‘He is a father ... a father of the nation’
Prime Minister, how would you describe Mr Lee Kuan Yew as a father to you? What do you remember most about him as a child growing up?
Prime Minister Lee: He was a very strict, good father. He left a lot of the looking after (of the) family to my mother, because he was always busy with politics and with his responsibilities. But you knew he was there, you knew what he thought, you knew what he expected; very strict and if he disapproved of something, and he didn’t have to say a lot, you would know it. When you needed him, he was there. At a crisis, he was the key person in the family. When I was ill with lymphoma, when my (first) wife died, we depended on him for support, not just what he says, but just being there and knowing that things would be ok.
In those situations — after that happens, does that change your relationship in anyway?
PM: I suppose relationships grow over the years. Each episode, each bit of crisis or joy shared builds on it. I don’t know how you describe it compared with other people; each person has a different family. But for many families, father is one of the most important persons in your life, informing you and influencing you, setting a role model that you try to aspire to.
What was your fondest memory?
PM: (Laughter) Well, when I was very small, he used to take us to go and look at trains. And we used to go to Holland Road — Tanglin Halt is called Tanglin Halt because the train stops there and there used to be a railway station there. We would go there in the evening and watch the trains come, exchange tokens with the station master. And then it goes on. It’s a great thrill and outing for us, for me. I must have been 5-6 years old then. And we would do that.
When we went on holidays, we went to Cameron Highlands. We went there when I was a small child. We break journey at Kuala Lumpur — we’d stay at the railway station, there was a station hotel in KL in those days ... and you go and look at the trains on the platform.
He played golf. So, when I was a boy, he encouraged me to pick up the game. And so for quite a number of years, I would play with him, he would take me around the course, when we were on holidays or here at Sri Temasek, on the Istana course. And that was a chance to spend time with him and chat with him. So, I mean, he didn’t do frivolous things, but he had time for the family.
You spoke about how he made his presence known, made his views clear. How would you describe your relationship with him: Was it formal or informal? Were there occasions when you hugged?
PM: He is not very demonstrative and our family generally is not very touchy-feely. But (there was) a very deep respect and regard. He took us seriously and we held him in high respect. I think if you compare with parents today and their children, they would describe it as a much more formal relationship. I think today people are much looser in the way you treat your parents, what they say, what they think, how you would argue with them. With us, well, we were a different generation.
We know him to have these high standards of discipline — how did you cope with that, growing up?
PM: Well he just expects you to behave in a certain way. School wise, it was not an issue — we were more or less self-propelled; our parents didn’t have to press or chase us. Most years I was not top student in class or in the school but as long as you were doing your best, managing, they were okay ... If you have an interest, they helped us to pursue it. I didn’t play music. I didn’t really know very much or have any interest in music until one day, must have been 1967, ’66 — I must have been 14 years old, my mother bought a recorder for either my sister or my brother, but they didn’t want it. So, I took it ... and (with a tutor) learnt to read the music and learnt to read the music and learnt to play the instrument. I mean, you just follow the fingers. You can’t be too far sharp or flat. I picked up music from there — he encouraged us. I graduated from there to play in a band, to play a clarinet and tuba. He encouraged us but they didn’t make us ... jump through hoops. So I think in that way it was a relaxed family, but they expected you, us to behave well, speak properly. Not sloppily, use correct language and no bad language. I think those were things they were stricter (about) than many parents today.
Did you ever get into trouble, were you disciplined?
PM: I suppose from time to time, yes. My mother was responsible for keeping us in line. But if he disapproved of something, you would know.
Have you tried to display some of those traits yourself as a father?
PM: I think I’m different from him. My children are growing up in a different generation. With their peers, with the Internet, have to bring them up in a different way. It is still early days to say yet, but I think they are managing.
What would you consider the most valuable piece of advice your father gave while you were growing up?
PM: I don’t know about a single thing. But perhaps just watching him, the way he fought, worked, and how he struggled with all the issues and challenges, I think that’s a great inspiration. Policies you can understand, work out what actually needs to be done. But to see him sweating away with his languages, particularly Mandarin, every day listening to the tape, having a teacher, then exercising, exercising while listening to the tape playing, keeping the phrases, refreshing the phrases, bringing the tutor home, weekends, in the study. Learning Mandarin and Hokkien, especially during the 60s, is a tremendous slog for him. Even until old age, he’s still taking lessons daily, still keeping the language alive — because he has spent so much effort. He doesn’t want to lose that. I think that is an amazing personal example.
What do you admire most about Mr Lee Kuan Yew?
PM: Well, that he has given so much to the country and so singularly focused on this obsession, to build up Singapore, to make it safe, to make it better and to create something for Singaporeans which actually we are not entitled to expect, but which we had done, not him alone but with his colleagues, and with the population. I think that’s quite exceptional. People want to achieve things, but in many countries, you see leaders, they have taken the country one great step forward, but the next step, either something goes wrong or somebody else has to take the next step. But in his case, from independence struggle, to Malaysia, to early independence, to nation building, to managing prosperity, to transitioning and having succession, and managing each of those steps while adapting as times change. I think that’s very unusual. I watched him in Cabinet — as the oldest member, sometimes he’s the most radical. When it came to the casino, he was dead against it for years and years but eventually we concluded that things were changing. And George Yeo made the argument in the Ministry for Trade and Industry then. He took it and he pushed for it. The world has changed and we have to change. So this ability to keep current and to keep young intellectually, mentally, I think that is very remarkable, it’s not easy.
Are there other examples that you can cite when he is the most radical despite being the oldest?
PM: (Laughs) Some of them are too radical to mention. But we’ve had to change our policies over the years. He has built up the basis, self-reliance, home ownership, education system. And then with the second-generation leadership, with the third generation, we had to make a lot of changes to what was already settled. But whether it was altering the education system, whether it was introducing new schemes for HDB, whether you are talking about even social morals, censorship, movies, when we had to change, he knew why and he pushed us to go further because the times had changed. You look at other societies, how they do it. We are conservative, but you look at other countries, they may be conservative too. But they are also moving, how can we not move?
One day there was report that some Western tourists had been sunning themselves topless on Sentosa, can’t remember when, and must have been 10, 15 years ago. We were going to clamp down on them and send them to court and jail and so on. He sent me a note. He says, even when you go to Turkey, you see the beaches, women are sunning themselves, it’s quite normal, why do we need to be so puritanical about these things, just let it be. So, I said no, no, we are not quite that advanced yet. We have to enforce our rules, but of course, as times changed expectations will shift. So his attitude was very practical, was current and he moved with the times, often ahead of the times. I think in other areas, he had views many Singaporeans would think very radical.
What advice did he give you when you became PM? And if you are in a quandary, would you consult him?
PM: Well, we talked about it. But we really talked about it in Cabinet. It is not like I maintain a private line and he would give me secret advice. But in the Cabinet, he would share his views. When I became Prime Minister, I can’t remember anything specific he said, but I think it gave him a lot of satisfaction that the system of transition, of renewal was working. That not only had he managed to hand over to his successor, but his successor had worked out in the job, succeeded. And another succession had taken place, to the Third Generation, not just me but also my peers, George, Wong Kang Seng, Teo Chee Hean, Lim Hng Kiang and company. I think that was one of the amazing things, that he could stay in Cabinet with his successors, and it was a valuable experience, for the successors, as well as for him. I’ve talked to some other Prime Ministers who have had former Prime Ministers to live with and they tell me they cannot imagine how it can be that your predecessors are in Cabinet and you are still managing. Well, I said we are different from you and my predecessors were different from your predecessors.
What made it work?
PM: He knew how to advise, how to guide, without asserting his will in a hard way, and he knew when to let things go and to take a new direction. I told you how when we changed policies and he would very often go along with them. And not only go along but pushed us to go further.
But there were other areas he felt very strongly about and let his views be known. For example, on greening Singapore, he had very definite (views), his determination that this place should be clean, green and beautiful is maintained till today. He planted at the first tree planting 50 years ago and he had just planted another one recently.
A couple of years ago, the Istana staff put up a proposal, somewhere along the boundary, the fence; they wanted to trim a few trees, to improve visibility and security. I was going to agree and he sent me a note to say, are you sure you need to do this? This place is green, and we make it a point to make this place green, and we have got birds and wildlife. You want to keep it like that.
So in the end, I didn’t cut the trees down but he felt strongly about (the issue).
Thankfully he found out before they were cut.
PM: Well, we kept him posted.
PM, how much of an influence do you think he had on you? What role did he play in your decision to join politics? Do you think you would have been in politics if it weren’t for him?
PM: Well, I think he had a very big influence on me. It’s hard to say. But he probably made me who I am, not like him, but I learnt a lot from him. When I went into politics, Mr Goh Chok Tong suggested it and he relayed it to me. He encouraged me to consider it seriously, so I said yes. If it hadn’t been for my father, I don’t know. I might still have found my way into politics; many of my ministers and MPs have found their way into politics without having a PM as their father. Maybe if he had not been my father, I might have felt less sense of responsibility, that I had to take this up and do it.
Why do you feel this sense of responsibility?
PM: Well, having seen him do it, having seen him put his life and soul into it, and you know why it is important, you feel it is something which, if you can contribute to, you have a duty to do. If he hadn’t been him, I had been carrying on with my life, and you ask me to essay this — I would say, let’s give it a try, it is a challenge, but you won’t feel the same deep feeling of what is involved and how much it can mean to you. But having seen him struggle with his languages, having seen him go around the constituency visits, having seen him recording, battle for merger, slogging away, and the speeches, and the rallies, and the persuasion and the campaigning, you know what you are in for and you know what it is about, which is an advantage, but of course also a greater burden on yourself and what others expect of you.
Do you think you have lived up to his expectations?
PM: Not for me to judge. I am sure he believes I can do better.
How do you see your role in carrying on his legacy?
PM: I think we are talking about him rather than me. But for anybody who comes after him, our duty is to safeguard what he has achieved and build on that and take it a new step forward with a new generation of Singaporeans. We are in a quite exceptional position for a small country to have carved out such a record, established such a name and demonstrated that these things can be done. Now the question is, can these be sustained and can we keep on making it better or not? And that answer is not known, because you are talking about a new generation, new expectations and a new world. When we did this, from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, it was back to the war, you either do this or you die. When you say survival and ruggedness, it’s a metaphor but is not very far of the brutal truth. If you don’t do it, if you don’t make it, a lot of people are going to have a very tough time and will starve. Today, Singaporeans do not believe they will starve. Maybe in the physical sense you will always have something to eat, but to believe that you can be at this level, with this quality of life, services, government, society, system, I think that is not so. It can easily be very different, and persuading people that it is so, and that we have to, it is important for us, and worth our while, to keep this, and show what we can do, I think that is the responsibility of this generation.
What is the most important lesson about politics that you have learnt from your father?
PM: You must know what you want to do; it is not just following what other people want and what the crowd says. I think that’s the first one. You must have some idea what you want to achieve. Secondly, you have got to persuade people and bring them along, so you are not leading on your own; follow me, I’m leading in front but my people are with me. Thirdly, it is not just a matter of logic and argument but also of emotional persuasion and also of people sense. To be able to read people, to manoeuvre, to get through what you need to get through so that things will be done. There are a lot of many clever people and the world, but not all clever people make good political leaders. In my father, I think we had a very exceptional combination.
What are some of the political qualities that he has that you wish you have more of?
PM: I think he has a very instinctive ability to read a political situation — what are the forces, where are the resistance is going to come from, which argument is likely to click, will fit in with what the other person wants, or if you are going to negotiate against the other person, what is the key point you must hold on to and the rest we can discuss. Whether you are discussing national service policy, terms for water or for railway, railway land, to know how to put the argument across and make the deal, which is in line with your overriding interests. I think he had that instinctively. Partly the way he was born, partly the life he lived through, having to survive the Japanese Occupation, having to negotiate with the British, having to fight with communists. If he didn’t have those or had not developed those, he would not have survived then.
How about lessons in managing racial politics?
PM: That was a very important part of it. He made me learn Malay, starting from a very young age — probably aged seven? Six? — and kept it up. He himself spoke Malay and fluently, especially during the Malaysia period, when it was a vital asset. After we became independent, the point that he always reiterated was never do to the minorities in Singapore what happened to us when we were a minority in Malaysia. Always make sure that the Malays, the Indians have their space, can live their way of life, and have full and equal opportunities and are not discriminated against. At the same time, help them to upgrade, improve and move forward.
And I remember this, it was very early, when I had just entered politics, first year or so when I was in politics and in Cabinet, we had just set up Mendaki not long, or were going to set up Mendaki soon after that. And he said, the culture part is easy to push because people would be happy to pursue the culture part, the cultural activities, the singing and dancing, performances, that is not the hard part. The hard part is to focus on education, maths, upgrading, but you need to do that to get the community forward as well. I think he was right. The advice to focus on education, and on English, maths and science, has made a big difference to the community, enabled them to move forward, and at the same time, they may able to keep their culture, their language and their identity. He knew what was a hard thing and where we needed to put the maximum efforts.
Your parents’ relationship was an inspiration to many. What did you take out of that relationship? Did they give you relationship advice?
PM: They did, from time to time. But the main lesson is that’s how you want to live as husband and wife, as a couple for life. And I have tried to do that.
Mr Lee said a few times that he noticed on TV that you have the same mannerism as him, in terms of the colour of your shirt, tucking out your shirt. Would you say you are more your mother’s son or your father’s son?
PM: I think I am temperamentally not like him. He is a lot harder, more willing to come upfront in a very direct way. I have my preferences, how I would like things to be done, but I don’t spoil for a fight; he often does.
How much influence did the late Mrs Lee have on him, as a father, as a person, as a leader?
PM: I think a very big influence because they were so close. He took her advice, her views very seriously, on policy matters and government matters, he decided with the ministers. But she had her views of the people, she had her views on how he presented himself, how it came across and they made sense and he took them in. When you are married a long time, and a good marriage, you became in a way more like each other. In their case, I think their personalities were very contrasting. I don’t think in old age they were like each other but they were very, very compatible.
Did your mother ever have to smooth your relationship with you and your father? Did you have any period in your life, growing up, when you had to turn to your mum?
PM: No, I didn’t have such complicated problems. Some people do, I know — but I was lucky I suppose.
But in Cabinet, when discussing policies or when deciding which way to go, have you had occasions when you disagreed with your father? Were they fierce and serious disagreements or were they manageable? Did you ever lose your temper at your father?
PM: In Cabinet, we very seldom have fights. We have arguments, discussions, we have quite different views. There were one or two occasions, when we went around Cabinet in order to decide which way the consensus was. But very seldom, mostly we discuss, if we cannot agree, sometimes we just put it off and we come back another time, because it is not urgent. Sometimes, you reach a compromise ... and then we take another step forward.
I remember when we did the economic committee, the first one, back in the mid-80s, when there was a severe downturn. We came to Cabinet with our report. And one of our major recommendations was to bring the tax rate down — at that time the tax rate was 40 per cent — and we were pushing it down, our recommendation was to push it down to 25 per cent. There was a big discussion in Cabinet, and my father was Prime Minister. He was not in favour of going that far. So, in the end, I can’t remember how we phrased it, but in the end we decided that we will go, I suppose we split the difference in our way, we said we go to 33 per cent and in long term we aim for 25 per cent. It was a very hot discussion and spanned several Cabinet sessions. There were strong views because we were taking a major change, and in the end we had a compromise, but in fact it was not a compromise. It was a first step, and then over the years, we went the full way to 25 per cent, and then at 25 per cent, later on we had further committees, we went to 20 per cent, where we are now. And the corporate tax rate is now 17 per cent I think.
Very seldom, when you talk about policies, are you talking about black and white. You are talking about the range of options, you are talking about… there are always new directions you can explore, different things which you can do, and the new considerations that will come in over time. Then you look at it from a different perspective. And you say, I wish I had done something different.
One of the things which he insisted upon, even upfront on that issue, when we were going in to talking about bringing taxes down, he said, you’d better introduce consumption tax, GST, because you are going to need it. I was not convinced because at that time revenue was so ample that we didn’t really need the extra revenue. I thought we did our sums, you just cut everything down and you are still okay. But he didn’t believe that that would remain or that was a wise way to govern; he said, better make sure you put all these things in. So we had this in the report, that you must have a goods and services tax, something that we study — that was 1985. By the time we actually did it, it was 1993/94.
But years later, today, without that, we would be in serious trouble. But back in the mid-80s, long before anything was necessary, he said, you better put that in, you need that. So, he had this feel to sense which way things are going and what you will need some considerable distance over the horizon and be able to bring people to accept that and do that.
PM, when you were younger, Mr Lee used to tell journalists that if you had not been his son, you would probably have been Prime Minister at a younger age. How did you feel whenever you had to hear the comment?
PM: Well, I think that was a rhetorical argument from him. It’s counter-factual. I mean, I just do my best; I did not have a target date to be a Prime Minister. I was serving Mr Goh, as Deputy PM, very happily. And when Mr Goh felt ready, he said, you take over; fortunately I felt ready enough to take over.
I think, in Singapore, if you are in politics to further your ambitions, you are doing the wrong thing. If you are in politics you want to do good; in the process, you have responsibilities and authority. Well, that’s part of the package. But if you are in it because you want power, I think that is not quite the right motivation.
PM, if we could ask a few more personal questions from the early years. Mr Lee Hsien Yang said when he was about to get married, he received a letter of advice from his father. Do you have the same letter too?
PM: Yes, I have the letter. I still have it.
What did it say, if you could share it with us?
PM: Basically his advice was on how to have a happy marriage. Speaking from his own personal experience. He spent a lot of trouble keeping in touch with us and when we were away, he would write to us and my mother would write to us every week and I would write back. And my mother’s letter would be hand-written. His letters would be dictated, typed, and is typed double or triple space, and he would go through and correct the typed version, and then add stuff and maybe have another paragraph or two in writing at the end, and then he would send it to me in that form. And to think of the effort, substantial pieces, 5-6 pages or more. I still have them all stored away somewhere. I hope the white ants have not eaten them.
But that was that generation; he put the effort into staying in touch. I replied also, quite long letters every week. And nowadays, you have email and Skype and I don’t think you do it quite so substantively.
Did he have a say in how you chose your spouse, for instance?
PM: Well, I found my own. I suppose they got along.
What do you think was the most misunderstood thing about Lee Kuan Yew that as a son you wish the world knew? And what would you miss most about him?
PM: Well, I think he doesn’t mind what the world knows about him. People think about him as an austere, logical and cerebral sort of person. I think he has strong feelings about quite a number of things, and also in his personal relationships with my mother, with the kids, he may not show it, but he feels it.
What will we miss about him? I think — so many things, but I think the key thing is, that with him, you will not lose. You will be all right and you will come through, and that sense of confidence and trust in a person, because of the experience, because of what he has gone through, because of what he has done, because of what he has contributed and demonstrated, is not something which you can replicate with any other person.
He was unique. He played a unique role in Singapore and I think we have been very lucky to have him.
How would you want him to be remembered?
PM: He never troubled himself with that question either. But I don’t know what to say. He is a father, he is a father of the nation, and he made this place.