OCTOBER 5 — I met Lee Kuan Yew when he came to Harvard (University) 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 judgements.
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. 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. He did not speak as a Cold Warrior, but as an analyst of international politics.
Yet, the Harvard faculty were slow to learn.
Two years later, they hosted another dinner for him. Someone introduced Lee by saying: “We have heard reports, Mr Prime Minister, that you do not share everybody’s doubts about the horrible things being done in Vietnam.”
This time, Lee made an even fuller explanation of what he thought America’s duties were in the world, especially in Asia. 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.
Growing Singapore, helping others
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 Malaya 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.
Cognisant of this theory, Lee Kuan Yew burst into tears during his televised announcement of the country’s independence and had to take a few minutes to collect himself. He worried that Singapore’s future was in peril. It had a mixed population with 70 per cent plus Chinese, 15 per cent Malay, and the rest Indians and other groups. It lacked natural resources.
But after Lee collected himself, he made the heroic decision to refuse to allow Singapore to become another developing country. Instead, he would rely on his belief in the quality of his population, even though, at that time, they had not demonstrated the qualities he hoped to evoke in them. Singapore had been a British naval base. It had possessed no autonomous institutions, ever.
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 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, 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 with 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.
What kind of man was he?
Lee placed great emphasis on loyalty. When Watergate (scandal) 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.
Ever pragmatic, Lee believed Singapore should adapt best practices from all over the world. He had no ideological commitment to certain practices, but studied those which had worked elsewhere. Lee once told me about an occasion when Deng Xiaoping went to Singapore early in 1978.
You know, a component of Singapore’s policy had been compulsory saving of a certain percentage, part of which was returned to the saver in the form of home ownership. As a result, every Singaporean had a home. When Deng came, he took pictures of every housing development he saw!
And Lee asked Deng, why not photograph a single development? Deng replied: “They will not believe me when I return to China and tell them that this is a policy that everybody could participate in.” And so they photographed every housing development.
At that time, the US was still struggling to define its role in the Asia-Pacific. The sentiment that Lee boldly articulated to us — that the US was so important that it could not be permitted to renounce its responsibilities — was a call to duty. He was a person from whom we could — and did — learn a great deal.
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. — TODAY
* Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made these comments at a recent private memorial service for Lee Kuan Yew Lee in New York City.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.