Lee Kuan Yew: I did my best

Lee Kuan Yew: I did my best

Four thirty on a Saturday afternoon and the Istana is quiet, save for the steady, sleepy sound of cicadas snuggled deep in the trees on the sloping lawns.

The Istana, Malay for "palace", stands on what was once part of a massive nutmeg estate belonging to a British merchant named Charles Robert Prinsep.

In 1867, Governor Harry Ord, who was in charge of Singapore from 1867 to 1873, acquired the land and built Government House on it.

The stately white building, a mix of Ionic, Doric and Corinthian orders, was constructed by Indian convicts from Bencoolen in Sumatra.

Over the years, other structures were added to the grounds.

One of them, Sri Temasek, is the official residence of the prime minister of Singapore, though no prime minister has ever lived in it.

There is also the Istana Annexe, Istana Villa and Istana Lodge.

The main Istana building houses the president's office, while the Istana Annexe serves as the prime minister's office.

On the second floor of the Annexe, all is busy on this humid afternoon.

Plainclothes security officers tread the narrow carpeted corridors, buzzing each other periodically over their walkie-talkies.

In a brightly lit room, a secretary works at her computer, one ear peeled to an intercom linking her to an adjoining office where Lee Kuan Yew works.

It is an L-shaped room with an attached bathroom. It is free of personal paraphernalia. No family photographs decorate his table, no personal mementoes line his walls.

He sits behind a desk, his back to a computer. A low cabinet next to it is stacked with books and files.

A wood-panelled wall camouflages the door to the room where his two secretaries work.

A teak table for eight stands 4m from his desk, a jade dragon jar in the middle.

Lee works in this office six days a week, from about 10 in the morning to 6.30 in the evening, when he puts his work aside for his daily exercise in the Istana grounds.

He has been known to come back to the office on Sundays and public holidays.

He is about 1.8m tall, and slim. His trousers, which are usually in light hues, are loose, and he tugs at the waistband frequently.

He is at least 10kg lighter than when he was in his 40s.

His shirts are well-pressed though well-worn, and he wears a windbreaker, usually beige, when he is in the office.

At 74, his hair is white.

The once wiry black mop has thinned considerably over the years, accentuating a broad, high forehead under which small, piercing eyes stare.

His face is pink in tone, the skin mostly unlined, though tiny creases criss-cross the skin on his eyelids. His nails are neatly trimmed.

Even in a private setting, he is a forceful personality. His facial expression changes quickly and his hands often chop the air to emphasise a point. His voice rises and falls according to his emotions.

He is quick to show impatience, and slow to smile. He has never suffered fools lightly.

Who is this man who, more than anyone else, has shaped the history of modern Singapore? Who is the person behind the personality Singaporeans regard with awe, respect, love, fear or hate?

How would he describe himself? How does he see his 40 years of political life? What is his role now? What is his family life like? And what are his dreams and fears?

Lee revealed his personal life in these interviews with the authors, weaving in events that took place 40 years ago as if they had happened only yesterday.

I have to be taken seriously

Asked to describe himself, Lee is careful and takes his time to answer the question.

"I would say that I'm very determined when I set out to do something.

"First, I've got to decide whether something is worth doing. If it's not worth doing, well, I'm not prepared to spend the time over it, to make the effort. Then I just coast along, it doesn't matter whether it succeeds or doesn't succeed, it's of no consequence.

"But if I decide that something is worth doing, then I'll put my heart and soul into it. I'll give everything I've got to make it succeed.

"So I would put my strength, determination and willingness to see my objective to its conclusion.

"Whether I can succeed or not, that's another matter - but I will give everything I've got to make sure it succeeds.

"If I've got to get good people, I get good people. If I've got to change tack, I will change tack. But the objective is the same. The presentation may change... If you have decided something is worth doing, you've got to remove all obstacles to get there."

What others think of him - many commentators have had a field day writing about him, and coffee-shop gossip about his life constantly hovers in the air - is water off a duck's back.

He has always relished a fight with his critics. He puts it this way: "I have never been overconcerned or obsessed with opinion polls or popularity polls. I think a leader who is, is a weak leader.

"If you are concerned with whether your rating will go up or down, then you are not a leader. You are just catching the wind...

"You will go where the wind is blowing. And that's not what I am in this for.

"Between being loved and being feared, I have always believed Machiavelli was right. If nobody is afraid of me, I'm meaningless. When I say something, to make it easier for me to govern, I have to be taken very seriously.

"So when I say 'please don't do that', you do it, I have to punish you because I was not joking when I said that. And when I punish, it's to punish publicly.

"And people will know the next time, if you want to do that when he said 'no, don't do it', you must be prepared for a brutal encounter.

"What the crowd thinks of me from time to time, I consider totally irrelevant... The whole ground can be against, but if I know this is right, I set out to do it, and I am quite sure, given time, as events unfold, I will win over the ground...

"My job as a leader is to make sure that before the next elections, enough has developed and disclosed itself to the people to make it possible for me to swing them around. That's the business of a leader - not to follow the crowd. That's a washout. The country will go down the drain!"

The makings of a leader

Lee has strong views about what makes a good and effective leader, what qualities are important and will make a difference to the way a country is run.

"You need, besides determination, all the other attributes that will push a project along. You must have application, you must be prepared to work hard, you must be prepared to get people to work with you.

"Especially for political leaders, you've got to have people work for you and work with you. You've got to enthuse them with the same fire and the same eagerness that pushes you along.

"I think that's a very big factor in leadership: At the end of the day, you must also have idealism to succeed, to make people come with you. You must have that vision of what is at the bottom of the rainbow you want to reach.

"But you must have a sense of reality... to feel when this vision is not practical, that it will ruin us.

"But a leader without the vision, the idea to strive to improve things, is no good. Then you'll just stay put, you won't progress."

He also saw the importance of reading and exchanging views with experts.

"You must read. It's one way of getting information. But you've got to read what's relevant, not only what you're interested in.

"My wife reads Jane Austen. She was a student of English language and literature so she likes to read books in which she had found joy as a student.

"I wouldn't read Jane Austen, not because I don't admire her style, but because I would not have the time.

"I suppose there are times when I get so tired and browned off with certain problems, I want to take my mind off them, so I'll read something totally different, about South American tribes or whatever.

"Occasionally, I would read little biographies or autobiographies. There's one about an English lady in Kashgar. My wife would have read it, she'd say, "Oh, this is interesting!" It's a totally different world. It transports me for one, two hours to a different world.

"Unless the book is riveting, I don't read it from cover to cover. I'll read it and if I see something else, I'll pick it up.

"You must not overlook the importance of discussions with knowledgeable people. I would say that is much more productive than absorbing or running through masses of documents.

"Because in a short exchange, you can abstract from somebody who has immense knowledge and experience the essence of what he had gained.

"In a one-hour exchange over dinner with some people who are knowledgeable in certain fields, you get the hang of a particular problem."

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