"Mr Lee Kuan Yew played chess, not draughts": Bilahari

"Mr Lee Kuan Yew played chess, not draughts": Bilahari

Ambassador-at-large and former Ministry of Foreign Affairs permanent secretary Bilahari Kausikan was among several top leaders who gave speeches at an Institute of Policy Studies conference on Monday, the occasion of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 90th birthday. This is the full speech.

There is something more than a little incongruous about tagging a conference "The Big Ideas of Mr Lee Kuan Yew". The term 'big ideas' generally connotes some overarching framework or theory. Yet he once told a journalist: "I am not great on philosophy and theories. I am interested in them, but my life is not guided by philosophy or theories. I get things done …." This is particularly so with regard to his approach to geopolitics and international relations, an area to which more than a fair share of nonsense has been attached under the guise of theory. It is more appropriate to talk about Mr Lee's approach towards international relations and geopolitics.

An international relations theorist would no doubt call Mr Lee a realist. But no simplistic label can do justice to the eclectic complexity of his approach towards international relations and geopolitics. I suspect that if anyone were foolhardy enough to ask Mr Lee which of the main schools of international relations -- realism, institutionalism, liberalism, constructivism -- most influenced him, his reply, if he were in a good mood and if he had even heard of these theories, would be 'all of the above and none of the above'.

Mr Lee is above all an empiricist. He saw the world for what it is and never mistook his hopes or fears for reality. Mr Lee is not devoid of idealism. After all, he risked his life in the struggle against the communist United Front for ideals. Still he knew that in world affairs, as in all fields of human endeavour, not all desirable values are compatible or can be simultaneously realised.

I think Mr Lee would not, for example, disagree with the proposition that a world governed by international law and international organisations would be preferable for a small country like Singapore. But he would certainly question whether a world of sovereign states of vastly disparate power could really ever be such a world. He understood that international order is the prerequisite for international law and organisation. So while you may work towards an ideal and must stand firm on basic principles, you settle for what is practical at any point of time, rather than embark on Quixotic quests.

Mr Lee's 'big idea' was Singapore. On that he always thought big: Singapore as we know it today would not otherwise exist. In so far as any central organising principle infused his geopolitical thinking, it is a laser-like focus on Singapore's national interest. He saw the world canvas whole. But unlike too many self-styled 'statesmen', Mr Lee never succumbed to the temptation of capering about on the world stage for its own sake. When he expressed an opinion, it was always to some purpose, even though the purpose may not always have been immediately apparent to everyone. He looked at the world strategically with a broad and long term vision; he played chess not draughts.

His geopolitical thought is based on an unsentimental view of human nature and power; a view shaped by experience, particularly, as he on several occasions has said, his experience of the Japanese occupation. His analyses are characterised by the hard headed precision with which he zeroed in on the core of any situation, undistracted by the peripheral. He expressed his ideas directly without cant of any kind.

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