a small group of equal calibre contesting against us. I mean, you look at the NMPs (nominated MPs), they talk more sense than the opposition politicians. Would they fight an election? No. So? They have the brain power, they have the knowledge, but they're not prepared to jump into the rough sea.

  • Many people say they are intimidated by the PAP. There is the climate of fear, crackdown on dissent and so on. No, no. Are you intimidated?

  • Since I'm asking you this question, obviously I'm not. But the fear is very real out there, when we interview people, they say it. The perception is fairly pervasive even among the professionals. Why should you, if you believe you're any good? This chap who stood up for gay rights, (former NMP) Siew Kum Hong, is not intimidated. We have no objections if he goes and joins the Workers' Party. He takes us on, we'll take him on. That's part of politics.
  • How confident are you that the system you have set in place will survive that moment when people say, yes, they've tired of the PAP government? It depends on when it happens and whether it's all of a sudden or it's gradually. If the decline in standards happens gradually, an opposition of quality will be launched. The public can sense it. If it is sudden, well, you're landed with an emergency, and unless a credible team emerges, the country will start to go down the drain.
  • What's your greatest fear for Singapore? I think a leadership and a people that have forgotten, that have lost their bearings and do not understand the constraints that we face. Small base, highly organised, very competent people, complete international confidence, an ability to engage the big countries. We lose that, we're down. And we can go down very rapidly.
  • After 57 years in politics, what are the most important lessons that you would distil for an aspiring politician in Singapore? 
  • You must have convictions. If you don't have convictions, you are going in for personal glory or honour or publicity or popularity, forget it. Do something else. When you want to go in, you take this job on like my original team did: 'This is for life.' We were putting our lives at stake taking on the communists. If you lose, they'll pull our fingernails out and brainwash us and we know that and they make no bones about it. That's number one, you must have the convictions to want to do it, and do it not for glory but because you feel you have to do this.

  • Were there ever times that you felt that you just had enough, when your convictions were really being tested? 

  • 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 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.

  • Do you try to recycle? 
  • We haven't got the system of different dustbins for different items. Our people have yet to understand and would not be able to do it: Bottles, tins, food go into different chutes and bags. We'll get there sometime.

  • Another part of being environmentally conscious is not to consume so much, and you're not particularly a great consumer? 
  • No, I'm not. I eat less, I travel less. I wonder whether I'm right in buying my car. Even if I travelled by the best Mercedes-Benz taxi limousine, it'll cost me less than what my Lexus is costing me every day. Except that I don't know what time I'm going to wake up, and take the one kilometre to office, one kilometre back. My car is five years old and it's only done 20,000km. 

  • In photographs we can see that your wardrobe, your shirts, seem to have been kept for years, decades. You don't throw away your stuff. 
  • Why should I throw something away which I'm comfortable with? I'm not interested in impressing anybody.
    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.

  • Isn't it a virtue though? 
  • No, it is not. You may say it's a virtue, others think, why is this chap that thrifty? Watch other prime ministers. They always have new ties, new shirts and suits to look good on TV.
    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. 

  • May I ask, how many years have you had your jacket? 
  • This one? It's a very comfortable jacket. The man who tailored it for me is dead. 

  • How many years have you had it? 
  • I can't remember now. Nearly two decades or 15 years. And it's very comfortable.

  • That applies to your house as well. I mean MM, I haven't been there but people who have been there say you've not done much to renovate and to upgrade it. 
  • I've told the Cabinet, when I'm dead, demolish it.

  • Why? 
  • Because I think, I've seen other houses, Nehru's, Shakespeare's. They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up.

  • But isn't that part of Singapore history? 
  • No, no, no. You know the cost of preserving it? It's an old house built over a hundred years ago. No foundation. The cost of maintaining it, damp comes up the wall because there's no foundation. So the piling in the neighbourhood has made cracks in my walls. But fortunately the pillars are sound.

  • By your comment then, you don't place great store on preserving old buildings? It's like the old National Library, no architectural significance but when it was torn down I think a lot of people still bemoan its loss today. 
  • I don't think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.

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