Saturday, March 28, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew, a man of piercing intellect and profound principle: Tony Blair

By  POSTED: 28 Mar 2015 08:08URL:

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair remembers Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew: "He was probably the first leader in that later part of the 20th century to understand that governing was about efficacy rather than ideology."

LONDON: In an interview with Channel NewsAsia, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recounted his past meetings with Singapore's founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, and described Mr Lee as one of the most significant leaders of the late 20th century.

Why did you seek a meeting with Lee Kuan Yew on winning the leadership of the then opposition Labour Party in the UK?
Tony Blair: At the time, I had become leader of the Labour Party. I was leader of the opposition, wanted to win an election, but I also wanted to learn something about government. And I had studied and admired Lee Kuan Yew for a long period of time. Even though there were obviously political differences, in terms of tradition and political history, nonetheless I had watched him very carefully and studied him.
I went to Singapore and went to see him, and I always remember because the first question he put to me - rather bluntly - was: 'So why have you come to see me?' And I said to him: 'Well, I've come to see you because I want to hear from you how you think I can win, and learn from you how I should govern.' He sort of took that in, in a way he did, and then just literally gave me fabulous political advice about how to win and then some very good advice about how to govern.

Was his thinking important to you?
Blair: His thinking was very important. I think this is one of his underestimated achievements, is that, in my view, he was probably the first leader in that later part of the 20th century to understand that governing was about efficacy rather than ideology, and that the most important thing in politics is to search for the right answer and then do it, rather than start from some ideological predisposition and then work out how you fit the facts around it. He was the person who, when he came to construct Singapore, said, right, what's going to make this country great? And then he set out to do it.
And that approach, I think, didn't just excite me but excited a whole lot of politicians, whether they were from centre left or centre right. That was the right approach to government.

Is it fair to say that Lee Kuan Yew has had a significant impact on British politics?
Blair: I think Lee Kuan Yew has had a huge impact on global politics. I think from his obvious influence on the Chinese leadership and the development of China, to people like myself in the UK, people like Bill Clinton in the USA, and others who saw in him a model for how you should try to put the interests of the country first, that being an effective executive was every bit as important as being a great communicator.
And then on very specific issues like law and order, how you get the right intellectual capital into your country, he was a pioneer. He was also a pioneer in this sense that he didn't allow any false sense of economic nationalism to get in the way of genuine national economic achievement. So for him to learn English was obvious, because that language was going to connect Singapore to the world. It didn't matter how many people said, oh no, you're denying us the pride in our local languages. He said, no, what we have got to do is make this country a country that can trade with the rest of the world.
When it came to bringing business in from abroad, there was no false pride about it. He said, okay, let's bring in the best. And now, of course, Singapore is an actual exporter of intellectual capital. So, this is what I think made him significant and great.

Was his authoritarianism justified by the results, in terms of what he achieved for Singapore?
Blair: Look, I think there are things you can learn from different societies, and things you can't. You're never going to have that same system in a western developed democracy, but there are things nonetheless that we can learn. Law and order, I was a huge advocate of a stronger position on law and order, and Singapore was one of the countries I looked to for that because one of the things he understood was that if you want your economy and society to function today, people have got to feel safe. And that citizen security was a major part of his achievement.
In addition, and it's very important people on the progressive side of politics realise this: He was an absolute champion of cultural integration from the beginning, and was very clear and way ahead of his time in recognising that where you end up with cultures living separately in one country, you're going to get big problems. So he was not just an advocate but an implementer of the idea that people from different cultures should live side by side and should respect each other, and treat each other as equals.

A lot of countries around the world are searching for democracy and pushing towards democracy. What can the rest of the world learn from the Singapore model?
Blair: I don't think Singapore teaches us so much about democracy or not democracy because I think different countries have different systems. I think what it teaches us is far more to do with the quality of governance, and the quality of executive decision-making.
When people say to me, and they do, in the work I do around the world, you often get presidents or prime ministers who say 'make me like Singapore'. And I say to them, well, first of all you've got to have your Lee Kuan Yew.
The lesson of Singapore is that you govern in an effective way without corruption, and you take the decisions that are actually best, based on the evidence. Now if you govern like that you can make your country successful. But that is the lesson and that lesson is one that has got big implications for the way government functions for the 21st century, and it's not a coincidence that the Lee Kuan Yew School of Government was formed in his memory, because for today's generation of leaders, that's what you should look at and that's what you should seek to emulate.

You mentioned his bluntness, and you mentioned his frankness, as well. Did that make it easier or harder to do business with him?
Blair: Well, it was easy to do business with Lee Kuan Yew because he was so direct. I mean he wasn't impolite, by the way, at all, but he was direct. And you know, you asked him a question and he gave you an answer. He wasn't frightened at all of having a head-on fight with someone he disagreed with, but he treated it as a disagreement.
You should never underestimate the quality of his intellect, by the way. I mean, he was an extraordinarily clever individual with a really vast intellect and deep intellect. That is something fortunately he has passed on to his children, and it is also something he has, in a way, given, something of that spirit of intellectual inquiry, to the country.
I think that is one of the things sometimes people miss with Lee Kuan Yew. He could hold his own with any academic or professor anywhere.

In your conversations with Lee Kuan Yew over the years, what kind of issues were you talking about?
Blair: It was mainly work. We got to know each other pretty well and I would regularly come and see him. Even after I left office, I would regularly come and see him. I found him, first of all, an enormous source of information. He became like a kind of advisor to the world in what was happening in Asia, and particularly, in respect of China.
But he was also someone who was, you know, because he thought out of the box, he was always fascinating to engage with on any subject. So whether it was radical Islam, or you know what to do about Europe, you know he would have views and they were always views that were formed by this piercing intellect, combined with very, very practical outcomes.

What was he like as a friend?
Blair: I think he was a good friend. I mean, I came to like him very much as a person too, I think he was a person of profound principle. His family meant an enormous amount to him. He was an absolute patriot for his country. But he was also someone who could be immensely engaging company, and I had many a good dinner with him when he would relax. And you had have a friendly and frank conversation across a whole range of subjects.
He was - in a world where politicians aren't always of the first rank and where politics doesn't always produce great leaders - he was a great leader, and beyond doubt one of the most significant and impressive leaders of the late 20th century.

- CNA/pp

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