IHT : The Always Interesting Mr. Lee Kuan Yew

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Lee Kuan Yew, who turned a malarial island into a modern financial center with a first world skyline, is peering ahead again into this city-state’s future, this time with plans to seal it off with dikes against the rising tides of global warming.  “Let’s start thinking about it now,” he said during an interview last week, in what could be the motto for a lifetime of nation building…..“If the water goes up by three, four, five meters,” he said, laughing, “what will happen to us?  Half of Singapore will disappear.”  For all his success, Lee remains on the alert for perils that may exist only on the distant horizon: the rising role of China in the region as the United States looks the other way, the buffeting of the world economy, even climate change.  Vigorous and strong-minded and on the verge of his 84th birthday, Lee talked at length about his country’s vulnerabilities, its slow movement toward a more open, worldly society and the influence of China, India and the United States in world affairs…..In his office in the former headquarters of the island’s British colonial rulers, Lee sat back in a zippered blue jacket, sipping small cups of hot water and laughing often, as different as could be from the bare-knuckled political infighter he has described himself as.  “I’ve done my bit,” said Lee, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and now watches over the country – and occasionally takes part in political disputes – with a seat in the cabinet and the title of minister mentor…..”To understand Singapore,” he said, “you’ve got to start off with an improbable story: It should not exist.”  It is a nation with almost no natural resources, without a common culture, a fractured mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians, relying on its wits to stay afloat and prosper.  “We have survived so far, 42 years,” he said.  “Will we survive for another 42?  It depends upon world conditions.  It doesn’t depend on us alone.”  This sense of vulnerability is Lee’s answer to all his critics, to those who say his country is too tightly controlled, that it leashes the press, suppresses free speech, curtails democracy, tramples on dissidents and stunts entrepreneurship and creativity in its citizens.  “The answer lies in our genesis,” he said.  “To survive, we have to do these things.  And although what you see today – the superstructure of a modern city – the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate.”  Asked whether, looking back, he felt he might have gone too far in crushing his opponents, sometimes with ruinous lawsuits, sometimes with long jail terms, he answered, “No, I don’t think so.  I never killed them.  I never destroyed them.  Politically, they destroyed themselves.”  One of his concerns now, Lee said, is that the United States has become so preoccupied with the Middle East that it is failing to look ahead and plan in this part of the world…..As the United States focuses on the Middle East, Lee said, the Chinese are busy refining their policies and building the foundations of more cooperative long-term relationships in Asia.  “They are making strategic decisions on their relations with the region,” he said.  And this is where tiny Singapore sees itself as a model for the world’s most-populous country.  “They’ve got to be like us,” Lee said, “with a very keen sense of what is possible, and what is not.”  Every year, he said, Chinese ministers meet twice with Singaporean ministers to learn from their experience.  Fifty mayors of Chinese cities visit every three months for courses in city management.  Singapore’s secret, Lee said, is that it is “ideology free,” an unsentimental pragmatism that infuses the workings of the country as if it were in itself an ideology.  “Does it work?” Lee said.  “Let’s try it and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it.  If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”  The yardstick, he said, is, “is this necessary for survival and progress?  If it is, let’s do it.”…..

I don’t like casinos,” he said. “but the world has changed and if we don’t have an integrated resort like the ones in Las Vegas – Las Vegas Sands – we’ll lose.  “So, let’s go,” he said.  “Let’s try and still keep it safe and mafia-free and prostitution-free and money-laundering-free.  Can we do it?  I’m not sure, but we’re going to give it a good try.”  Even on social issues, themes he habitually argues with an aggressiveness that can seem inflexible, Lee sounded almost mellow.  “I think we have to go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and to be part of this modern world,” he said.  “If we are not connected to this modern world, we are dead.  We’ll go back to the fishing village we once were.”  For example, on the issue of homosexuality, he said, “we take an ambiguous position.  We say, O.K., leave them alone, but let’s leave the law as it is for the time being and let’s have no gay parades.”  Although gay sex remains technically illegal in Singapore, the government has indicated it will not actively enforce the law.  China, Hong Kong and Taiwan already have more liberal policies regarding gays, he noted.  “It’s a matter of time,” he said.  “But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians.  So, let’s go slowly.  It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.”  As for the set of “Asian values” of hierarchy, respect and order that Singapore is founded on, he said, “It’s already diluted and we can see it in the difference between the generations.  It’s inevitable.”  In his own family, generational values are changing.  From father to children to grandchildren, he said, command of the Chinese language had weakened, along with the culture it embodies.  “They had a basic set of traditional Confucian values,” he said of his children, two sons and a daughter.  “Not my grandchildren.”…..This well-educated younger generation is part of what Lee said was a social dichotomy in which the top 20% is as cosmopolitan as any – well educated, surfing the Internet, traveling the world without constraint.  “This is not a closed society,” he insisted…..”We built up the infrastructure,” he said. “The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first world citizens, not like third world citizens spitting and littering all over the place.“…..Paradoxically, he said, if Singapore had not been so poor it might never have transformed itself and prospered as it has.  His warnings about vulnerability and collapse are a constant theme to persuade his people to accept limits on their freedoms…..

Reference : http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/08/29/asia/lee.php

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