Lee Kuan Yew's interview with Talk Asia on CNN.

February 9, 2002


Indonesia says rift with Singapore due to differing perceptions

HIS week, a very rare and special conversation. It's nearly impossible to talk about Singapore's history without mentioning the name, Lee Kuan Yew.

The former Prime Minister and current Senior Minister remains a powerful influence in the running of the country's affairs. I just returned from Singapore where Senior Minister Lee sat down with me at the Istana, the Prime Minister's official residence, for a personal chat. I'll be sharing that conversation with you over the next half hour. The first thing I asked Senior Minister Lee was: what feelings were you going through as you watched events unfold on September 11:

Lee Kuan Yew: Deep dismay because this means trouble and a shock to the financial markets. Next, are there any of our government investment corporation people in there? I knew that my niece was working nearby for some bank. So my wife rung up the mother. And her mother called back and said, "No, she's just rang up to say that she was all right".

Q: Here in Singapore, were you surprised to hear or to find out that there were groups of terrorists here at all?

LKY: Yes, we knew that sooner or later with the build-up in the Philippines, in Indonesia and after the KKM arrests in Malaysia that they were bound to penetrate us. In a way, the US strikes, their strikes in the World Trade Centre put the balloon up because Al-Qaeda became news. So a Singaporean told our security intelligence that a Pakistani-Singaporean is connected with Al-Qaeda. Had it not been in the news, he wouldn't have said that to us, but because it was in the news, he told us that. Surveillance followed him and his associates, that was shortly after 11 September. On the fourth of October, he flew off to Pakistan to go to Afghanistan. So we knew that this was for real. We didn't stop him because we were in the midst of investigations. Then, on the 29th of October, no, November, he went on the 29th, an intelligence agency told us, a friendly intelligence told us that the Northern Alliance had captured a Singaporean called Aslam. Do we know it? Of course, we did. But we didn't reply because we knew once this leaks, the others will scatter. So in the few days, we moved quickly before the press got hold of it. The press did get hold of it few days later. We nabbed, we were able to get 15. The others got away.

Q: Are you worried at all that there could be, could be, new possibly worse terror attacks in the future?

LKY: Yes, of course. Because all they do, all they need have done was to use some extremist deviant Muslim groups, working through a preacher who led this group, a Singaporean who was a condo manager, to gather them together and convince them that this was an act in futherance of goodness, of God, Jihad. But now, of course, that this has been discovered, they know that we'll be very alert to nitrates and trucks. So they've got to start new groups and they've got to find different ways, more complicated. So it is a battle that goes on. But the critical thing is to clear the nests around us. The big nest was in Afghanistan. That's not quite cleared. Then there are nests in the Philippines, there are nests in Indonesia. The Malaysians are clearing up their nests. The Philippines are getting American help to clean up theirs. Now, if those nests are cleared, then the experts can't come in so easily. They won't be there.

Q: What is the Singapore government doing to protect Singaporeans?

LKY: We've done a lot of hard work to try and get people to act rationally. The fact that we've had 15 deviant Muslims, maybe plus five or eight others who got away, does not mean that all Muslims are deviant or extremists. But if something does go off, I mean if supposing they had blown up the underground station at Yishun where the American sailors used to have their bus stop to go back to their camp and there had been a rush hour crowd of Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and Malays, heavy casualties, I think there would have been an enormous paroxysm of fear and rage and people act irrationally in those circumstances. So to forestall that, we are forming local confidence-building communities, confidence circles. So we have the mosque leaders, the Malay leaders who are in-charge of their welfare funds, each block of flats usually would have a few Malay leaders who collect subscriptions for wakes, for marriages and so on. So they are well-integrated. So we're getting them to meet and get to know the Chinese, the Indians and the others who are in the community centres, which they seldom use. And so at least, at grassroots leaders' level, if anything were to happen, these leaders trust each other and will be able to calm people down and say, "Let's not panic. Let's not pack up bags and move to a neighbour's house.

When we come back, we'll get more into the personal side of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, including some of the biggest joys and sorrows of his life. (commercial break).

I want to share more of a very special interview with you. I brought your email questions to Singapore when I spoke with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew. One of the questions came from Edward in Singapore. He asks "What made you decide to get into politics?" Let's listen to what the Senior Minister had to say:

LKY: I don't think I made a conscious decision as a career choice. From my schooldays, I had decided, persuaded by my parents, to prepare myself for the law. Then the Japanese Occupation came and we went through three-and-a-half years of what I would call the university of life. It was hard, it was harsh. I learnt how people survive and how people had to submit because you need to eat, your family need to live. So I learnt the meaning of power. You know, Mao says power comes out of the barrel of the gun and when the Japanese gun was not as big as the American gun, they surrendered and the British came back. I was slowly coming to the conclusion that we should be governing ourselves.

Anyway, I went off to England where I spent four years where I saw the British govern themselves and I knew that they had a very sophisticated system, very tolerant society. That was in 1940s, 1946-50 when I was there. But their interests were Britain and how the colonies could help Britain be better off. So during those critical years, we met amongst ourselves, Singapore and Malaysian students studying there and decided that we should really come back, form a group, grow into a party and struggle and fight for power.

Q: Would you say that contributed in shaping your character as a young man?

LKY: I would say absolutely. I was the product of the times, the war, the Occupation, the reoccupation. My four years in Britain admiring but at the same time questioning whether they are able to do a better job than we can.

Q: When you finished school at Cambridge, you came back to your birthplace, Singapore, you started a law practice with your wife, how much of a partnership is your marriage?

LKY: Well, I think if I had married a different woman, I would have had a very different life. She was my partner, both emotionally and intellectually at work and at play. And she brought up the three children that we have and brought them up to be well-behaved, modest and not overbearing children, because I took office when they were little, small children. In 1959, my eldest boy was only about seven years old and the others were five and three. My official residence was at Sri Temasek in the Istana grounds where there are butlers and waiters galore. We decided to stay at home and not take the official residence which I used for entertainment purposes because we both believe that if they had so many waiters and helpers picking balls for them, doing things for them, it will give them an inflated and a false idea of what life would be like.

Q: There's another e-mail question. This one from Elaine, Kuala Lumpur. She'd like to ask you "what's the Senior Minister's secret for a successful marriage"?

LKY: Well, first you must be temperamentally suited and there must be constant adjustment and give and take. I mean, no marriages are made in heaven. I've been fortunate in that the relationship has been an easy and a close one. We've had our joys, we've had our sorrows when my son lost his wife. She had to help look after the two grandchildren, one of whom was an Albino and partly autistic, or has Aspergers syndrome and therefore was difficult to handle as a child. So we have shared both joys and sorrows.

Q: Was it difficult to also deal with your son's ill-health, the news of his ill-health at that time?

LKY: Well, of course, it was a shock. I was in South Africa at that time, in Johannesburg. We knew he was going in for a medical check for his colon. They had found a polyps and they said it was benign, but they wanted to do a biopsy. So when I received a call whilst I was talking at a conference of the financial review or whatever, the financial paper there was having for South Africa, I sensed bad news because he doesn't usually call.

Q: He called you himself?

LKY: Yes, he called me himself and he got on the phone and he said, "Well, bad news." It's informal. I mean, the world just collapsed. That was October 1992, I remember vividly. The rest of the journey was a little ashen. American specialists confirmed that he had intermediate grade lymphoma. So at first I thought, oh that's pretty serious, but it turned out that intermediate grade lymphoma was a lot better to treat than low-grade lymphoma because if it is intermediate, it grows fairly fast and you can attack it. If it is low-grade, it grows so slowly that attacking it means killing a lot of your own cells. So that was when we had the first ray of sunshine. He came back and all the medications agreed and chemotherapy was done here. At the end of one year, a specialist at Stanford came and had a discussion with him and he says it's most unlikely that it will flare up and if it doesn't within five years, he should be okay.

Q: And he hasn't?

LKY: Well, so we waited for five years till the end of October 1997 and it's all clear, so it's now 2002.

Good. Definitely good news. We'll be back with the question of the week when Talk Asia returns. (commercial break).

The final moments of this week's Talk Asia are devoted to the question of the week. It comes from Hilda in Malaysia. She asks, "Is Singapore today what you had envisioned?" Here's what Minister Lee had to say.

LKY: Well, I could not have envisioned the Singapore that exists today. In 1965, we were a fairly dilapidated town, not quite recovered from the ravages of war but just beginning to rebuild. At that time, our main preoccupation was how to make a living because the entrepot trade which had survived and gave us a living for 100-plus years was going to be replaced by all our neighbours trading direct. So I had no great visions of transformation, first job was get investments, get jobs and we had to get the manufacturing sector started because we needed jobs and that manufacturing created jobs.

After a while, we stumbled on something which was much more effective. I spent two months of the October term, November, December in Harvard in 1968, I was taking a sabbatical and our EDB, our Economic Development Board, had already been established there in New York, so they got me to meet businessmen. I also spoke to the Economic Club of New York and so on. Then I met them and talked to them, then I discovered that they were looking for a safe place where they could manufacture their electronics and bring back to America.

At that time, there was a cultural revolution in China. Hongkong was in turmoil, so we became a desirable location and because the first few succeeded well, within months, they were up and running and exporting, so we got more and more investments, so that by 1973, five years from 1968, we had solved our unemployment problem. I would say that Hongkong was a useful guide to me because it was small. I knew it had to go up, therefore, we had to go up. So we rebuilt Singapore and knocked down the old kampungs and old shophouses and went high. That was the only vision that I can say was, early on, an example of what we can do.