PERSPECTIVE: Time to reflect for man who defined Singapore

PERSPECTIVE: Time to reflect for man who defined Singapore a first-world oasis in a third-world region’, an example to follow for the brightest Gorkha minds, everything for an honourable purpose ?!!

Lee Kuan Yew at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore on August 13, 2010 - trusts only the simple Gorkhas ?!! (Reuters)

FROM THE TELEGRAPH
BY SETH MYDANS

THROUGH NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Singapore, Sept. 11: “So, when is the last leaf falling?” asked Lee Kuan Yew, the man who made Singapore in his own stern and unsentimental image, nearing his 87th birthday and contemplating age, infirmity and loss.

“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” said Lee, whose “Singapore model” of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”

In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.

Singapore - the City State the world now admires ?!! (HN File Photo)

He was dressed informally in a windbreaker and running shoes in his big, bright office, still sharp of mind but visibly older and a little stooped, no longer in day-to-day control but, for as long as he lives, the dominant figure of the nation he created.

But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes. “I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.”

Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’ ”

“What is next, I do not know,” he said. “Nobody has ever come back.”

Minister Mentor Lee - holding Singapore's Torch High even at 87 ?!! (HN File Photos)

The Prime Minister of Singapore from its founding in 1965 until he stepped aside in 1990, Lee built what he called “a first-world oasis in a third-world region” — praised for the efficiency and incorruptibility of his rule but accused by human rights groups of limiting political freedoms and intimidating opponents through libel suits.

His title now is minister mentor, a powerful presence within the current government led by his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. The question that hovers over Singapore today is how long and in what form his model may endure once he is gone.

Always physically vigorous, Lee combats the decline of age with a regimen of swimming, cycling and massage and, perhaps more important, an hour-by-hour daily schedule of meetings, speeches and conferences both in Singapore and overseas. “I know if I rest, I’ll slide downhill fast,” he said.

When, after an hour, talk shifted from introspection to geopolitics, the years seemed to slip away and he grew vigorous and forceful, his worldview still wide ranging, detailed and commanding.

And yet, he said, he sometimes takes an oblique look at these struggles against age and sees what he calls “the absurdity of it.” “I’m reaching 87, trying to keep fit, presenting a vigorous figure, and it’s an effort, and is it worth the effort?” he said. “I laugh at myself trying to keep a bold front. It’s become my habit. I just carry on.”

His most difficult moments come at the end of each day, he said, as he sits by the bedside of his wife, Kwa Geok Choo, 89, who has been unable to move or speak for more than two years. She had been by his side, a confidante and counsellor, since they were law students in London.

“She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night,” he said. “She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favourite poems.” He opened a big spreadsheet to show his reading list, books by Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling and Lewis Carroll as well as the sonnets of Shakespeare.

Lately, he said, he had been looking at Christian marriage vows and was drawn to the words: “To love, to hold and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse till death do us part.”

“I told her, ‘I would try and keep you company for as long as I can.’ That’s life. She understood.” But he also said: “I’m not sure who’s going first, whether she or me.”

At night, hearing the sounds of his wife’s discomfort in the next room, he said, he calms himself with 20 minutes of meditation, reciting a mantra he was taught by a Christian friend: “Ma-Ra-Na-Tha.”

The phrase, which is Aramaic, comes at the end of St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, and can be translated in several ways. Lee said that he was told it means: “Come to me, Lord Jesus,” and that although he is not a believer, he finds the sounds soothing.

“The problem is to keep the monkey mind from running off into all kinds of thoughts,” he said. “A certain tranquillity settles over you. The day’s pressures and worries are pushed out. Then there’s less problem sleeping.”

He brushed aside the words of a prominent Singaporean writer and social critic, Catherine Lim, who described him as having “an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner that has little use for sentiment”.

“She’s a novelist!” he cried. “Therefore, she simplifies a person’s character,” making what he called a “graphic caricature of me.” “But is anybody that simple or simplistic?”

The stress of his wife’s illness is constant, he said, harder on him than stresses he faced for years in the political arena. But repeatedly, in looking back over his life, he returns to his moment of greatest anguish, the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia in 1965, when he wept in public.

That trauma presented him with the challenge that has defined his life, the creation and development of a stable and prosperous nation, always on guard against conflict within its mixed population of Chinese, Malays and Indians.

“We don’t have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors,” he said three years ago in an interview with the International Herald Tribune, “a homogeneous population, common language, common culture and common destiny”.

Younger people worry him, with their demands for more political openness and a free exchange of ideas, secure in their well-being in modern Singapore. “They have come to believe that this is a natural state of affairs, and they can take liberties with it,” he said. “They think you can put it on auto-pilot. I know that is never so.”

A political street fighter, by his own account, he has often taken on his opponents through ruinous libel suits.

He defended the suits as necessary to protect his good name, and he dismissed criticisms by western reporters who “hop in and hop out” of Singapore as “absolute rubbish”.

In any case, it is not these reporters or the obituaries they may write that will offer the final verdict on his actions, he said, but future scholars who will study them in the context of their day.

“I’m not saying that everything I did was right,” he said, “but everything I did was for an honourable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.”

And although the leaves are already falling from the tree, he said, the Lee Kuan Yew story may not be over yet.

He quoted a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed.

“Close the coffin, then decide,” he said. “Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.”

MEANWHILE, FROM THE TIMES ARCHIVES

The Man Who Saw It All – myth, fiction or fact ?!!

Lee Kuan Yew transformed Singapore, and his influence still resonates around Asia - getting the message across through our fellow journalists with integrity ?!! (Singapore National Archives)

From Time Magazine
By Simon Eleqant and Michael Elliott

Singapore: In years past, Lee Kuan Yew’s office was famous among visitors for its arctic air conditioning and Spartan furnishing. A few Chinese scrolls apart, there was little decoration and sometimes barely a sheet of paper to be seen. Singapore’s founding father first moved into the office on the second floor of the former British governor-general’s residence in 1971, having already served six years as Prime Minister. He retired in 1990 to become Senior Minister and later Minister Mentor, but still works out of the same rooms.

The L-shaped office may have changed little over the years, but at a recent meeting there were small but telling signs that the formidable 82-year-old leader has mellowed — a little. For one thing, the temperature has crept up noticeably. And while most surfaces are still bare, the table behind Lee’s computer is covered with untidy piles of books. Lee says that his current favorite isn’t one of the stacked tomes on terrorism or economics but the sprawling 17th-century Spanish novel Don Quixote. “A new translation,” he enthuses. “Very good.” It’s something of a shock that the man best known for his cold-eyed pragmatism is reveling in a book whose hero spent his time tilting at windmills and gave his name to an English adjective meaning impractical and idealistic.

Singapore during the recent Youth Olympic Games 2010 - setting a noble example ?!! (HN File Photo)

Still, despite his more relaxed demeanor, when Time spoke to him for nearly five hours over two days this fall, it was clear that neither age nor heart surgery 10 years ago have changed Lee’s basic personality: sharp intelligence allied with an unsentimental, almost clinical rationality and supreme confidence in his own judgment. But there is another side to Lee that has been blossoming in recent years — that of the geopolitical thinker and analyst, a role he clearly relishes. The man who once concerned himself with every aspect of Singaporeans’ lives — right down to who they should marry and how many children they should have — now seems to be less obsessed with the fate of the island state, and more concerned with China’s “peaceful rise” and the threat of militant Islam. Asked about Singapore’s future development over the next 10 years, Lee shrugs. “My son will do what he wants to do with his team,” he says, referring to Singapore’s current Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong. “Let him decide,” the elder Lee adds later. “It’s his call.”

Armed Gorkhas guard Singapore - hell hath no faithful friends ?!! (HN File Photo)

Lee can be forgiven for lifting his eyes to the horizon. Once the subject of withering criticism from human-rights groups for his authoritarian ways and intolerance of dissent, he is now widely acknowledged as Asia’s most respected senior statesman. Others may pen lengthy memoirs and seek to use their years on the world stage to tout their punditry and powers of prediction. Some can even lay claim to having guided far larger countries or served as leaders for longer than Lee. But Lee is unique. It is not just that his cold-eyed, totally nonideological analysis has set him apart from other observers of Asia. There is another factor that is just as important an explanation of Lee’s influence. From his days as a clerk and a black-market broker during the brutal Japanese occupation of Singapore — which he was lucky to survive — through his years as an agitator for independence from Britain, from his time spent talking to the Americans during the Vietnam years to his role as a confidant of China’s leadership, Lee has seen it all. He has been a participant observer of the most significant historical shift of our times — the steady ascent of Asia, home to 60% of the world’s population, from the twin shames of Western colonialism and poverty to its coming economic and political dominance. Everyone who lives in Asia today thinks they are watching history being made; Lee Kuan Yew is one of those who can say, without fear of contradiction, that he helped make it.

Now, with his own son and a hand-picked team of technocrats in place in Singapore, Lee has time to turn his thoughts outward, to Asia — and beyond — while trying to divine the forces that will confront a new generation of leaders. It is an opportune time for such musings, a moment of balance when the critical observer can look back and forward and see the region on the cusp of profound change. Symbolic of a new order has been a string of summits and conferences in Asia. The parade of presidents, prime ministers, princes and their attendant ministers began with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit held in mid-November at South Korea’s seaside city of Pusan. And it will end with the opening on Dec. 14 of the first East Asia summit in Kuala Lumpur.

The summit may not live up to its hype; few such gatherings do. But it is not unreasonable to see the meeting in Kuala Lumpur as a punctuation mark in the 60-year-long progress of Asia. The leaders of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations will meet together with those of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, New Zealand — and China. The U.S will not be present. Some of the more breathless commentary on the summit sees parallels to the meeting of European leaders in Messina in 1955, which laid the foundations for what has become the European Union. Lee, characteristically, takes a view which is more hardheaded yet fully aware of the historical significance of the meeting. “I see the first stage as an ever-enlarged series of free-trade areas, [leading to] one big free-trade area within 10 to 15 years,” Lee told Time. “The next step would be a kind of low-key European economic community, 20 to 30 years down the road, because [Asia is] at very different stages of economic development.” Lee recognizes that bringing India and China into the fold marks a moment of profound significance. The revival of these “two ancient civilizations,” he says, is a double-edged sword. “It would mean great prosperity for the region, but could also mean a tussle for power.”

After nearly 50 years in government, Lee is more than qualified to speak about power and its dangers. But it is not only years of experience and his dispassionate intelligence that have led to his eminence. Lee also embodies a uniquely Asian approach to governance that has often been at odds with the democratic principles espoused by many Western politicians. For decades, he has spoken in favor of what has come to be termed “Asian values” (he prefers “Confucian values”), a political philosophy that might be loosely summed up as respect for authority and order, while putting the good of society above that of the individual. His criticisms have focused on the excesses of unfettered democracy — particularly freedom of speech — and the impact they have on the search for economic growth.

In the past, Lee has not been shy about singling out those nations (the Philippines has been a favorite target) in which an excess of democracy’s messiness — as he might put it — has tempered steady economic progress and the betterment of the life chances of ordinary folk. But the strength of his argument does not rest only on other nations’ failures. Above all, it is bolstered by Singapore’s success. For as any visitor can attest, the scale of what Lee and his colleagues have achieved by applying his principles — in what Singaporean academic and fiction writer Catherine Lim has described as “an authoritarian, no-nonsense manner which has little use for sentiment” — is simply astonishing.

When Singapore was ejected from Malaysia in 1965, it had no natural resources save for the enterprise of its largely Chinese population and its port’s position astride one of the world’s major shipping lanes. It possessed little industry or infrastructure besides a naval base and ship-repair facilities left behind by Britain’s shrinking navy. Most of the population lived cheek by jowl in ramshackle two-story shophouses or traditional village houses fashioned of rattan and bamboo. It was poorer than Mexico. Today, the city is one of Asia’s most modern metropolises, the business district bristling with skyscrapers and ringed by highways. Over 90% of the population own their own homes, most of them well-maintained and scrupulously clean apartments in government-built blocks. Singapore’s cultural life — a phrase that was once oxymoronic — is now at least as vibrant as those of other cities in Southeast Asia, with a sparkling new performing-arts center and some of the best restaurants in the world. After decades of strong economic growth, per-capita income last year was $24,220, about the same as Italy. As they trip around Asia, popping off to Bali or Perth for the weekend while dressed in Prada and Gucci, wealthier Singaporeans could be forgiven for pitying their former European masters, whose day in the sun — they will sometimes tell you — is now all but over.

It is an almost miraculous achievement, and one in which Lee and his colleagues take justifiable pride. It is, moreover, something that has been much admired, to the point of imitation, around the region. Asian leaders like Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra and Indonesia’s Suharto may rarely have chosen to admit it, but their “economy first” strategy owes much to the intelligence of a Cambridge-educated lawyer who — he admits — was himself “distraught” when his island state found itself independent and alone. Above all, with their horror of chaos, luan, China’s leaders have for three decades come to Singapore to listen, to learn, and to admire. Progress coupled with order and limited freedoms has been the maxim of those who have ruled China since Mao Zedong’s death; it is a philosophy whose modern origins have their wellsprings in Singapore.

Yet for all Singapore’s success, there remains a feeling that it has come at a price. Lee’s methods — which despite a deliberate attempt to soften the image of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) remain at the core of his successors’ approach to governing — have found plenty of critics at home and abroad. The reaction of ordinary Singaporeans when questioned about politics or Lee and his family is telling. Without them quite knowing it, there is often an instinctive lowering of the voice and a glance over the shoulder. “People are still too frightened to talk about the taboo subjects,” Catherine Lim wrote in a lengthy essay published in the Straits Times in May. There is no effective political opposition to the PAP, and few voices prepared to speak out in favor of wider democratic debate. “I think [Lee] taught us fear,” says theater director Ong Keng Sen. Lim argues that the stress on order and discipline, arguably essential to an earlier stage of Singapore’s development, may harm it now. “A model of governance that has no place for political openness carries with it the seeds of its own decline or even demise,” she wrote. “For it will have bred a politically naive, dependent, manipulable people who … can be compared to artificially nurtured hothouse plants, unable to survive if thrown among the sturdy plants in the wild.”

For his part, Lee acknowledges that there is a need to make Singaporeans less dependent on the government and to encourage more open debate. He insists that the PAP can absorb and benefit from dissenting voices. “Anybody can join the PAP and change the policy from within,” he says. “If you’ve got a better idea, you come in, you convince us, you take over.” But he is adamant that Singaporeans are not yet ready for the vociferous free market of ideas that typifies, for example, politics in the U.S. “I see the marketplace of ideas, as in the Philippines, and I see chaos,” he says, while adding: “Gradually, we will loosen up.”

Those who wish Asia well will hope that Singapore does so. This is not just because modern Singaporeans deserve the chance to show that they are sufficiently talented to hold their own in any clash of ideas and ideologies (which they most certainly are.) It is because Singapore’s achievements, and Lee’s influence, extend far beyond the shores of an island of just 700 sq km and 4 million people. Lee’s little nation is a testimony to what hard work and discipline can do to improve lives. That, perhaps, is legacy enough.

But what a place in history there would be for Lee if his successors prove that Singapore can marry continued economic prosperity to a more open, tolerant, creative, and, yes, messy society — and hence create a new miracle, from which other nations, bigger, more powerful and more potentially frightening than Singapore, could one day learn anew.

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