Modern Singapore’s Creator Is Alert to Perils
SINGAPORE, Sept. 1 — Lee Kuan Yew, who turned a malarial island into a modern financial center with a first-world skyline, is peering ahead again into this city-state’s future, this time with an idea to seal it off with dikes against the rising tides of global warming.
“Let’s start thinking about it now,” he said during an interview in late August, in what could be the motto for a lifetime of nation building. Ever since Singapore’s difficult birth in 1965, when it was expelled from Malaysia, he said, the country has struggled to stay alive in a sea of economic and political forces beyond its control.
“If the water goes up by three, four, five meters, what will happen to us?” he said, laughing. “Half of Singapore will disappear.”
For all his success, Mr. Lee, 83, remains on the alert for perils that may exist only on the distant horizon: the rising role of China in the region as the United States looks the other way, the buffeting of the world economy, even climate change.
A British-educated lawyer who led Singapore for 31 years, Mr. Lee is one of Asia’s remarkable personalities, a world figure whose guest book is filled with the names of international political and financial leaders.
His creation, modern Singapore, is an economic powerhouse with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and high-quality schools, health care and public services that have made it a magnet for global labor. Foreigners make up roughly a fifth of its 4.5 million residents.
In his office in the former headquarters of the island’s British colonial rulers, Mr. Lee sat back in a zippered blue jacket, sipping small cups of hot water and laughing often, seemingly as different as could be from the bare-knuckled political infighter he has described himself as.
“I’ve done my bit,” said Mr. Lee, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and now watches over the country — and occasionally takes part in political disputes — with a seat in the cabinet and the title of minister mentor. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, is prime minister.
“To understand Singapore,” he said, “you’ve got to start off with an improbable story: It should not exist.”
It is a nation with almost no natural resources, without a common culture — a fractured mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians, relying on wits to stay afloat and prosper.
“We have survived so far, 42 years,” he said. “Will we survive for another 42? It depends upon world conditions. It doesn’t depend on us alone.”
This sense of vulnerability is Mr. Lee’s answer to all his critics, to those who say Singapore is too tightly controlled, that it leashes the press, suppresses free speech, curtails democracy, tramples on dissidents and stunts entrepreneurship and creativity in its citizens.
“The answer lies in our genesis,” he said. “To survive, we have to do these things. And although what you see today — the superstructure of a modern city — the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate.”
Asked whether, looking back, he felt he might have gone too far in crushing his opponents, sometimes with ruinous lawsuits, sometimes with long jail terms, he answered: “No, I don’t think so. I never killed them. I never destroyed them. Politically, they destroyed themselves.”
One of his concerns now, Mr. Lee said, is that the United States has become so preoccupied with the Middle East that it is failing to look ahead and plan in this part of the world.
“I think it’s a real drag slowing down adjusting to the new situation,” he said, describing what he called a lapse that worries Southeast Asian countries that count on Washington to balance the rising economic and diplomatic power of China.
“Without this draining of energy, attention and resources for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, there would have been deep thinking about the long-term trends — working out possible options that the U.S. could exercise to change the direction of long-term trends more in its favor,” Mr. Lee said.
As the United States focuses on the Middle East, Mr. Lee said, the Chinese are busy refining their policies and building the foundations of more cooperative long-term relationships in Asia. “They are making strategic decisions on their relations with the region,” he said.
And this is where tiny Singapore sees itself as a model for China, the world’s most-populous country. “They’ve got to be like us,” Mr. Lee said, “with a very keen sense of what is possible, and what is not.”
Every year, he said, Chinese ministers meet twice with Singaporean ministers to learn from their experience. Fifty mayors of Chinese cities visit every three months for courses in city management.
Singapore’s secret, Mr. Lee said, is that it is “ideology free.” It possesses an unsentimental pragmatism that infuses the workings of the country as if it were in itself an ideology, he said. When considering an approach to an issue, he says, the question is: “Does it work? Let’s try it, and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”
The yardstick, he said, is: “Is this necessary for survival and progress? If it is, let’s do it.”
Hoping to attract more tourists, for example, Singapore is building two huge casinos, despite Mr. Lee’s expressed distaste for them.
“I don’t like casinos,” he said, “but the world has changed and if we don’t have an integrated resort like the ones in Las Vegas — Las Vegas Sands — we’ll lose.
“So, let’s go,” he said. “Let’s try and still keep it safe and mafia-free and prostitution-free and money-laundering-free. Can we do it? I’m not sure, but we’re going to give it a good try.”
Even on social issues on which he has tended to seem inflexible, Mr. Lee sounded almost mellow.
“I think we have to go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and to be part of this modern world,” he said. “If we are not connected to this modern world, we are dead. We’ll go back to the fishing village we once were.”
For example, on the issue of homosexuality, he said, “we take an ambiguous position. We say, O.K., leave them alone, but let’s leave the law as it is for the time being, and let’s have no gay parades.”
Although gay sex remains technically illegal in Singapore, the government has indicated it will not actively enforce the law.
China, Hong Kong and Taiwan already have more liberal policies regarding gays, he noted. “It’s a matter of time,” he said. “But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let’s go slowly. It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.”
As for people’s adherence to the “Asian values” — hierarchy, respect and order — that Singapore is founded on, he said: “It’s already diluted, and we can see it in the difference between the generations. It’s inevitable.”
In his own family, generational values are changing. From father to children to grandchildren, he said, command of the Chinese language has weakened, along with the culture it embodies.
“They had a basic set of traditional Confucian values,” he said of his children, two sons and a daughter. “Not my grandchildren.”
One grandson has just begun studies at M.I.T., he said; the other is heading to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
This well-educated younger generation reflects the social dichotomy of Singapore, Mr. Lee said, in which the top 20 percent of the population is as cosmopolitan as any, surfing the Internet and traveling the world without constraint. “This is not a closed society,” he insisted.
But at the same time, he said, the government must protect the less affluent, less educated people from information that might upset or confuse them. These are people “who are not finding it so comfortable to suddenly find the world changed, their world, their sense of place, their sense of position in society.”
They are the ones who he said had to be pulled into the future as he seeks to make Singapore “a first-world oasis in a third-world region.”
“We built up the infrastructure,” he said. “The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first-world citizens, not like third-world citizens spitting and littering all over the place.”
So Singapore embarked on what Mr. Lee called “campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that.”
Do not chew gum. Do not throw garbage from rooftops. Speak good English. Smile. Perform spontaneous acts of kindness.
Paradoxically, he said, if Singapore had not been so poor it might never have transformed itself and prospered as it has. His warnings about vulnerability and collapse are a constant theme to persuade his people to accept limits on their freedoms.
“Supposing we had oil and gas, do you think I could get the people to do this?” Mr. Lee said. “No. If I had oil and gas, I’d have a different people, with different motivations and expectations.
“It’s because we don’t have oil and gas and they know that we don’t have, and they know that this progress comes from their efforts,” he said. “So please do it and do it well.”
Excerpts from an interview with Lee Kuan Yew
The following are excerpts from an interview with Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister of Singapore from 1959, when it gained partial independence from Britain, until he stepped down in 1990. He is currently minister mentor.
The interview took place at the Istana, where the Singapore president and prime minister work, on Aug. 24, 2007. Lee was questioned by Leonard M. Apcar, deputy managing editor of the International Herald Tribune, Wayne Arnold, a Singapore correspondent, and Seth Mydans, Southeast Asia bureau chief.
IHT: First, we wanted to talk to you about Singapore's extraordinary growth. We'd also like your assessment of the broader political landscape, China, Southeast Asia, Japan and the United States.
Let's begin, if we could, with the Singapore model. How do you see it evolving in the next several years economically and politically? And what do you think are the challenges and opportunities and even threats for the next generation of leaders?
Lee Kuan Yew: First, to understand Singapore, you've got to start off with an improbable story. It should not exist . . . We haven't got the base, the space, the wherewithal. This is not Jamaica or Bahamas or Fiji. This is a little island strategically placed at the southernmost end of Asia connecting the sea routes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.
Suddenly, we're on our own. (After being ejected in 1965 from Malaysia which followed the end of British colonial rule.) We have to defend ourselves. We have to make a living without a hinterland. We've got to have a Foreign Ministry. It's one thing running Hong Kong under British or Chinese protection; it's another matter governing tiny Singapore. You have to build an army, navy, air force, control and command systems, early warning, AWACs in the sky and so on.(Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) .)
So, can we survive? The question is still unanswered. We have survived so far, 42 years. Will we survive for another 42? It depends upon world conditions. It doesn't depend on us alone.
If there were no international law and order, and big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps, we wouldn't exist. Our armed forces can withstand an attack and inflict damage for two weeks, three weeks, but a siege? (laughs)
IHT: Not possible.
Lee Kuan Yew: Control of sea lanes? We'll just starve. So, it depends on whether there is an international environment which says that borders are sacrosanct and there is the rule of law. It's not just [a matter for the] United Nations Security Council. There's the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a Japanese interest in the Straits of Malacca, and later Chinese and Indian interests in the region, and therefore a balance.
So, these are imponderables. But what is absolutely essential is to survive, never mind the military and security side. More important is the economic prospects. We have to be very different from our neighbors. That was the first shock we had. Because we thought by joining Malaysia, we'd go back to the old Singapore. We would have a hinterland, a common market, and can develop import substitution industries like other countries. Now, we're off on our own with not the most sympathetic of neighbors. How do we live?
To begin with we don't have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors, a homogenous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.
We are migrants from southern China, southern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, before it was divided, Ceylon and the archipelago. So, the problem was, can we keep these peoples together?
The basis of a nation just was not there. But the advantage we had was that we became independent late. In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid - racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.
Thereafter, we knew that if we embarked on any of these romantic ideas, to revive a mythical past of greatness and culture, we'd be damned. So, there's no return to nativism. We have left our moorings. We're all stranded here to make a better or worse living than in our own original countries.
IHT: What you're describing now is the basis for the formation of the type of country and society that you formed. And also, then, the types of criticisms that come toward Singapore - the answers may lie in these same . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: The answer lies in our genesis. To survive, we have to do these things. And although what you see today - the superstructure of a modern city, the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate.
We are not Venice. We are not Athens with wide open spaces and far away neighbors. We are part of a world which is globalized, cheek by jowl with teeming millions in the region, populating at fast speed (laughs), right?
IHT: Control of many things including information and openness is the area in which Singapore is most often criticized.
Lee Kuan Yew: Well, we are pragmatists. If, in order to survive, we have to open up a sector, we open it up. Because the best test - the yardstick is, is this necessary for survival and progress? If it is, let's do it.
I don't like casinos but the world has changed and if we don't have an integrated resort like the ones in Las Vegas - Las Vegas Sands - we'll lose. So, let's go. Let's try and still keep it safe and mafia-free and prostitution-free and money-laundering-free.
Can we do it? I'm not sure but we're going to give it a good try and we're going to keep our clean and green and safe reputation. That's the plan.
IHT: You and others have also talked about the need to open Singapore up a little bit more in the modern world of fast moving technology and information and communications.
Lee Kuan Yew: No other way.
IHT: No other way. But this is going slowly. Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong talked about thinking and acting like revolutionaries. It was very hard to decree looseness and boldness. But is this a direction that you would like to go in?
Lee Kuan Yew: No, I think we have to go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and to be part of this modern world. If we are not connected to this modern world, we are dead. We'll go back to the fishing village we once were.
IHT: The marketplace of ideas is so often discussed outside of Singapore. You have said it is a beneficial notion so that there will be a ferment and growth. But . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: If we don't have that stimulus, if we are not connected to the world and know what's going on, how could we keep abreast of it? How can we know where the action is? Where are the expanding sectors we should be in?
IHT: But won't that require a greater opening up of society here? A loosening of the press, of free speech, of political competition?
Lee Kuan Yew: You're giving me the classical . . .
IHT: I am, I want to . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: No, the classical, Western, liberal approach.
IHT: It's not my practice . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: No, no. It's the Western, classical, liberal approach.
Lee Kuan Yew: I'm giving you the answer of a pragmatist.
IHT: That's what I want to hear.
Lee Kuan Yew: For the top 20 percent of the population, there are no constraints there. I would say . . . top 20 percent, the educated population. They're educated abroad, at university.
So, they know the wide world and they are on the Internet and they've got friends, they e-mail them. They travel. Every year, about 50 percent of Singaporeans travel by air.
So, this is not a closed society. But at the same time, we try to maintain a certain balance with the people who are not finding it so comfortable to suddenly find the world changed, their world, their sense of place, their sense of position in society.
We call them the heartlanders in the HDB estates [government housing developments], the people who live in three- and four-room flats. Three and four rooms are the lowest end. Five rooms and the executives are the upper end.
And so we have this dichotomy. You can read the analysis by our academics who wrote that we are using the heartlanders to keep progress in check.
But they have not governed the place. (laughs) The academics, they write these things from abstract analysis. Like gays, we take an ambiguous position. We say, O.K., leave them alone but let's leave the law as it is for the time being and let's have no gay parades.
IHT: Don't ask, don't tell?
Lee Kuan Yew: Yes, we've got to go the way the world is going. China has already allowed and recognized gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan.
It's a matter of time. But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let's go slowly. It's a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.
IHT: How much do you worry about the gradual, slow evolution for the generation of leaders behind you now? Do you truly worry about survival for this country?
Lee Kuan Yew: Yes, I do.
Because of the vulnerability, the unnatural base. You know, our total trade - external trade is three and a half times our GDP [gross domestic product]. It's more than Hong Kong's. Hong Kong is part of China.
We are not part of Indonesia or Malaysia. Our trade is more with the U.S., Europe, Japan and China than with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand.
IHT: But over the years, over your generation of leadership, those alliances - economic, political - worked very well for you in this country. Yes, the world is changing but you have longstanding relationships, corporate investment, foreign investment in this country and jobs created. There are permanent institutional channels of money, jobs and growth here.
Lee Kuan Yew: (laughs) That means, you don't understand. They are here because we've provided security, stability and predictability. If that sense of security and predictability is gone, the money will stop flowing in and will flow out.
IHT: We've written a lot about the competition for jobs and foreign investments. When it comes to China, it's obviously a great opportunity. But what other pressures do you see emanating from China for the rest of Asia?
Lee Kuan Yew: The next 10, 15 years, China is more an opportunity than a challenge. In the next 15, 20, 30 years, the opportunities will be taken up by many other competitors in China. The challenge will come when they start exporting not just low-end products but intermediate products and even some high-end products and software. And they will begin to export their expertise, exporting their factories and plants.
IHT: What about politically? There's always this talk of China seeing itself as the Middle Kingdom still. Does China have long-term ambitions in Asia that cause concern to the rest of the region?
Lee Kuan Yew: Well, there are memories, not institutionalized but in folk memories at a popular level. For instance when the Sultan of Brunei went to Beijing, about 10 years ago. They took him to his great-great-grandfather's mausoleum in Nanjing where he had died, when bringing tribute to China.
It was a neat way of reminding the Bruneians and the rest of us - Brunei was then a big empire in West Borneo - that this was our place in the pecking order.
So this question mark. What kind of a relationship will it be? Because of technology, the other great powers are not far away. So it's a different equation now than it was. That was China when there were no steam ships, no aircraft and an unpopulated America.
Present day China faces a very advanced North America, Europe, Japan and a fairly developed Southeast Asia and India. So it's a different world, and our expectation is - we've got to see how it turns out - that the generation that takes over in China, in say 30 years will be of a different mind-set. Because they would have been educated abroad and be completely different from their forbears.
They would've gone abroad and traveled widely and be very familiar with the English language. They would also know that although by 2050 China will be the biggest economy in GNP terms [gross national product] per capita, they are still small, and technologically they are still way behind.
So to get there, they must have a sense of realism - which the present leadership has. For them to make that grade, they've got to be like us with a very keen sense of what is possible and what is not.
They must know that to dominate this region is not possible.
IHT: Politically, regarding the balance you're talking about, does it concern you that the preoccupation of the United States now is with events in the Middle East?
Lee Kuan Yew: Yes, I think it's a real drag slowing down adjusting to the new situation.
Without this draining of energy, attention and resources for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, there would have been deep thinking about the long-term trends - working out possible options that the U.S. could exercise to change the direction of long-term trends more in its favor.
IHT: Right. Is this a long-term problem for this region? The removal of attention of the United States?
Lee Kuan Yew: I don't think it's a total removal. It's just that pre-emptive options have not been thought through. Day-to-day attention to moving things forward - that goes on because of the machine. Your ambassadors are here. Your chambers of commerce are here. Your State Department, trade and Treasury and so on, they are on the ball in keeping the shop going.
But look at the Chinese - they are acting more decisively than the Japanese. They are making strategic decisions on their relations with the region and they were an economically backward country.
They decided sometime in the late 1990s that they required good relations with Southeast Asia and Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations]. So Zhu Rongji [former prime minister of China] went to Brunei for an Asean meeting and put on the table a free trade agreement with Asean.
Totally their initiative. They also stopped challenging this reef or that reef, or whatever Mischief Reef [part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea]. Let's go jointly in oil exploration. Of course it's not all sweetness. At the same time there's some jostling between naval ships.
But they're maintaining a very different posture. It took some time for the Asean countries to really believe that this free trade was a serious offer. Now it's on. For products it's already done. You take first advantage or "early harvesting." And if it's unfair, we can revise it later on.
Why? Because this will lock us into their [China's] markets.
I had told Charlene Barshefsky - Clinton's trade rep - about 12 years ago. I said, "Better move before these chaps move, because look at their size!" In the end she moved but the free trade area was only with Singapore and with high hurdles which the others in Asean could not clear.
On the other hand the Chinese made a strategic decision and overruled trade and industry or whatever local domestic power groups, and said, "This is a strategic necessity - move."
And you've got to match this.
IHT: But as the American situation now stands in Iraq, there is going to be trouble, whichever way things go. And if the United States is not there to moderate . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: You cannot leave and have chaos ensue. Even with a Democrat president, the day after he or she has won the elections on the second Tuesday in November, he/she will be given all the briefing papers, and the consequences of various options, and he/she will know that if you pull out precipitously, the long-term, the permanent price can be horrendous! You've got to at least keep a stabilizing force and put pressure on the neighbors to come to some agreed configuration of an Iraq that will be stable and not threatening to any neighbor.
IHT: I want to get back to India for the moment. You talked about it in positive, growing terms. How do you assess its potential as a regional and international power?
Lee Kuan Yew: India's economy can grow to about 60-70 percent that of China. I see that as the long-term trend. They're not going to be bigger than China - on present projections.
But 60-70 percent of China with a population which will be bigger than China by 2050, is something considerable, and they've some very able people at the top. I draw this historical lesson which I believe will be repeated, though not in exactly the same way, but will manifest itself in a similar pattern.
If you study the history of this region, you will see that two influences came from the north.
One was India from the west; the other was China from the east. So you have the Ramayana Classics, 你如果不知道這傳統 或許可以看NG一在吳哥窟表演這一史詩傳統 the dances and music in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia. You have Borobudur and Hindu-like temples in Bali. Then in the east you have Vietnam, and then the seaports of the region, pockets of Chinese traders.
So historically, two forces were at work, two higher civilizations India and China from the north flowed into this region. Then European colonialism took over for 200 years.
Now, China and India have revived. I believe the outward thrust of their influence will follow a similar pattern.
IHT: Do you think this will be a smooth and positive expansion? Or do you think that it's naïve to believe that this won't cause and create an increasing number of conflicts in the future?
Lee Kuan Yew: I don't think we can say that we will be conflict-free. I believe it will be conflict-free between big powers because it's too costly for them. But between big powers against small powers - the squeezing of small powers - that will go on. And between small powers themselves, the small will squeeze the smaller.
But I do not believe hostilities are worth anybody's while. If present conditions prevail where there is international rule of law, a United Nations Security Council, and a balance of power in the region. There is also the International Court of Justice - International Arbitration court, et cetera.
Two lessons give us some comfort. One was Cambodia; the Vietnamese had to withdraw. The other was East Timor; the Indonesians had to withdraw. So these borders are not just lines drawn on a map. You cannot breach them without international consequences.
IHT: And this would be something that is on your mind . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: Yes. Of course.
IHT: With your location here?
Lee Kuan Yew: Absolutely! As I told you. Our armed forces can withstand it - can inflict damage on an invader for two weeks, three weeks. But a siege?
IHT: So do you just throw up your hands and say, "Well, we have certain defenses, we have economic alliances, we have certain benefits? But long term I don't know the answer to our survival?"
Lee Kuan Yew: No, I don't know. If this international world order collapses, then I say, "All bets are off." But will it collapse? Can it? Can the world afford to allow it to collapse and go into anarchy?
IHT: It has before.
Lee Kuan Yew: But before there wasn't the present technology on transportation and communication. You in America could ignore large parts of the world. Why do you worry about what's happening to the Aborigines of Australia, or natives in the Congo or the Amerindians in South America. They do not concern you.
But this interconnected world is not going to become disconnected. Technology has brought this about. I do not see that technology disappearing. I think the problems will become more acute the other way, overpopulation, earth warming and displacement of millions, maybe billions of people, that is the greater danger.
IHT: What about the risks to Singapore, what are the risks to Singapore in those scenarios?
Lee Kuan Yew: Oh! We are already in consultations with Delft in Holland to learn how we can build dikes!
IHT: Is that right?
Lee Kuan Yew: Oh, yes! Let's start thinking about it now.
IHT: Are you serious?
Lee Kuan Yew: We are. We are in consultations with them.
It scares me because many world leaders have not woken up to the peril that their populations are in.
This melting ice cap. I expected great consternation! What would happen to this earth? But, no. Has it triggered off emergency meetings to do something about this?
Earth warming, the glaciers melting away? Never mind the Swiss Alps and skiing resorts having to manufacture snow. When the glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet melt away, the Ganges, the Yangtze, the Irrawaddy, the Mekong, may dry up, except for rainy seasons. What will happen to the hundreds of millions? Where do they go? Where can they go? This will be a very serious problem.
IHT: Why don't you think the world isn't focusing on this?
Lee Kuan Yew: Because it's not an election issue. You know maybe 50 years, a 100 years, most of us would be dead. Leave it to the next president.
IHT: That's human nature isn't it? But it doesn't seem to be the way Singapore operates. You're taking a lot of pains . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: Because we are too vulnerable. If the water goes up by one meter, we can have dikes and save ourselves. If the water goes up by three, four, five meters, (laughs) what will happen to us? Half of Singapore will disappear! The valuable half - the seafronts!
Well, let us say, it has gone up to one meter and we have protected ourselves. But our neighboring islands have disappeared! And then Indonesia may not have 30,000 islands - many will be under water.
IHT: Yeah, so what's the answer to that, cap and trade [referring to a program to cap emissions and trade pollution allowances] or can you somehow tax industry a carbon tax of some sort?
Lee Kuan Yew: If you ask me, I think you can ameliorate this problem. But you cannot solve it. Because our dependency on energy will only grow - can only grow. I do not see any tribal leader, any democratic leader, any dictator telling his people, "We are going to forgo growth. We are going to consume less. Travel less. Live a more spartan life and we'll save the earth."
But I see a need to mitigate wherever we can through green technologies. Less CO2 and try to prolong the period of adjustment.
IHT: Can I come back to something that I just want to close the loop so I understand exactly what you're saying. We talked about openness and whatnot. And you said, "Oh for the top 20 percent or so of Singaporean society, it's open. Fifty percent travel, the rest are educated. They know the West. They're connected. Openness for them is a matter of . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: It's a fact!
IHT: It's a fact. But what I don't quite follow is that are you saying that over time this will permeate Singaporean society as well? I'm not sure I understand that . . .
Lee Kuan Yew: I'm not sure how it will develop. Let me explain why I say I'm not sure. We are placed in a very unusual environment. And you cannot divorce yourself from your environment. Right?
If we were Malta, we would have joined the European Union, we would have a different backdrop. But we are Asean. And you've got to live with your neighbors, neighbors at a different level of societal development. What they think and do has to be factored into consideration to decide what we can do.
IHT: Let me connect one more thought here that I am not clear about. In this more open, interconnected world where the educated and the elites are traveling and easily moving all over the world, what does this do to Asian values? Does it inevitably dilute them?
Lee Kuan Yew: It's already diluted and we can see it in the difference between the generations. It's inevitable. One of the things we did which we knew would call for a big price was to switch from our own languages into English.
We had Chinese, Malay, Indian schools - separate language medium schools. The British ran a small English school sector to produce clerks, storekeepers, teachers for the British. Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically.
Riots - we've seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhalese and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after.
We chose - we didn't say it was our national language - we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.
So, our sources of culture, literature, ideas are now more from the English text than from the Chinese or the Malay or the Tamil.
So, there's a clear difference between the grandfathers and the grandchildren. Look, my grandchildren, never mind the grandfather, their Chinese is not equal to their parents' Chinese.
My children were educated in what were then Chinese schools and they learned English as a subject. But they made up when they went to English-language universities. So they didn't lose out. They had a basic set of traditional Confucian values. Not my grandchildren.
I've got one grandson gone to MIT. Another grandson had been in the American school here. Because he was dyslexic and we then didn't have the teachers to teach him how to overcome or cope with his dyslexia, so he was given exemption to go to the American school. He speaks like an American. He's going to Wharton.
Between him and his father, there's a clear breach in cultural continuity - never mind between him and me.
But that's the top 20 percent, right?
For the majority in the heartlands, they don't go to American schools or have that exposure. But from 20, it will become 30 percent going to tertiary institutions, universities.
You asked me to predict what it will be in 50 years or even 20 years. I cannot, because we have left our moorings.
IHT: Let me just make a point here. I've read your second book, where you get into a lot of these issues ["From Third World to First, Singapore 1965-2000" HarperCollins, 2000]. Is it the Internet? Is it wisdom?
Lee Kuan Yew: No, it is the inevitability of modern society, as they travel, as they - the world is changing around us every day.
IHT: That's the circle that I wanted to close. You talked about fighting for survival at the beginning of our talk. And the theme that's run through the rest of our talk has also been anticipating and defending against possible threats and dangers. That's really what Singapore is about, in some ways.
Is it fighting for survival?
Lee Kuan Yew: It is. Yes.
IHT: And you, as a fighter, beginning your career as a fighter for - you've just kept on yourself, still fighting -
Lee Kuan Yew: Let me put it like this. You do what you can in your lifetime. And as I went into my 70s I did less, and in my 80s I'm doing even less.
You can be the greatest leader in the world. You cannot determine what your people and your country are going to face in subsequent years, because forces are at work which will play out in a different way.
So Churchill made a Herculean effort to save the British Isles and the British Empire, but - the forces were already set in motion for the dissolution of that empire and making Britain an island off Europe.
Stalin thought he had created the world's biggest empire at the end of WWII in 1945. But it was dissolved in 1991. So, history is a long time. I've done my bit. By that I mean I've only done what I could and had to do, I've also ensured succession, so that the system will continue to work.
And fortunately, my successor also ensured his succession. Now, it's up to the present team to make sure that there's a generation that can look after Singaporeans in different circumstances, maybe more trying than those we faced, because it will be a radically different world and a more demanding people.
The present generation say this is the base line. Now we want more and better, and the leaders have to produce.
IHT: This system, machinery of government here in Singapore is looked on as a model all over the world. Are you confident that it can survive indefinitely or does it face problems that some companies face? For example, when they try to expand, they start to lose their edge. They start to lose their competitiveness.
Lee Kuan Yew: Well, I cannot say that we will not lose it. If we lose it, then we're done in. We go back to where we started, right?
We knew that if we were just like our neighbors, we would die. Because we've got nothing to offer against what they have to offer. So we had to produce something which is different and better than what they have. It's incorrupt. It's efficient. It's meritocratic. It works.
The system works regardless of your race, language or religion because otherwise we'd have divisions. We are pragmatists. We don't stick to any ideology. Does it work? Let's try it and if it does work, fine, let's continue it. If it doesn't work, toss it out, try another one. We are not enamored with any ideology.
Let the historians and the Ph.D. students work out their doctrines. I'm not interested in theories per se.
IHT: But a lot of these reflect your personality - the force of your personality.
Lee Kuan Yew: No, no. A lot of it is the result of the problems we face and a team of us - I wasn't a loner. I had some very powerful minds working with me. And we sat down and thought through our options. Take this matter of getting MNCs [multinational corporations] to come here when the developing world expert economists said, "No, MNCs are exploiters."
I went to America. This was a happenstance . . . What were the Americans doing? They were exporting their manufacturing capabilities . . . That's what I wanted. That's how it started.
I said O.K., let's make this a first world oasis in a third world region. So not only will they come here to set up plants and manufacture, they will also come here and from here explore the region.
What do we need to attract them? First class infrastructure. Where do we get it from? We had the savings from our Central Provident Fund. We had some loans from the World Bank.
We built up the infrastructure. The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first world citizens, not like third world citizens spitting and littering all over the place.
That was the difficult part. So, we had campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that. We said, "Look, if you don't do this, you won't get the jobs. You must make this place like the countries they came from. Then, they are comfortable. Then they'll do business here. Then, you'll have a job. Then, you'll have homes, schools, hospitals, etc." That's a long process.
IHT: I'll come back to where I began. It was a model that was admired and respected around the world for generations and will be for a long time. Do you ever feel though, looking back, were there times where you'd overreached?
Lee Kuan Yew: (laughs) . . . So many times where we could have made more deft moves. But, given the circumstances at that time and the pressure to get things done, we did the best we could given the facts and the circumstances we were in.
IHT: Well, what about your opponents? Do you ever feel that, looking back now, maybe I didn't have to go that far?
Lee Kuan Yew: My political opponents, you mean?
Lee Kuan Yew: No, I don't think so. I never killed them. I never destroyed them. Politically, they destroyed themselves.
IHT: To what extent can you replicate the Singapore model in other countries? Does it work?
Lee Kuan Yew: Supposing we had oil and gas, do you think I could get the people to do this? No. If I had oil and gas I'd have a different people, with different motivations and expectations. It's because we don't have oil and gas and they know that we don't have, and they know that this progress comes from their efforts. So please do it and do it well.
We are ideology-free. What would make the place work, let's do it.
IHT: Thank you.