Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore, 91, passed away today at 3.18am.
Ex Foreign Minister George Yeo joined the Cabinet in 1988 when Lee was still the Prime Minister. Yeo also interacted with Lee during the years (Dec 1990 – May 2011) when Lee was the Senior Minister and Minister Mentor.
We spoke to Yeo last week as he shared with us his first meeting with Lee, most memorable moment with Lee and his assessment of Lee’s legacy.
1. Can you recall your first encounter with Mr Lee Kuan Yew?
My first meeting with him was in 1973 at a government chalet in Changi. A barbeque had been arranged for our batch of SAF scholars (3rd batch) to meet those from the 1st batch (which included Lee Hsien Loong) before we went to university in the UK.
To our surprise, PM Lee Kuan Yew joined us halfway during the barbeque. I was 19 years old then. He was completely serious about what was intended for us. His view of leadership was etched in my mind, that it is distributed like an Eiffel Tower, with a few playing a disproportionate role in helping a group find its way to the future. In war, he said, the decisions of a few decide the fate of large numbers. It is therefore critical for leaders to be carefully chosen and prepared. I found him inspiring. He put on our young shoulders a heavy burden of duty and responsibility. He always had an elitist view of human society.
2. How strong a factor was Lee Kuan Yew when you made the decision to join the PAP?
Lee Kuan Yew was a decisive factor. Although Goh Chok Tong, as DPM and Defence Minister, was the one who repeatedly asked me to join politics, he hinted that Lee Kuan Yew was supportive. He put it this way, that Lee Kuan Yew was getting old and wanted me to know that if I wished to learn from him, it was better for me to enter politics earlier than later. I was deeply touched by those words. I was only 33 years old then.
3. Lee Kuan Yew was the Senior Minister when you joined the Cabinet. How was Lee like during the Cabinet meetings?
Lee Kuan Yew was the Prime Minister when I joined Cabinet in 1988. In the Cabinet I was member of during the years that he was PM, then SM and MM, he towered above everyone else. On critical issues, his views mattered a lot. For example, without his change of mind on casinos, we would not have the two IR’s today. But he was careful not to overstate his position unless it was on a matter he felt to be of grave importance. While he was in Cabinet, it felt like Camelot.
4. Share with us your most memorable moment with Lee Kuan Yew.
In September 1992, together with Teo Chee Hean and Lim Hng Kiang, I accompanied him and Mrs Lee on a visit to South Africa. During the visit, Lee Hsien Loong called to inform them that he had been diagnosed to have lymphoma. He and Mrs Lee kept this to themselves for two days before he told us about it. Even though he had trouble sleeping, and we knew that he had to take sleeping pills, he continued with the official programme as if nothing had happened. Mrs Lee was affected. I remember, as we stopped at a scenic spot near Cape Town, the journalists asking for a group picture to which he obliged. He invited Mrs Lee to join but she refused. I knew how she must have felt inside. Lee Kuan Yew had enormous will power and was able to suppress and hide his emotion. Without that strong will, we would not have today’s Singapore.
5. What did you learn from your interactions with Lee Kuan Yew?
As we would expect, Lee Kuan Yew was a complex man with many aspects to him. It is not a secret that he recommended reading of Machiavelli and Sun Zi. However, on important matters, he had a core position from which he might temporarily depart but back to which he quickly returned. He sometimes described this core position as moral high ground. I have learnt from him the importance of having a core position built on deep convictions.
6. What do you admire about Lee Kuan Yew?
Lee Kuan Yew understood power instinctively. He acted on the basis of what is possible both strategically and tactically. He had a worldview but he was not ideological, acting within the limits of history which he had a sense of.
7. Which Lee Kuan Yew book would you recommend to a young Singaporean?
The Singapore Story – both volumes.
8. When was the last time you met Lee Kuan Yew? What did you talk about?
I last met him at the National Day reception last year. It was by chance. Seeing Goh Chok Tong at a distance, I told my wife that we should go over with three of our children to offer our National Day wishes. As we got nearer, we saw Lee Kuan Yew seated in the corner. After greeting him, we went over to greet Lee Kuan Yew as well. Goh Chok Tong then invited us to sit down with Lee Kuan Yew. He could not say much but was able to hear well. I gave him a quick briefing on the arbitration over Malaysian railway land in London where I was the principal witness for the Singapore side less than three weeks before.
9. Among all his ideas and contributions, what, in your opinion, is his most important contribution to Singapore?
At St Paul’s Cathedral in London, there is a marble slab on the floor below the dome with words which said that for the monument of Sir Christopher Wren, ‘look all around you’. For Lee Kuan Yew’s most important contribution to Singapore, ‘look all around you’.
Top photo provided by George Yeo.