Apart from spirituality, philosophy and psychology, biography has always been part of my reading obsession. You can only learn great things from great people, by reliving their lives or equivalently, their episodes of history.
Lee Kuan Yew is a legendary figure and the fascination started when I conducted some research comparing Singapore with Hong Kong, primarily due to personal interests. And oh, Singapore looks much more appealing than Hong Kong, its landscape, outlook, culture and system, which will or perhaps has already overtaken the latter.
There have been two published volumes of Lee Kuan Yew’s memoirs and I am about to start. This one is slightly different from an autobiography, as it illustrated a somewhat spontaneous Lee Kuan Yew by the Questions & Answers layout. Eleven chapters are included, ranging from politics, diplomats to his early life and family. In each, a plain introduction is first given, followed by Lee’s answers to various questions, some of them really touched fundamental issues as democracy and nepotism, and it ends with a conclusion and photographs. I would say that the structure does engage readers like me and despite its length, I managed to finish it within five days.
Questions were addressed to Lee in a series of interviews, taken place in Istana between 2009 and 2010. Lee was 86 or 87 then and his beloved wife past away during that period after 61 years’ of company. So we have a more sentimental Lee in this book, who confided his attachment and his gratefulness to having her in life and the adjustments he made to cope with her absence. In that sense, this book is worth reading. Probably, we won’t be seeing a new one to come.
I would like to give some summary of Lee’s background and early life here. Lee was born to a wealthy Chinese family in Singapore (or Malaya by then), learnt English as his first language, Malay the second. It wasn’t until his entering politics that Lee started to pick up Mandarin and Hokkien. Educated in prestigious Raffles Institution, spend a term in LSE and later transferred to Cambridge for a bachelor degree in Law. Being subject to British and Japanese colonial control and witnessing the Second World War must have greatly influenced Lee. He met his wife before he made a move to Britain and fortunately, she received a scholarship to complete a Law degree in Cambridge, so they both studied there and got married in Stratford secretly. He was initially working as a lawyer in Singapore with his wife, but later stepped into politics as he commented: who would practice law in a chaotic country? And he fought on until early 1990s and much later his elder son Lee Hsien Loong became the prime minister, while Lee remained as the MM, Minister Mentor, serving as a living databank for young governors. He has two sons and one daughter, eight grandsons and daughters, if I was correct. And they are all successful, except one grandson had Albino and Asperger’s syndrome.
Lee Kuan Yew is probably the greatest leader in the second half of the last century. While other politicians rejuvenated their countries like Margaret Thatcher, Lee founded a nation. Although Singapore is a city-state with only four million citizens, Lee started from nowhere. Singapore joined Malaysia and was later forced to leave, gained its independence and industrialization by attracting investments from MNCs, survived the communist surge and developed SAF (Singapore Armed Force), transformed its economy by devising new measures pulling foreign talents, and look at Singapore now, 90% of its population have a stake in the nation—a house subsidized by the government, and it has gained independent water supply. It is a better, more competent place than its rival, Hong Kong, although the latter now has got China.
Lee is remarkable not because he is holding certain unpopular values, but due to his persistence and conviction in his own righteousness. He has no regret in life, not because there isn’t any, but he said all decisions made were the best options he had at the time, given such and such circumstance and alternatives. The most significant trait of Lee is his power in persuading people—he is firm in what be believes and he will never give way to his opponents unless they have more convincing reasons, which is seldom the case. He is neither conservative nor liberal, he said he is simply pragmatic: this is the difficulty now we encounter, this is the circumstance, and this is our capability and chance, so we still could make a good living given all the conditions. He is correct, but not politically correct. This is another argument that I buy completely. He is utterly candid, there are topics other politicians won’t ever go into, due to the fear of losing popularity and subsequently, political power, while Lee endeavors, he regards Singapore as his heir and whatever he does, is in favor of Singapore, not his own interests. He said talents were born, determined by genetics, and he makes no effort in masking his preference for meritocracy and elitism. He is infidel, and although he does not speak Chinese as his first language, he has inherited the essence of Chinese culture—being practical, pragmatic, and recognizes life as what it is. “That’s life”, “That’s that”, “You have to accept life”, these have occurred repeatedly in Lee’s speech.
He is a man of insight, he is a living history, and he is courageous and passionate. He knows what is right and he is obstinate on insisting what is right. He is knowledgeable that he understands China more than I do. This man with his wisdom, owns my admiration.