SINGAPORE : A detailed and candid book on Singapore’s Minister Mentor, Lee Kuan Yew, billed as the first extended conversation with a Western journalist was launched on Wednesday.
“Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew” is written by American columnist Tom Plate.
How does an American present an accurate and non—judgemental view of Singapore? For columnist Tom Plate, he took that challenge head—on — and being from Los Angeles, he approached the story as if he was writing a screenplay on a blockbuster that is Singapore.
Tom Plate, author of “Conversations With Lee Kuan Yew”, said: “You come into a room, and you start talking with him and he cracks a joke and you say something. And then you disagree, he agrees, and back and forth, and it’s almost like a movie.
“No footnotes, a lot of dialogue and it’s an intimate but issue oriented profile of a political giant.”
The 200—plus page book covers topics ranging from Mr Lee’s views on China and US presidents to revelations about his family life.
For the author, it was also an opportunity to dispel some Western perceived myths about Singapore.
Mr Plate said: “He’s state of the art political management — I mean this is not a chewing gum, caning environment; this is a serious place, brilliant people.
“We Americans don’t know everything, we’ve made our share of mistakes, but we make a terrible mistake when we write Asia off.”
And what was his most memorable moment with Mr Lee?
Mr Plate said: “At one point, his press secretary felt that Minister Mentor was tired and we should cut the session short and (as a) typical journalist, you’re a journalist, you know what I mean, we weren’t going to let that happen, right?
“We want to squeeze every last minute we could and I said ’No, I’m not moving. You can leave, but I’m not moving.’ And I think Lee Kuan Yew might have overheard the conversation and he came back and he said, ’No I’m staying, we’re going to finish.’ So he was very committed to finishing the project.”
Speaking briefly at the book launch, Mr Lee acknowledged that “on the whole, he (the author) got my point of view across.”
The book was written after two days of intensive interviews held in Singapore, middle of last year. 25,000 copies of the book have been printed, with 23,000 sent to stores in Singapore and Malaysia.
The book is the first in a series published by Marshall Cavendish on Giants Of Asia. The next two will be on former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon.
Full Transcript: Tom Plate and Jeffrey Cole interview Lee Kuan Yew
Singapore’s first prime minister talks about China, the United States, and international politics as well as the future of media in Asian countries like Singapore and around the world
By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist
This is the complete transcript of Minister Mentor (as the founder of modern singapore is now known) Lee Kuan Yew’s interview with syndicated columnist Tom Plate of the UCLA Media Center and new-media expert Jeffrey Cole of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. It took place on Sept. 27, 2007 in the minister’s private office at Istana, Singapore.
Q: How are you?
Lee: Ageing rather fitfully as we all do, but when you’re past 80, it’s a pretty steep climb.
Q: The thing is you have not retired?
Lee: I think if you retire, the idea of just reading books and playing golf … you just disintegrate.
Q: There’s such a high correlation between people who retire and play golf and die, right? If you don’t play golf and don’t retire … follow the logic!
Lee: You have to have something more than that. You have got to wake up every morning feeling there’s something worth doing and you’re not just lying back and coasting along. Once you coast along, it’s finished.
Q: It’s great to be in Singapore right now because it’s so bustling!
Lee: It’s partly just sheer luck. I would say 60 percent hard work, 40 percent luck. Sixty percent because we put ourselves into this position, went through some very hard times starting with the Asian crisis, SARS and so on — but we have got onto the right track. We could see China growing, India coming on. We’re just at the junction of the two and placed ourselves to take the tailwind of both of them — but keeping all our other bases intact, our connections: U.S., Europe, Japan.
Q: You even have good relations with Taiwan?
Lee: That’s crucial. That’s part of the old — our past.
Q: But that’s not all that easy to do?
Lee: It’s still tough, but it doesn’t matter. The mainland knows these were the terms on which we established relations with them.
Q: One of the first questions I asked you roughly 10 years ago when I started the column on Asia and America was what would be the one thing you would say to the American people about the United States’ role in Asia. You thought for a few minutes and then you said: “Tell the American people that America must get the relationship with China right, because if that relationship is gotten right, it benefits everybody in Asia. And if it’s not gotten right, it’s going to create problems.” Have we more or less got the relationship right?
Lee: I think it’s not bad. Congress is in a fractious mood looking for excuses for what’s gone wrong, believing China’s exchange rate offers unfair advantage. Yes, the Chinese should up the value of their yuan — maybe 10 percent, 15 percent — but it’s not going to help you. It’s not going to solve the problem. It might create problems for them if they do it so suddenly. But if they do it gradually, I think it shouldn’t be a problem.
Q: They probably will do it?
Lee: They’ll do it gradually. They’re scared of unemployment. They’re scared of what happened to Japan when the factories relocated. They need their low-end jobs, making shoes, garments, whatever. If these factories move, you have got unemployment — that’s a real problem for them. They’re scared of it as they’re moving up-market. It’s a new game for them and they’re nervous. Their legitimacy depends upon solving the economic problems and not having riots in the cities even as their old state-owned enterprises retrench.
Q: What would you say to Americans who say if China rises, America has to fall?
Lee: No, I do not see a win-lose, zero sum game here. It was the U.S. that brought China into the World Trade Organization (WTO). It was George W. H. Bush that opened the door, invited China to start selling to America. That was carried on by President Clinton. Clinton finally, with his then Treasury Secretary Rubin, got the Chinese into WTO.
You have got two choices with China. Keep them out — but the U.S. must have done its calculations, because if you keep them out, then you have them as a spoiler. They’re going to do reverse engineering, steal your patents and where is the profit in that? You slow them down, there’s no doubt about that. You slow down their transformation but at the same time, you are not benefiting from that transformation. If you go back and remember the 1980s and early 90s, you needed that market to grow but you never factored in the speed at which they would grow. That’s scary. That’s happened and I think they know that it’s a difficult transformation for them. It’s not easy. They have got enormous problems — internal problems, disparity within the cities, between the cities and the countryside, and now with cell phones and satellite TV, they have to change track, instead of just going helter-skelter for gold … now they’re talking about achieving a harmonious society.
Q: Do we on the whole know pretty much what the real picture inside China is?
Lee: I think your China-watchers are well briefed, they know.
Q: There shouldn’t be any big surprises? We pretty much know where the tensions are?
Lee: [Nods affirmatively]
Q: You mentioned Bob Rubin and Clinton. The genius of their approach was they convinced the Chinese that it was in their interest to join WTO. They weren’t doing anybody any favors, was it going to be good for China?
Lee: No, I think they had [Chinese Premier] Zhu Rongji to deal with and that made the difference. Zhu Rongji was the man who pushed the Chinese side. He was backed by [President] Jiang Zemin. He did the sums and decided that if China was going to catch up with the world, they had to open up and this will force a continual opening-up, joining WTO and having to abide by the rules — and now they’re in.
Q: You see them still going there — going in that same opening-up direction?
Lee: Their problem now is convincing the world that they’re serious about a “peaceful rise.” These are thinking people. You’re not dealing with ideologues.
I don’t know if you’ve been seeing this or heard of this series that [the Chinese] produced called The Rise of the Great Nations. It’s now on the History Channel. I got our station here to dub it in English and show it. It was quite I would say a bold decision to tell the Chinese people this is the way the European nations, the Russians and Japanese became great. Absolutely no ideology and they had a team of historians, their own historians. To get the program going, they went to each country, interviewed the leaders and historians of those countries.
You should watch the one on Britain, because I think that gives you an idea of how far they have gone in telling their people this is what made Britain great. I was quite surprised. The theme was [doing away with] the Divine Right of Kings, a Britain that was challenged by the barons who brought the king down to Runnymede and then they had the Magna Charta, and suddenly your “Divine Right” is based on Parliament and [the barons] are in Parliament. That gave the space for the barons to grow and the middle class eventually emerged. When the King got too uppity, Charles the First got beheaded.
Now this series was produced in a communist state, you know. In other words, if you want to be a great nation, so, if the leader goes against the people’s interests, you may have to behead him! They also said that because there was growing confidence between the people and the leaders, the country grew.
It is in fact a lesson to support their gradual opening up and their idea of how they can do it without conflict — the “peaceful rise.” They have worked out this scheme, this theory, this doctrine to assure America and the world that they’re going to play by the rules.
Q: You think they’ll be able to do that fast enough to accommodate the middle class who want clean air and so much else?
Lee: I cannot say what they will do. I go there once in a year, I spend one week. I get reports, I read it but I’m not a China-watcher. I have got many other things to watch, I’m a Singapore-watcher! My guess is they’re going to move pragmatically one step at a time and the first thing they are trying to do right at this moment is to get the succession to the next Standing Committee right. [The chairman will] have his team and the next five years will be his policy.
I think the policy will be let’s grow, let’s have more equality in the country and keep the country as one. Let’s have no trouble abroad, let’s make quite sure that Taiwan doesn’t do stupid things which will force the mainland to act. Let’s have a successful Olympics and then we are into a new age, one step at a time.
The first problem is blue skies for the Olympics, and the way to do that is the way they did it in 1999 when I went there for the 50th anniversary and I found blue skies. I asked our ambassador about this: He said they stopped all factories for the last two weeks. I think they’re going to do that, maybe the last four weeks before and the cars will be cut down by half, odd and even numbers and so on. But to go and clean up properly will take umpteen years, retrofit coal mines and so on. That’s a very costly and slow business.
They are engaging us in Singapore, and we’re going to do an EcoCity with them, choosing the site now. They have agreed. They’ve offered us several sites and we’re choosing one where there can be sustainable growth. What we’ve done in Singapore, we recycle water, you keep your air clean, you do this, you do that, higher costs, more social discipline, more engineering, sewers, recycling water, et cetera and so on. It’s a slow process but they want to learn how it can be done. That’s important.
Q: If we could move to the other superpower, the United States. I know you’re reluctant to give out advice, unlike American journalists who always try to tell you what to do, but for America, since you’ve been a friend of America and you’ve seen it over decades, what are two, three things, that you worry about in America?
Lee: I think in the next 10 years you have got to extricate yourself from these problems in the Middle East. It may take you five years to get it stabilized and then after that, you gradually have more time and energy to think about the other big problems in the world. This is sucking up too much of your resources. To solve this, you have got to tackle the two-state problem in Israel because as long as that’s festering away, you’re giving your enemies in the Muslim world an endless provocation from which they can get new recruits for crazy adventures to try and knock you down, to blow themselves up and blow the world up. How you’re going to do that, I don’t know.
Q: Did you follow the Israeli lobby debate in the U.S.? Two professors — from Harvard and the University of Chicago — did this paper about the alleged extreme influence of the Israeli lobby in American foreign policy. Even if the paper overstated or used some unwise language in making its case, is there something to this?
Lee: You have got to settle this issue with the Jewish lobby. If you have this as a festering sore, you get Muslims entangled in hate campaigns. I’m not saying if you solve this, everything will be sweet and harmonious — but if you solve this you will remove a cancer in the [international] system. Then you can better tackle the other problems. You are alone in this [Middle East policy] because the Europeans are not with you. Nobody helps you, but everybody doesn’t want to openly oppose you.
Q: What about inside America itself? Do you see any indices that worry you, whether it’s education?
Lee: For the next 10, 15, 20 years what you have will keep you going as the most enterprising, innovative economy with leading-edge technology, both in the civilian and military field. You have got that already.
You will lose that gradually over 30, 40, 50 years unless you are able to keep on attracting talent and that’s the final contest, because what you have done, the Chinese and other nations are going to adopt parts of it to fit their circumstances and they are also going around looking for talented people and wanting to build up their innovative enterprising economies. And finally this is now an age where you will not have military contests between great nations because you will destroy each other, but you will have economic and technological contests between the great powers.
I see that as the main arena of competition by 2040, 2050 and it’ll be the U.S.; China for sure; Japan, keeping up with the U.S. and trying to retain its separate position from China, closer to the U.S. and hoping to maintain a special position; India, somewhat behind China, trying to catch up. I don’t know about Brazil.
Q: Charles de Gaulle had a great comment about Brazil. His advisers said to President de Gaulle that he had to go to Latin America — Brazil. He said why? They said Brazil has great potential. De Gaulle said, “Ah, yes Brazil has great potential … and always will.”
Lee: I put my money on China, India and Western Europe. If Western Europe can get past the welfare approach to society and get their unions modernized, I think they have got the technological basis and the talent to rise again, not as a military power because I don’t think they got the stomach for that, but as an economic power which they can do. I think they’ll give the world a run for their money.
Can they do it? I don’t know. Their history is so deep, you never know. Under pressure, as they feel they’re being left behind by history, they may decide to do it. I mean, you look at [French President] Sarkozy, he may or may not succeed, but he’s convinced himself and he’s convincing quite a group of the French elite. The CEOs of the big multinationals in France don’t need convincing. They know it. It’s the broad think-tanks, the media, the intellectuals who still feel that they have a superior system. They loath having to give that [welfare approach] up, but they may, you know, because that’s the only way to catch up.
Russia may become a player if they are able to find a way to convert the oil and gas into a more enterprising economy. I don’t know if they can get out of their corruption and the mismanagement of the resources, but they have got talented people.
But long-term for America, if you ask me, say, project another 100 years, 150 years into the 22nd century, say, 2150, whether you stay on top depends upon the kind of society you will be because if the present trends continue, you’ll have a Hispanic element in your society that’s about 30, 40 percent. So, the question is do you make the Hispanics Anglo-Saxons in culture or do they make you more Latin American in culture.”
Q: That is exactly the right question.
Lee: I mean, if they came in drips and drabs and you scatter them across America, then you will change their culture, but if they come in large numbers, like Miami, and they stay together, or in California, then their culture will continue and they may well affect the Anglo-Saxon culture around them. That’s the real test.
But on the [China] side, you can be quite sure that their numbers are so great — the Chinese Hans — they can take any number of new migrants, they will be absorbed. So, long-term, I think the Chinese have figured this out. Then, if they just stay with “peaceful rise” and they just contest for first position economically and technologically, they cannot lose. If they are not Number One, they will be Number Two. If they are not Number Two, they are Number Three. They have figured that out.
Q: Singapore is one of the world’s most wired countries, far ahead of the pack. How do you imagine over time that this will change Singapore? What will be your sense of what happens in an educated country with high standards, when anyone can get anything on the Web, videos and blogs so that the role of a centralized media become less and less dominant?
Lee: Well, it is already on its way because the print media here is not growing the same way, they are stagnating. It’s not declining as fast as, say, it is in America or Britain … And this is happening here.
The young, they read things on the Internet. I mean, I am part of the older generation. Yes, I read some stuff on the Internet, but at the end of the day, I say, well, let’s see what the proper analysis is. So, I look up, I look at the editorial pages and the op-ed pages. I am not sure that the young will do that anymore, but the way the print media can stay in the contest is not to be the first with the news because that’s not possible, but to be the first with the background and the analysis and the ones with the high credibility will stay in business.
You must have credibility because you get so much on the Internet. Whom do you believe? Finally, you’ve got to say, who is saying this? And you don’t know. But if you say, this is The New York Times, this is the Washington Post or the L.A. Times, then you say, well, that is the standard.
I mean, that goes for every country, I think, but we have a different problem here because we are bilingual. English is our first language, well, for the younger generation. The older generation, Chinese was their first language, but the ones below 30 now, below 35, the majority, English is their first language and Chinese or Malay and whatever will be their second language. But with the rise of China, we are already seeing more and more going to China doing business and more Chinese coming here doing business. So, they are going to start reading the Chinese blogs, the Chinese news. It’s already happening. So, the trend will be from print to screen.
Q: China has not given up hope in terms of trying to control the content on the Internet. But my sense since the last time I talked with you and with some of your brightest people, is that you have a sense of inevitably, that this new technology is going to overwhelm efforts to control it, is that right?
Lee: Right, it is not possible. Look, you are going to have a PDA that is also running video and you can have your servers blocked. But if you’ve got a 3G phone, you use another server, and so then you are through.
No, it’s not only going to happen, it’s already happening. Otherwise, how do you get all these pictures of the monks in Myanmar or Yangon or Mandalay coming out? It’s all on cell-phones. Now, there are areas which are blocked out now. They are blacked out, sure, but they are still coming out because you’ve got a 3G phone and I am quite sure Reuters or whatever news agency must have given their correspondents and stringers, saying, here, use this. You take it and you use this and you get it through. Otherwise, how can you get it through because the government is already blocking out [communication]. Many of the areas are now non-functioning, you can’t use the cell-phone. But images are still coming through. I just saw something this morning. So?
Q: Right. So, that the role of the centralized media is less important. Even if you can control the centralized media, that’s less and less valuable than before.
Lee: I don’t know if you’ve caught up with this story. It’s a bit of scandal going on. [Former Deputy Prime Minister] Anwar Ibrahim leaked a video, an old video, way back in 1980, of an Indian lawyer talking to a top judge about how he can arrange to get him promoted to be the “Number One” or whatever. I think it was an eight-minute video and Anwar has now put it on the Internet and it’s on YouTube! So the Malaysian bar — which have already been dismayed at the degradation of their judiciary and the corruption and judge-buying and case-buying — they have demanded a royal commission to inquire into the facts.
So, the government, under pressure now, has appointed a committee of judges and one eminent person, to check on the authenticity of this tape. So that’s bought them some time, but in the meantime, 2,000 lawyers, following what the Pakistani lawyers did, have marched on to the prime minister’s office to deliver a petition to investigate this matter. Now, this would not have happened without the Internet and without YouTube. I mean it is so simple, you see.
Q: That’s a changing world.
Lee: But at the same time, there is the problem of credibility. So, you have a website called Malaysiakini. That means “Malaysia Now” and it’s got some very good articles in it and some of them are signed regularly by the same person. So when we get that, we read it and then we say, okay, circulate it. But you get a lot of rubbish, too, and you have got to filter it. It’s a waste of time.
Q: Well, your earlier point about the credibility of serious newspapers and serious magazines is more important now than ever.
Lee: You’ve got to go by them. You know, it’s like the ratings agencies which put a lot of financial institutions down.
Q: This is the future of professional journalism, if there is any?
Lee: No, you’ll always have it. But if we don’t use this [new technology], then we are just one hand tied behind us: Should we allow our opponents to have that advantage? This is a highly competitive world. But the flood of information leads to overload. Therefore, you’ve got to have somebody filter it for you.
Q: Can I go back to your comment about Myanmar and the video that’s getting out from the hand-helds, where, unlike Tiananmen in 1989, you cannot just pull the plug on all visuals. With regard to Myanmar — and I realize anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s — but did you see that it’s plausible to ask China, as it did at the Six-Party Talks, in some way to work skillfully and work behind the scenes to assume a role in moving Myanmar forward out of the Middle Ages and maybe into the real world?
Lee: I’m not sure the Chinese have got that power. And in Myanmar, these are rather dumb generals when it comes to the economy.
Q: They are!
Lee: How they can so mismanage the economy and reach this stage when the country has so many natural resources?
Q: It’s a gift!
Lee: It’s stupid. So I’m not sure. The Chinese, they’ve tried, and, in fact, we have tried to talk them out of isolation. I tried through a general called Khin Nyunt. He’s the most intelligent of the lot. I sold him the idea, or at least he bought the idea, that the way for them to go forward was to get out of uniform and do it like Suharto, form a party — Golkar — and then take over as a civilian party. But halfway through, Suharto fell. So, it ended up as the wrong advice, they back-tracked. Then they chucked Kyin Nyunt out.
Q: Timing is everything!
Lee: Meanwhile, I had advised several of our hoteliers to set up hotels there. They have sunk in millions of dollars there and now, their hotels are empty. But, you know, you’ve got really economically dumb people in charge. Why they believe they can keep their country cut off from the world like this indefinitely, I cannot understand. And you know, you need medicines — they smuggle in from Thailand. It doesn’t make sense.
We will see how it is, but whatever it is, I do not believe that they can survive indefinitely. Look, the day they decided to close down the government in Yangon and go into this Pyinmana, or whatever the place is called where there’s nothing and they are putting up expensive buildings for themselves and a golf course — and the top general had a lavish wedding for his daughter which was then out on YouTube — the daughter was like a Christmas tree! Flaunting these excesses must push a hungry and impoverished people to revolt. But what will happen, I don’t know because the army has got to be part of the solution. If the army is dissolved, the country has got nothing to govern itself because they have dismantled all administrative instruments.
Q: You have a candidate in the coming American presidential election that you prefer? You’d like to endorse whom? I have my candidate, but you’ve got to get American citizenship!
Lee: Who’s your candidate?
Q: You! You’ve helped run this pretty well country for so many years.
Lee: You need to have an American who is not only good on television but he must have the networking that can raise him the funds and the grassroots support.
Q: I notice you said “him”.
Lee: Well, her, him/her. No, [Hillary Clinton is] leading, she’s leading. Will she be good for America?
Q: I don’t know.
Q: What do you think? I’m too close to her.
Lee: What do you mean you’re too close to her?
Q: I’m right there. I’m American, I’m right in the middle of it. I don’t like any of them. She may be good enough, though she’s not the best that we’ve got.
Lee: She’s good enough?
Q: She’s probably good enough.
Lee: Well, we have to live with whoever wins.
Q: I read somewhere recently that you actually have a bit of a worry about your country’s survivability over the long run? Are you serious?
Lee: Singapore is not a 4,000-year culture. This is an immigrant community that started in 1819. It’s a migrant community that left its moorings and therefore, knowing it’s sailing to unchartered seas, guided by the stars, I say let’s follow the stars and they said okay, let’s try. And we’ve succeeded and here we are, but has it really taken root? No. It’s just worked for the time being. If it doesn’t work, again, we say let’s try something else. This is not entrenched. This is not a 4,000-year society.
Q: You really have a sense of the country’s endangerment.
Lee: Yes, of course.
Q: It’s amazing, you come in here and you walk around here in one of the great cities in the world. Yet you are worried about survival.
Lee: Where are we? Are we in the Caribbean? Are we next to America like the Bahamas? Are we in the Mediterranean, like Malta, next to Italy? Are we like Hong Kong, next to China and therefore, will become part of China? We are in Southeast Asia, in the midst of a turbulent, volatile, unsettled region. Singapore is a superstructure built on what? On 700 square kilometers and a lot of smart ideas that have worked so far — but the whole thing could come undone very quickly.
For this to work, you require a world where there are some rules of international law and there is a balance of forces of power that will enforce that international law and the U.S. is foremost in that. Without that balance of power and international law, the Vietnamese will still be in Cambodia and the Indonesians will still be in East Timor, right? Why are they out? Because there were certain norms that had to be observed. You can’t just cross boundaries. This little island with four and a half million people, of whom 1.3 are foreigners working here, has got to maintain an army, navy and an air force. Can we withstand a concerted attempt to besiege us and blockade us? We can repel an attack, yes. Given the armed forces in the region and our capability, we can repel and we can damage them. Three weeks, food runs out, we are besieged, blockaded.
Q: Who will come after you? Who would come after you?
Lee: There are assets here to be captured, right?
Q: Some unnamed bad regime?
Lee: When [Malaysia] kicked us out [in 1965], the expectation was that we would fail and we will go back on their terms, not on the terms we agreed with them under the British. Our problems are not just between states, this is a problem between races and religions and civilizations. We are a standing indictment of all the things that they can be doing differently. They have got all the resources. If they would just educate the Chinese and Indians, use them and treat them as their citizens, they can equal us and even do better than us and we would be happy to rejoin them.
Q: Do you think it’s healthy for the citizens of Singapore to feel that pressure, that tension that it all could change quickly? Do you think that makes them run this country more effectively, be better citizens by not getting complacent?
Lee: My generation, the ones above 50, who have lived through the first part, they know. The ones under 30 ,who’ve just grown up in stability and growth year by year, I think they think that I’m selling them a line just to make them work harder but they are wrong. The problem is they don’t believe. They think I’m wrong. That’s a problem that all countries face. You look at the Japanese, I remember their parents. After their defeat, they had great leaders not just in politics but in business at every level. They travel, they work, and they sold their goods like mad to rebuild Japan. Now you look at them … You look at the younger generation, will they work like some of the fathers did? I don’t think so, but in a corner will they do it again? I think yes because it’s a deeply-imbedded culture. They will fight. That’s the difference between an ancient culture and a new one. Theirs is embedded, ours is not. At the same time that ancient culture is preventing them from making rational decisions about migration, immigration and meeting the problems of ageing.
Q: Singapore’s armed forces are in pretty good shape, right? So when are you all planning to invade neighboring Indonesia?
Lee [laughing]: All we want is a quiet peaceful world. We have made something of our lives and we’ll be quite happy to carry on like this and help them get along and do better. We started this LKY School of Public Policy, giving them scholarships to prove to them it’s done by good governance. It’s not by robbing you.
Q: I (Plate) graduated from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton. And so I’m a big fan of public policy schools. I think you all are doing a great job at the Singapore policy school. I think you chose a wonderful dean [former U.N. Ambassador Kishore Mahbubani]. I was recently there to offer a humble seminar. The quality of the students knocked me out.
Lee: I think that’s an investment worth making because [students from the region] will go back and they will tell their media chaps and their leaders and say, look this country works because it’s working like this: first, it’s honest; second, it’s rational; third, it makes decisions and follows through on those decisions. The decisions are made after very careful consideration of all options and consequences.
Q: I agree with you and if you look at the course list, it’s a very impressive course list. Now, you were educated in England and many of your top people were educated in America or England, so Western education for a long time has been the cutting edge, has been the leader, the place you wanted to go to. Is it your sense that American higher education is still terrific?
Lee: It will stay like that for as long as you keep on getting talented people into your country and staying on, but will you do that? I think yes for 10, 20 years, but 30, 40, 50 years, I’m not sure because other countries will become more attractive or as attractive. It is the extra inputs you get.
Let me explain how I see it. If Singapore depended on its own domestic talent, we wouldn’t have made it, but we were the center for education in this region from British days and many came to be educated and many stayed behind. Our top layer was drawn from a larger base and in my first Cabinet of 10, there were only two of us who were born and bred in Singapore. The others came from Malaysia, China, Ceylon, from India and elsewhere. It’s a talent pool that was drawn from a bigger region, and that’s the secret of your success. You drew in first your talent from Europe because you offered them opportunities. In the last few decades, you’ve been drawing your talent from all over the world, including Asia. If you can continue to do that, you will continue to succeed.
Not only must you attract them, you must get them to stay.
Q: How are you doing on that?
Lee: We give a lot of scholarships to Chinese and Indians. If one quarter stay on here in Singapore, we’re winners, especially with the Chinese. They come in here, they get an English education, they get our credentials and they’re off to America because they know that the grass is greener there. The Indians, strangely enough, more of them stay here in Singapore because they want to go home to visit their families, America is too far away. We are net gainers for how long? I think in the case of China, maybe another 20, 30 years and then the attraction is gone. We can’t offer them that difference in opportunities and standards. India, maybe longer — 50, 60 years before their infrastructure catches up. Anyway, this is not my worry anymore!
Q: On India, there’s been a lot of hype in America, in foreign affairs publications and so on, about India becoming the next superpower. I was in New Delhi about three months ago — it seems to me India’s got a long way to go.
Lee: They are a different mix, never mind their political structures. They are not one people. You can make a speech in Delhi; [Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh can speak in Hindi and 30, 40 percent of the country can understand him. He makes a speech in English and maybe 30 percent of the elite understand him.
In China, when a leader speaks, 90 percent will understand him. They all speak one language, they are one people. In India, they have got 32 official languages and in fact, 300-plus different languages. You look at Europe, 25 languages, 27 countries, how do you? The European Parliament? Had we not moved into one language here in Singapore, we would not have been able to govern this country.
Q: Minister Mentor, thank you very much.