I have always been an ardent fan of Singapore's MM Lee Kuan Yew. I have read his memoirs a few years ago and have admired his styles and thoughts ever since. Below is an interview conducted with him recently.
SINGAPORE'S MINISTER MENTOR LEE KUAN YEW WAS INTERVIEWED ON CNN'S "FAREED ZAKARIA GPS"
SEPTEMBER 21, 2008
SPEAKERS: LEE KUAN YEW, MINISTER MENTOR OF SINGAPORE
HOST: FAREED ZAKARIA
ZAKARIA: When I first met Lee Kuan Yew in 1994, I was absolutely struck by him. Richard Nixon once compared him to legendary statesmen like Disraeli, Bismarck and Churchill. But, Nixon said, he occupies a small stage. That stage doesn't look so small anymore.
Lee Kuan Yew took a small spit of land in Southeast Asia, which became independent in 1965 after great struggle and anguish, with no resources and a polyglot population of Chinese, Malaysian and Indian workers, and turned it into one of the economic centers of the world.
To do this, Lee had to have smart economic policies, but also a shrewd foreign policy that, allied with America, kept China happy, kept Russia and Japan at bay.
This week I sat down with Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. His son now serves as prime minister, but Lee Kuan Yew is called "minister mentor." And he is still indisputably the father of Singapore.
I was struck by the depth of his understanding of the world -- China, Russia and the United States -- all at age 85.
Listen to this.
ZAKARIA (on camera): You have achieved remarkable success for Singapore in your lifetime. You've seen it go from a tiny, poor, backward, Third World country to one of the richest countries in the world. But lots of people feel that you have been -- you have exercised too tight a control, that you should have opened things up more, that it has been too domineering and coercive a state. What do you say to that?
LEE: I say, ask my people. They are given the vote. It's secret. Nobody has ever alleged any chicanery -- no bribery, no coercion, no nothing. We have never won less than 60, two-thirds of the vote.
ZAKARIA: But it's difficult for opposition parties to form and...
LEE: It is not the business of the government to enable the opposition party to overturn us. Right? Do you expect the Republicans to help the Democrats to overturn them?
ZAKARIA: No, but leave aside even just the issue of political competition. I just mean you have laws, for example, that allow random testing of people for drugs. You have, you know, the famous ban against chewing gum, which exercised people's imagination. Do you feel that you should have let up a little bit?
LEE: No, not at all. Because of that, we are now a safe, secure, fun city. The night scene has been transformed in the last 10, 15 years -- any number of nightclubs, the night life, al fresco
dining by the riverside.
ZAKARIA: And people can even chew gum now.
LEE: You need to have a medical certificate to buy gum for those who want to give up smoking and have got to chew some nicotine. What is it I am trying to do? I am trying to create, in a Third World situation, a First World oasis. I am not following any prescription given me by any theoretician on democracy, or whatever. I work from first principles, what will get me there -- social peace and stability within the country, no fight between the races, between religions, whatever, fair shares for all, everybody is a homeowner. I want investments. I've got nothing except skilled manpower, infrastructure. I build up the infrastructure. I educate the people.
We have the best educated work force anywhere in Asia, and I would say, within another 10 years, anywhere in the world. They're all educated in English, which is our working language, and they keep their mother tongue, whether it's Chinese, Malay or Tamil, Urdu, or whatever. Must I follow your prescription to succeed? Do I want to be like America? Yes, in its inventiveness and its creativeness. But do I want to be with America, like America, with its inability to control the drug problem? No. Or the gun problem? No. These are my choices. I go by what is good governance. What are the things I aim to do? A healthy society that gives everybody a chance to achieve his maximum.
ZAKARIA: What do you think of the American campaign, watching it from Singapore?
LEE: What can I say? It's fascinating. Suddenly, Senator McCain produces this governor from Alaska, Palin, and is leading in the polls, and she's a hit. The first flush, she was a disaster.
ZAKARIA: What do you want from the next president?
LEE: Engagement with the world. Keep trade going. Don't backtrack, or you'll put yourself at a disadvantage and put the world at a disadvantage, and you make conflicts more likely. Try and maintain a balance, so that peace and stability is assured without more conflicts.
ZAKARIA: One thing you've been critical of the United States of in the past has been its efforts to spread democracy around the world. You were critical of it when it was Bill Clinton's America, leave alone the freedom agenda of George Bush. What do you object to in that push?
LEE: No, I don't -- I don't think it's doable. I'm a social Darwinist.
ZAKARIA: Survival of the fittest.
LEE: No. The survival requires you to change. If you don't change, then you are marginalized and you will become extinct.
ZAKARIA: But do you look at the way in which the United States has been trying to push democracy around the world...
ZAKARIA: ... and you say...
LEE: Where have you succeeded? You went to Haiti in nation-building. And I was just listening to a BBC on Haiti recently. I mean, it's just undoable.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back.
ZAKARIA: What about Iraq? What do you think?
LEE: I was in favor of getting rid of Saddam Hussein. I did not believe it was possible to reconstitute Iraq as a democracy. I still do not believe that is possible.
ZAKARIA: So, what do you think will happen?
LEE: I think some compromise must be reached between the Shias and Sunnis and the Kurds to share the oil wealth and to share the country. And that is possible. But whether it is democracy, or whether it's a bargain between tribal chieftains, that's a different matter. You're going to bring democracy to Afghanistan? They have been warring with each other for hundreds of years. They enjoy warring with each other. Thirty-plus years ago they killed a king who was nominally holding the country together, and it's been shattered ever since.
How do you restore the writ of Kabul? By some 30,000 NATO troops, ISAF, and a few more brigades of Marines or special forces? The Russians had 140,000 boots on the ground with tanks, helicopters and the lot. And they left. I think nation-building is not doable. I mean, are you going to do nation-building in Pakistan? If you can't get Pakistan right, you will never get Afghanistan right. That Durand Line was arbitrarily drawn by the British between the Northwest Frontier Provinces and Afghanistan. They are the same tribes, brothers, cousins -- porous borders. They're in and out.
Now you've not only got Talibans, you've got Pakistanis joining the Talibans -- or that's the latest intelligence that I've been reading. It can go on for decades. Do we want to be in Afghanistan for decades?
ZAKARIA: A lot of people look at the Russian attack on Georgia and say this is the return of a kind of dark era of geopolitics. How do you view it?
LEE: The country is booming, has got enormous oil wealth. But the underlying problems are enormous. The system is no longer the Soviet system, where you press a button and things move across the country. The corruption will take quite some time to put right -- maybe a very long time. I don't know. The population is not on the increase, in spite of all kinds of incentives. And the incentives will only work in the cities. So, if you look at the long-term trends, it's 140 million Russians, who will go down to 120, 110 in 2050. How do you become a threat with just nuclear weapons?
ZAKARIA: Has America handled this crisis well?
LEE: It shouldn't have led to this crisis. You are dealing with a very adventurous leader in Georgia, and he acted in a very unwise fashion. It was just too silly for words. What was the point? What was he trying to score? And bad intelligence, because good intelligence -- what I read of the intelligence reports -- the Russian troops were there, ready. And if good intelligence, they would know what the reaction would be, and they would have blocked the tunnel, blown up the tunnel, and prevented the tanks from coming in. This is just bungling. And...
ZAKARIA: By Washington also, because we should have managed this better?
LEE: I do not want to guess why the Americans were so keen to bring Georgia into NATO. But at Bucharest, when the NATO meeting was held, Americans should have known that it wasn't warmly received by the people who would be on the front line, if ever there's a conflict. And the Russians know that.
ZAKARIA: And we will be back.
ZAKARIA: When the world saw the Beijing Olympics, and they saw the opening ceremonies, they saw a kind of birth of a new great power. How should we think about it? Should we be apprehensive?
LEE: What we saw -- and I was there with a lot of other of the VIPs -- was a reflection of their capabilities, their potential. It's not what they have achieved industrially or technologically. This was a show that they had seven years to prepare for. And they were carefully thoughtful about what they wanted to present to the world. They wanted to remind the world that they are an old civilization, 5,000 years. They discovered gun powder, paper, movable type, printing. They built the Great Wall. That's the kind of capabilities for disciplined effort that built the Great Wall, the Grand Canal, and eventually will build them a technological society.
ZAKARIA: So you don't worry about them.
LEE: What do they want? Every year they know they are closing the gap. That gap is a huge one.
ZAKARIA: Technologically between them and the West.
LEE: Technologically and industrially. I mean, what you see along the coastal provinces is just about 20, 30 percent of the population, the advantaged part of China. If you go to the inland parts, you will see a very different China. So they know that to catch up is 30, 40, 50 years. So, let's not quarrel with anybody. That would abort the whole process. Every year they grow stronger economically, industrially, catching up technologically. Any external problems will diminish their growth.
What do they have to worry about? Internal problems, social unrest, disparity in development, wages, farmers against the city dwellers, and so on. The danger comes when you have, say, in 20 years a new generation that didn't go through the Cultural Revolution, never went to the Long March, and who believe that China has arrived. So, this is a new phase they are moving into. And worldwide problems -- the biggest problem of all is climate change, energy.
ZAKARIA: Do you think the Chinese will be willing to reduce their own CO2 emissions, which would involve in some way placing limits on their growth? It doesn't seem that they are willing to do it.
LEE: For the time being, I think they are hoping it's not so bad. Per capita, their consumption is so low compared to the Americans. But when the glaciers in the Tibetan Plateau, in the Himalayas melt away, and they are doing it at about four meters per year, and the big rivers that feed off these glaciers become seasonal only with rain, and that affects their crops and their farmers along the river basin, I think they'll have to sit back and ask themselves, do you want this huge upset in your demography? Do you want Shanghai and their coastal cities to be inundated? So, I hope the message – the penny will drop within five to 10 years.
You look at the way the Chinese are spread across the world -- not just in Asia, you know, all over, Arabia -- all Chinese workers construct. What is it you want? New palace? New conference hall? New airport? They've got 1,300 million people. You've only got 300 million. So, they've got four times your number. So, and they are using those numbers. Every mission they have in Southeast Asia, their diplomats speak the language of the country. And in the Gulf, when I went there, I found that every mission, the Chinese mission speaks perfect Arabic.
And I'm sure they do the same in Latin America and in Africa.
ZAKARIA: This is sounding like a power to be feared.
LEE: No, no. This is an ancient power that kept its language skills. This is not a new power. This is an old power revived. That was the lesson I took from the opening of the Olympics.
ZAKARIA: You turn 85 tomorrow. Is there a lesson? What are the secrets to longevity and success?
LEE: Your life span depends on what you've inherited from the two helixes you got from your mother and father. My father lived to 94. My mother died at 74 with some heart problems. I had my first heart problem when I was 74 in 1996. Fortunately, unlike her time, they could do an angioplasty and a stent. So that solved it. The day before yesterday I had atrial flutter, so I don't think I'll reach my father's 94.
ZAKARIA: But you're going strong. I mean, you could...
LEE: But day after tomorrow, something could go wrong with the ticker, and then, that's that.
ZAKARIA: Do you have any regrets?
LEE: No. I've discharged what I had to do. As long as – every day is a bonus. I take every day as it comes. I see the sun rise, I see the sun set. I eat less than I want to. I swim and I cycle. I sleep well of nights, and I enjoy my work. But 70 to 80 percent is what I inherited from my parents.
ZAKARIA: Lee Kuan Yew, a great pleasure to see you.
LEE: Thank you.