ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 2, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 14

We saw Sri Lanka: Lee Kwan Yew says it again

The following are excerpts from an Intrnational Herald Tribune interview with Lee Kuan Yew, who served as prime minister of Singapore from 1959, when it gained partial independence from Britain, until he stepped down in 1990. He is currently minister mentor. The interview took place on Aug. 24, 2007 at the Istana, where the Singapore president and prime minister work. Lee was interviewed by Leonard M. Apcar, deputy managing editor of the International Herald Tribune, Wayne Arnold, a Singapore correspondent, and Seth Mydans, Southeast Asia bureau chief.

IHT: First, we wanted to talk to you about Singapore's extraordinary growth. We'd also like your assessment of the broader political landscape, China, Southeast Asia, Japan and the United States. Let's begin, if we could, with the Singapore model. How do you see it evolving in the next several years economically and politically? And what do you think are the challenges and opportunities and even threats for the next generation of leaders?

Lee Kwan Yew

Lee Kuan Yew: First, to understand Singapore, you've got to start off with an improbable story. It should not exist . . . We haven't got the base, the space, the wherewithal. This is not Jamaica or Bahamas or Fiji. This is a little island strategically placed at the southernmost end of Asia connecting the sea routes between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific.

Suddenly, we're on our own. (After being ejected in 1965 from Malaysia which followed the end of British colonial rule.) We have to defend ourselves. We have to make a living without a hinterland. We've got to have a Foreign Ministry. It's one thing running Hong Kong under British or Chinese protection; it's another matter governing tiny Singapore. You have to build an army, navy, air force, control and command systems, early warning, AWACs in the sky and so on.

So, can we survive? The question is still unanswered. We have survived so far, 42 years. Will we survive for another 42? It depends upon world conditions. It doesn't depend on us alone. If there were no international law and order, and big fish eat small fish and small fish eat shrimps, we wouldn't exist. Our armed forces can withstand an attack and inflict damage for two weeks, three weeks, but a siege? (laughs)

IHT: Not possible. Lee Kuan Yew: Control of sea lanes? We'll just starve. So, it depends on whether there is an international environment which says that borders are sacrosanct and there is the rule of law. It's not just [a matter for the] United Nations Security Council. There's the U.S. Seventh Fleet, a Japanese interest in the Straits of Malacca, and later Chinese and Indian interests in the region, and therefore a balance.

So, these are imponderables. But what is absolutely essential is to survive, never mind the military and security side. More important is the economic prospects. We have to be very different from our neighbours. That was the first shock we had. Because we thought by joining Malaysia, we'd go back to the old Singapore. We would have a hinterland, a common market, and can develop import substitution industries like other countries. Now, we're off on our own with not the most sympathetic of neighbours. How do we live?

To begin with we don't have the ingredients of a nation, the elementary factors, a homogenous population, common language, common culture and common destiny.

We are migrants from southern China, southern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, before it was divided, Ceylon and the archipelago. So, the problem was, can we keep these peoples together?

The basis of a nation just was not there. But the advantage we had was that we became independent late. In 1965, we had 20 years of examples of failed states. So, we knew what to avoid — racial conflict, linguistic strife, religious conflict. We saw Ceylon.

Thereafter, we knew that if we embarked on any of these romantic ideas, to revive a mythical past of greatness and culture, we'd be damned. So, there's no return to nativism. We have left our moorings. We're all stranded here to make a better or worse living than in our own original countries.

IHT: What you're describing now is the basis for the formation of the type of country and society that you formed. And also, then, the types of criticisms that come toward Singapore - the answers may lie in these same . . . Lee Kuan Yew: The answer lies in our genesis. To survive, we have to do these things. And although what you see today — the superstructure of a modern city, the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate.

We are not Venice. We are not Athens with wide open spaces and far away neighbours. We are part of a world which is globalized, cheek by jowl with teeming millions in the region, populating at fast speed (laughs), right? IHT: I want to get back to India for the moment. You talked about it in positive, growing terms. How do you assess its potential as a regional and international power?

Lee Kuan Yew: India's economy can grow to about 60-70 percent that of China. I see that as the long-term trend. They're not going to be bigger than China – on present projections. But 60-70 percent of China with a population which will be bigger than China by 2050, is something considerable, and they've some very able people at the top. I draw this historical lesson which I believe will be repeated, though not in exactly the same way, but will manifest itself in a similar pattern.

If you study the history of this region, you will see that two influences came from the north. One was India from the west; the other was China from the east. So you have the Ramayana Classics, the dances and music in Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia. You have Borobudur and Hindu-like temples in Bali. Then in the east you have Vietnam, and then the seaports of the region, pockets of Chinese traders.

So historically, two forces were at work, two higher civilizations India and China from the north flowed into this region. Then European colonialism took over for 200 years. Now, China and India have revived. I believe the outward thrust of their influence will follow a similar pattern.

IHT: Do you think this will be a smooth and positive expansion? Or do you think that it's naïve to believe that this won't cause and create an increasing number of conflicts in the future? Lee Kuan Yew: I don't think we can say that we will be conflict-free. I believe it will be conflict-free between big powers because it's too costly for them. But between big powers against small powers — the squeezing of small powers — that will go on. And between small powers themselves, the small will squeeze the smaller.

But I do not believe hostilities are worth anybody's while. If present conditions prevail where there is international rule of law, a United Nations Security Council, and a balance of power in the region. There is also the International Court of Justice - International Arbitration court, et cetera.

Two lessons give us some comfort. One was Cambodia; the Vietnamese had to withdraw. The other was East Timor; the Indonesians had to withdraw. So these borders are not just lines drawn on a map. You cannot breach them without international consequences.

IHT: Let me connect one more thought here that I am not clear about. In this more open, interconnected world where the educated and the elites are traveling and easily moving all over the world, what does this do to Asian values? Does it inevitably dilute them?

Lee Kuan Yew: It's already diluted and we can see it in the difference between the generations. It's inevitable. One of the things we did which we knew would call for a big price was to switch from our own languages into English. We had Chinese, Malay, Indian schools — separate language medium schools. The British ran a small English school sector to produce clerks, storekeepers, teachers for the British. Had we chosen Chinese, which was our majority language, we would have perished, economically and politically.

Riots — we've seen Sri Lanka, when they switched from English to Sinhala and disenfranchised the Tamils and so strife ever after. We chose — we didn't say it was our national language — we said it was our working language, that everybody learns English whatever language medium school you go to. Which means nobody needs interpretation to read English.

So, our sources of culture, literature, ideas are now more from the English text than from the Chinese or the Malay or the Tamil.
So, there's a clear difference between the grandfathers and the grandchildren. Look, my grandchildren, never mind the grandfather, their Chinese is not equal to their parents' Chinese.

My children were educated in what were then Chinese schools and they learned English as a subject. But they made up when they went to English-language universities. So they didn't lose out. They had a basic set of traditional Confucian values. Not my grandchildren.

I've got one grandson gone to MIT. Another grandson had been in the American school here. Because he was dyslexic and we then didn't have the teachers to teach him how to overcome or cope with his dyslexia, so he was given exemption to go to the American school. He speaks like an American. He's going to Wharton. Between him and his father, there's a clear breach in cultural continuity — never mind between him and me.

But that's the top 20 percent, right? For the majority in the heartlands, they don't go to American schools or have that exposure. But from 20, it will become 30 percent going to tertiary institutions, universities. You asked me to predict what it will be in 50 years or even 20 years. I cannot, because we have left our moorings.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.