My Interview with Lee Kuan Yew

This interview was conducted in Singapore in January 1992. Lee Kuan Yew had stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990 but still served as Senior Minister in the cabinet.

When I heard earlier this week that Lee Kuan Yew had died, I was immediately cast back to the near-freezing, heavily-curtained room where Singapore's Cabinet meets on a regular basis and where, in January 1992, I interviewed the former Prime Minister for his thoughts on what Canadians needed to do to increase trade with Asia.

I remember a warm smile topped by steely eyes and an infectious laugh when he said, "Just give me British Columbia, with all its amazing natural resources, and I'll show you what I can do!"

I was in Singapore with a team from Venture, the weekly CBC-TV business program, to produce a documentary on Canada's economic future in Asia, a one-hour network special called, "Racing the Rising Sun." (I hated that title, with its awful historical baggage across Asia, but even after recruiting Paul Evans, the Asia Pacific Foundation's former CEO, to help me argue for a change, it was a battle we lost).

Lee was an imposing interview subject, to say the least, whose reputation proceeded him. (I was based in Jakarta from 1985 to 1988, continued to report on Asia after returning to Canada and so, I had been to Singapore many times). The Prime Minister could chew-up journalists, a process which included banning those he disliked from visiting his island state and if that wasn't enough, banning their newspapers and magazines from being circulated. When he was really upset, Lee simply sued for damages (usually citing some variation of "insulting Singapore's democracy") and almost always won, in Singapore's own courts, naturally. (The Wall Street Journal, a regular target of his venom for the foreign press, ran a wonderful story this week on its testy relations with Lee).

Lee was also well known for chewing up his political opponents over the years, with stories of street level election campaign thuggery in the Republic's early days and, as with the journalists, the legal persecution of opposition politicians such as J. B. Jeyaretnam and others over the decades that Lee was in power.

My CBC colleague Patrick Brown, who reported from Asia for decades, reminded us this week that Lee's well-deserved reputation for transforming his nation into an Asian economic powerhouse came with real costs for democracy.

But in the early 1990s, it was the exploding Asian economy that Lee helped shape that pulled Canada westward, and that was what CBC wanted to explore. We interviewed Canadian high-tech experts just establishing a toehold in Singapore, Ho Kwon Ping the former journalist who was just starting to build his hotel empire and kids on the street who laughed about the then-new ban on chewing gum – banning has always been big in Singapore – but admitted they were unlikely to challenge it.

Finally, on our last day, it was time to sit down with the former Prime Minister.

It is hard to remember that in 1992, an economically surging Asia seemed to dominate the popular media in Canada, especially on the business pages. When was the last time you read, or heard, a story about Singapore's dramatic economic growth or Thailand's exploding automobile industry? China, of course, owns centre stage, while Japan has slipped off most radar screens. (I am speaking here about media presence, not inherent importance.)

But listen to what Lee Kuan Yew was saying back then about a shared sense of national purpose and what can happen when it is stronger rather than weaker.

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FRANK KOLLER: Canadians seem to be having difficulty being as successful in the global economy as you have been here in Singapore. Why?

LEE KUAN YEW: Well, let's put it in very broad general terms. You've taken in new migrants from Asia, Chinese from Hong Kong primarily, over the last six, seven years. And you don't have to be as hard-working or trusting eager beavers as they are because life has been more comfortable. Your endowments have been more benign, more abundant. And it's only now when you find that in comparative terms, your growth is slower than the Japanese, the Koreans, the Taiwanese or Hong Kong or Singapore, that you begin to wonder "what's up?"

And "what's up" is that these are hungry people with a keen desire to make up for centuries of backwardness. Backwardness in the sense that they were not organized as industrial societies. They were not backward people. That's the difference.

In East Asia, you have a number of civilizations, primarily all Sinic in the sense that the Chinese influenced Japan, Korea and Vietnam. And if you go back 1,000, even 500 years, those other Asian neighbours were more advanced than Japan. So when a Korean sees that a Japanese has made it, he has no doubts in his mind, deep down in his heart, that given a chance, he can do likewise.

FRANK KOLLER: Are Canadians going to have to change their way of organizing themselves to be as aggressive and thus, as successful, competing in Asia?

LEE KUAN YEW: That's a very loaded question. I don't think you need to change if you don't want to go for faster growth. Then, you keep on buying Japanese cars, or Korean cars, or VCRs, or high-definition TVs, or mobile phones and so on.

But if you consider it an affront that you've got these young upstart societies outperforming you, then you've got to sit back and ask yourself, "Well, what is it that they are doing which makes them more productive and more effective in this high-tech electronic age?"

And look at your per capita GNP! Why should you bestir yourself in the same way as I have had to?

We started off in the 1960s with a per capita GNP of about US$1,000. Yours would have been US$7–8,000. Your per capita GNP in 1991 – which wasn't a spectacular year – was around US$22,000. But last year, ours was only US$12,000. That's half yours. So we have a long way to go before we catch up, if ever.

And you've got oil in Alberta; you've got conifer forests in British Columbia, an endless supply of wood, pulp and timber.

NOTE: in 2013, Canada's GNI per capita (using PPP) was $42,610 while Singapore's was $76,860 (World Bank Data's latest figures.)

FRANK KOLLER: And your country and others in East and Southeast Asia are buying those raw products, turning them into much higher value-added products, and selling them back to us – while we tread water asking "what's wrong?" Are we allowing ourselves the luxury of too much talk and not enough getting down to action?

LEE KUAN YEW: Well, let's go back to the philosophy of life. What is life for? As far as I'm concerned, starting from a very low base of near poverty, life is about getting enough food, clothing, housing, education, hospitals, roads, bridges, telephones, all the conveniences of life, to make it worth living.

I now have a younger generation that has only known growth over the last 20 years – and they are more free-spending and a little less hard-working than their parents.

When you reach a certain level of life where you can afford to talk of leisure and recreation and the finer things in life, then your focus changes. I think that's natural – and we have to focus now on getting our symphony orchestra up to scratch, building a proper concert hall and a theatre and art galleries and so on.

In our case, if we ever forget that we've got to earn our keep, then we'll go down very fast. But in your case, so long as you don't go and drift into anarchy, you can have a comfortable living and allow the Japanese to dig for cobalt or look for uranium or whatever. The prairie is there; it will grow wheat. You just need combine harvesters to bring the stuff in – and if the Europeans can be persuaded under GATT in the Uruguay Round to stop their subsidies, you'll sell a lot more wheat all over the world. So it's a case of being set at a different pitch ...

FRANK KOLLER: You sound as if you're just being polite about Canada's chances to compete successfully in what is now the most dynamic economic region in the world.

LEE KUAN YEW: Well, the pressure isn't there! Supposing we swapped places. Supposing you gave me British Columbia, which has a population of what, three million? I mean, such an enormous chunk of territory – and I've got all those mountains and ski slopes and the fishing and there's so much that nature will do for you.

You take those three million Canadians from British Columbia and put them in one small island called Singapore and you say "Right, now make a living!"

Either they bestir themselves, or you come back in 20 years and you may find only half a million left!

FRANK KOLLER: Would those three million Canadians have to give up some elements of their "Canadian" style of democracy to prosper on that island?

LEE KUAN YEW: What do you mean by Canadian-style democracy? Do you mean a leisurely way of life in which the political leaders guarantee you free medicine and old age pensions and so many of the other things which you assume for granted? Where's it going to come from?

We don't have an old age pension. We've got a certain retirement fund where everybody contributes to his own account so that when he retires, he's got some-thing to keep him going after he's 70, or 70-plus now.

But how can you come to one little island with nothing on it and just use your hands and your mind and your feet and add value? You've got to add value before you can pay for these things.

FRANK KOLLER: What you have achieved in Singapore in only 30 years is intimidating to many Canadians who are worrying about the future of their country in the face of recession and now, free trade with the U.S. (author's note: the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement was signed in 1988. The NAFTA came into effect in 1994.)

LEE KUAN YEW: (laughs) Why should they be intimidated? I've only got halfway to where you've got – and with a perilous base. Because if the world turns adverse and we go back into protectionism and into trading blocs, then you can live off your vast continent. I can't. My world comes to an end.

FRANK KOLLER: You may be only halfway to where we are, but you're catching up in the game very quickly. And the speed with which your success has been achieved makes some Canadians wonder if you're playing fair when you compete in international markets. Do you understand those feelings?

LEE KUAN YEW: Well, I think I can sympathize with the sense of loss of supremacy or loss of an assured lead over others. I mean, it's natural. A sense of insecurity that your position at the top of the heap cannot be assumed for the next hundred years.

But if you bestir yourselves and make the necessary changes, there's no rea-son why this extrapolation [of Singapore rapidly catching up to, and perhaps over-taking, Canada's standard of living] will continue at the rate its going.

I do not believe that what takes place in East Asia is a one-way, unilateral activity which is divorced or completely unconnected with the reaction of other countries.

You take Japanese companies today in America, and I suppose in Canada too, and they are proving that with Japanese methods of management, they can produce cars in America better than the Big Three. Using American workers, but using them in a different way – a kind of family unit, everyone wearing the same uniform, same canteens, no special toilets for the bosses, no special parking lots for the bosses, a sense of shared destiny. If the company goes down, everybody goes down. There's no patent on this. There are no intellectual property rights.

Never forget that Japanese productivity was not high either before or during the war. They were down on their knees on all fours, crawling in the debris of a burnt-out Tokyo, and they discovered they had to be productive. Surely you will learn that.

FRANK KOLLER: Do you worry about Japan's overwhelming influence over much of East and Southeast Asia?

LEE KUAN YEW: Yes, I do. I think they're a formidable lot of workers. They're very closely knit, a very homogeneous people. One to one, I don't think they're necessarily superior to the Chinese of the Koreans. But in groups, as teams, a thousand in a factory as against a thousand Koreans or a thousand Chinese, I would say that they would have the better team and that they would produce better results ...

FRANK KOLLER: A final question. The transformation of East Asia since the end of the Second World War is unprecedented in history. But when you wake up at three in the morning, what worries you about the future for this portion of the globe?

LEE KUAN YEW: Well, I don't wake up at three in the morning fortunately ... but I suppose I worry that Asia will not have the good sense to know that this is irrevocably one world. We can't go back to neat compartmentalized societies where people intermarried and bred in homogeneous gene pools.

It is a heterogeneous world and if East Asians don't learn how to adjust to this heterogeneous world like the Japanese are having to do, then we will have more frictions with the rest of the world.

In Europe today, we find accommodation being made with the Muslim Arabs, Turks, Africans from the South Sahara. Not just insignificant numbers but large numbers who are building mosques and a different way of life.

I think Europe has done it better than we are doing. The Japanese just will not have any Vietnamese refugees: they are unacceptable. They threaten the purity of Japanese society. Half a million Koreans in Japan have been there since before the war and they have to be fingerprinted every time they want to do anything.

And the Koreans are also intolerant people, intolerant in the sense that they don't accept foreigners well. You can't go into the Korean stock market and buy and sell. You can here in Singapore because we are different. We are more heterogeneous.

I think that if East Asia does not learn to accommodate itself and accept that this is one world and that there is no such thing as an exclusively pure people, then it's going to run into trouble. Because then it will lead sooner or later to the same kind of false sense of superiority that Asians now accuse Caucasians of.

We have to learn to accommodate each other. The alternative is conflict, which will be disastrous.

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Frank Koller is a former foreign correspondent and economic specialist for CBC News. His book SPARK, a critique of unnecessary layoffs in the North American economy, tells the story of Lincoln Electric, a Fortune 500 manufacturer that hasn't laid anyone off in nearly a century. He was an Asia Pacific Foundation Media Fellow in 1990, spending three months in Vietnam.

This interview was originally published as part of an article on Singapore in INROADS magazine.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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