Jan 16, 2011
We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You'll be dead
Hard Truths will be launched by Singapore Press Holdings' book publishing subsidiary Straits Times Press on Friday. It is based on 16 interviews with Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew. We reproduce here excerpts on MM Lee's views on Singapore and being Singaporean.
(Clockwise, from right) MM Lee, his press secretary Yeong Yoon Ying, ST reporter Rachel Lin, deputy review editor Chua Mui Hoong, deputy editor Zuraidah Ibrahim, editor Han Fook Kwang, news editor Ignatius Low, reporter Robin Chan, deputy political editor Lydia Lim, and MM?s principal private secretary Chee Hong Tat. Singapore spends 5 to 6 per cent of GDP on defence every year because Singapore?s vulnerability is very real, says MM. -- ST FILE PHOTO
Lee was hardly the easiest person to interview. He was blunt at times, and often cantankerous and combative. Although he had agreed to a no-holds-barred interview format, he did not conceal his annoyance when he felt that the questions reflected perspectives that he had no patience for.
The journalists before him then seemed to become, in his eyes, surrogates for his ideological opponents and were dressed down accordingly. On other occasions, though, he seemed to relish the exercise, sometimes prefacing an extended discourse with 'Have I told you this story?' or coming prepared with a clutch of anecdotes and a choice phrase for the week.
Visible too were the signs of a man coping with the frailties of age. One day, he shuffled in wearing sandals. His toes had an infection. After a trip to Malaysia, where he had fallen off an exercise bicycle in his hotel in Kuantan, he appeared with an improvised therapeutic device: a heating pad strapped to his leg with neon-coloured skipping ropes.
After converting to a floor bike, his stiffness moved to his back and the pad followed. Several times, he would use a spritzer to moisten his parched throat.
Once, during a trip to Armenia, he developed pneumonia as he was having problems swallowing and food had gone down his windpipe.
Not once, however, did he lament about being tired or weary. The interviews drew not only from his surfeit of memories, but also from the latest developments in Asia and the world. He was obviously keeping abreast of things, whether it was China's green energy ambitions or the elections in Japan. While he was less in command of the specific details of domestic policies, he was more than familiar with their general thrust. He kept himself scrupulously up to date on world events. He read the papers every day and in the office, his radio would always be tuned to the BBC World News Service.
At the final interview, we asked him about the leaders he admired the most. In past speeches and his memoirs, he had mentioned Deng Xiaoping. This time, he also named Charles de Gaulle, the president of the French Fifth Republic, and Winston Churchill, Britain's wartime prime minister.
He quoted Churchill's famous 'We shall fight on the beaches' speech. He recounted how de Gaulle had fought the odds to rouse and rally his people at times of near-defeat.
As he talked, his eyes gleamed, he gritted his teeth. He clenched both his hands into fists and his voice curdled in his throat before spilling forth. In that moment, the same fierce determination he showed as a young leader in the 1950s and 1960s when rallying his own people flashed across his face.
One remembered all over again that Lee was born a fighter. In that moment too, one could see the scale of the terrain that he pictured himself battling in. Not for him the quotidian concerns of a country content with its creature comforts. This was a leader who had overseen events unfold in grand terms, life and death, danger and escape, success and failure - of a people, of a country.
Singapore is not in that moment of epic change. Will it have in its sinews the same fighting spirit as its founding father when that time comes? It is a question only the young can answer.
Q Some commentators say that you have created Singapore in your image, including 'always living in fear of a catastrophe'. Why are you so worried that it could all fail?
I'm concerned that Singaporeans assume that Singapore is a normal country, that we can be compared to Denmark or New Zealand or even Liechtenstein or Luxembourg. We are in a very turbulent region. If we do not have a government and a people that differentiate themselves from the rest of the neighbourhood in a positive way and can defend ourselves, Singapore will cease to exist.
It's not the view of just my generation but also those who have come into Defence, Foreign Affairs ministries and those who have studied the position. Whether it's Ng Eng Hen, who was a surgeon, or Raymond Lim, formerly an academic and a lawyer by training, or Vivian Balakrishnan, an eye surgeon, they all understand now the circumstances that conscribe us. If we ignore those circumstances, we'll go down the drain.
We have not got neighbours who want to help us prosper. When we prospered, they for many years believed we were living off their resources. It was only when they became aware that our economic policy of welcoming foreign investments made the difference that they were sufficiently convinced to also do likewise.
We are an upstart in this region because we survived for so long and I believe we can survive easily another 50 to 100 years given the international environment, provided we have a strong system that enables us to maximise our chances.
Q What do you mean by a 'strong system'? Is it another phrase for the People's Action Party (PAP) continuing to be in power?
Whether it's the PAP or any other government does not interest me. I'm beyond that phase. I'm not out here to justify the PAP or the present government. I want to get across just how profound is this question of leadership and people and the ethical and philosophical beliefs of the leadership and the people.
Q Are we really as vulnerable as you suggest? Critics would say you make things seem so dire that so many things practised elsewhere, including in small countries, such as political competition, will not be available here.
No, we are not preventing competition. What we are preventing is duds getting into Parliament and government. Any person of quality, we welcome him but we don't want duds. We don't want Chee Soon Juan, or J.B. Jeyaretnam. They're not going to build the country. But if any serious man turns up and forms an alternative equal to us, I say, 'Good'. Then we are getting a proper alternative. But look at the candidates they put up.
Now, are we not vulnerable? If we are not vulnerable, why do we spend 5 to 6 per cent of GDP (gross domestic product) year after year on defence? Are we mad? This is a frugal government, you know that well.
We dug a deep tunnel for the sewers at the cost of $3.65 billion in order to use the sewage water for Newater, to be independent.
We are not vulnerable? They can besiege you. You'll be dead. Your sea lanes are cut off and your business comes to a halt. What is our reply? Security Council, plus defence capabilities of our own, plus the Security Framework Agreement with the Americans.
They stopped sand. Why? To conscribe us. As Mahathir (former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad) says, 'Even at their present size they are trouble, you let them grow some more they will be more trouble'. We've got friendly neighbours? Grow up.
Why would we put a strong minister in Defence if it's not important? He's the strongest minister in the Cabinet next to the PM, toughest, most capable. We have always put a strong man there. Do we parade our vulnerabilities? We are living in an adult world. Why do we have peace? Because it is not cost-free if you hit us. If you hit us we will hit you and the damage may be more on your side.
Q But this point about not being a normal country...
Forgive me for saying this: Assuming that I'm just nearly as intelligent as you are, but I've lived more than 85 years and I've been through all these ups and downs and I've spent all my life since the age of 32 figuring out how to make this place work, right?
First, I believed and said the only way it could work was to join Malaya because otherwise we cannot live. Our water, our raw materials, imports, much of the exports come from Malaya. That was at that time. We couldn't get to Malaya because the Tunku didn't want the Chinese population.
We worked around that and we joined Malaysia. Then we found ourselves trapped, from a communist Singapore to a Malay-ultra Malaysia. Has Malaysia changed? How has it changed?
Why did I break down when we got out on the 9th of August? Because I left behind tens of thousands of people who had joined our rallies, and I knew that they were going to be handicapped, again a minority and leaderless. We provided the leadership. So when you tell me we're not vulnerable, I say, 'Oh, God!'
You speak to the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces) commanders. Why do they do this - two years of every young man's life, 4, 5 to 6 per cent of GDP and a frugal government that builds up reserves? We do this because of hallucinations? Or because that's the only way we can be left alone to survive and prosper?
Why do you think we spent all this effort to solve our water problem until we became specialists in water? Mahathir knew we needed Johor water. So when the water agreement was going to end in 2011 for Tebrau and Skudai, we knew we would be short. Then we discovered Newater. He thought we were bluffing. You say we're not vulnerable?
We should not gloss over our worries. They are real problems. And we are what we are because we can stand up for ourselves. If we can't, we've had it. The Security Council passes resolutions. So what? Who goes to Kuwait's rescue? The US. Why? Because of oil. Why? Because next stop would be Saudi Arabia.
Who's coming to our rescue because of water? The US? No. We rescue ourselves. Either the media grows up, especially the young reporters, or we're going to bring up a generation that lives in a dream world of security when none exists...
I had to make this society produce results, then we will become prosperous, then we can have a strong defence, and the world has a place for us. If you believe we're like Norway or Sweden or Denmark, then we won't survive.
Singapore is an 80-storey building on marshy land. We've learnt how to put in stakes and floats so we can go up for another 20, maybe over a hundred storeys. Provided you understand and ensure that the foundation is strong. Crucial is interracial, interreligious harmony. Without that, quarrelling with one another, we are doomed.
Q Do you worry about this place after you are no longer around?
After I'm dead?
Q I mean, all these calculations...
No, all these calculations have been discussed and re-discussed.
Q But they originate from you.
Yes, but every member of the Cabinet and definitely every defence minister and all the critical ministers understand exactly what our position is.
Q But the external situation will change. There will be new challenges and new calculations will have to be done. Original thinking will be required.
But they have the capabilities. They may not be found all in one man. But it wasn't in me alone. I had a group of men who together had multi-sided perspectives, like a Rubik's Cube.
Q It's not tested, their capacity for original thinking.
How can you say it's not tested? They are getting out of this recession with great skill. They are handling it with great skill. I'm just standing by seeing that this is all right. They worked out the solution.
I did not, I cannot read the facts and figures of the Ministry of Finance and MTI (Ministry of Trade and Industry) and EDB (Economic Development Board) in detail. I had to read them when I was Prime Minister, but I'm not any longer. I look ahead for over-the-horizon problems and opportunities.
Look out for more exclusive excerpts in The Straits Times and The Sunday Times next weekend.
Interracial harmony crucial
'Singapore is an 80-storey building on marshy land. We've learnt how to put in stakes and floats so we can go up for another 20, maybe over a hundred storeys. Provided you understand and ensure that the foundation is strong. Crucial is interracial, interreligious harmony. Without that, quarrelling with one another, we are doomed.'
MM LEE KUAN YEW