In this weekend’s edition of Opinionist, we present to you the China-relevant portions of Lee Kuan Yew’s latest interview with Haslinda Amin of Bloomberg News. At 84 this year, Lee was Singapore’s first Prime Minister and current Minister Mentor. In this excerpt, Lee gives his take on recent anti-Chinese sentiment, China’s challenges going forward and what China can learn from Singapore in handling the Western media. The full transcript (PDF) of the interview can be downloaded from the Straits Times.
AMIN: Now, Mr. Lee, the Olympic torch relay has been plagued with protests every leg of the way. What do you make of that?
LEE: Not every leg of the way. Let’s be fair, protests were most vigorous in London, Paris. Would have been in San Francisco, but the mayor decided to change the route suddenly and beat the protestors. It had no trouble in Buenos Aires, Islamabad, nothing in Karachi, after that, it was Bangkok, very little. In fact, the supporters overwhelmed the protestors. Because by then, the Chinese had got their supporters organized, and everybody was waving the Thai flags and the China flags, the five pointed star.
Nothing in Malaysia and Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, nothing happened. Japan, very little, except the one Buddhist temple that decided to opt out and created news like Spielberg pulling out of the Olympic opening and closing ceremony advice. South Korea, very little, Seoul little, Pyongyang nothing. They expect something in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong’s got different rules. So I hear Mia Farrow is going to turn up.
But it makes no difference, the Chinese are going to do the best they can to show the world that they are unfazed. They’re going to run this Olympics properly, there will be no terrorism.
There may be a few flags, Tibetan flags or banners in the stadium, nobody knows. You can’t frisk everybody and the cameras will train on them and try to sideline the carefully choreographed presentation of synchronized calisthenics, which would have taken them months and months of rehearsing.
But at the end of the day, the people who matter will know that they are dealing with a very determined China and a China with the people solidly behind the Olympics and fiercely resentful of this putdown. I’m not sure that all this is a plus for the anti-China group. They’ve decided to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, they’ve offered to his closest representatives. They are showing flexibility.
They’ve learnt to ride with the punches. First they were shocked, and then, they reorganized, and they had their own teams waving flags and in many places they had more Chinese students and supporters turning up than the protestors. Because they’ve got numbers: 1,300 million people, with just about half a million of them or more abroad studying in many big cities of the west, and cities in Asia, too.
Let me give you this example of how at the end of the day leaders take away impressions. They have invited leaders to the opening ceremony. It’ll be meticulously timed and presented in the best showbiz tradition. There may be a few protestors waving Tibetan flags, `Free Tibet’ banners and the western media will play that up. I mean we have to expect that. If I were them I would expect that and say, `so what?’ Will there be a free Tibet if no nation in the world says there will be an independent Tibet? When the Dalai Lama himself says there will not be an independent Tibet?
Unfortunately they are still in the old set in the way they react, but they’re learning. But the way they do things leaves a very solid impression at the end of the day. I will give you an example: they’ve invited Asean heads of government to an Asean meeting in Guangxi, Nanning, that’s west of Guangzhou. It’s a backward province. But they’ve got the capital really up to the mark and the heads of governments were there.
I wasn’t there but I heard a report and I personally spoke to the ministers who were there, the prime minister, the minister for foreign affairs and the minister for the economy. And they put on a show. The place was spruced up, modern, and then they put on a show, with their performers showing songs and dances of each Asean country, carefully rehearsed. They took all the leaders one by one a long time to forget it.
One leader said, `you know we could never produce such an array of girls all same size, same movements and so on. And, singing their songs, not Chinese songs, but the songs of the Asean country.’ And another leader said, `yes, what you need to grow is order, investments and hard work, not democracy.’ (Laughs) What the propaganda says, what the media says, and what the impressions leaders and top officials take away, are two different things.
The Asian leaders will be there. There is no reason for them to offend the Chinese. I’ll be there personally and I’ve said so. I know what to expect because I’ve been there almost every year since 1976, sometimes twice a year. Those who go there, they talk about the pollution; the marathon would be disastrous for the runners, etc.
I was there for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the republic, the People’s Republic. 1949, so that was ’99. And the sky was blue. So I asked our ambassador, I said `how is that so?’ He said `Oh, for two weeks, all factories stopped for this great occasion.’ And there was a great parade.
I have no doubts that it will meet world standards, the venues will be world class, the airport, I was watching the discovery channel, bits of it, about how it will the biggest airport in the world, Terminal 3 or whatever they call it. It’s a construction marvel: British design, British architects, but their construction. Their building contractors, their engineers, executing British plans. And it’s breathtaking. And compared to Terminal 5 in London, it will not be like that. I’m quite sure of it.
They will have rehearsals and rehearsals, soft openings and when the great day comes, it will breeze through and they will come back and say `God, what discipline, organization, mobilization of the population can do.’
So, yes the media will go and say what human rights, this dissident arrested, that dissident put down, this fellow arrested, this chap disappeared, but people in the developing world, I can’t speak for westerners, but westerners at the very top are also getting to become quite sophisticated. But in Asia and in Africa, and in the developing world, they are asking themselves, how did this country, in 30 years, from such backwardness, suddenly make this great big leap into modernity. When all the western nations say, `the system is wrong, how is it?’ That is what they are going to register.
There is now growing, a certain Beijing consensus that is different from the Washington consensus: what is it you need to grow? Order, certainty, consistency, hard work, market-friendly policies, savings and investments, trade, education, and training. And they are conveying that message to all the leaders around the world and the Olympics will be another occasion.
When they called a meeting of African leaders, all the Africa leaders turned up in Beijing and I watched it on their CCTV with great interest — carefully choreographed. Yes, it is done Soviet style, almost everybody, so many segments, everyone turns up, big, small countries, all the same, shake hands, smile, photo ops, move on, then big reception, great speech is made. They went back with a clear impression that this is not a country you can ignore. So, the same thing will happen with this Olympics.
AMIN: What’s the biggest challenge for China right now?
LEE: It is to get out of this mindset. I’m ethnically Chinese, but I’m not Chinese in my thinking and my mental outlook. Because I’m a Singaporean, I’ve been exposed to a British colonial education and a British education and exposed to American education and everything. So my outlook, my mental approach is different from theirs. I would laugh at the west. Just like you know, they say `Singapore is a fine city.’ Everything is fine, no chewing gum, no litter in the streets, it’s antiseptic, it’s sterile. I don’t take offence.
People come here, people stay. It’s safe, 3 a.m. in the morning, you can go jogging by the marina, nothing happens to you, no rape, and no muggings. News gets out. We are dull. Now, we are not dull, we are quite cool.
AMIN: Yeah, we allow bar-top dancing.
LEE: No, we’re going to have reverse bungee, wheel, all-night dining by the river and by the marina, two integrated resorts, Formula One. How do you explain that? Whether they like it or not, they have to shift the nuances.
The Chinese should learn to do what we have done, just take the western media on the western media’s terms. I don’t tell the western media you can’t sell here. All I say is you allow me the right of reply. You are selling because you want to sell advertisements, not because you want freedom of information or because you want to enlighten my people.
So when you write an article with a little sting at the end, which is not true. I claim the right of reply. You have written 5,000 words, I claim 500 words. They refused, and in that case, I will restrict you. I will not block you because you will say I’m afraid of what you said. But I will restrict you and allow the other people, the other subscribers to photostat, fax, and now scan. So now you allow me the right of reply, I get the right of reply, the writer who puts in all these poison barbs no longer appears so smart. You can twist my arm, I’ll wring your neck. So what are the facts? So, now we have reached a certain respect for each other.
The Chinese can easily do that, but they don’t, I don’t know why. Maybe what they need is a growing middle class, educated in the west, familiar with the west, understands the rules, been to America, stayed there five years, 10 years, been all over Europe, Australia, Japan, whatever, fully understand the rules of the game and playing according to western rules, and they can win. Are they stupid? No. Are they evil? No.
You take Tibet. Who started it? It was started by the Tibetans. The March incident, March 14. I was reading Jonathan Eyal who writes for our Straits Times. He was a commentator from London. He is from I think Chatham House, a very thoughtful man. He said if they had called in the newspapers right from the word go, and said look, this is what happened. The Economist correspondent was in Lhasa when it happened and wrote about it. He was favorable to them. The rioters started killing people and they were not reacting. The orders were not to shoot, not to take on the rioters because they didn’t want trouble. Had they engaged the west, all this would have turned out differently.
Why didn’t they? Because there was a chasm between their mental make up and that of the west. So they say all western correspondents out, that means you have got something to hide. I think that was not very wise. Supposing it was Singapore, do we say all correspondents out? No. I say look come on, stay, watch it, see what happens, see who started what. Are they stupid? They can’t do what we do? No. Its just people at the people at the top have not been educated in the west, they have not been exposed to that kind of environment, that kind of rules of the game, and are not playing by those rules of the game.
The day they build up an educated middle class, a large middle class, huge numbers of whom have been educated abroad, PHDs, MBAs in America, Europe, Japan elsewhere, and they are the people setting policies at the top, not people whose mental mindsets are from Soviet days, that day they will find they can play by the western rules and win.
TIME: The man who saw it all
Spiegel: Lee Kuan Yew: It’s stupid to be afraid
Shanghaiist: Major cosying up between China and Singapore