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An interview with Lee Kuan Yew

Born to a wealthy Chinese family, Harry Lee, as he was then known, returned to Singapore in 1950 with a Cambridge law degree (earned with highest honours), an impeccable command of English, and no command of Chinese, the language of the majority of Singaporeans. (Singapore’s mix now is 75 per cent Chinese, 15 per cent Malay,
7 per cent Indian, 3 per cent other.)
Lee entered the struggling independence movement and proved his genius at forming strategic alliances with anyone and everyone, including the local Com-munist Party. Within a decade, the British had surrendered sovereignty, although it took until 1965 (after an ill-fated two-year merger with Malaya) for Singapore to emerge as an independent nation …
Lee Kuan Yew, first elected Prime Minister in 1959, pinned Singapore’s hopes on emerging multinational corporations. His strategy was twofold: lure the multina-tionals to Singapore by creating an irresistible business environment, and assure them that Singapore was an oasis of political calm in Southeast Asia.
To attract the multinationals, Lee began massive investment in Singapore’s only natural assets – its strategic location and its people. An airport, harbours and roads appeared out of the island’s mud seemingly overnight, as did public schools and, later, technical colleges and universities (all teaching in English, which re-mains the language of business in Singapore).
Tough labour laws and the ruthless crushing of independent unions kept wages low. When low wages were no longer a unique attraction in Southeast Asia, the government legislated rapid wage increases of 200 and 300 per cent to force companies to innovate and adopt new labour-saving technologies. The economic implications of the changes were always made clear to employees and employers.
In the operation of government itself, Singapore was a breath of fresh air in Asia. Free of even a taint of corruption, transparently efficient in all its financial dealings, the island was a magnet for multinationals looking for an Asian base in the 1960s. While open to foreign investment and trade to a degree matched by few other countries, the government targeted certain economic sectors for suc-cess. As Singapore industrialized, the targeted sectors were reevaluated and, when necessary, encouraged to evolve toward ever higher value-added modes of production. The government made its goals as clear and as consistent as possi-ble, and avoided capricious changes that would scare away foreign investors.
In social policy, Lee’s government was no less directed and forceful. Sweeping away old communities across the island, it built new housing estates and put the apartments up for sale at reasonable prices. Workers (and employers on their be-half) were forced to save through a compulsory program called the Central Provi-dent Fund: contributors had full and free access to their savings at anytime to buy a home, finance health care or support their retirement. Singapore’s consistently massive savings (currently 47 per cent of GDP, among the world’s highest) and a consistently positive current account balance from rapidly expanding exports pro-vided a steady source of capital to finance the government’s relentless public in-vestments.
To curb a rapidly growing population, the government promoted an all-encompassing birth control program – coercive, tinged with overtones of eu-genics, but with its long-term benefits clearly explained to all. In 25 years, the size of an average family dropped from six to two children … This year’s growth is ex-pected to be roughly 5 per cent – cause for alarm in Singapore, but envied almost everywhere else.
The politics of consensus
Lee Kuan Yew’s Peoples’ Action Party (PAP) has never tolerated debate on what it sees as fundamental principles affecting national survival (and the PAP has won every election since 1959). Opposing the PAP has meant jail for labour leaders, opposition politicians and, in the late 1980s, Catholic Church workers … Local me-dia are intimidated and censored and many foreign publications have been banned for varying lengths of time …
But it would be wrong to attribute the lack of public debate and criticism solely to fear of government retribution. Most Singaporeans over 30 remember all too clearly a Singapore where running water and electricity were unusual and malaria was endemic. Singaporeans’ lives have improved so dramatically and so quickly that it is perhaps not surprising that they speak quietly of the shortcomings of the government that has guided the transition.
There is, as well, a complex and controversial cultural dimension. Many West-ern economists and political scientists, in their struggle to explain East and Southeast Asia’s rapid economic transformation, point to the role of culture. Japan and the Four Tigers – Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore – share a Confucian heritage that, grossly oversimplified, values consensus over conflict (“saving face”), sees old age as a virtue, and places a premium on education. Ezra Vogel of Harvard has called this combination “Industrial Neo-Confucianism.”
Other analysts downplay the role of Confucian culture and attribute the region’s economic success to World War II’s destruction of the old colonial order, the importance of U.S. aid in those early years, the different relationship between governments and free markets in Asia and the apparent skill at targeting certain industrial sectors as centres of growth …
What makes Singapore so interesting is that Lee Kuan Yew’s iron-handed leadership produced so much wealth so quickly, but without the massive social unrest and often violent suppression evident in Taiwan and South Korea. Did Lee oversee the creation of a very rich Orwellian society unable to think for itself? Or did he skillfully, albeit in paternalistic fashion, guide a floundering postcolonial is-land to develop its strengths? …
There is a now vigorous debate in
Singapore about loosening the reins and encouraging creativity, especially in ed-ucation. There is, as well, a growing belief that, to retain its competitive edge, Singapore desperately needs not passive workers happy to follow the rigid rules of the shop floor but people with open and creative minds able to develop the new ideas required for success in the global information age of Singapore’s future …
Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, but retains the post of Senior Minister in the Cabinet. Few doubt that he still wields enormous, if not paramount, influence in the Cabinet Room where the following interview took place …
FRANK KOLLER: Canadians seem to be having difficulty [being as successful] as you have in Singapore.
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, let’s put it in very broad general terms. You’ve taken in new migrants from Asia, Chinese from Hong Kong primarily, over the last six, seven years. And you don’t have to be as hard-working or trusting eager beavers as they are because life has been more comfortable. Your endowments have been more benign, more abundant. And it’s only now when you find that in comparative terms, your growth is slower than the Japanese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese or Hong Kong or Singapore, that you begin to wonder “what’s up?”
And “what’s up” is that these are hungry people with a keen desire to make up for centuries of backwardness. Backwardness in the sense that they were not organized as industrial societies. They were not backward people. That’s the difference.
In East Asia, you have a number of civilizations, primarily all Sinic in the sense that the Chinese influenced Japan, Korea and Vietnam. And if you go back 1,000, even 500 years, [those other Asian neighbours] were more advanced than Japan. So when a Korean sees that a Japanese has made it, he has no doubts in his mind, deep down in his heart, that given a chance, he can do likewise.
FRANK KOLLER: Are Canadians going to have to change their way of organizing themselves to be as aggressive and successful in Asia?
LEE KUAN YEW: That’s a very loaded question. I don’t think you need to change if you don’t want to go for faster growth. Then, you keep on buying Japanese cars, or Korean cars, or VCRs, or high-definition TVs, or mobile phones and so on.
But if you consider it an affront that you’ve got these young upstart societies outperforming you, then you’ve got to sit back and ask yourself, “Well, what is it that they are doing which makes them more productive and more effective in this high-tech electronic age?”
And look at your per capita GNP! Why should you bestir yourself in the same way as I have had to?
We started off in the 1960s with a per capita GNP of about US$1,000. Yours would have been US$7–8,000. Your per capita GNP in 1991 – which wasn’t a spectacular year – was around US$22,000. But last year, ours was only US$12,000. That’s half yours. So we have a long way to go before we catch up, if ever.
And you’ve got oil in Alberta; you’ve got conifer forests in British Columbia, an endless supply of wood, pulp and timber.
FRANK KOLLER: And your country and others in East and Southeast Asia are buy-ing those raw products, turning them into much higher value-added products, and selling them back to us – while we tread water asking “what’s wrong?” Are we al-lowing ourselves the luxury of too much talk and not enough getting down to ac-tion?
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, let’s go back to the philosophy of life. What is life for? As far as I’m concerned, starting from a very low base of near poverty, life is about get-ting enough food, clothing, housing, education, hospitals, roads, bridges, tele-phones, all the conveniences of life, to make it worth living.
I now have a younger generation that has only known growth over the last 20 years – and they are more free-spending and a little less hard-working than their parents.
When you reach a certain level of life where you can afford to talk of leisure and recreation and the finer things in life, then your focus changes.
I think that’s natural – and we have to focus now on getting our symphony or-chestra up to scratch, building a proper concert hall and a theatre and art galleries and so on.
In our case, if we ever forget that we’ve got to earn our keep, then we’ll go down very fast. But in your case, so long as you don’t go and drift into anarchy, you can have a comfortable living and allow the Japanese to dig for cobalt or look for uranium or whatever. The prairie is there; it will grow wheat. You just need combine harvesters to bring the stuff in – and if the Europeans can be persuaded under GATT in the Uruguay Round to stop their subsidies, you’ll sell a lot more wheat all over the world. So it’s a [case of] being set at a different pitch …
FRANK KOLLER: You sound as if you’re just being polite about Canada’s chances to compete successfully in the most dynamic economic region in the world.
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, the pressure isn’t there! Supposing we swapped places. Supposing you gave me British Columbia, which has a population of what, three million? I mean, such an enormous chunk of territory – and I’ve got all those mountains and ski slopes and the fishing and there’s so much that nature will do for you.
You take those three million Canadians from British Columbia and put them in one small island called Singapore and you say “Right, now make a living!”
Either they bestir themselves, or you come back in 20 years and you may find only half a million left!
FRANK KOLLER: Would those three million Canadians have to give up some ele-ments of their “Canadian” style of democracy to prosper on that island?
LEE KUAN YEW: What do you mean by Canadian-style democracy? Do you mean a leisurely way of life in which the political leaders guarantee you free medicine and old age pensions and so many of the other things which you assume for granted? Where’s it going to come from?
We don’t have an old age pension. We’ve got a certain retirement fund where everybody contributes to his own account so that when he retires, he’s got some-thing to keep him going after he’s 70, or 70-plus now.
But how can you come to one little island with nothing on it and just use your hands and your mind and your feet and add value? You’ve got to add value before you can pay for these things.
FRANK KOLLER: What you have achieved in Singapore in only 30 years is intimi-dating to many Canadians who are worrying about the future of their country in the face of recession and free trade with the U.S.
LEE KUAN YEW: (laughs) Why should they be intimidated? I’ve only got halfway to where you’ve got – and a perilous base. Because if the world turns adverse and we go back into protectionism and into trading blocs, then you can live off your vast continent. I can’t. My world comes to an end.
FRANK KOLLER: You may be only halfway to where we are, but you’re catching up in the game very quickly. And the speed with which your success has been achieved makes some Canadians wonder if you’re playing fair when you compete in international markets. Do you understand those feelings?
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, I think I can sympathize with the sense of loss of supremacy or loss of an assured lead over others. I mean, it’s natural. A sense of insecurity that your position at the top of the heap cannot be assumed for the next hundred years.
But if you bestir yourselves and make the necessary changes, there’s no rea-son why this extrapolation [of Singapore rapidly catching up to, and perhaps over-taking, Canada’s standard of living] will continue at the rate it’s going.
I do not believe that what takes place in East Asia is a one-way, unilateral activ-ity which is divorced or completely unconnected with the reaction of other coun-tries.
You take Japanese companies today in America, and I suppose in Canada too, and they are proving that with Japanese methods of management, they can pro-duce cars in America better than the Big Three. Using American workers, but us-ing them in a different way – a kind of family unit, everyone wearing the same uni-form, same canteens, no special toilets for the bosses, no special parking lots for the bosses, a sense of shared destiny. If the company goes down, everybody goes down. There’s no patent on this. There are no intellectual property rights.
Never forget that Japanese productivity was not high either before or during the war. They were down on their knees on all fours, crawling in the debris of a burnt-out Tokyo, and they discovered they had to be productive. Surely you will learn that.
FRANK KOLLER: Do you worry about Japan’s overwhelming influence over much of East and Southeast Asia?
LEE KUAN YEW: Yes, I do. I think they’re a formidable lot of workers, They’re very closely knit, a very homogeneous people. One to one, I don’t think they’re neces-sarily superior to the Chinese of the Koreans. But in groups, as teams, a thousand in a factory as against a thousand Koreans or a thousand Chinese, I would say that they would have the better team and that they would produce better results …
FRANK KOLLER: A final question. The transformation of East Asia since the end of the Second World War is unprecedented in history. But when you wake up at three in the morning, what worries you about the future for this portion of the globe?
LEE KUAN YEW: Well, I don’t wake up at three in the morning fortunately … but I suppose I worry that Asia will not have the good sense to know that this is irrevo-cably one world. We can’t go back to neat compartmentalized societies where people intermarried and bred in homogeneous gene pools.
It is a heterogeneous world and if East Asians don’t learn how to adjust to this heterogeneous world like the Japanese are having to do, then we will have more frictions with the rest of the world.
In Europe today, we find accommodation being made with the Muslim Arabs, Turks, Africans from the South Sahara. Not just insignificant numbers but large numbers [who are building] mosques and a different way of life.
I think [Europe] has done it better than we are doing. The Japanese just will not have any Vietnamese refugees: they are unacceptable. They threaten the purity of [Japanese] society. Half a million Koreans in Japan have been there since before the war and they have to be fingerprinted every time they want to do anything.
And the Koreans are also intolerant people, intolerant in the sense that they don’t accept foreigners well. You can’t go into the Korean stock market and buy and sell. You can here [in Singapore] because we are different. We are more heteronegeous.
I think that if East Asia does not learn to accommodate itself and accept that this is one world and that there is no such thing as an exclusively pure people, then it’s going to run into trouble. Because then it will lead sooner or later to the same kind of false sense of superiority that Asians now accuse Caucasians of.
We have to learn to accommodate each other. The alternative is conflict, which will be disastrous.
by Frank Koller

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About the Author

Frank Koller
Frank Koller has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since 1982. He was a Foreign Correspondent for CBC Radio News in Washington from 1998 to 2005.




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