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Modern Singapore's Creator Alert to Perils

by Seth Mydans & Wayne Arnold, The New York Times, September 2, 2007

“I think we have to go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and to be part of this modern world,” he said. “If we are not connected to this modern world, we are dead. We’ll go back to the fishing village we once were.”

Lee Kuan Yew, who turned a malarial island into a modern financial center with a first-world skyline, is peering ahead again into this city-state’s future, this time with an idea to seal it off with dikes against the rising tides of global warming.

“Let’s start thinking about it now,” he said during an interview in late August, in what could be the motto for a lifetime of nation building. Ever since Singapore’s difficult birth in 1965, when it was expelled from Malaysia, he said, the country has struggled to stay alive in a sea of economic and political forces beyond its control.

“If the water goes up by three, four, five meters, what will happen to us?” he said, laughing. “Half of Singapore will disappear.”

For all his success, Mr. Lee, 83, remains on the alert for perils that may exist only on the distant horizon: the rising role of China in the region as the United States looks the other way, the buffeting of the world economy, even climate change.

A British-educated lawyer who led Singapore for 31 years, Mr. Lee is one of Asia’s remarkable personalities, a world figure whose guest book is filled with the names of international political and financial leaders.

His creation, modern Singapore, is an economic powerhouse with one of the world’s highest per capita incomes and high-quality schools, health care and public services that have made it a magnet for global labor. Foreigners make up roughly a fifth of its 4.5 million residents.

In his office in the former headquarters of the island’s British colonial rulers, Mr. Lee sat back in a zippered blue jacket, sipping small cups of hot water and laughing often, seemingly as different as could be from the bare-knuckled political infighter he has described himself as.

“I’ve done my bit,” said Mr. Lee, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990 and now watches over the country — and occasionally takes part in political disputes — with a seat in the cabinet and the title of minister mentor. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, is prime minister.

“To understand Singapore,” he said, “you’ve got to start off with an improbable story: It should not exist.”

It is a nation with almost no natural resources, without a common culture — a fractured mix of Chinese, Malays and Indians, relying on wits to stay afloat and prosper.

“We have survived so far, 42 years,” he said. “Will we survive for another 42? It depends upon world conditions. It doesn’t depend on us alone.”

This sense of vulnerability is Mr. Lee’s answer to all his critics, to those who say Singapore is too tightly controlled, that it leashes the press, suppresses free speech, curtails democracy, tramples on dissidents and stunts entrepreneurship and creativity in its citizens.

“The answer lies in our genesis,” he said. “To survive, we have to do these things. And although what you see today — the superstructure of a modern city — the base is a very narrow one and could easily disintegrate.”

Asked whether, looking back, he felt he might have gone too far in crushing his opponents, sometimes with ruinous lawsuits, sometimes with long jail terms, he answered: “No, I don’t think so. I never killed them. I never destroyed them. Politically, they destroyed themselves.”

One of his concerns now, Mr. Lee said, is that the United States has become so preoccupied with the Middle East that it is failing to look ahead and plan in this part of the world.

“I think it’s a real drag slowing down adjusting to the new situation,” he said, describing what he called a lapse that worries Southeast Asian countries that count on Washington to balance the rising economic and diplomatic power of China.

“Without this draining of energy, attention and resources for Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, there would have been deep thinking about the long-term trends — working out possible options that the U.S. could exercise to change the direction of long-term trends more in its favor,” Mr. Lee said.

As the United States focuses on the Middle East, Mr. Lee said, the Chinese are busy refining their policies and building the foundations of more cooperative long-term relationships in Asia. “They are making strategic decisions on their relations with the region,” he said.

And this is where tiny Singapore sees itself as a model for China, the world’s most-populous country. “They’ve got to be like us,” Mr. Lee said, “with a very keen sense of what is possible, and what is not.”

Every year, he said, Chinese ministers meet twice with Singaporean ministers to learn from their experience. Fifty mayors of Chinese cities visit every three months for courses in city management.

Singapore’s secret, Mr. Lee said, is that it is “ideology free.” It possesses an unsentimental pragmatism that infuses the workings of the country as if it were in itself an ideology, he said. When considering an approach to an issue, he says, the question is: “Does it work? Let’s try it, and if it does work, fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”

The yardstick, he said, is: “Is this necessary for survival and progress? If it is, let’s do it.”

Hoping to attract more tourists, for example, Singapore is building two huge casinos, despite Mr. Lee’s expressed distaste for them.

“I don’t like casinos,” he said, “but the world has changed and if we don’t have an integrated resort like the ones in Las Vegas — Las Vegas Sands — we’ll lose.

“So, let’s go,” he said. “Let’s try and still keep it safe and mafia-free and prostitution-free and money-laundering-free. Can we do it? I’m not sure, but we’re going to give it a good try.”

Even on social issues on which he has tended to seem inflexible, Mr. Lee sounded almost mellow.

“I think we have to go in whatever direction world conditions dictate if we are to survive and to be part of this modern world,” he said. “If we are not connected to this modern world, we are dead. We’ll go back to the fishing village we once were.”

For example, on the issue of homosexuality, he said, “we take an ambiguous position. We say, O.K., leave them alone, but let’s leave the law as it is for the time being, and let’s have no gay parades.”

Although gay sex remains technically illegal in Singapore, the government has indicated it will not actively enforce the law.

China, Hong Kong and Taiwan already have more liberal policies regarding gays, he noted. “It’s a matter of time,” he said. “But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let’s go slowly. It’s a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.”

As for people’s adherence to the “Asian values” — hierarchy, respect and order — that Singapore is founded on, he said: “It’s already diluted, and we can see it in the difference between the generations. It’s inevitable.”

In his own family, generational values are changing. From father to children to grandchildren, he said, command of the Chinese language has weakened, along with the culture it embodies.

“They had a basic set of traditional Confucian values,” he said of his children, two sons and a daughter. “Not my grandchildren.”

One grandson has just begun studies at M.I.T., he said; the other is heading to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

This well-educated younger generation reflects the social dichotomy of Singapore, Mr. Lee said, in which the top 20 percent of the population is as cosmopolitan as any, surfing the Internet and traveling the world without constraint. “This is not a closed society,” he insisted.

But at the same time, he said, the government must protect the less affluent, less educated people from information that might upset or confuse them. These are people “who are not finding it so comfortable to suddenly find the world changed, their world, their sense of place, their sense of position in society.”

They are the ones who he said had to be pulled into the future as he seeks to make Singapore “a first-world oasis in a third-world region.”

“We built up the infrastructure,” he said. “The difficult part was getting the people to change their habits so that they behaved more like first-world citizens, not like third-world citizens spitting and littering all over the place.”

So Singapore embarked on what Mr. Lee called “campaigns to do this, campaigns to do that.”

Do not chew gum. Do not throw garbage from rooftops. Speak good English. Smile. Perform spontaneous acts of kindness.

Paradoxically, he said, if Singapore had not been so poor it might never have transformed itself and prospered as it has. His warnings about vulnerability and collapse are a constant theme to persuade his people to accept limits on their freedoms.

“Supposing we had oil and gas, do you think I could get the people to do this?” Mr. Lee said. “No. If I had oil and gas, I’d have a different people, with different motivations and expectations.

“It’s because we don’t have oil and gas and they know that we don’t have, and they know that this progress comes from their efforts,” he said. “So please do it and do it well.”


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