Interview With Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew

The following is a transcript of William Safire's interview with Singapore's Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, recorded on January 31, 1999 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Q: Do I have your permission to record this?

A: Yes, go ahead.

Q: And so everything we say is on the record, the same way we handled your press conference this morning, which I felt was very valuable. Particularly the answer about China.

A: That's about as far as I can go.

Q: But that was further than most of us thought you would go, which was very interesting.

A : Well, they have got problems. And you learn to recognize their symptoms.

Q: They have big problems. They have deep social unrest that's beginning to bubble up.

A: That's inevitable, with the sudden changes. It cannot be helped. There's just unequal growth, unequal growth within cities, between cities and between provinces that's partly the result of location, history, and just the luck of the draw.

Now, you take Fujian province, opposite Taiwan. And they didn't have this freeze, it would be like Guangdong opposite Hong Kong. And because of the freeze, it's been a war zone almost, until recently. That's just the luck of the draw. So they know. [inaudible]

Q: What do you think about the way they're handling the dissidents? Do you think it's counterproductive? Why do you think there's such fear in the minds of the leaders in Beijing over a relative handful of ...

A: They're never sure of that. They look at Tiananmen. That's a relative handful of students. And people like Fang Lizhi, a harmless physicist, astrophysicist behind them. But it snowballed. They know they're vulnerable.

The biggest single fear they have, it's the corrosive effect of graft, and the revulsion that it evokes in people. They're never quite sure when it will blow up. It's not that they're all corrupt. I mean, you take Jiang Zemin, or Zhu Rongji. In the center, they are quite clean.

I spoke on my first lesson on this when talking to our businessmen. So I said, ""How do you know when you're dealing with them, who's clean?'' They said, ""It's quite easy. As long as they are on the upward path, they want to keep their records clean for further promotions. Once they are moved sideways, they're stagnant.'' And they said, ""Well, they've got to look after themselves in the future.'' And it sets in and it's widespread. And because of that, they really don't notice how much resentment there is. I mean, even in the rural areas, it's just illegal levies. Not on the books. Just squeeze the farmers. He's the boss, and the Party secretary.

Q: But is stability enhanced by the iron fist, or will it be more likely more stable if they had a few escape valves?

A: They're trying that. At the lowest level, they're allowing villagers to elect their own leaders.

Q: But that's already stopped.

A: No, no. That is still going on. That is not stopped. They're hoping to check the excesses of corrupt Party officials. And there have been cases where corrupt Party officials rigged the elections to stay in. And they try and put it right. So they're trying at a very basic level to make sure that there is some popular support.

Q: But you're not critical of them for cracking down on this.

A: It's China. A completely different set of rules. I don't know. We had a ... he is now paralyzed. He was our Ambassador to Brussels, and he was educated in Singapore, and he went to China. His father sent him to Nanking to study during the war. And he wrote up these experiences in his biography. I mean, it's a history of ... oh, just brutish force. How can you change that overnight?

Q: How can you say it's just China, or Asians are different?

A: I'm not saying that Asians are not human beings. I'm just saying that, if they don't punish people that way, people are not afraid.

Q: Right.

A: I mean, you take the way they shoot their criminals. It's a public demonstration. They bring them in, bent, pushed, humiliated. You kneel down, I shoot you in the back; one bullet. And they make the family pay for that one bullet. And it's a public demonstration.

Q: That's rule by fear.

A: Ah, no. It's to terrorize others into not doing the same thing.

Q: That's rule by fear.

A: No. Because they haven't gotten a police system that can maintain a different kind of regime.

Q: But isn't that wrong?

A: Who are we to decide whether it's right or wrong? That's the way they are, and that's the way we have to deal with them.

Q: Okay.

A: Can we change them?

Q: Why not?

A: [Laughter] You try.

Q: They changed the Communist system in the Soviet Union.

A: You look what has happened in the country now.

Q: Isn't it better off today than it was under Stalin?

A: I don't think so. I mean, maybe better off under Stalin, but is it better off than under Gorbachev? I don't think so.

Q: Well, your ...

A: The Mafia is in charge. The police are disorganized. Everything is a racket. State property is being misappropriated all over. Money is stashed abroad. Homes bought in London. Shares bought on the New York Stock Exchange. The country is hungry. How can you say it's better?

Q: It's better than killing 26 million people.

A: [Laughs] That's Stalin, but we are talking about today. I'm talking about Gorbachev, and what exists under Yeltsin.

Q: Well, Gorbachev was a transitional ...

A: I'm saying ...

Q: Out of the depths that Brezhnev and Stalin and the others ...

A: Yes. And I'm saying, or that I'm hoping that Jiang Zemin will be a bridge towards a better China. He is ...

Q: Better China. By ""better,'' do you mean freer? Or more stable?

A: Better governed China. Less brutal, brutish methods of government.

Q: But isn't there a logical inconsistency to what you're saying? As soon as they become less brutish, they have less fear that they instill.

A: No, no.

Q: And there will be more dissidents, and more people feeling that they can speak their mind.

A: No, I think it's a process that's got to be gradual, and the supporting environment ... meaning the society, the standards of living, ability to accept and not be carried away by these changes, wanting too much too quickly, like the students at Tiananmen, that is possible.

I mean, I've given this example again and again, but I'm not sure that Americans accept, you know, that it has to be a gradual process.

You have an idea of how the country should be. And you say, ""Well, let's change them,'' because you've got the levers. They sell you more than you buy from them. They need your technologies, so ""you change''. I don't think they can change their ways. And if they did, they run very serious risks of internal unrest that may abort the whole process.

Let's put it this way. They do not know where they are heading. What kind of China it will be in 30 years, Jiang Zemin has no idea.

All he knows is that it's going to be a different China. That goes the same for all that generation. They're all ...

Q: But isn't he following the Singapore model, and trying to get more economic freedom without any more political freedom?

A: That's facile. If you just look at China and you look at Singapore, you can see the vast difference.

Q: Well, three million versus ...

A: No, no. It's not that. Three million, but three million with a thick middle class now compared to China. All educated, those below forty. Nearly all educated in the English language, completely conversant with what's going on in the world, and increasingly having a comfortable niche in the order of things. They travel. They see people. They do what they like. They're not regulated and they vote me out and I'm out. And they know that.

Q: Let me challenge you on that. I've written that you're a dictator.

A: [Laughs]

Q: I've often written that.

A: Yes. But if that makes me a dictator, well, you have won. So, am I a dictator? Do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?

Q: That's a good question. Why don't you permit competition politically if you can win hands down?

A: I do permit competition.

Q: That's not what the competition says.

A: Let me make it simpler for you. Joseph Nye, head of the Kennedy School, recently came to Singapore as part of our international advisory board to get our universities to improve their standards. And I had known him for some time, met him before he was in government. At the time he was there, there was this little fuss about a dissident who said, ""I'm going to speak at Raffles Place,'' which is our business center, ""without a permit.'' He asked, why don't we let him speak? I said the law has been on the statute book for the last fifty years. If everybody just turns up at a busy junction at lunchtime and makes a speech and runs around, and everybody does it, there would be pandemonium. We are not that kind of a society. He says, ""Why don't you have a Hyde Park?'' I said, ""Yes, we'll think about that.'' We'll probably do it.

Q: How long ago was that?

A: About two weeks ago.

Q: Now, in that time, there was a Chee Soon Juan ...

A: Yes, that's right. That's the chap. And he said he's not going to pay the fine, and he's been properly charged. He's not going to pay the fine. He's going to go to jail to be a martyr. Fine. But he's no martyr.

Q: Wait ... Isn't there a law on your books saying that after you reach a certain level of fines, you can't stand for office?

A: I don't think he'll be fined beyond that. It would be wonderful.

Q: Well, the fine is a $5,000.00 limit, and the first fine is $3,000.00.

A: But how do you know the first fine will be $3,000.00? We don't know. And we are not going to press for it. Why should we?

Q: Well, why should you fine him anything, if you're not worried about him?

A: Because the laws are there, and he has complied with those laws for the last eight years, since 1992 he has been campaigning. And now, because he has lost, and lost badly in an open, free election, one to one against one of our candidates, he's had exposure on television, which was disastrous for him because he was caught out lying and fibbing and fabricating evidence on a health care paper which he presented. So he's been away for two years, in Australia, licking his wounds, so he wants to find a way to get a splash back, so he tries to ... so he gets a big splash in the Western press ... because they want to beat me up. (Laughs) It's all right; it doesn't bother me.

Q: But here you've just called this man a liar.

A: Yes. He is a liar.

Q: Now, can he sue you for libel?

A: Yes, he can.

Q: Would he win?

A: He would lose. I can prove it.

Q: But if you sue somebody for libel for calling you a liar, you'll win.

A: Because I don't lie.

Q: Ah. So ...

A: If they can prove that I am a liar, I'm done in. And when they sue some of our MPs and Ministers for having mis-spoken, they pay damages.

Q: You don't feel that you have abused, or misused, the law to intimidate people into not running against you?

A: (Laughs) No. No. I don't think so. They can run against me, but it's an effort to gather enough people to make that consistent try year after year, to build an organization.

Q: Now, here you are, an intelligent man, and regarded highly by a lot of intelligent, conservative Westerners, many of whom are friends of mine, and you're trying to leave me with the impression that there is an open, free, political competition ...-

A: Yeah.

Q: Backed up by a free press in Singapore. That is just totally at variance with the facts.

A: [Laughs] I do not agree with that. You called me a dictator. My answer to that is you are entitled to call me whatever you like, but that doesn't make me one, because I don't have to be a dictator. I can get a free vote and win. And there's a long history why that is so. Because I have produced results, and the people know that I mean what I say and I have produced results. You say there's no competition. We have enormous competition from the Communists. Maybe our fault ...-

Q: That's ancient history.

A: Not quite. Not quite. They were in the background all the time until 1990 when they signed the agreement and laid down their arms entirely. And they were always working through open front organizations. So we had fairly stringent laws to keep them out of it. Right.

Q: Uh-huh.

A: Now. We do not own the press, as they do in Malaysia. The press is owned by ... nobody is allowed to own more than 3 percent of the shares. The management of the press is in the hands of our four big banks.

Q: And that makes them terrified of crossing you.

A: No. That makes them having a vested interest in stability and growth, and they support parties that will bring about stability and growth.

Q: But what about truth and freedom? Isn't that just as important as stability ...

A: Our press does not lie. It does not. Nobody is shut off.

Q: Now, you've written that your news policy, quote, ""is not to exclude the contrary point of view, but to make sure the government's point of view is clearly stated.+

A: Yes. Correct.

Q: So if I say that you're a dictator, and that one-party government is inherently corrupt, you do not feel that is libelous? I can go ahead and say that and write that in Singapore?

A: Yes. Everybody knows that we haven't got one-party government and we are not corrupt.

Q: But you say I am free to say that.

A: Yes.

Q: Even though you say I can't prove it.

A: You are stating ...

Q: What I believe.

A: ... a general principle. Are you saying that the PAP government is a one-party government and corrupt? If you say that, you have got to prove it.

Q: Why do I have to prove it? Why can't I just say it.

A: No.

Q: Why ...

A: Just now ...

Q: ... proof on the person who believes something to be true. Let me take off my jacket; it is a bit warm here.

A: When you made your statement, you made a general statement, and I said you are free to make that general statement. But if you are specific, and say that this PAP government is a one-party government and it's corrupt, that's a very damaging statement, and I say, ""Please prove it.+

Q: Well, I've seen where a publication suggested that compliant judges were used corruptly to bankrupt your opponent. Right?

A: I took them to court and they paid damages for that.

Q: That was because of your corrupt judges.

A: Now, just a moment. The World Economic Forum and it's rival organization, IMD, listed us in their competitiveness report, had confidence in our judicial system; compared to all of the other countries, it's right on top.

Q: That's on economic ... -

A: No, no, no, no. You don't have judges who are honest and competent in economics and dishonest and corrupt in libel cases.

Q: Why not?

A: Because that's not the way we run our system. That's not the way we appoint judges. A judge has been appointed ... we have inherited the British system. Once appointed, he cannot be removed. His salaries are guaranteed under the constitution. All his perquisites cannot been diminished.

Q: So the result of these pristine, honest, uncorrupt judges is that all your political opposition is driven into exile, or bankrupted, or, in other words ...

A: Just a moment. How are they driven into exile? We do not want them in exile.

Q: Huge fines.

A: Come off it. Let's go through individuals, right?

Q: OK.

A: Chee Soon Juan is not in exile.

Q: As of today he's not.

A: No, he is not. Why should he be in exile? There is a man called Jeyaretnam who's been--

Q: Before you leave him, what's going to happen next week?

A: I don't know. He'll be produced in court. He'll make his defense.

Q: Right.

A: His defense is the law is unconstitutional, which I think is farfetched.

Q: Right. So then he'll be either jailed or fined. Right?

A: He won't be jailed. Nobody has been jailed yet on the first offense. He'll be fined. He'll refuse to pay his fine, as he said.

Q: Right.

A: He held a meeting with the foreign correspondents at lunch and said he's not going to pay, he's going to go to jail. Well, that's his choice.

Q: Right.

A: So.

Q: So when that happened in the U.S. 220 years ago, the newsmen were fined, they went to jail, and the people turned against the government of John Adams and elected Thomas Jefferson.

A: (Sighs) You know, we are not America. And the people in Singapore are not going to react that way. And the other leader of the opposition, he booted out from his party and took over. That's already on record. The opposition leader said he just is giving the opposition a bad name. And I think that's correct.

Q: So why don't you let him?

A: I'm letting him.

Q: If you provide them with the ...

A: No, no, no.

Q: ... to speak up against you, and people don't like what they're saying, what are you worried about?

A: There are certain rules of the game which he has got to observe, and he has observed them. Since 1992 he's played by those rules. He had all the publicity he wanted. It did him no good.

Now he comes back and says, ""It's because the law is stacked against me. I'm going to change this constitution.+

Q: Isn't that what happened in the Soviet Union? With Scharansky?

A: That's a very different proposition. He wants to change this law. He stands for Parliament, gets into Parliament, then moves a motion; he changes the law.

Q: And why ...

A: You are not going to change me in this one encounter. I am not going to change you.

Q: No, but I'm trying to understand your thought processes.

A: [Laughs] My thought processing has been patterned and reinforced over forty years of government, of dealing with all kinds of people, and of governing a society and making sense out of the society. And this is how we've got from nearly 0 to perhaps 70-plus percent.

Q: But you've shown that you're flexible. Let me give you an example. When you were asked yesterday and today about Asian values versus Western values, you said ""when we talk about Asian values, we're talking about Confucian values'', and you somewhat modified what had been a charge that ""Western civilization was decadent.'' You don't say that any more.

A: I've never said that Western civilization was decadent. What I said was in writing and in a conversation that I had with Fareed Zakaria of Foreign Affairs, and what I put down in that exchange was, ""I see signs of what I consider unacceptable patterns of conduct which I wouldn't like to have happen to us.+

Q: All right. Let me give you another example of your flexibility. Your son was here at Davos three years ago, and I asked him how he proposed to maintain a barrier against information flowing into Singapore if there was such a thing as the Internet and computers coming.

A: Yes.

Q: And he said, very firmly, ""We will maintain our ability to control the flow of information.'' Now, that turned out to be nonsense. You have acknowledged that in the interviews today.

A: Yes. Because technology has overwhelmed us. All right?

Q: Exactly. But you're not standing there saying it hasn't happened. You're recognizing it's happening. And so if it's happening with the flow of information through the Internet, why don't you let it happen with newspapers and magazines?

A: But that's a different proposition. The flow of information through the Internet - how many Internet users do we have? About 10 percent of the population? (AIDE: Fifteen.) Fifteen percent. They are the thinking part of the population, fairly well informed, well-exposed. There is this lumpen mass in any society, 30, 40 percent, who never got through junior high school. We don't want this barrage day after day ... the society has got to adjust and evolve step by step.

Q: Now, you're using Marxian language, with the "lumpen'' proletariat.

A: Well, I have been influenced by their vocabulary. They are not able to rise up to the levels of education which the majority has.

Q: But that's just a function of time, isn't it?

A: No, it is not. It's a function of nature.

Q: You mean there is a ... somewhere it's written that 30 percent of the people of a given population will be ...

A: Some population ...

Q: ... maintained in ignorance?

A: Some populations are more talented than others.

Q: I don't see what you mean by that. Because in a population in a place like Singapore, where you have an elite, you have a middle-class, and you have a lower class, or a people who are not in poverty, but are not well off.

Is that fair?

A: Yes. In broad classification, yes.

Q: All right. Now, you're saying that's the way it must be?

A: That's the way it is.

Q: Well, I'm asking, can it be ...

A: Well, we are trying to reduce what's at the bottom of the pile.

Q: Right.

A: And it's hard work.

Q: And knowledge is part of the way.

A: Yes.

Q: And the way to get knowledge is through the Internet, and through books and publications and periodicals.

A: Yes.

Q: Why, if you believe that, why are you restricting the circulation of publications?

A: Ah, let me make it simpler. For the coming generations ... just yesterday I had lunch with a group of Americans. One of them was Sun Microsystems, a scientific officer called Cage. And he's working hard in Singapore getting all our schools linked up to the Internet and wired up to each other, and teaching them how to access information. That it will include eventually whether it's 30 or more or less percent of the people who are not going to make the grade. But their parents are not capable of going through that process. It's too late. They are in their forties and fifties. We are trying to get them re-educated, but it is not easy.

Q: But if you're trying, what kind of way of trying is to restrict circulation of printed publications?

A: No, we don't restrict publications. We restrict publications only when they refuse to publish our right of reply.

Q: So ...

A: We've gone through ... we've refined this to quite an argument, and I had brushes against many of the U.S. publications: Time, Newsweek, Wall Street Journal. They used to write and refused to publish our corrections.

Q: You get more space in newspapers, thanks to me, from newspapers who are eager to give you a chance to reply, than from almost any other source.

A: So? But when we do give a sharp reply, it is not published.

Q: Gee, I doubt that. When you get colourful and sharp in your replies, it's well-covered. For example, when you gave an interview and said that Vice President Gore's remarks in Malaysia were ""unnecessarily rude,+ that got good play.

A: Where? In the U.S. press?

Q: You bet.

A: I haven't noticed that.

Q: Oh, by the way, when you saw him ... did you see him here?

A: Just passing each other, that's all, at the conference hall.

Q: So you didn't have a conversation?

A: No. I thought he was silly. He hurt Mahathir for no rhyme or reason. It wasn't the way to do it. You are going there as a guest. You don't have to go, because if the host is not deserving and you don't want to enjoy his hospitality, then don't go. But having gone there, and at a set dinner, to go there, stiffly shake hands, make a speech, then walk out and not eat their dinner shows a certain uncouthness in Asian eyes. There's a subtlety about how you insult people. There was no subtlety there.

Q: Now, here I am, in your suite, as your guest, interviewing you ...

A: No, but that's different.

Q: But I'm asking tough questions ...

A: No, no. This is ...

Q: And I'm not being unnecessarily polite ...

A: No, but this is not a public occasion, where you are invited as one of the guests, and you behave in a scandalous manner to show utter contempt and disregard for the host. I mean, you asked to see me, and I said yes.

And I expect you to ask awkward, spiky, difficult questions. That's in keeping with our respective positions.

Q: But when a statesman comes to a country and says what he thinks, or gives an unvarnished comment on human freedom, for example, you think that's wrong?

A: No, I'm not saying what he said was wrong. What I am saying was the style of doing it, the circumstances, was bad manners. If he had held a press conference after the thing was over, and made that speech, and made all those comments, directed to the world at large. But not at a formal dinner, as one of the principal guests, and walk out immediately after he had spoken and before others had spoken. Well, that's just rude.

Q: All right. You've made your point.

A: And he gave Mahathir points ... and even Mahathir's opponents ... political points.

Q: How can you, a man who fought communism and gained great credit for it, today be saying to the communists in China, the way to stay in power is to squeeze the dissidents?

A: [Laughs] I am not saying that. You are reducing it. You are caricaturing what I am saying.

Q: All right. Then you say it with whatever subtlety you want.

A: I am hoping that they will make this transition from a one-party totally dominant and controlled society into a more loose, open, normal kind of society, like Taiwan, like Hongkong ... maybe not so Westernised ... over the next 20, 30 years.

Q: But you didn't say...

A: But they're not going to get there if they don't take care.

Q: You didn't say ""like Singapore''.

A: No, because they can't be like us.

Q: But isn't the model that you are...

A: No, you ... you, the Western press ... say that they are going to use us as their model. We've never offered ourselves as a model, and they are not using us as a model. They pick bits and pieces of us: how do you run your airport? Why are you so efficient? Why is your airline so efficient? Let's go make a study. They study bits of us. But we have got the bits and pieces to come together. That's something they cannot do, and they know that. They're not stupid.

Q: Senior Minister. I'm not coming to this completely fresh. I used to be Richard Nixon's speechwriter.

A: Yes.

Q: I have heard the arguments from Chinese officials about their need to crack down on dissidents, and their blandishments of someday, we'll have economic growth, and then, after a period, that economic growth will lead to political freedom. But that's not what happened. Just the opposite has happened.

A: Well, I am not here to defend them. If you want to know my opinion, I've given you my opinion. They are what they are. I'm not going to change them, and I doubt if you can change them.

Q: No. And I'm not trying to change you. I'm trying to understand why you, who recognise your impact on China, and perhaps you minimise your impact on China, the example of Singapore on China, but the example is talked about, and when you don't permit a two-party system...

A: We have more than a two-party system. There are seven or eight parties that contested in the last elections.

Q: And of the 83 seats...

A: Yes, but they lost. They lost.

Q: And they lost because...

A: They lost because...

Q: ...they had every opportunity to...

A: ... because they cannot produce an alternative, an alternative that was more attractive to the electorate than us. Look, nobody in his right mind believes that we rigged elections. We don't rig elections. There's an honest, above-board election. Like we do many other things. Because otherwise, we wouldn't be what we are.

Q: But, for example, the candidates against your party have an opportunity to have equal time on television...

A: No, not equal time. Time in accordance with the number of candidates they field. There's a proportion, worked out from British days.

Q: You keep harking back to 50-year-old laws.

A: No, not laws. These are guidelines. I field 100 per cent of the seats. You field 10 per cent of the seats. Are you entitled to my TV time?

Q: All...

A: You are entitled to 10 per cent of it.

Q: So you think that an opposition party can't grow; it has to immediately compete on an equal level overnight.

A: There's nothing to stop it from fielding 100 per cent of the seats.

Q: Let me change the subject for a minute, all right, to selective transparency. You have something that many Westerners think is good. Your monetary authority now requires private bank to declare details on non-performing loans. But the Government, the Singapore Government, offers secret inducements for companies that invest in Singapore. So there's transparency that you require on banks and non-performing loans, but there's no transparency on what the Government does to seduce, or induce, people to come in and invest.

A: I don't see any such secret blandishments. Each investor is given a set of privileges, depending on the length of time it takes him to amortise his investments. Some are long gestation, some are short gestation. And I know of no secret inducement.

Q: Well, all right.

A: Because investors have a knack of comparing notes with each other, and if you give one a privilege and you don't offer the next one, he will soon get to know, and he'll squeeze you for the same.

Q: Not necessarily. I mean...

A: Well, I don't know. I don't know enough to be able to refute completely that we don't do it, but I am not aware that we have done it.

Q: How about independent labour unions. How do you feel about them?

A: Nothing to stop them from forming independent labour unions.

Q: Really?

A: Yeah. But they can't succeed. Because the unions who are with us produce more results.

Q: But I remember the unions in the Soviet Union. They were pet unions. They were in the pocket of the employers.

A: [Laughs] But if we were stupid enough to do that, we will be down the drain in no time at all. Our workers are not stupid.

Q: So you would welcome a free, independent...

A: The American view is you must always have a competitor. We think that's a sound proposition in principle, and there's no reason why we shouldn't have competition. But we make quite sure that we stay ahead of the competition.

Q: Here comes a prickly question. You mentioned corruption and nepotism earlier today. What about Singapore? Would your son be Deputy Prime Minister if he were not your son?

A: If he were not my son, he would be the Prime Minister. I'll tell you honestly, I stopped him, because he can run faster than any of the others. But I told him it would do him no good. Just stay out of this race. And his generation, his peers, know that I am not boasting when I tell you this.

Q: So you don't foresee a dynasty?

A: I am not that bereft of satisfaction with my life that I need to live vicariously through him. In fact, if he doesn't measure up, it is better that he does not show up, because he'll just besmirch the family reputation.

Q: About your book. You just wrote a book; I bought the book.

A: Where did you buy the book?

Q: In Washington, D.C. It wasn't easy, but I found it. Have there been any negative reviews of your book in Singapore?

A: A few. Not written by Singaporeans.

Q: But published in Singapore?

A: Oh, yes. By Malaysians. Condemning it day by day. It's dutifully published. It gives me publicity. [Laughs] Look. I can stand that. Not to worry.

Q: Philosophical question. Do people have an inherent right to rebel against despotism?

A: That's one of the Confucianist concepts. That's what the Chinese leaders fear most. Revolution in China is called qi yi. Qi is ""to arise'', yi is for ""righteousness''. So when an emperor is despotic, corrupt, evil, it is a righteous cause you should rebel. This is part of the Chinese folk culture.

Q: And this is what you see as the worrying...

A: Oh, yes. Absolutely...FOUR SENTENCES OFF THE RECORD.] Look. I,ll give you an illustration of how completely... why they know they can't do a Singapore. Joseph Nye was in Beijing before he came to Singapore, so they're talking about academic standards, and how to get admissions into universities, and so on.

So this lady in Beijing University asked him, ""How do you choose your best students?'' So Joseph Nye says you've got an SAT test with 800 as perfect score. But if we had a student with say, 600, 760, not perfect score, and another 800, but this student with 760 is also a violinist, we would take him.'' And the lady said to Joseph Nye, ""Oh, we can't do that. That would be chaos. As it is, even with marks, we have a problem.''

So this question of integrity in the system just runs through the whole fabric of the administration. I don't know what the communists have done in the 40-odd years that has made this so endemic, but it's a very big problem, and will stymie their progress. So how can they follow us? It's not possible.

Q: Who are your heroes? In history?

A: History? Churchill, DeGaulle. I think Deng Xiaoping. But for him, China is down like the Soviet Union. Is it wrong to list him? Does it tell you something?

Q: About your life? [Laughs]

A: No, but it tells you what I think of him.

Q: Exactly. That's why I asked.

A: Yes. Because I have dealt with communist leaders; he's the one communist leader with whom I spoke, and who stopped in his tracks and said, ""What do you want me to do?'' He came down in 1970, just before the Vietnamese attacked Cambodia, and he'd been to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and he came here. He gave a spiel on why we must all unite against the Russian bear, etc etc, Cuba, Russians in South-east Asia.

So I said to him, ""Contrary to what you believe, what my neighbours want to do is to unite against you. Because you're the troublemaker, not the Soviet Union. They don't pay for the arms and the propaganda that's coming out of China on their behalf. You are the mischief maker. You are appealing to overseas Chinese to support you, over their heads, to their citizens.'' And I expected a robust denial and for him to say ""rubbish''.

But he just asked: ""What do you want me to do?'' I took a deep breath, and I said: ""Stop it. Or you are all by yourself.'' And he stopped it. It took two years to do it. And the radio broadcasts stopped. And at his age, as a lifelong communist, to see that the communist system was going to bring ruin, and persuaded his Long March Communists to do a 180- degree U-turn, that's something. There would be no China today. It would be like the Soviet Union.

Q: Richard Nixon used to talk a little bit about someone like that, about Zhou Enlai.

A: But Zhou died.

Q: Now, you and I approach the world differently when it comes to individual rights versus what you call communitarianism.

A: Yes. Well, the rights of the society as a whole must, in my view ... to make Singapore work ... be placed above the rights of the individual, otherwise it will not work. If everybody is out after his own interests, regardless of everybody else, the society will just disintegrate.

Q: But it's never that stark. It's not individual rights must be supreme over the state, or the state must be supreme over the individual. It's similar, not in the middle, but somewhere in between the 80-yard line. And there are a great many of us who feel that what you do is completely subjugate individual rights to an elite view of what's right for everybody, what's best for everybody.

A: I would say, again, that's an exaggeration, a caricature of what we're trying to do. We had inherited ... look, I'm an empiricist. I'm not an ideologue. I don't believe in theories. I read about theories. I'm interested in them. But when I have a problem, I'll just solve it, and I don't care what theories solve the problem. I leave that to the Ph.D. student to figure out.

I had a conglomeration of people from all over South-east Asia and East Asia. It was never a society. They all came there because the British ran an emporium and so they wanted to make a living...And the British kept them in their pockets.

This kind of Chinese in this area, that kind of Chinese and that area; Indonesians from the Celebes in that place, and so on. It's convenient, because then nobody jells against them.

Suddenly, for some awkward reason, we became independent, which means that we could not survive unless we have a sense of community, that we owe each other some obligations as fellow citizens. And that is not easy, especially when you don't even talk one common language. We spoke different languages. It's a Tower of Babel.

Out of that non-situation, non-society, we tried to form certain common factors to make it jell. Had we gone one man, one vote, Chinese would have become the language. Then we would have died of starvation. Had we legislated and said, ""English was our national language,'' there would have been a rebellion.

So we said, ""Okay. You will study whatever language is your mother language, and you will study English because that's fair competition with everybody else, and that will be the language, the working language, of the government.''

So slowly, now, for the first time, if you speak in English, you might be understood by about 70 per cent of the population. It will never reach 100 per cent. Because even now, some of the young ones cannot pick up English because they're speaking their own mother tongue at home, and they're not bright enough to capture two. So it's always a fragmented society.

But, fragmented or not, we've got to make the place work. Now, in order to be able to defend ourselves, because we have slightly more than our neighbours, and that triggers off envy and many other thoughts; like the Israelis, we have a people's army where, at the drop of a hat, we can raise a quarter-of-a-million people.

But as the recruits form about 30, 40,000, to get them all together to fight for Singapore, we've got to give them an idea that this is important. Whether you're a wealthy man's son, or you're a hawker's son, you will do this. It's taken a good part of 30-plus years to get that concept into them.

Q: This is not the first time that you've used the Israeli example.

A: Yes.

Q: And there, individual rights...

A: No, but they have a whole history...

Q: ...are God given.

A: No, but they are homogeneous. They were persecuted. They are all Jews. They all read the Talmud.

Q: No. You've got religious Jews, you've got secular Jews...

A: Yes, that may be so, but they are Jews.

Q: It's a deeply fractionated society.

A: But when Israel goes to war, they leave whatever they are doing and come back to fight.

Q: Right.

A: I'm not sure they'd do that for Singapore.

Q: But you can't look at it as a sclerotic situation. You took what you took.

A: Yeah.

Q: You developed it into a society.

A: No, it's developing into, like a society. It's not a society yet.

Q: So what's it going towards? Is it going to be elite-run forever or will it ...

A: No, it cannot be. I don't quite follow the dichotomy in your argument. As you educate them to higher and higher levels, that elite will thicken. It ceases to be such a small elite. Must do. It's already happening.

In 1965 ... and I made this point in one of my speeches ... If we had the top 200 both in government and in business on the same 707 aircraft and it crashed, that's the end of Singapore. It could not have carried on.

Today, you could have them in two jumbos and crash, and it would still carry on. Because we have duplicated many of them. Therefore it would cease gradually to be a small elite.

Q: But is it on a slow incline, or do you see the opportunity now...

A: [Laughs] That's a matter for the younger generation to decide. I am taking a back seat view. A younger man is in charge. My successor is about 57. How old is he? (Aide: Fifty-seven)

Q: Come on, now. You're still in charge.

A: No, I'm not.

Q: If you say, ""No, let's not do that,'' they won't do it.

A: No, you're wrong. You are wrong. No, we run a system, right? I have seen what's happened to Indonesia, but I knew what's going to happen to Singapore if I did not prepare for succession. Because it was so easy just to carry on. I couldn't be removed. But if I had institutionalised it around me, it would have collapsed. So I institutionalised it around the office.

Q: Yes, but you have...

A: No, let's just hang on a bit. They are important. For me to leave Singapore and be here in Davos, I write to the Prime Minister and ask for leave of absence. It's not a formality. It is a statement of my constitutional position. He knows it. He's my secretary (gesturing to his Principal Private Secretary). He would put up the draft and remind me that I've got to take leave.

Q: So what's your point there, that...

A: My point is: I cannot order the government machine to work in the way I want, because I'm not the Prime Minister. I haven't taken the oath as Prime Minister. The President didn't appoint me. He appointed him. Then the Prime Minister appointed me as a minister in his Cabinet.

Now, I'm not going to pretend that I do not have influence. In the final analysis, if I totally disagree with a policy, and I think it's ruinous, I'll stand up in Parliament and attack it, and go public, and shake public opinion against the policy. Now, that they know.

Q: And so you think public opinion is what drives decisions in...

A: Absolutely. Yeah.

Q: So if public opinion is paramount, then what you,re suggesting is ... (BEGIN TAPE 1, SIDE B)

Q: ... The proper direction. [General conversation; length of interview]

Q: Is there any harsh question I have not asked that you were prepared for and would like to unload your answer on me?

A: Well, I think I don't have any answers to give. It's a simple point I make, and I made it to Joe Nye. I am not a model for anything. I just want to make Singapore work.

Whether it's good to be a model or not a model, that's for students of sociology and politics to decipher later. So I borrow in an eclectic way. I learn, and I never stop learning, because I think once you stop learning, you have got to die.

Q: We have a saying, when you're through changing, you're through. Well, I hope you'll keep changing, and more rapidly...

A: [Laughs] We are not doing too badly.

Q: I appreciate this opportunity, and I'm grateful to you for it. A: I haven't changed you, but that I didn't expect, and you haven't changed me, and I don't think you expected to.

Q: Well, I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

A: [Laughs] You are not a silly man, and I don't give you silly answers.

Q: I hope to see you again.

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