Singapore too authoritative? Charlie Rose asked Lee Kuan Yew

Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew did not say Yes or No when Charlie Rose asked him in a televised interview: "You’ve never had a moment where you thought Singapore was too authoritative, did you?  Not one moment?"

Instead, he said: "My job was to get the place going and get everybody a decent life and a decent education. And we’re now the best educated people in the whole of east Asia.Our universities — we got three, four universities, fourth one coming up."


Charlie Rose: So the end justifies the means whatever it might be?

MM Lee: No. The ends were laudable. Everybody wants the same ends. Everybody wants good education and good health.

Charlie Rose: A good life and their children to do better than they did.

MM Lee: The means — I had the consent and support of the population.  If they opposed me and they did not cooperate, it wouldn’t have worked. 

Charlie Rose: You were in control of everything.

MM Lee: No.

Charlie Rose: Yes you were, you know that. 


MM Lee: The numbers of people opposing me, including the communists in the very early years, was endless. 

Charlie Rose did not press him further. Instead, he said: "That brings me to President Obama.  What are your observations about him?" 

Obama very great and eloquent

MM Lee responded: "He’s a very great and eloquent man who is very persuasive and is very able and has appointed very able people into his key positions.  And what impressed me most is his appointing people of different minds.  For instance, on his economic team, there is (Larry) Summers, Paul Volcker, and they’re both very strong-minded people." 

Read the full transcript on Charlie where, if you have the patience, you can also watch the interview. Here are some extracts.

Changes that MM Lee never expected

Charlie Rose: What’s the most important change and significant change in your way of thinking about the world over the last 20 years?

MM Lee: That the impossible can happen. I never thought the Soviet Union would implode so easily, and I never thought the Chinese would abandon the communist system and move into the free market so readily. It was unthinkable 20 years ago. Both have happened. The world has changed.

China will take 100 years to catch up with America

Charlie Rose: What should the United States do as it looks at the inevitable growth of China as a dominant player.  What would be a wise foreign policy?  Because you have two or three decades before it reaches the full strength. 

MM Lee: Even in three decades it won’t reach its full strength. In three decades its per capita is still about one-third of America.

Charlie Rose: It’s gross domestic product.

MM Lee: For it to reach America’s standard of living and standard of technology will take more than 100 years. 

Charlie Rose: So what should the United States do while it has the position it has now? 

MM Lee: I think make sure that they feel that they are accepted at the top table.

Ukrainians in Singapore army

MM Lee: But we are a small population, so we can make it up with numbers from young bright Indians and young bright Chinese, young bright Malaysians, and all the people around the world, and some Middle Easterners.We now have Ukrainians serving in the army.

Charlie Rose: Ukrainians in Singapore?

MM Lee: Yes, of course, Russians too, east Europeans, and British who married our local girls, and British women who married Singapore men.

Charlie Rose:  Will India have an advantage, some argue, because it’s

a democracy and China is not? 

MM Lee: Let me put it this way.


MM Lee (Inaudible): If India were as well-organized as China, it will go at a different speed, but it’s going at the speed it is because it is India.  It’s not one nation.  It’s many nations.It has 320 different languages and 32 official languages. 

So no prime minister in Delhi can at any one time speak in a language and be understand throughout the country.  You can do that in Beijing. 

Beijing will change with IT and urbanization

Charlie Rose: So, in the end, do you think the system will change in Beijing? 

MM Lee: I think it will have to change as the people get more organized. 

Today it’s 40 percent urban or less than 40 percent urban, and more than 60 percent rural.  When you reach the tipping point and 60 and 70 percent are urban with mobile phones, PDAs, and you can download anything you want, send any messages you want — it’s already had its effect. 

The Szechuan earthquake — in the old days nobody would know about except seismologists that who saw that an earthquake took place.  Here immediately all the Chinese knew the world knew, and they had to go public. And the prime minister took a plane full of pressmen and went there and tried to comfort them and assured them that there would be…

Charlie Rose: So you are saying that communication and technology and the flow of information will have an impact. 

MM Lee: And the urbanization. If you’re in the countryside that’s different, you can be isolated.  But when you’re together in the urban centre and they’re planning 10 urban centre at 40 million people each… you can call a meeting anytime you want.  You can have a riot any time you want.

So it’s a different world.  Therefore you have to pay attention to what people think.  And today they’re watching the Internet very carefully, because they know what the average person in the cities are thinking. 

Charlie Rose:  What are they afraid of?  What is there fear of? 

Chinese leaders don't want to lose control

MM Lee: They’re not afraid. They just don’t want to lose control. 

Charlie Rose: So they’re afraid of control. 

MM Lee: No. They’re afraid that they will lose control in the situation. 

In the old days, way back in Mao’s days, everybody is dependent on the state.  The state is the only employer and everybody has what you call a Huku.  A Huku is a residence permit.  And if you lose your job because you’re anti-government or whatever, you’ve had it.  There’s no other employer.

But today there are multiple employers, all…

Charlie Rose: So people have options. 

MM Lee: Yes, absolutely. And that means the government has lost control over the people. They can be entrepreneurs.  They run their own businesses, shops, whatever it is. 

Charlie Rose: But are they moving toward some form, not a western form, some form of more participation in the political process? 

MM Lee: They are co-opting all the successful people into the government system. 


Charlie Rose: That’s a smart policy. 

Singapore will keep changing to be relevant to the world

Charlie Rose: You have said that Singapore has to maintain its relevance.

MM Lee: Yes.

Charlie Rose: It has to be a place that people want to invest in. 

MM Lee: It has to be a place that is useful to the world. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

Charlie Rose: And that’s what you had created since the founding of the modern city-state.

MM Lee: We have made ourselves relevant to the world.

Charlie Rose: And how will you maintain your relevancy? 

MM Lee: But keeping on changing. You cannot maintain your relevance by just staying put.  The world changes. There are shifts in the geopolitics and the economics of the world.  We have to watch it and ride it.  You surf with them.  As the surf comes this way you ride the surf. 

We are keeping our links with America, with Japan, with Europe. They brought us to where we are. 

Charlie Rose: And you don’t have to choose sides. No other nation will have to choose sides.

MM Lee: We absolutely refuse to choose sides. We will not choose sides between America and China or between China and India.