Harry Lee's Story

Harry Lee's Story

Mini Teaser: The man who made a country, and how he did it.

by Author(s): Owen Harries

I first visited Singapore in April 1955, on my way by ship from England to take up a job at Sydney University. It was a welcome break in a four and a half week journey spent mainly gazing at an unbroken horizon. The Singapore of those days was exotic, dirty and provincial. It was a city of pungent smells, street hawkers and life-threatening (i.e., deep, unguarded and very polluted) monsoon drains. The architecture was a mixture of late-Victorian imperial and run-down Chinese shophouses-no skyscrapers, nothing much over about six stories. For the passing visitor, shopping meant either a couple of staid department stores catering to the needs of colonial ladies, or the raucous bargaining free-for-all of Change Alley, where one could buy the transistor radios and ingenious mechanical toys produced in the modest early days of the Japanese "miracle."

To the untutored eye, which mine certainly was, Singapore still seemed firmly under British control. There was a British governor, with all the trappings that involved, and the streets were full of British servicemen. In a park in downtown Singapore, a serious game of cricket was in progress, with white-clad (and white-skinned) players standing out sharply against the well manicured green.

What I didn't know at the time, and what I have only just found out, was that my visit coincided exactly with a vital turning point in the history of Singapore. For on April 2, 1955, the first real popular election in the colony's history took place, one that produced the first elected Singaporean majority in the Legislative Council and the first appointment of a Singaporean chief minister. For a few years longer, ultimate power-over law and order, defense, foreign policy-would remain in British hands, but with the election an irreversible train had been set in motion.

The election was notable for another reason as well: it marked the real beginning of the political career of a young Chinese lawyer named Lee Kuan Yew, and the emergence of his newly formed People's Action Party (pap) as a political force. In fact, as a result of the election, Lee immediately became the de facto leader of the opposition in the LegCo, facing the first locally born chief minister, the Sephardic Jew (and another lawyer), David Marshall. Within four years, Lee had himself become prime minister.

I now know all this because I have just read Lee Kuan Yew's political memoirs, The Singapore Story. As everyone knows, Lee (a.k.a. "Harry" Lee since his time as a pupil in English-speaking schools) does not do things by half. While this volume covers that story only as far as 1965-that is, down to the traumatic break between Singapore and Malaysia-it is 680 pages long. This might well seem excessive for an island that even at low tide measures only 214 square miles (that is, one-fifth the size of Rhode Island), but it is not. Singapore is no ordinary island and Lee Kuan Yew is no ordinary politician-witness the fact that his book comes garlanded with extravagant praise from no less than two American presidents, three secretaries of state, four British prime ministers, two German chancellors, three Australian prime ministers, a French president and a Japanese prime minister. Margaret Thatcher, not known for her close interest in the opinion of others, says that, "In office, I read and analyzed every speech of Harry's", and several others testify to the benefit to be derived from his clear, penetrating disquisitions on the state of the world. Indeed, I remember how my old boss, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, used to look forward to his sessions with Lee, and how for weeks afterwards his conversation would be laced with unusually bold and insightful geopolitical dicta.

In his later years Lee has mostly favored big picture analysis, whether of the Cold War or of such things as "globalization" and "Asian values." But in these memoirs he works on a much smaller canvas, giving a minutely detailed account of his own early life and the emergence of Singapore as an independent state. In the course of telling his story, Lee conducts, for those willing to attend closely, a masterclass in the art of politics.

The background is important. Lee was born in 1923 into a comfortably off, Westernized Chinese family. He belonged to the small minority of Chinese children (about 10 percent) who went to English schools-at which, it goes without saying, he did outstandingly well-and he grew up with no knowledge of either Mandarin or the main Chinese dialects. As the vast majority of Chinese children went to Chinese schools, this was to become a major political handicap for Lee. As a politician he would go through the slow, laborious process of learning Mandarin and Hokkien, bearing the jeers of his opponents as, learning on the job, he initially made speeches strewn with errors.

But that was in the future. The first eighteen years of Harry Lee's life were happy, productive ones lived in a stable, comfortable environment. Then, almost overnight, everything changed. British rule, which had seemed so permanent and impregnable, collapsed with disgraceful ease and the Japanese took over. In the brief interim between the two rules Lee had his first experience of chaos, the disappearance of law and order and widespread looting. If, as a political leader, Lee has always been possessed by a great fear of the fragility of things and has placed great-perhaps too much-emphasis on order, it is reasonable to conclude that one of the main sources of his fear was this experience.

Lee writes that "The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life", and that they taught him more than any university could have. At one level he was appalled at the ruthless brutality of the Japanese, and he has never forgotten it-witness his well-known remark that allowing the Japanese to rearm would be like giving chocolate liqueurs to a reformed alcoholic. But he also learned some hard lessons from the Japanese. He noted that they "governed by spreading fear"-and that it worked. As a result, he says, "I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime."

But there was also a deeper, harsher and more dubious lesson, one that many of his critics would say Lee learned only too well "that Japanese brutality, Japanese guns, Japanese bayonets and swords, and Japanese terror and torture settled the argument as to who was in charge, and could make people change their behavior, even their loyalties. . . . Morality and fairness were irrelevant. They had won."

It would be unjust to say that this lesson was to represent Lee Kuan Yew's own approach to politics in his subsequent career; but it would also be difficult to deny that it was to have a profound influence in shaping that approach. In his ruthless application of the logic of power, Lee has gone about as far as it is possible to go in a democracy without sundering the institutional and cultural framework that sustains such a system.

That he has not gone further must be due in part to the next phase of his life-that spent in England, mainly at Cambridge University, studying law in the late 1940s. More important than either Cambridge or the law was the impact that English society made on him. He was enormously impressed by the pride and discipline, the courtesy and politeness of the British people of that generation, observing simply: "It was a very civilized society." And he was especially impressed by the way the Attlee Labour government's far-reaching program of change was put into effect: "A tremendous revolution-economic, social and political-was taking place before my eyes. . . . Yet there was no violent protest from its opponents, no blood in the streets. Only stormy words. . . ." No political experience could have differed more sharply from what Lee Kuan Yew had seen in Singapore in the first half of the decade, and it-together with the seductive lectures of Harold Laski at the London School of Economics-made him a social democrat in the early stages of his political career. As he goes on to say, his later experience in government was to change his mind about the practicality of equality and redistribution as primary political goals, and lead him to recognize the indispensability of enterprise, initiative, excellence and rewards for performance. But if he ceased being a socialist, he was never to surrender the belief that government should play an assertive, controlling role in the ordering of society.

When Lee became a political actor, his stage might have been small but the plot was as complicated as that in any superpower. Singapore was divided ethnically into a large Chinese majority and significant Malay and Indian minorities. The Chinese community itself was divided into the English-speaking minority to which Lee belonged and a Chinese-speaking majority that was further divided into various clans and linguistic groups.

Superimposed on all this was a deep ideological cleavage. A dedicated and efficient communist party held a dominant position in the Chinese community, and it was particularly well entrenched in the Chinese school system, giving it both a readily mobilizable mass base and a steady source of cadres. Given the prestige and powerful magnetic pull of the recently installed communist regime in China, the communist success against the French in neighboring Vietnam, and the serious, long-running communist insurrection immediately to Singapore's north in Malaya, it was only too easy to conclude that the future of Singapore and the region belonged to them.

Lee and his associates were determined to prevent that outcome. For ten years, he and his newly formed People's Action Party played a deadly winner-take-all game with the communists. And, yet, for Lee, a degree of cooperation with the enemy was essential because of their strength in the Chinese community ("I wanted to poach in this pond where the fish had been fed and nurtured by the communists, to use hook and line to catch as many as I could.") At the same time he fully understood that they were using him in the same way to provide them with a cover of respectability. But the fundamental hostility between the two parties was unremitting.

It was not a game for the faint-hearted and it was played with few scruples. For most of the time Lee was in secret touch with both British intelligence and the underground communist leaders who were the superiors of the public figures, his ostensible rivals. On occasion, and with good cause, he feared for his life. Lesser players in the game-those who were neither pap nor communist-were treated with scant respect, and Lee cynically manipulated them to suit his ends, sometimes content to let them take up the running and enjoy the grandstanding while the pap bided its time.

Indeed, the importance of timing-of giving rivals enough rope to get into trouble (or, often the same thing, to expose their true character), of relating goals to each other in their proper order, of being patient and waiting for the optimal time to pursue an initiative or stage a showdown-is one of the central themes of Lee's story. But however deeply engrossed he became in tactics, and however urgent the immediate issue, he never deviated from his longer strategic purpose. Indeed, more than his insight, more than his skill, what stands out in this protracted struggle is the implacable and abrasive force of Lee Kuan Yew's will.

Vital as it was to the future of Singapore, the game against the communists for control of the Chinese community was not the only one that Lee was engaged in during the decade 1955-65. For while the Chinese were in a majority in the city-state, regionally they existed in a sea of Malays, with the Federation of Malaya to the north and a vast and populous Indonesia to the west, east and south. As important and complicated, then, was a second game-the merger game-played between Lee and the Tunku Abdul Rahman, the prime minister of Malaya. Lee was eager for merger because the Malay majority of the mainland would serve to counter the dominance of the pro-communist Chinese majority in Singapore. But for the same reason the Tunku was dubious and reluctant, for what would help solve Lee's problem would only create a new one for him: a Malaysia with a strong component of radical Chinese.

As well as a conflict of interest there were conflicts of culture and personality. The ethos of the Chinese of the pap (and for that matter of the Singapore Communist Party) was austere, rational, achievement-oriented, modernizing. Malay culture was hierarchical, deferential and characterized by an easygoing cronyism that readily shaded into corruption. (The Malay leaders once tried to seduce Lee's principal colleague, Goh Keng Swee, to their camp by offering him 5,000 acres of prime quality rubber-producing land.) The Tunku-a prince by birth-expected a deference that Lee was incapable of giving, and a restraint that Lee was unwilling to practice. He found Lee's driving, relentless style threatening, while his own talent for prevarication and deflection exasperated the Singaporean.

That Lee finally had his way on the merger was largely due to the logic imposed on the situation by yet a third game-that of regional, and indeed global, geopolitics. By the early 1960s, the Indonesian leader, Sukarno, was on a rampage. With his policy of "Konfrontasi", the largest communist party outside the communist bloc, and his proclamation that Indonesia belonged to an axis running down from Pyongyang, through Beijing and Hanoi, to Jakarta, Sukarno was the most militant Third World leader of his time. As such he posed an ethnic threat to the much smaller Malaya and Singapore, a geopolitical threat to Britain and the West, and an ideological threat to all of them. Because of this, by the early 1960s Lee's argument for a Singapore-Malaya merger was receiving both an increasingly sympathetic hearing in Kuala Lumpur and strong British support. Merger came about in September 1963, with the creation of Malaysia, a state that included Sarawak and Sabah on the island of Borneo as well as the two principal states.

It was not to last. In less than two unhappy years Singapore was cast out of Malaysia, apparently doomed to what most considered at the time an unsustainable independence. The extent of Lee's despair became evident when he broke down and wept in front of television cameras. As to why merger failed, opinions differ. Some would argue that given the combination of conflicting interests, cultures and personalities, failure was inevitable from the beginning. For his part, Lee Kuan Yew lays the blame almost entirely on the failure of the Malay leadership to control and restrain its extreme anti-Chinese wing (a charge that has evoked a furious response from Kuala Lumpur). But even by his own account it seems clear that much of the blame belonged to Lee himself. For some of the qualities that made him a formidable enemy-a relentless pursuit of advantage, a confrontational style, an unempathetic approach that always saw things from his own point of view-also made him an uncongenial and difficult partner. While Lee was prepared to exhibit great patience in his protracted struggle with the communists, in his dealings with the Tunku he was impatient and intrusive in ways that were destructive of his cause-notably in moving quickly to involve the pap directly and intensively in the politics of Malaya, and thus threatening the Tunku's political base.

In the event, of course, the casting out of Singapore proved to be the beginning of its incredible success in transforming itself into a modern and prosperous economic entity. Desperate circumstances produced radical remedies.

It is now three and a half decades since the story Lee tells in his book ended, and it might reasonably be asked whether these remote happenings in a distant ministate really deserve our attention. I obviously think they do, and these are the reasons why:

First, while Western political leaders-those who have actually wielded power-admire Lee Kuan Yew greatly, many journalists and intellectuals regard him with a special animus. He is presented as a malign presence, not only in Singapore itself but in the wider politics of Asia. Thus, to take a recent example, the influential New York Times columnist William Safire chose to mark the appearance of Lee's book with a column titled "The Dictator Speaks."

Now this hostility, and in some cases it has a furious intensity, is interesting. In a world that has no shortage of murderous politicians, Lee has never killed anyone. In a world that is full of corrupt politicians who have plundered the coffers of their countries, Lee has been singularly uncorrupt. In a world where contempt for laws and constitutions has been flagrant, Lee has always taken great care not to transgress legal limits. He may have bent and stretched the law, may have been vindictive and intimidating in its application, but he has stopped short of breaking it. Again, during a period when most leaders of new countries sacrificed the welfare of their people to vainglorious ambition and ideology (when they were not just busy robbing the till), Lee has been outstandingly successful in raising the living standard of his people to heights that seemed impossible when he first assumed office. (Even now, when the whole Southeast Asian region is in bad shape, Singapore is weathering the storm much better than its neighbors.)

As for the matter of political freedom, it should be understood that the British parliamentary system, which is the one adopted by Singapore, gives prime ministers enormous power-much more than is enjoyed by American presidents. There is no separation or balancing of powers, no written constitution, no bill of rights. In the political science classes of my youth, professors made the point by describing the system as one of dictatorship tempered by periodic elections, and as long as prime ministers have a comfortable majority and firm control over their party-two essential conditions-that is pretty well the truth. In that sense, it is true that Lee Kuan Yew might be termed a dictator-but then, in that sense so might most British prime ministers.

Lee was certainly authoritarian and often mean-spirited. In my opinion he kept a very tight grip on the political and social life of Singapore for much longer than was either necessary or wise. But if these memoirs do nothing else, they make it possible to understand why he did so. From the brutal Japanese military regime of the 1940s to Konfrontasi and the end of the merger in the 1960s, he learned and practiced his politics in very high-risk and violent circumstances. The possibility of a communist takeover was not a figment of his imagination: already by 1948, eight hundred deaths had occurred as a result of the communist insurrection in Malaya, and the killing went on for another twelve years. Neither was the danger of racial violence something that he imagined: in 1964 thirty-six people were killed and over five hundred injured in race riots in Singapore; five years later hundreds of Chinese were killed and maimed in even larger riots in Kuala Lumpur. During all his early years in politics, Lee lived with the very real threats of assassination and imprisonment hanging over him. (In 1965 British Prime Minister Harold Wilson rated the likelihood of Lee's arrest by the Tunku as so serious that he wrote to his colonial secretary, "Should High Commissioner quietly suggest to Lee he gets lost (goes abroad) for a week or two? We do not want him put inside before PM's conference.") Beyond Singapore and the Malay Peninsula, the region was characterized by sustained disorder, violence, coups d'Žtat and ineffectual governments during Lee's politically formative years. Taken together, these are not the kinds of experiences that are likely to leave a man unmarked; on the contrary, they are likely to cause him to put an extremely high premium on order. (This defense, of course, is not available to the younger generation of Singaporean politicians now in office, who have never known anything but an ordered existence. Their reluctance to loosen control and their timidity about deviating from the Lee Kuan Yew governing manual is much more open to criticism.)

A second and related reason why these memoirs are worth pondering is that they may help clarify the problems associated with the advocacy of an American foreign policy of democratic crusading. If recent experience in nearby Haiti has been insufficient, the spelling out at length of the complexity and delicacy that characterize the politics of even a city-state might help develop a sense of modesty and restraint in pursuit of such an end. It is all a little bit more involved than engaging the National Endowment for Democracy, sending in "teams" to monitor elections-or even sending in the Marines (again, as in Haiti). On the only other occasion on which I have written about Singapore in these pages, I devoted some space to this question, so I shall leave it at that.

But there is another American foreign policy reason for reflecting on Lee Kuan Yew's story. During the ten years of Singaporean political life covered by these memoirs-1955-65-the Americanization of the Vietnam conflict was taking place. When that period started, there were no American troops in Vietnam; when it ended there were nearly 200,000, and the number was still rising rapidly. During part of the same period the British were conducting their campaign to suppress the communist insurrection in Malaya.

Britain succeeded, the United States failed. Speaking to a university audience in New Zealand in March 1965-that is, in the still early stages of U.S. involvement, when failure was considered inconceivable by most commentators-Lee had some prescient things to say on the subject. As he recalls:
"I complimented Britain for having the wisdom to know when it faced an irresistible revolution mounted by communists and by nationalists. Instead of trying to stamp out both, Britain had allowed the nationalists to provide the non-communist leadership. On the other hand, when trying to stamp out communism in South Vietnam, the United States had relied on people like Ngo Dinh Diem, and in eleven years had failed to find a group who could lead the nation. So South Vietnam was going through its death throes and the Americans were in an unenviable position. The South Vietnamese themselves had lost confidence and were opting out of the conflict. This left the Americans with only two alternatives-to increase their military occupation or make a calamitous withdrawal. (By April 1975, ten years later, they had done both.)"

Throughout the period, and despite reservations about his personality and political style, the British gave solid behind-the-scenes support to Lee Kuan Yew and made allowances for the compromises he had to make in order to compete with the communists. For its part, the United States gave uncertain support to Diem and then connived in his assassination, while having no credible leader to put in his place. The result was that there was no solid political ground to stand on for the rest of America's stay in Vietnam.

After interminable debate in America, to have presented a view of the Vietnam conflict through the eyes of a superbly intelligent and not unfriendly spectator from within the region is not without its uses, not least in the midst of the Kosovo crisis. The point about friendship is relevant. Throughout the Cold War-which means throughout almost all of his political career-Lee Kuan Yew was the United States' most consistent and effective defender (and communism's most effective enemy) in the forums of the Third World. Completely unintimidated by the anti-Western atmosphere that characterized those gatherings, Lee would make the case for America with an intellectual force that few American spokesmen could match.

It is especially strange, then, that he should have been singled out for so much hostility for human rights transgressions that were comparatively mild, singled out even by American conservatives for whom the Cold War had been of overriding importance. But, then, political memories are usually short, and-at least when something like the presence of oil does not defile the purity of one's moral vision-treating human rights as the overriding issue is always an easy and tempting option.

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