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In Some Ways Lee Kuan Yew Is Still Here

25 Mar In Some Ways Lee Kuan Yew Is Still Here

Singapore Institute of International Affairs Chairman Simon Tay discusses the legacy of Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister, who passed away earlier this week. He speaks to Bloomberg’s Haslinda Amin on “First Up”.

The video was previously available on Bloomberg.com. Prof Tay’s interview was also quoted in a Bloomberg news article, “Lee’s Body Lies in State With Tributes Spread Across Singapore” by Sharon Chen and Kyunghee Park [24 March 2015]


Q. (Haslinda Amin) Many Singaporeans have said, at one time or another, that they can’t imagine Singapore without Lee Kuan Yew. The day has arrived.

Prof Tay: It has. In some ways he really is still here. The city he’s built – the system he’s built – and the DNA, ethos, basic understanding of how things work in the world and where Singapore’s place is in the world. I think that has been built.

Q. A small nation making a huge impact – You were a Nominated Member of Parliament. You had dealings with Mr Lee Kuan Yew. What are some of the misconceptions? He is often seen as a leader who rules with an Iron fist.

Prof Tay: When I was in Parliament, he was already the senior minister and Mr Goh Chok Tong was the Prime Minister. It was amazing to me that first, he listened. I remember twice when I said things he didn’t agree with, out of script he would stand up and say, “Well, Mr Tay said this, and I believe this, this and this”. Of course, he made the headlines. It was always the attention to what people were saying, thinking, doing, both within the country, keeping his finger on the pulse of things and of course the wider world.

His engagement with the wider world, to understand what companies, what other governments are doing to help understand and perhaps also influence some of the key issues of the day…I think these are some things that people don’t understand about Mr Lee. They think about him purely as dictating, whereas he was very responsive.

Q. But, he’s been unapologetic. Many times he has said that he does not believe in polls, public opinion or consensus. Because, he thinks a leader who listens to the peoples’ wishes shows a sign of weakness.

Prof Tay: Well, that’s the thing that people don’t understand. He listens but it doesn’t mean he is a popularist. He would listen and be willing to disagree. Like, my previous example was – he listened to my speech. He didn’t have to, they had all the votes. But in the end, he spoke up against me. So, he listens, in the view of ‘do I believe in this, is this good for Singapore’ and ‘do I change my mind or do I change his mind’.

Another big example of this, just behind us, is the casino. For many years, Mr Lee was against it. But, the cabinet and especially the former minister George Yeo said it’s time for Singapore to consider this. It was brought to him and deliberated by cabinet, and Mr Lee famously changed his mind.

Q. One of the things Mr Lee was really for is political renewal. He has always believed in ensuring a bench.

Prof Tay: That’s correct. I believe the PAP again owes a debt to Mr Lee and Singapore, as a whole, to really leave the stage in time. First as Prime Minister then as Senior Minister then Minister Mentor and now simply as Former Minister Mentor, then just an MP. So this is the state he left us in. So, while we are mourning, we are bereaved, it is not as if the functional party powers of the government are suddenly lost.

This government has been running for years now – without Mr Lee deciding on day to day things or even the broader issues like the budget. And, I think this is something that – if you look world wide – so many people who have held absolute power, the reins of power, have trouble letting go in this way and, he has let go, slowly.

And whatever criticisms he’s had of his successors, Mr Goh or his son, have been kept quiet.

Q. So, no dramatic policy changes are expected. We saw how the markets remained stable despite his passing.

Prof Tay: I think that is very true. There will be no sudden jerks. Singapore itself is in the process of maturation. We are changing. There are influences…economics, politics and society are changing. Mr Lee had his answers in the day. It is up to the new government to find its own different answers to things that work in Singapore today. But yes, I think we should be in a state of sorrow, but not of panic in Singapore.

Q. What are the biggest challenges for the country right now, for his son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong?

Prof Tay: Clearly, as a son, he will feel the loss. And, the entire nation grieves with him. After all, his mother only passed away a few years ago as well. So, we do feel for him as a person.

As the Prime Minister, Mr Lee (Hsien Long) has been fully at work. The biggest challenge for him will be the politics. The economics, you know, globally, has had a lot of headwind. It’s not an easy world today, but Singapore has done so well. It’s got the reserves and abilities that very few other countries have. Socially, though, we are coming to a new juncture. But, for the first time, we really are dealing with a much more complex, more normal politics. And, that will be a big challenge for the ruling government and the PAP.