1998 / 10月
Edited by Chang Chiung-fang /tr. by Scott Williams
In mid-September, to accompany the release of his memoirs-The Singapore Story (published in Taiwan as Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew)-Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew gave a press conference and a television interview in Singapore, in which he discussed his thoughts on the publication of the memoirs. We present an edited version of his remarks as selected by Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao newspaper. (Lee originally spoke in English. However, parts of the text of this article have been taken from the Chinese-language media and retranslated into English. They thus may differ slightly from Lee's original remarks.)
Question: What does this book mean to you?
Lee: I spent approximately three years writing of my experiences of the last 50 years. I wrote this book because I have an obligation to tell my people why I did these things, what took place and why they should take note of my experience. If my experience is irrelevant, throw the book away. I believe it is not irrelevant.
His greatest pride
Question: What value does your book have for young people? Is it a history book, a textbook or a guidebook for the future?
Lee: If it is a history book or a textbook, I've wasted my time. I didn't quote large pieces of evidence to support my points. I did not include footnotes or small explanatory sections which would have distracted the reader's attention. I wanted to produce a book which was readable. Everything I wrote about is documented, and its points are still applicable today.
This book provides you with a foundation. It cannot lead you into the future, but it can remind you of dangers which lay beneath the surface and the difficulties which may appear.
I began writing these memoirs in 1995 or 1996, before the outbreak of the regional crisis. At that time, I felt that young Singaporeans took the current situation [in Singapore] for granted. Now they have tasted slower economic growth. Until Singapore pulls itself out from under the influence of the regional crisis, things are going to get worse economically.
Young people don't lack motivation, they lack wariness. Although we were on top for a long time, there is always the possibility that things can take a sudden turn for the worse. I therefore feel this lack of wariness is dangerous.
Question: What is your greatest source of pride? What is your greatest regret?
Lee: The most important and valuable thing in my life is Singapore. I have been pleased and proud that over the last eight years the new Singaporean government has been able to continue the work of the government that my colleagues and I created. It was not an easy thing to do, but I did not leave Singapore without a leadership capable of carrying on the work. It was almost as difficult as achieving the success that Singapore has seen in the 1990s. Maybe it was more difficult.
My greatest regret is that Singapore was turfed out of Malaysia. If things were different, we might have achieved all this throughout Malaysia. But the cards were stacked differently.
Openness to both East and West
Question: You were born into a Chinese family, but received a Western education. Most people believe that the reason you were able to lead the modernization of Singapore was this Western education. At the same time, however, we frequently hear you exhorting us to hold onto our Eastern culture. In building a modern nation, is it necessary to abandon Eastern culture and totally Westernize?
Lee: How do I answer this? If I hadn't been raised by the kind of family I had, my world view and values would have been different, and today's Singapore would not exist. But, by the same token, if I had not had a Western education, Singapore would not have advanced so quickly. Because I was thoroughly familiar with their technology and management techniques, I could pick and choose from among all the different industrial societies for elements that were beneficial to us.
I don't reject Western culture wholesale. Their culture has its strong points. But I absolutely cannot accept the current trends in Western societies. A totally free social welfare system, the "looking out for number one" attitude. . . I feel these are of no benefit to the society or the nation. But perhaps these are just a passing fashion. It is difficult for me to state clearly whether it was the Western or Eastern influences in myself which created today's Singapore.
Question: Can you describe your impressions of your interactions with the Chinese community?
Lee: The Chinese community of the 50s and 60s was vigorous. China had just gotten onto its feet and many believed it would become an industrial powerhouse. They thus foresaw a similar resurgence among overseas Chinese.
When I met with them, I admired their vigor, their sense of identity and their confidence. In contrast, those people who had been educated under the British system had less confidence because they had been educated in a language other than their mother tongue.
Today's Chinese community is more objective in its views. They realize that China needs many years before it will be a modern industrial nation. Also, the fate of we overseas Chinese is distinct from that of the mainland. Every ethnic Chinese group has its own national interests to protect and care for.
In the case of Singapore, I think its Chinese community tends to be more pragmatic. We have also been more fortunate than the other nations of Southeast Asia. We can study and use the Chinese language, and we understand the importance of preserving the essence of the Chinese language and culture. If you lose this cultural core, you become weak as a people.
Splitting with Socialism
Question: Were you not at one time a ardent believer in Socialism? If so, why did you change your view of it when the Socialist Movement was at its international peak?
Lee: At the outset, I was a blank sheet. I had no political views and only wanted to have a good life, to be a lawyer. Then the Japanese came. In three and a half years, they made me believe that political power comes from the barrel of a gun. Long before Mao Zedong said this, I believed it. When the British returned, they reoccupied the important locations. I then spent four years in England. At that time, Attlee was promoting his welfare-state system, which influenced a lot of students like me. It was such a compassionate and rational social order. When I came back and put together the government in 1959, I realized that Singaporeans were not ideal socialists. At the same time, I also saw the welfare states of Europe gradually failing. I paid particular attention to developments in Britain because I had more connections with them. People I had studied with at university had gone on to become heads of departments in the Labour Party. But as time went on, we went our separate ways.
The most decisive break came in the early 1970s. I was reading a Fabian magazine when I came across an article in which two school principals were discussing how to deal with the inequalities among students. Their solution was to have the best teachers teach the slowest students because the more intelligent students could take care of themselves. In that way, they thought they could create a society of equals. They wanted to undo God's work. I quit reading the magazine and canceled my subscription. If we had followed that method, Singapore would have been finished early on. It's like going to a golf practice range and allowing the best teachers to teach the worst students. If those students with the most talent get the clumsiest teachers, they will never become champions.
I think Britain's new socialists never got what they wanted. In effect, by legislating "equal opportunity" to create an egalitarian society, they decided to give nobody an equal opportunity in order to achieve equal scores. At that time, we went our separate ways. I gave up on them.
Question: When will the next volume of your memoirs be released?
Lee: I originally planed to publish both volumes at the same time, in September. But the Asian economic crisis created many new problems.
While visiting Bangkok in January, I saw the severity of the blow Thailand had suffered. Then seeing the Indonesian Rupiah devalue to 17,500 to the US dollar, I knew that this crisis was not going to go away quickly. I had to update the second volume to reflect these new developments, especially the chapters on ASEAN and its outlook, to give a more balanced view of the situation.
I hope to have these chapters revised by May of next year and to give it to the publisher and printers in June, so that it can come out in September.
Lee Kuan Yew's influence on Singapore has been significant and his own memoirs are almost a history of that nation. (courtesy of Agence France Presse)