Impressions of an Asian icon: ‘Lucky to be 90’

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Roger Mitton

Roger Mitton

Singapore would not be where she is today without the sacrifice that Mr Lee and his colleagues from the first generation made. … They do not make leaders the likes of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, E. W. Baker, S. Rajaratnam, Devan Nair, Toh Chin Chye, Goh Keng Swee, Ong Teng Cheong, and their cohorts anymore nowadays.
— Daren Leong

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… there are some Singaporeans who are still nostalgic about the so-called greatness of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in transforming Singapore from a third world country to a first world nation. But at the same time … some [political opponents]had been incarcerated by him for 19 and 32 years, even longer than Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela.
— Yoong Siew Wah, former internal security chief asked to quit in 1974

Why is such a great man like you called just Mr. Lee Kuan Yew — so ordinary? Just like anyone on the street? From today onwards, we should call you ‘Your Excellency, Founding Father Lee Kuan Yew’. But this is still not good enough, so I hope everyone can pitch in to help to find a salutation before your name to acknowledge everything you have done for Singapore.
— Madame Tan Eng Lian, posted online

While his contributions are immense, there’s no need to elevate him into god-like status. Seriously sounds like North Korea.
— Response to Madame Tan posted under avatar erwinrommel

Last week, Singapore’s post-Independence hero, Lee Kuan Yew, marked his 90th birthday on September 16. “”I am lucky to reach 90,” he told The Straits Times, my former newspaper, in reply to an email asking his thoughts on the day.

Indeed, born to a Shell Petroleum employee and his wife, who also named him Harry, Lee has led an amazing life. The double first honors Cambridge graduate led the colonial entrepot to internal self-rule in 1959, merger with Malaysia in 1963, and full independence separate from the federation two years later.

Lee then presided over the city-state’s rise to the ranks of rich nations as prime minister (1959-90), and continued advising the government as Senior Minister (1990-2004) and Mentor Minister (2004-11). His eldest son, incumbent PM Lee Hsien Loong, cited one paramount lesson from his time at the nation’s helm: “He was very good at persuading others to follow him, so that in the end we achieved together more than we imagined that we could.”

Though a ruthless old curmudgeon, Lee has been among the most rewarding of interview subjects. After our first joust in 1991, I attended Singapore’s National Day reception and saw him standing alone in a corner ringed by security men. Taking a deep breath, I strolled over and thanked him for the interview. It had been a good one and Asiaweek magazine had run it as the cover story.

Lee’s eyes narrowed and he gave me a long glacial gaze. To break the silence, I blurted out that I hoped he’d been happy with the article.

He pounced: “Oh? Is that important? Does it matter whether I am happy or unhappy with it?”

If only words would have come, earthy expletives preferably. But I was flummoxed, my mind swirling.

“Remind me, what interview was this?” he said.

His wife Kwa Geok Choo, a proverbial dragon lady whom he described as “an intellectual equal” and “soulmate”, thankfully moved forward at that moment and I introduced myself to her.

She said: “You are in a difficult position as a journalist in Singapore, Mr. Mitton. If you tell the truth, you will get into trouble from my husband. If you don’t tell the truth, you will get sacked by your editor.”

Lee cracked a sliver of a smile as if the oracle had spoken. Then they turned away, dismissing me like a speck of dust brushed off a sleeve.

The dismissal turned out to be not only from their presence that evening, but from Singapore itself. Soon afterwards, the authorities refused to renew my visa, forcing me to leave the city-state.

Still, other interviews were later granted, and in a final long and fruitful session that revolved around the publication of his memoirs, Lee kindly signed a copy of his book for me.

On the title page, he wrote: “To Roger Mitton, with my best answers to your spiky questions. Lee Kuan Yew.” Ya gotta like the guy.

His dragon lady died three years ago, and now he is 90 and may be knocking on heaven’s door. Let’s hope when he goes, it is quick and painless, not the way he treated his opponents.

They were many and all were cruelly dispatched: his rival People’s Action Party (PAP) leader Ong Eng Guan, his country’s former president Devan Nair, and its former solicitor general Francis Seow.

Not to mention gangsters who used to prowl colonial Singapore and were decimated by the Lee regime, often sans due process. Plus myriad pesky journalists over the past half-century.

None, however, suffered more brutal and malicious torture than the opposition Workers’ Party leader, Joshua Benjamin Jeyaretnam.

Lee loathed him because JBJ was fearless and refused to be cowed by the PM’s thuggery, and because he broke the stranglehold of Lee’s PAP and won the Anson district seat in a 1981 by-election.

That result was a thunderbolt — the first time since Independence from Britain in 1963 and Malaysia in 1965 that one of Lee’s men had lost in the polls.

Once in parliament, where it was him against 74 government MPs, Jeyaretnam gave them hell. Lee and his front bench could not take it. Grounds were found to charge JBJ with misreporting party accounts. He was convicted, jailed, expelled from Parliament, and disbarred from practising law.

Undaunted, Jeyaretnam appealed to the Privy Council in England, as Singaporeans was then entitled to do, and his conviction was quashed. The Law Lords ruled that he and a party colleague had “suffered a grievous injustice. They have been fined, imprisoned and publicly disgraced for offences of which they are not guilty.”

The ruling did not faze Lee. He quickly abolished the right of appeal to the Privy Council, and JBJ was gone.

Soon afterwards, so was I. But not before taking Jeyaretnam to lunch at that bastion of the establishment, the Singapore Cricket Club. Boy, did that feel good. And anyway, I’d done three years as a foreign correspondent in Singapore. It was long enough.

JBJ died in 2008. And Time’s winged chariot is hurrying upon Lee. But for now: Happy Birthday, you vicious old coot. I mean it.

(Roger Mitton is a Southeast Asia regional consultant and a former senior correspondent for Asiaweek magazine and The Straits Times of Singapore.)

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