Thursday 26 March 2015

Lee Kuan Yew: Master Politician

A life devoted entirely to Singapore
Lee Kuan Yew was obsessive about securing Singapore's success, and compulsive in demanding every ounce of effort from himself and others in shaping its destiny
By Zuraidah Ibrahim, Andrea Ong and Rachel Lin, The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2015

WHEN Singapore split from Malaysia, one major matrimonial asset required more than a little time to divvy up: their joint Malaysia-Singapore Airlines.

The day finally came seven years later in 1972, when Singapore Airlines (SIA) was ready to take to the skies.

Mr Lee Kuan Yew had taken a personal interest in the process. But when he spoke to the Singapore Air Transport Workers' Union on the eve of SIA's formation, there was no nationalistic cheerleading.

The airline was not a prestige project, he told them. If they could not turn in a profit, "we should have no compunction in closing a service down", he warned. "The future of Singapore Airlines depends more on the reality SIA leaves behind on their passengers than on their advertisements."

Three decades later, with SIA famed as one of the world's top airlines, Mr Lee refused to be swept off his feet by its glamorous image.

Intervening in 2004 over a dispute between its pilots and management, he told them he would not allow anyone to endanger SIA. "Both management and unions, you play this game, there are going to be broken heads."

Recalling similar squabbles in 1980 when he intervened personally, he declared: "This is a job that has to be finished and I'll finish it."

This was vintage LKY. Cutting through the fluff. Setting no-nonsense targets. And leaving no room for doubt that any "games" would be tolerated - other than the one he had decided was in Singapore's best interests.

The histories of former colonies are replete with politicians who shone in the independence struggle but stumbled in office, when the enemy was no longer the distant imperialist but dysfunction within - corruption, poverty, ethnic or religious conflict.

Mr Lee was a rare case of a leader who never cut himself or his team any slack even after the job appeared done. Perhaps this was because of the unforgiving circumstances the People's Action Party (PAP) found itself in, with freedom first secured as part of an uneasy federation in 1963, followed by unceremonious expulsion in 1965.

He brought to each situation a voracious appetite for information to feed his rational calculations. He knew the value of having differing views within government, which partly explains his obsession with creaming off the most intellectually able to staff the public sector. At the same time, he expected no obstruction from individuals or institutions outside of government.

Not surprisingly, therefore, how people view his political style depended a lot on where they stood - within or outside the trusted establishment.

Former ambassador Chan Heng Chee was among those who had regular lunches with him. Her lunch group included two other top diplomats, Prof Kishore Mahbubani and Prof Tommy Koh. She recalls Mr Lee bouncing off his ideas, eager for a robust exchange. "He looked like he was fighting in court... a little stern, but I think that was his natural look," she said. "He wanted people to come back to disagree with him, so that he didn't think that everything, that his ideas were all absolutely correct."

That was one side of him, willing to be challenged and contradicted. There was another that would brook no contest. In his political opponents, he saw only one way to meet them: their total defeat.

"Everybody knows that in my bag I have a hatchet, and a very sharp one. You take me on, I take my hatchet, we meet in the cul-de-sac. That's the way I had to survive in the past. That's the way the communists tackled me."

While this was an instinct honed by experience, those who remember Mr Lee in his late 20s and early 30s recall a young man hungry for information, to abandon or augment an argument, before closing his case. He and his closest confidants gathered a group of young and restless minds straining at the leash of British colonialism, to plot their political moves in his basement dining room at 38 Oxley Road.

In 1954, they founded the People's Action Party to "represent the workers and the dispossessed" and "show up the rottenness of the system and the present political parties", he wrote in his memoirs.

His and his associates' dalliance with more radical leftists demonstrated his political acumen. He was willing to harness their power to mobilise the masses against British rule, even if he had no intention of subscribing to their programme.

Depending on whom you ask, this was either betrayal or pragmatism of the highest order.

The other ill-fated union was the merger with Malaya, Sarawak and Sabah that enabled Singapore to free itself from colonial rule. Mr Lee had battled for that moment, but the marriage lasted all of 22 tumultuous months before he was forced to appear on television to announce that it was all over.

That marked one of the most extraordinary independence days in 20th-century history, for it was a sovereignty neither desired nor celebrated. Mr Lee and his Old Guard colleagues were painfully aware of the economic and security risks faced by the tiny island state. A sense of vulnerability became the leitmotif of his leadership.

They may have felt weak and at a loss, but Mr Lee's PAP, if anything, over-compensated in their determination never to be treated lightly. His political style, he would later say, was shaped by the school of hard knocks.

"We had formed and shaped our political strategies and tactics during our struggles as the opposition party from 1954 to 1959, and in government from 1959 to 1965," he said.

"The skilful and tough methods of the unyielding communists, followed by the equally ruthless communal methods of the Umno ultras, were unforgettable lessons on political infighting. Street fighting with them was like unarmed combat with no holds barred, in a contest where winner took all."

He was helped by what he described as the leftists' "costly mistake" of walking out of Parliament in 1965, eventually ceding to the PAP every seat in the House. From 1968, the PAP commanded full control of the chamber and made a clean sweep of the next three general elections.

In 1981, the Anson by-election broke that stranglehold but still PAP dominance remained largely impervious to assault.

Mr Lee ensured such control by widening the PAP's appeal to straddle as broad a middle ground as possible. "I intended to leave the opposition only the extreme left and right," he once said.

He was also determined to secure the political space for sound policymaking, convinced that the unruly aspects of democracy were incompatible with good governance.

He tamed labour unions and put them on a path of a cooperative symbiotic relationship with the ruling party and employers. He restructured the press to align its corporate interests with those of the establishment. And he neutered the influence that powerful Chinese businessmen could have had on the system, relying instead on bureaucrats to promote economic growth.

Of course, the PAP Government was always also a team effort and the country had what was its first A-team under Mr Lee. For the economy and industry, he had the help of Dr Goh Keng Swee and Mr Hon Sui Sen; for diplomacy, Mr S. Rajaratnam. To overcome the housing shortage, he turned to Mr Lim Kim San to build on an unprecedented scale. But while these individuals were men of legendary ability, it was Mr Lee who was relied on to get the politics right.

"We are willing to take unpopular steps if the long-term advantages to Singapore justify the policy," said Dr Goh in a 1984 speech. "We can do this for two reasons: first, our track record; second, the ability of the Prime Minister to carry the public on difficult and unpopular issues."

On how Mr Lee was the first among equals in a team that batted exceptionally well together, Dr Goh added: "We were also lucky to have as our skipper a man of outstanding qualities. I recall several occasions when all seemed lost. There appeared to be no answer to the terrifying dominance of the communist open front organisations in full cry. Yet he will come out with some devilish strategem to spring upon the enemy and confront them."

He did so with a combination of legislation, the seeding of an expectation of rectitude in political leadership and an unrelenting approach to crushing those he considered enemies of the PAP's project.

The party also relied on his larger-than-life presence in the political arena. When he took to the stage, it was never about telling Singaporeans what they wanted to hear, but persuading them of what he believed they needed to do. "We have never allowed ourselves to forget that popular government does not mean that we have to be popular in every act of government," he said. "It means that policies in the public interest, however unpopular, must be taken in time for the benefits to be appreciated before the next general election."

Alongside the major success stories such as the building of Changi Airport and the Singapore Armed Forces are a series of wrenching moves that were painful at the time.

He explained to Singaporeans why they needed to be uprooted from their familiar enclaves, and scattered and re-housed in high-rise buildings. He argued for English as the main language, despite the political price of alienating the strong Chinese lobby. He prodded workers to salt away part of their income in retirement savings. And he pummelled, cajoled and pushed Singaporeans into altering their behaviour, as he waged war against littering, spitting, men with long hair and singlehood.

How did Mr Lee succeed in moving and changing a people? Once, when asked about the qualities she admired most in him, his late wife Kwa Geok Choo cited "his powers of persuasion".

Former senior minister of state Chng Jit Koon, 81, who worked under Mr Lee for 28 years, remembered some bitter pills that he had to swallow as a result of Mr Lee's policies, but that he was eventually persuaded to support.

"The policy of replacing dialects with Mandarin, that was very painful," Mr Chng said. "I went on walkabouts and old ladies would scold me and slam the door in my face because we had stopped radio broadcasts in dialect. But Mr Lee said, 'For the sake of our future generations, we must be determined to carry this out.' And I agreed with him."

A former Cabinet colleague from the second-generation leadership, Mr S. Dhanabalan, corrects the perception that Mr Lee lorded it over those around him.

"He never said, 'This is what I want, do it.' He had very strong convictions, but he was very clear that he had to persuade you in a way that you would buy into what he wanted to do," Mr Dhanabalan said.

"If he couldn't persuade you, he would spend time, even postpone his decision, in order to use his arguments and persuasive powers to show you why it should be done that way.

"He almost felt it was a failure on his part if he could not persuade you to see things the way he did."

Former MP Teo Chong Tee remembers how, as a secondary school boy in the 1950s, he would cycle from one political rally to the next, in search of Lee Kuan Yew.

"I went just to listen to him speak," Mr Teo, 72, said. "He made speeches in three languages which could inspire the people to cheer and shout. The crowd stayed until the end. Nobody moved, rain or shine."

It wasn't just the words that captivated the youth. Mr Lee spoke with no script and punctuated his speeches with forceful gestures. As he spoke, he would move about constantly, punching his fists in the air, shifting in his seat, adjusting his clothes.

Later on, Mr Lee helped Mr Teo campaign in Changi constituency for the first time in 1976. "In 10 to 15 minutes, he had people cheering for me," recalled Mr Teo. "His words really carried a lot of weight."

His speeches took people beyond themselves, motivated them, helped them make sense of a Singapore suddenly propelled to Independence.

"If he said to me, 'Look, I need you to do your part to sacrifice for the country', I would drop everything and go. That was the kind of power he had," said veteran journalist and political watcher Seah Chiang Nee, 75, who went with Mr Lee on his travels overseas as a Straits Times correspondent in the 1970s and early 1980s.

And there was a combative fire in Mr Lee that could sway the crowd as he challenged his opponents with fighting words.

If he spent the first two decades after independence trying to inoculate governance from the capriciousness of politics, he next turned his attention to the challenge of reproducing good governance.

He realised that his own generation of leaders was exceptional, and he called them "dinosaurs, an extinct breed of men who went into politics because of the passion of their convictions".

His view of human nature was such that he assumed Singapore would not be able to count on future leaders' altruistic motives.

He vested his personal reputation in arguing for a salary formula that would peg government pay to that in the private sector.

He was also convinced that, despite three decades of nation-building, the Singapore electorate was not ready to be colour-blind.

So the Group Representation Constituency was born in 1988, to ensure minority representation in Parliament.

Mr Lee was also the political entrepreneur behind the 1991 constitutional amendments that created an elected presidency with custodial powers over the nation's reserves and key appointments.

Again, this was born from a mind constantly playing out worst-case scenarios - in this case, that of protest votes installing an incompetent or, worse, rogue government.

There are other aspects of Mr Lee's legacy that have been deeply embedded in the foundations of Singapore politics.

One is the high expectations that people have of public servants, in particular Singaporeans' zero tolerance for corruption.

Former Straits Times editor-in-chief Cheong Yip Seng, 71, relates a story of how, when Mr Lee and his family spent holidays by the sea in Changi, his children would sometimes pluck fruit from the trees growing around the chalets. Mr Lee would insist on paying for the fruit himself.

Mr Lee's home at 38 Oxley Road was spartan and unpretentious.

"I was staggered," Mr Cheong said, after hearing the story and visiting the Lee home for the first time in 1999 with a photographer to take pictures for his memoirs. "I thought, wow, this guy is clean."

When it came time in 1986 to expose his Cabinet colleague, the late national development minister Teh Cheang Wan, for corruption, Mr Lee did not waver.

He refused Mr Teh's request to see him before the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau had completed its investigations. Mr Teh later committed suicide a few weeks after the investigations began.

Mr Lee laid the whole matter before Parliament and later agreed to opposition MP Chiam See Tong's call for a commission of inquiry.

He also famously severed ties with one of his staunchest comrades, Mr C.V. Devan Nair, the veteran trade unionist who had been with the PAP since its genesis.

Mr Nair, the founding figure behind the National Trades Union Congress, steered the labour movement through several explosive episodes - such as the 1980 dispute between SIA pilots and management.

He later became Singapore's third President but resigned in acrimony less than four years later over charges of alcoholism, an accusation he denied to his death. Mr Lee was unmoved.

In the Teh and Nair episodes, he showed how he had no compunction about cutting off even the closest of allies when he felt a wrong had been committed.

"Let me put it in a simple way," he said in the book The Man And His Ideas. "I would do a lot personally for a friend, provided what we set out together to do is not sacrificed... if you need a hundred thousand dollars, I'll sign it out of my own resources or raise the money."

But that "personal relationship cannot be transmuted into a concession that will jeopardise state interests".

"That cannot be done because that's what we're trying to establish - a system where people act in accordance with certain principles. The purpose is not just to be righteous. The purpose is to create a system which will carry on because it has not been compromised. I didn't do that just to be righteous about Teh Cheang Wan. But if I had compromised, that is the end of the system."

Mr Lee's commitment to doing an honest day's work extended to his role as a Member of Parliament.

Associate Professor Koo Tsai Kee, a former senior parliamentary secretary and Tanjong Pagar GRC MP who used to run meet-the-people sessions in Mr Lee's ward, says Mr Lee was very firm on drawing a clear line between politics and government.

For instance, he gave the instruction that MPs should not ring up civil servants to discuss residents' appeals or ask for favours. "You're supposed to write in so that everything is in black and white," said Prof Koo.

The rule applied even to Mr Lee and other ministers.

"So sometimes the minister would write to his own civil servants to appeal on a policy set by him. We are very clear, we don't abuse our official position. Again, that was established by LKY. Don't mix up."

Former Speaker of Parliament Abdullah Tarmugi recalls that Mr Lee was the only MP who would always write him a note when he could not attend a sitting. "He made sure he followed the rules, you couldn't fault him."

At the time of his death, he had served as MP for Tanjong Pagar since 1955, Prime Minister from 1959 to 1990, and a Cabinet minister until 2011.

In the late 1970s, when the PAP marked its 25th anniversary, Mr Lee shared in a party commemorative book what he saw to be the party's key principles to governing: Give clear signals - don't confuse people. Be consistent - don't chop and change. Stay clean - dismiss the venal. Win respect, not popularity. Reject soft options. Spread benefits - don't deprive the people. Strive to succeed - never give up.

The formula, and variations of it, continued to be passed down from cohort to cohort of Singapore leaders. What is probably impossible to bottle and imbibe, though, is the spirit behind those words.

Mr Lee was unbending, courageous and single-minded in the face of the odds. He acted like he had a dare to prove.

He was obsessive about securing Singapore's long-term success, and compulsive in demanding every ounce of effort from himself and others in shaping his country's destiny.

Asked once how he wanted history to judge him, Mr Lee replied without missing a beat: "I'm dead by then."

But he added that he stood by his record.

"I did some sharp and hard things to get things right. Maybe some people disapproved of it. Too harsh, but a lot was at stake and I wanted the place to succeed, that's all.

"At the end of the day, what have I got? A successful Singapore. What have I given up? My life."

We were privileged to have filmed some of Mr Lee's most significant soundbites. Here is one of them from "The Making of...
Posted by RazorTV on Monday, March 23, 2015

A leader who's ruthless in demanding honesty
S. Dhanabalan, 77, MP from 1976 to 1996, held various ministerial portfolios from 1980 to 1992, was chairman of Temasek Holdings from 1996 to Aug 1, 2013
The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2015

TO CALL Lee Kuan Yew my friend would not be quite right. More accurately, we were colleagues. I don't think he had many friends, because he was so focused on doing what was good for the nation, and that would require him sometimes to act against his friends. If he was too friendly with anyone, that could colour his decision, so he was very careful.

Many leaders of countries are honest. India's Jawaharlal Nehru was honest. Julius Nyerere in Tanzania was honest. Manmohan Singh is honest. But that's not enough. You must be prepared to demand honesty and be ruthless with your relatives and friends if they are not. Otherwise you can't get the honest culture established.

Lee Kuan Yew was not only honest, but he was also ruthless in demanding honesty from his colleagues. You could have been his colleague, you could have fought with him through the long march, it didn't matter. If you are dishonest, you're out.

So I think in order to make sure he did not soften in this approach, he was very careful about establishing friendships with people.

I resigned from Cabinet (in 1992) because I had a great difference of view over the use of the Internal Security Act in the 1987 arrests. (In 1987, 22 people - many linked to the Catholic Church - were arrested and detained without trial under the ISA for alleged involvement in a "Marxist conspiracy".)

Lee Kuan Yew thought that mine was a Christian view, because he knew I was a Christian. But it was not a hard-headed political view. We had a difference and the whole Cabinet knew.

The way he saw it depended on his experience, and he had some very traumatic experiences with the communists and how they infiltrated legitimate organisations to get what they wanted. I was looking at it from my point of view, without the experiences he had.

I wouldn't venture to say whether he was right or I was right. So it was not that he was ruthless, but that he saw dangers where I didn't. Whether it was real danger or not remains to be seen.

His greatest strength as a leader was his foresight - his ability to see what is likely to happen, and to persuade people with arguments. Not just words, but the way he put his words across, the way he was able to transmit his conviction to people.

One thing that remains very strongly in my mind is how different he was in his decision-making process from what the general impression was.

The general impression is that he was a leader who, once he had made a decision, he stuck to it. In making decisions, he would canvass ideas and views before he made up his mind. Then when he had come to a conclusion, there would be further discussion and more modifications. He was very keen to listen to people.

Sometimes I managed to change his mind. In his assessment of people, there were instances where he had a very good assessment of someone but I did not. So he argued his case, and I argued my case but he didn't change his mind. Later he discovered that he was not right, so he changed his mind about the person.

I also had differences with him on a couple of policies, but he convinced me to his side.

I had some very strong views about Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, which favoured Chinese-language schools, because I thought one or two government schools should be selected for people of other races to enjoy similar special assistance.

He explained that this was because the Chinese schools and the people behind the Chinese schools - the clan associations and their students - were very important components of Singapore.

In fact, in the 1940s and 1950s, the majority of school-going children were in Chinese schools, not in English schools. Yet he had managed to persuade the Chinese community to switch to English as a medium of instruction so that we could have one national-type school with Chinese, Malay or Tamil as the second language.

But in order to get that accepted, he agreed to put a certain number of schools in a special position.

If you look at what's happening in Malaysia today, you will realise how important that decision was.

In the total scheme of things, it was a very small price to pay, and it was key, because first, it changed our whole education system, and second, the timing was fortuitous.

I believe that if he had tried to do it 10 years later, after China had opened up, it would not have been possible. There would have been very strong resistance and I don't think the population would have accepted it.

The other policy I disagreed with him on was the Group Representation Constituency (GRC) system. I was against it because I was probably more of an idealist and not realistic enough.

I felt that if the Chinese in my constituency did not want to elect me, then so be it, because I saw being Singaporean more important than anything else. I thought that if the Chinese Singaporean or the Indian Singaporean was not prepared to vote for someone of another race just because he was of a different race, then there was something basically wrong with our society.

But his argument was that you have to have minority representation in Parliament - so two Chinese with one minority-race candidate in one constituency of three people could be tailored in such a way that you have fair representation of minorities in Parliament.

He felt strongly that if we didn't do this, there would be no minority representation. In making the argument he even offered to put me in a single-seat constituency. So I said: "No, I am not talking about myself!"

But I've come to the position now that it was the right thing to do. But what I disagree with is that GRCs were expanded from three members to five or six.

Though we had disagreements, it was not difficult working with Lee Kuan Yew. He knew that my views were sincere even if he didn't agree with them. He respected people who had different views from him, he didn't think it was because you were not as bright.

He spent many hours sharing his experiences with the younger ministers. When he travelled overseas, he would take quite a few of us along. On these trips, every evening after dinner, we would sit around and talk, and he would give us his assessment after discussions with world leaders.

He never tired of explaining something again and again, until we almost absorbed his culture of thinking and his approach to finding solutions to problems.

Dr Goh Keng Swee once said: The PAP needs Lee more than Lee needs the PAP. And that was the fact. You cannot escape that fact.

I feel that he stepped down as PM in 1990 when he need not have. He was still quite vigorous and healthy and could have led the country for another 10 years.

But he himself was keen that he should go long before he lost his competence.

When he did step down, it was a very poignant moment. I remember it very clearly. It was in the City Hall chambers during the swearing in, and as he was coming down the steps, his eyes were red. It was quite an emotional moment for him, because he had put his whole life into this.


Mr Lee receptive to new inputs
George Yeo, 60, chairman of Kerry Logistics Network, part of the Kerry Group that is owned by Malaysian tycoon Robert Kuok. He was an MP from 1988 to 2011 and a Cabinet minister from 1991 to 2011
The Straits Times, 24 Mar 2015

MR Lee Kuan Yew had strong views but, at the same time, he did not have a closed mind. I led a delegation to India in early 1993, which turned out to be a critical visit in the history of bilateral relations. India had run out of money and embarked on their own opening up and policies to reform.

Our visit helped pave the way for closer cultural and economic ties between Singapore and India, helping to spark what then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong later called "a mild India fever" among Singapore businessmen. A consortium of Singapore companies, Indian industrial house Tata and the state government of Karnataka later jointly invested in a $250 million IT park in Bangalore. During that 1993 visit, we started in Delhi, we went to Agra, Jaipur, then to Bangalore, Mysore to Chennai. We came back and put up a very positive report on India.

Kishore Mahbubani, then Foreign Ministry Permanent Secretary, told me that when he put up the report, one of the senior permanent secretaries told him: "You must be mad to put up such a report if you knew LKY's views about India."

It went up to Cabinet and Mr Lee, as expected, poured scorn on it, saying we were just naive and so on. I mean, he knew Nehru. He once told Rahul Gandhi: "I knew your father, your grandmother and your great-grandfather." So he had this longitudinal view of India, which we had to respect. He seriously doubted India's reform policies would happen. Every time he read a negative report on India, he would send it down to me, you know, "For information", as if just to remind me.

But at the same time, every time I went to India, which I did quite often in those days, he would ask me about it. He was curious and he wanted the inputs. And one day, he said on our engagement in Bangalore: "It's good that these things are happening but anticipate a change of government."

True enough, two years later, the government in charge of Bangalore changed, but the new government was even more supportive of cooperation with Singapore.

From that episode, I thought you must have a view and you must act on a view to be a leader. But at the same time, you must not close your mind to new inputs. And while you may disagree initially, at least have a doubt that you may be wrong - which he did and he then adjusted.

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