A leader who's ruthless in demanding honesty

A leader who's ruthless in demanding honesty
JAN 6, 1981: Mr Lee with Mr Dhanabalan (second from left) who took his oath of allegiance before President Benjamin Sheares in the Istana State Room. Behind Mr Dhanabalan is Cabinet Secretary Wong Chooi Sen.

S. Dhanabalan, 77, MP from 1976 to 1996, held various ministerial portfolios from 1980 to 1992, was chairman of Temasek Holdings from 1996 to Aug 1, 2013.

To call Lee Kuan Yew my friend would not be quite right. More accurately, we were colleagues. I don't think he had many friends, because he was so focused on doing what was good for the nation, and that would require him sometimes to act against his friends. If he was too friendly with anyone, that could colour his decision, so he was very careful.

Many leaders of countries are honest. India's Jawaharlal Nehru was honest. Julius Nyerere in Nigeria was honest. Manmohan Singh is honest. But that's not enough. You must be prepared to demand honesty and be ruthless with your relatives and friends if they are not. Otherwise you can't get the honest culture established.

Lee Kuan Yew was not only honest, but he was also ruthless in demanding honesty from his colleagues. You could have been his colleague, you could have fought with him through the long march, it didn't matter. If you are dishonest, you're out.

So I think in order to make sure he did not soften in this approach, he was very careful about establishing friendships with people.

I resigned from Cabinet (in 1992) because I had a great difference of view over the use of the Internal Security Act in the 1987 arrests. (In 1987, 22 people - many linked to the Catholic Church - were arrested and detained without trial under the ISA for alleged involvement in a "Marxist conspiracy".)

Lee Kuan Yew thought that mine was a Christian view, because he knew I was a Christian. But it was not a hard-headed political view. We had a difference and the whole Cabinet knew.

The way he saw it depended on his experience, and he had some very traumatic experiences with the communists and how they infiltrated legitimate organisations to get what they wanted. I was looking at it from my point of view, without the experiences he had.

I wouldn't venture to say whether he was right or I was right. So it was not that he was ruthless, but that he saw dangers where I didn't. Whether it was real danger or not remains to be seen.

His greatest strength as a leader was his foresight - his ability to see what is likely to happen, and to persuade people with arguments. Not just words, but the way he put his words across, the way he was able to transmit his conviction to people.

One thing that remains very strongly in my mind is how different he was in his decision-making process from what the general impression was.

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