It will take a little while before the world hears the last tribute to Lee Kuan Yew, the highly revered founding father of modern Singapore, who died on Monday at 91. But it is unlikely that anyone could describe his life in just a few words as well as his own son Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has described him. Just as the Gospel avoids the slightest extravagance when Mark describes our Lord in one simple sentence–“He has done all things well”–the prime minister’s succinct description of his own father’s life says it all: “He fought for our independence, built a nation where there was none, and made us proud to be Singaporeans. We won’t see another man like him.”
There are four interrelated truths in these two short sentences. Each one of them would need volumes to cover. However, Lee’s Memoirs contain only two volumes: “The Singapore Story,” which speaks of the city-state’s history until its separation from Malaysia in 1965 and released in 1999, and “From Third World to First: The Singapore Story,” which speaks of its transformation into a developed nation. The Singapore Story is Lee Kuan Yew’s story, and he will be remembered for as long as Singapore is there. But the world’s memory bank will have to supply many of the details.
Margaret Thatcher, whom Lee had admired so much, once extolled him for the “strength of his convictions, the clarity of his views, the directness of his speech, and his vision of the way ahead.” At a gala dinner in Washington, DC where Lee had received the first Lifetime Award from the US-ASEAN Business Council, Henry Kissinger called him “a seminal figure for us all,” one from whom he said he had learned more than from anybody else, and who had made himself an “an indispensable friend of the US not primarily by the power he represented but by the quality of his thinking.”
Indeed, he was the last political giant of the 20th century with no emerging rival or immediate successor from the 21st century. Many leaders came to him for counsel, which was not always soothing or comforting. But he always spoke with candor and wisdom, and encouraged honest differences. In 1992, at the invitation of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, he came to deliver a speech at a dinner hosted by the Philippine Long Distance Telephone Company. He began by describing the Philippines, quoting Asiaweek magazine, to the chagrin of his host, as a country where 98 percent of the population did not have a telephone while the other two percent waited for a dial tone. This was long before the Philippines became the texting capital of the world.
But his real punch line was that a Third World country like the Philippines could not afford too much democracy; what it needed was more discipline and less democracy. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions . . . inimical to development,” he said. He got a standing ovation from the business elite that had earlier claimed a pivotal role in ousting strongman rule six years earlier. As a first-term senator at the time, I delivered a “Reply to Lee Kuan Yew” from the Senate floor. This was later incorporated in one of my books of speeches, “Guarding the Public Trust,” now out of print.
In that reply, I said, “Democracy, not authoritarianism, is the wave of the future. And the future has begun for all of us, including Singapore, which knows only too well the natural desire for greater free expression among its people. Our only error…is that we confuse the shadow of democracy for its reality, its form for its substance, and we tend to believe we already possess democracy when all we have is its caricature.
“Our only error is that until now we tend to run government through the newspapers and decide the common good on the basis of screaming newspaper headlines and less than informed media commentaries and editorials. Our only error is that we seem to value entertainment above education, and our most popular role models are not our most productive workers or our most serious thinkers but the most outrageous products of the popular imagination.
“Our only error is that we continue to elect men and women to high office expecting them to change society without first requiring them to change themselves . . . Our only error is that we can’t seem to accept that two and two will always make four, unless we hear it said to us by a distinguished foreigner.”
This did not, in any way, diminish my admiration for Lee as one of the world’s foremost public intellectuals. This admiration began long before I met him on his first State Visit to the Philippines in 1974. Among all the prime ministers of the British Commonwealth, he was perhaps the only one to have obtained double-starred first honors in law from Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge or any equivalent institution; the only one to have taken his government on an authoritarian path without provoking the fury of the Western powers. On his visit to the Philippines, I helped facilitate his press conference as press secretary and secretary of public information.
But our first impressions were far from ideal. At the State Dinner in Malacañang, Marcos was in his usual elements. He gave an overly generous welcome speech, (as usual) without notes. This (I learned later) was a style frowned upon by the brilliant Singapore politician. Even though Lee had the brains to deliver long scholarly lectures without notes, he always read from official texts. There was a perfectly valid state reason for this, ignored by most Filipino politicians, but to which I have always subscribed.
So when Lee finally spoke to return the President’s toast, he began on a playful note. He said that as he listened to all the “superlatives” coming from the President he began to wonder to what “mythical creature” his host might be referring to, only to realize in the end that “he was referring to my poor prosaic self.” (Laughter from the crowd.) “But I shall be even more prosaic by reading the text, which was bettered for me by my Foreign Minister and friend Rajaratnam,” he continued. And then he proceeded to read his speech. It was a very subtle putdown.
The official dinner crowd was thrilled. But I could not overlook the mischief. I discreetly communicated my reaction to the Prime Minister through a British journalist-friend who was his close confidante. I asked my friend to tell his friend that his “subtle stiletto attack” on my President did not go unnoticed. My friend gamely told the PM the next day, and the PM reportedly asked who in the Marcos Cabinet was raising the point. My friend gave him my name, saying “this fellow never went to Oxford or Cambridge, but seems to know enough of the English language.” We exchanged cordial greetings the next day and then sat together for the press conference.
He came to Manila a couple of times again on casual visits, often unaccompanied by any official party, and traveling as light as possible. He and Marcos had clearly developed a strong intellectual fascination with each other. Marcos would ask me and my wife to join him and the First Lady receive PM and Mrs. Lee at the presidential guesthouse for dinner, and I would sit there fascinated with the conversation of Asean’s two intellectual giants. Lee was talking of educating the young people of Singapore on computer technology, long before the Philippine bureaucracy ever heard of computers. At one time, I had to kibitz when Lee began to talk about the new physical exercise he had taken up, namely tai chi chuan.
I spoke officially to the PM again in Bali and Kuala Lumpur at the Asean summit, and in Singapore during Marcos’ return state visit. For some unexplained reason, Marcos and his wife were running a few minutes late for the state dinner, and I tried to keep Lee company as he tried not to show any impatience. I met him again, many years later, for the last time in 2011 at the Singapore Global Dialogue. He was the principal guest of honor at the concluding dinner and he fielded questions from the audience, without having to deliver a speech.
One Chinese speaker, who was said to be one of the highest ranking female officers of China’s People’s Liberation Army, asked Lee what advice to give to China, given its many challenges. Lee replied in good humor saying he should probably be the last person to give China any advice. I asked him a question which he parried very diplomatically. But when we shook hands later, he thanked me for remembering very kindly our meetings in the past. Once again, I had the opportunity to look at him at close range.
The years had begun to tell, and the death of his beloved Kwa Geok-Choo a year earlier must have left a deep wound inside him. I could sense that the end might be near for this giant among men, but I never doubted then, as now, that his legacy would outlive all of us.