|Firm, yet subtle, in doing things our way|
September 17, 2006
By Clarence Chang
IT was the day before his 83rd birthday. And the Minister Mentor showed he has lost none of the fire in his belly.
Giving his take on 'good governance' before some 260 international policymakers and businessmen, MM Lee Kuan Yew rammed home a simple but forceful point: Singapore is a tiny dot, and we must do things our way - even if it means standing up to our neighbours and our critics.
'My main critics want me to be as liberal, open and contentious and adversarial with the opposition as the West. Free it all up... If Denmark can do this, why can't we? If New Zealand can do this, why can't we?
'For one very simple reason. They've got a different physical, economic, geographic and strategic base. Their neighbours are different.'
He had earlier said, 'I learnt about governance.. . through actual hard practice,' citing the Japanese Occupation when power 'came from the barrel of a gun' and the tough lessons learnt during the British colonial days.
But 40 years of hard-nosed nation-building later - including dealing with explosive issues like race and language - Singapore has evolved its own 'system' based on meritocracy and competence.
'(Ex-Indonesian President) Habibie called us a little red dot surrounded by green... But after being intimidated. .. we make it a special red dot.'
BEST AND BRIGHTEST
Mincing no words, Mr Lee said one key feature of that system is to have the best and brightest running the country. The PAP has such people, he argued, but not the opposition.
In fact, if the latter ever came to power, he told his audience, Singapore would 'collapse'.
'We have now reached a very odd stage. The people want the PAP to win the elections but they want an opposition in government to squeeze us and say: Don't up the bus fares, don't up the electricity rates... (So) our problem really is how to get the electorate sufficiently wise and sophisticated to understand that these are the limits.'
Seated next to him on stage and listening intently was former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, 51, who is now an economics professor at Harvard.
They were in a one-hour head-to-head dialogue organised by the institution that bears the MM's name - the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy - in conjunction with the IMF-World Bank meetings.
At one stage Prof Summers even asked Mr Lee point-blank: But if the PAP is still in power after another 40 years, is that good for Singapore?
The MM's reply: 'My hope is that there will be a government that is equal to the job as the PAP was... We have structured the system such that a competent group that gets in will find a machine that works. Don't tinker with it.'
Gazing at his audience, he added: 'My ambition is not to preserve the PAP. My ambition, having created this Singapore, is to preserve the system that produces the answers we must have as a society to survive.'
And that includes a government that's 'firm' yet 'subtle' enough to deal with difficult neighbours who want to pressure us to build 'pretty' bridges without giving us 'commensurate benefits', he said in an obvious reference to Malaysia.
'You need a government that will be able to not only have the gumption but the skill to say no in a very quiet, polite way that doesn't provoke them into doing something silly.'
Audience members later told The New Paper they were glad the MM was so candid.
'It's vintage Lee Kuan Yew, isn't it?' That was the reaction of American fund manager Brian Hafner, 40.
Whether you agree with the MM or not, he added: 'It's refreshing to see someone talk so transparently.'
Filipino student Rowie Parungao, 25, felt the session was too short.
What about Prof Summers himself?
The Harvard don told the media later that he's an admirer of Singapore and has 'great respect' for MM Lee.
But he fired this parting shot: 'There will always be cultural differences between countries... But I do believe that over time, Singapore's success will come with increased maturation, which will lead to (more) opening up.
'It's my hope that the government over the next half century in Singapore would come from more than one competent stream.'
As MM Lee celebrates yet another birthday today, he will no doubt respond
just as forcefully when the next opportunity comes.