'Oh yes.' He assures me. 'This all used to be kampong .' (Malay for small rural hamlet). Conversation soon turns to South Africa and our myriad socio-economic problems.
'Just look at Singapore.' He says. 'If you want rapid economic growth and a stable, ordered society, don't look to democracy. What you want is a socially-minded authoritarian regime. Like us.'
Some people satisfy themselves with limited ambitions, like generating large amounts of wealth for themselves and their immediate family. Lee Kuan Yew aimed a bit higher. He took a small, sleepy colonial outpost and in less than a generation, transformed it into a ridiculously wealthy, progressive, high-tech enclave. Lee is now South East Asia's most notable and respected elder statesman. As Time Magazine's Terry McCarthey describes him: 'A champion of Asian values, he is most un-Asian in his frank and confrontational style. He is a man of great intelligence, with no patience for mediocrity; a man of integrity, with a relentless urge to smite opponents; a man who devours foreign news but has little tolerance for a disrespectful press at home.'
They say no man is an island, but in the case of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew seems to be synonymous with the island's rocket ship to prosperity. He is in many ways the architect of both Singapore's history and prosperity.
Born September 16, 1923 in Singapore, t he eldest child of Lee Chin Koon and Chua Jim Neo.
'I grew up with my three brothers, one sister and seven cousins in the same house.' Says Lee in his autobiography. 'But because they were all younger than I was, I often played with the children of the Chinese fishermen and of the Malays living in a nearby kampong. It was a simpler world altogether. We played with fighting kites, tops, marbles and even fighting fish. These games nurtured a fighting spirit and the will to win.'
Lee Kuan Yew started his formal education at Telok Kurau Primary School and followed up at Raffles Institution, and Raffles College.
'I read English, which was compulsory for arts students, and concentrated on it to improve my command of the language, and to help me when I studied law later; mathematics, because I liked it and was good at it; and economics, because I believed it could teach me how to make money in business and on the stock market - I was naive!'
'I was the best student in mathematics, scoring over 90 marks. But to my horror, I discovered I was not the best in either English or economics. I was in second place, way behind a certain Miss Kwa Geok Choo.'
His arch-academic school rival would soon become Mrs Lee Kuan Yew.
Although Lee had wanted to study law at Cambridge, the outbreak of the Second World War delayed his plans. Japan attacked and routed the British in Singapore and occupied the island from 1942 until their surrender in 1945.
'The key to survival was improvisation.' Says Lee of life under the Japanese occupation. He started what he calls, 'brokering on the black market,' and launched a successful underground business manufacturing and selling tapioca-based glue called Stikfas, to stationary concerns.
At the onset of the occupation, Lee started to study Japanese. He soon found a job as a transcriber of Allied wire reports for the Japanese, as well as being the English language editor of the Japanese Hodobu (a Japanese Propoganda publication) from 1943 - 1944. During this time it is widely rumoured that he was secretly passing on information to the British.
'The three and a half years of Japanese occupation were the most important of my life.' Says Lee in his autobiography. 'They gave me vivid insights into the behavior of human beings and human societies, their motivations and impulses. My appreciation of governments, my understanding of power as the vehicle for revolutionary change, would not have been gained without this experience. I saw a whole social system crumble suddenly before an occupying army that was absolutely merciless.'
The Japanese occupation of Singapore gave Lee vivid insights into questions of crime and punishment that he carried forward into the creation of the Singaporean city-state.
'In the midst of deprivation after the second half of 1944, when the people half-starved, it was amazing how low the crime rate remained. People could leave their front doors open at night. Every household had a head, and every group of 10 households had its head, and they were supposed to patrol their area from dusk till sunrise. But it was a mere formality. They carried only sticks and there were no offenses to report - the penalties were too heavy. As a result I have never believed those who advocate a soft approach to crime and punishment, claiming that punishment does not reduce crime. That was not my experience in Singapore before the war, during the Japanese occupation or subsequently.'
After the war, Lee launched himself into his studies at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and graduated with prized Double Starred First Class honours. As Time Magazine's Terry McCarthey says, 'At Cambridge, Lee learned English law and English self-assurance, deftly taking a double first in the former and a double helping of the latter. He disliked the English while admiring their way of doing things. He had similar if more extreme feelings about the Japanese.'
In 1949, Lee returned to work as a lawyer in Laycock and Ong, the legal practice of John Laycock, a pioneer of multiracialism who, together with A.P. Rajah and C.C. Tan, had founded Singapore's first multiracial club open to Asians. The doctrine of multi-racialism has always been central to Lee's vision for Singapore.
Lee's political career took flight when, On November 21, 1954 together with a group of fellow English-educated middle-class friends whom he himself described as 'beer-swilling bourgeois', formed the socialist People's Action Party in an expedient alliance with pro-communist trade unionists. The English-educated group needed the mass support base offered by the unions, while the trade-unionists needed a respectable, non-communist party leadership. Their unified goal was to agitate for self-government and put an end to British colonial rule.
As McCarthey puts it, 'This complicated amalgam of Chinese instincts and English training quickly found his true vocation in the tumultuous politics of the time. Fists flying, he immersed himself in a world of communists, labor organizers, gangsters and intelligence operatives, emerging in 1959 as Prime Minister.'
After PAP swept to power, Singapore gained autonomy from Britain in all state matters except in defence and foreign affairs. At that time Singapore faced massive unemployment and housing shortages. The infrastructure was sub standard and there was a poor basic education system.
Seeing the nation's prosperity linked to the huge markets of Malaysia, Lee actively pursued for Singapore's inclusion in the Malaysian Federation. Joining the Federation would end, once and for all, British Colonial rule of Singapore. In 1963 Singapore was included in the Malaysian Federation, however it did not last because of ethnic divisions between Malaysia's predominant Malay population and Singapore's majority Chinese citizens. There was simmering political tension between the two territories and a series of race riots erupted on 21 July 1964, in which twenty-three were people were killed and hundreds injured as Chinese and Malays attacked each other. Riots broke out again in September 1964. The price of food skyrocketed and basic service delivery ground to a halt.
Unable to resolve the crisis, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, chose to expel Singapore from the Malaysian Federation. Lee Kuan Yew desperately tried to work out a compromise, but failed. In a televised press conference, Lee, now famously, broke down emotionally as he announced the separation to the people.
'For me, it is a moment of anguish. All my life, my whole adult life, I believed in merger and unity of the two territories. ... Now, I, Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore, do hereby proclaim and declare on behalf on the people and the Government of Singapore that as from today, the ninth day of August in the year one thousand nine hundred and sixty-five, Singapore shall be forever a sovereign democratic and independent nation, founded upon the principles of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of the people in a most and just equal society.'
When the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson expressed concern about the future of an independent Singapore Lee replied:
'Do not worry about Singapore. My colleagues and I are sane, rational people even in our moments of anguish. We will weigh all possible consequences before we make any move on the political chessboard...'
Time Magazine's Simon Elegant and Michael Elliott pick up the narrative: ' When Singapore was ejected from Malaysia in 1965, it had no natural resources save for the enterprise of its largely Chinese population and its port's position astride one of the world's major shipping lanes. It possessed little industry or infrastructure besides a naval base and ship-repair facilities left behind by Britain's shrinking navy. Most of the population lived cheek by jowl in ramshackle two-story shophouses or traditional village houses fashioned of rattan and bamboo. It was poorer than Mexico. Today, the city is one of Asia's most modern metropolises, the business district bristling with skyscrapers and ringed by highways. Over 90% of the population own their own homes, most of them well-maintained and scrupulously clean apartments in government-built blocks.'
The split from Malaysia, although feared at the time, came as a godsend to the future prosperity of Singapore. First off Lee needed to gain international recognition of Singaporean independence. He then stressed the importance of racial tolerance and religious harmony amongst the multi-racial Singaporean citizenry. In terms of the economy, the separation from Malaysia painted a pretty bleak scenario. It meant the loss of a common market made up of over 10 million. While the British withdrawal would eliminate a further 50,000 jobs in Singapore. Lee managed to persuade the British to allow him to convert their military infrastructure for civilian use, instead of destroying it in accordance with the British law of the time. Lee quickly set Singapore on the path of industrialization. To lure investment and to attract new capital, Lee offered five years' outright tax exemption to new industry. He positioned the island as a rival to Hong Kong's industrial outpost and declared Communism as 'the ultimate enemy'. Thus winning immediate support from the United States, who were deeply embroiled fighting Communism in the region, with the Vietnam conflict looming on the horizon. Singapore soon proved to be a valuable regional ally and capitalist market economy.
By internet consensus, Wikipedia claims Singapore's model for success was based on three central tenets. Tax breaks for foreign investment, an educated and low paid workforce and sustained infrastructural development. Here the internet encyclopedia picks up the narrative:
'In 1961, the Economic Development Board was established to attract foreign investment, offering attractive tax incentives and providing access to the highly skilled, disciplined and relatively low paid work force. At the same time, the government maintained tight control of the economy, regulating the allocation of land, labour and capital resources. In the balancing of labour and capital, specifically the labour unions and employers of Singapore, a form of tripartite corporatism was introduced to provide stability and consistent economic growth that arguably ended exploitation and major strike activity simultaneously. Modern infrastructure like the airport, the port, roads, and communications networks were improved or constructed with state intervention. The Singapore Tourist Promotion Board was set up to promote tourism, which would eventually create many jobs in the service industry and prove to be a major source of income for the country.'
It was the recipe for rapid, sustained economic growth. In management style, Lee is abrasive and direct. He was once quoted as saying he preferred to be feared than loved. A strong believer that the ends justify the means, Lee often prescribed certain repressive measures to safeguard national security and interests. His ruling style could at best be described as paternalistic, at worst autocratic. However, he is not by any stretch of the imagination your average tin pot dictator. Seeing how corruption had led to the downfall of the Nationalist Chinese government in mainland China and the curse it had cast over other South East Asian nations, Lee introduced legislation that gave the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB) far reaching powers. With Lee's support, CPIB was given the authority to investigate any officer or minister. And several high ranking officials and ministers were later charged with corruption. At the same time Lee believed that ministers should be well paid in order to maintain a clean and honest government. In 1994, he instituted a measure to link the salaries of ministers, judges, and top civil servants to the salaries of top professionals in the private sector, arguing that this would help recruit and retain talents to serve in the public sector.
However Singapore's paternalistic approach to government, and civil liberties has been much criticised in the West. For years something as innocuous as chewing gum was outlawed in Singapore. 'I'm not guided by what Human Rights Watch says.' Said Lee in a recent Time Magazine interview. 'I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That's the test. What are the indicators of a well-governed society? Look at the humanities index in last week's Economist, we're right on top. You look at the savings index, World Bank, we're right on top. Economic freedoms, we're on top. What is it we lack? Reporters Without Borders put Malaysia's newspapers ahead of us. In Malaysia the ruling coalition parties own the major newspapers. In Singapore the major banks are in control of the company that runs our newspapers. There is no information that Singaporeans want that they cannot get. All major foreign newspapers and magazines are sold here. We demand a right of reply, that's all. And if you go over the line, if you defame us, we're prepared to sue you, go into the witness box and be cross-examined. You can brief the best lawyers and demolish us. If I'm involved, I go to the witness box. And you can question me, not only on the particular defamatory issue, but all issues in my life.'
Head of state for over 30 years, Lee Kuan Yew kept his position as the Prime Minister of Singapore until he stepped down in 1990. Taking up the newly created position of Senior Minister, and then making way for another tailor-made position, that of Minister Mentor, which he occupies today. His eldest son, Lee Hsien Loong, soon followed in his father's footsteps and is now currently serving as the Prime Minister of Singapore. He is also the Vice-Chairman of the Government of Singapore Investment Company (GIC), of which Lee is the Chairman. His family is also well connected in Singapore's axis of business and government. Younger son, Lee Hsien Yang was the President and Chief Executive Officer of SingTel, a pan-Asian telecom giant. Fifty-six percent of SingTel is owned by Temasek Holdings, a prominent government holding company with controlling stakes in a variety of very large government-linked companies such as Singapore Airlines and DBS Bank. Temasek Holdings in turn is run by Executive Director and CEO Ho Ching, the wife of Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister. Such interests have long since prompted charges of nepotism, which Lee has vociferously denied.
'Did I plan for him to be Prime Minister?' Asks Lee in the Time Magazine interview. 'Not possible. It worked out that way, but what I determined was that he would not succeed me, that there should be a clear interregnum between him and me. I said it openly, I said at a party conference that I would not have him succeed me because it would be bad for him, bad for the country, and bad for me. He would be seen to have got there by my influence. That would diminish him, reduce his ability to govern. In several elections we won by the largest majority of votes. I have lived a full life and do not need to live vicariously.'
In a recent Spiegel article Lee deals with the claims of nepotism directly, ' This is a very small community of 4 million people. We run a meritocracy. If the Lee Family set an example of nepotism, that system would collapse. If I were not the Prime Minister, my son could have become Prime Minister several years earlier. It is against my interest to allow any family member who's incompetent to hold an important job because that would be a disaster for Singapore and my legacy. That cannot be allowed.'
On claims of being undemocratic, he says this. ' The British came here, never gave me democracy, except when they were about to leave. But I cannot run my system based on their rules. I have to amend it to fit my people's position. In multiracial societies, you don't vote in accordance with your economic interests and social interests, you vote in accordance with race and religion. Supposing I'd run their system here, Malays would vote for Muslims, Indians would vote for Indians, Chinese would vote for Chinese. I would have a constant clash in my Parliament which cannot be resolved because the Chinese majority would always overrule them. So I found a formula that changes that...'
In short, Singapore is Lee Kuan Yew's legacy. Sure a little bit stifled when it comes to civil liberties like Freedom of Speech and spitting in the street. But on the other hand, a stable, ordered first world giant. It's 700 square kilometers of island, supporting 4 million people living in a safe, secure, vibrant, wealthy society. No bums, no vagrants and only a handful of deeply frightened drug dealers and gangsters. Modern day Singapore is a society forged through thrift, intelligence and Lee's never wavering focus on three vital things: long-term planning, meritocracy and zero tolerance for corruption. Like my taxi driver intimated at the beginning of this piece, would the African Lee Kuan Yew please stand up.