Sunday 19 October 2014

The Big Ideas Of Lee Kuan Yew

A new book, The Big Ideas Of Lee Kuan Yew, was launched yesterday. Below are excerpts from three essays in the book by former ambassador Chan Heng Chee, former permanent secretary of foreign affairs Bilahari Kausikan, and Permanent Secretary (Public Service Division) Yong Ying-I. The book is based on a conference in September last year organised by the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
The Straits Times, 18 Oct 2104

Guiding the supertanker into the harbour
By Chan Heng Chee

TO HIM the US-China relationship is the most important relationship of this century. Lee Kuan Yew has made many efforts to help the West understand China; equally, he has sought to explain the United States in all its contradictions to the Chinese.

He does not want the two to enter into conflict; he fears they will misunderstand each other, underestimate each other, and miscalculate.

His main concern is to ensure a stable US-China relationship, which is the sine qua non for a peaceful and prosperous Asia. Mr Lee sometimes speaks up for one side, and at other times for the other.

Singapore's foreign policy is best served by ensuring views going in the wrong direction do not go unchecked. And he sees Singapore's role as being the voice of moderation.

Michael Green, senior director of Asian Affairs in George W. Bush's National Security Council, once described Singapore's role as a pilot for the US, guiding the superpower or supertanker into the harbour.

Singapore would tell the US, "come in, come in", or, at times, "go back, go back", because the US may be overstepping.

For example, during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s and 70s, when voices calling for the United States to bring home the troops and end the war had reached a crescendo, Mr Lee argued for the US to stay.

Post-Vietnam, when America could not forget South-east Asia soon enough and the region grew relatively hostile to the US military presence, Mr Lee spoke of the dangers of US withdrawal from the region.

It was in this context that when the US was asked to leave Clark Airbase and Subic Bay, Singapore offered the Americans access to Singapore's military facilities, but not a base.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the US and Europe, believing the end of history had come, pursued an agenda of promoting democracy and human rights as universal values, Lee Kuan Yew took on the West in a debate on values. Perhaps he saw this as a new form of cultural imperialism.

It was in this context that the case of Michael Fay, the American teenager who vandalised more than 20 cars one evening in 1993, became a cause celebre and precipitated the biggest row in US-Singapore relations.

In the West versus East debate, the Western media conveniently ignored the fact that Fay's accomplice was a Hong Kong boy who also received the same sentence of caning. Rather, they seemed more interested in printing the narrative of a Singapore determined to assert Asian values and picking on an American teenager to make a point to the US. After President Bill Clinton's appeal, we reduced the sentence from six strokes of the cane to four.

This was not a high point of the bilateral relationship.

Advocated with equal zeal was the "Washington Consensus" that is pushing countries in the region to deregulate their banks, open up their capital accounts, and liberalise trade and accept foreign investment, i.e., to deregulate, deregulate, deregulate. This led to the Asian financial crisis in 1997. Ironically, the crisis singled us out as the one country in Asean whose financial system was well managed.

When the US economy began its descent into spiralling deficits and debt, and major Western financial institutions collapsed in 2008-2009, Mr Lee felt compelled to speak out against the "declinist" school - those who argue that America is in decline - because he did not subscribe to it.

He remains convinced that the US economy is resilient, has a wealth of creative talent and will continue to do well because it is open to receiving the world's talents.

In the same way, he has spoken up for China. In the 1980s and 1990s, the West dismissed China's growth and its sustainability, some even arguing that the country faced fragmentation. Mr Lee told American and European audiences that China's growth was real and it would be the biggest thing to happen in recent history. He repeatedly told the West that they could not stop China's growth and even if it should stumble for a couple of years, its trajectory was upwards in the long term. He cautioned the US against underestimating China.

Today it is the other way round. He has been talking up America much more, explaining why the US will enjoy continued long-term success and remain competitive. He is also concerned that China will underestimate the US.

The boss' attention to detail
By Yong Ying-I, Permanent Secretary (Public Service Division), Prime Minister's Office

MR LEE also paid attention to issues that can be overlooked but that have great impact, for example, clear communication.

During a meeting in February 1979, he gathered permanent secretaries and "everybody who has to do with the drafting of minutes, memoranda, Cabinet papers and other documents that go up to ministers" to discuss the "importance of simple, clear, written English".

Mr Lee said at the meeting:

"When you write notes, minutes or memos, do not write in code, so that only those privy to your thoughts can understand. Write so simply that any other officer who knows nothing of the subject can still understand you."

When he visits various parts of Singapore, he is known to call up senior public servants to ask about matters as varied as why this tree is doing poorly and why that area is so dirty and poorly maintained. He would send memos. As an example of his penchant for details, he wrote in 1969:

"Zoo Negara says that it costs $210 a month to feed a rhino, $200 a tiger or a lion, and $160 a polar bear. I do not believe sick dogs being shot can form a substitute for a regular meat supply, which will have to be paid for. There are very few zoos in the world which are successful and I am doubtful of the wisdom of starting one in Singapore."

On another occasion in the 1960s, Mr Lee wrote to the permanent secretary for National Development:

"We spoke the other day about the maintenance of jets, nozzles and pressure of all our public fountains. Make sure something is done to see that pressures are maintained and nozzles kept clean, every six months or year as the case may be, and the pattern never altered."

Wong Woon Liong, former director-general of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore, remembers that Mr Lee wanted from the management a weekly report of the state of cleanliness of the toilets in Paya Lebar Airport. Since the boss wanted a weekly report, Wong decided he had better ask for a daily report. And since he wanted a daily report, the director for operations asked for an hourly report. So that is why we have clean toilets in airports - a tradition that continues today at Changi Airport.

I myself had quite a few personal encounters with Mr Lee in my previous posting as Permanent Secretary for Health. I can confirm his attention to detail and concern for high standards.

He gave me feedback about the choice and quality of trees planted on the SGH (Singapore General Hospital) campus in Outram and at Tan Tock Seng Hospital in Novena.

When I accompanied Mr Lee to visit the new Khoo Teck Puat Hospital a few years ago, he asked the hospital chief executive numerous questions about health-care delivery and serving patients.

He then asked me about the problems with the building design. For example, he wanted to know whether the corridors got wet when it rained - they did - and whether the building might be less warm if we improved the planting of creepers down some of the walls. He even wanted to know whether the pond next to the hospital flooded and overflowed to the hospital when it rained. The answer, fortunately, was no.

This attention to detail by the boss matters. If the boss cares, everybody else up and down the line cares. If the boss does not care, standards can begin to slip.

Pragmatism, not ideology

BESIDES a culture of excellence undergirded by public spiritedness and an emphasis on implementation, Mr Lee also believed in pragmatism, not ideology.

This includes how he saw the partnership between the public service and the political leadership in serving Singapore. In 1959, he spoke to civil service leaders to make clear his expectations of how politicians and civil servants were to work together in serving Singapore:

"My theme to you is simply this. You and I have a vested interest in the survival of the democratic state. We the elected ministers have to work through you and with you to translate our plans and policies into reality. You should give of your best in the service of our people. Whatever your views on socialism, capitalism, liberalism, communism, whether they be progressive or conservative, your task and mine for the next five years are exactly the same: that is, to demonstrate that the democratic system can produce results.

"It is in our interest to show that under the system of 'one man, one vote' there can be an honest and efficient government which works through an efficient administration in the interests of our people.

"If we do not do our best, then we have only ourselves to blame when the people lose faith, not just in you, the public service, and in us, the democratic political leadership, but also in the democratic system, of which you and I are working parts...

"I am confident that... you will respond to the urgency of the task. The mass of the people are not concerned with legal and constitutional forms and niceties. They are not interested in the theory of the separation of powers and the purpose and function of a politically neutral public service under such a Constitution.

"As far as they are concerned, in May 1959... they did elect their own government in order that there might be a better world for them and their children."

Protecting Singapore's interests, nicely or otherwise
By Bilahari Kausikan, Former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

MR LEE has said that he is interested in being correct rather than being politically correct.

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, once said of Mr Lee's analysis: "He was never wrong."

Of course, this is not strictly true - Mr Lee has not always been correct. International developments are intrinsically unpredictable and nobody can always be correct. But he has been on target more often than not; and when he has not, he has never been too proud to change his position.

So when he speaks, even great powers listen.

They may not always like what they hear, but they listen and, more importantly, sometimes act on what they hear. In his memoirs, Mr Lee recounted his 1978 meeting with Deng Xiaoping and how he got him to drop Chinese support for communist insurgencies in South-east Asia. So let me tell you a less well-known story.

In 1981, at the International Conference on Kampuchea held at the UN, the US was poised to sell out Singapore's and Asean's interests in favour of China's interest to see a return of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The then US Assistant Secretary of State in charge of China policy attempted to bully and browbeat our foreign minister, saying that there would be "blood on the floor" if we did not relent.

We held firm. The assistant secretary then threatened to call Mr Lee personally to complain, thereby exposing his fundamental ignorance of how Mr Lee and the Singapore system operated, despite having previously served as ambassador to Singapore. Our foreign minister calmly and politely invited him to do so. The assistant secretary did not call.

The next year, Mr Lee travelled to Washington and, in a meeting with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described America's China policy as "amateurish".

Word rapidly spread. As the young desk officer who took notes for that meeting, I was bemused by the spectacle of the assistant secretary frantically scrambling to find out what exactly Mr Lee had said.

I don't know if it was coincidental, but the very next year the assistant secretary in question was appointed ambassador to Indonesia - an important position, but one in which he no longer held sway over China policy. And when his new appointment was announced, the gentleman anxiously enquired through an intermediary if Mr Lee had told then President Suharto anything about him. He was reassured and served honourably in Indonesia.

I do not recount this incident in US-Singapore relations merely for the trite and possibly redundant purpose of illustrating Mr Lee's influence.

The moral of the story is his approach to diplomacy, which he hammered into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but which is not sufficiently understood by the general public and even some sections of our establishment.

Diplomacy is not about being nice, polite or agreeable. It is more fundamentally about protecting and promoting the country's interests, preferably by being nice but, if necessary, by other appropriate means.

LKY School 9th Anniversary Conference: ‘The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’
LKY School's 10th Anniversary Conference

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