Choo Zheng Xi/Consultant Editor
Before you read Mr Lee’s new book, keep in mind what the book holds itself out to be.
It’s “One Man’s View of the World”, no longer the infallible utterances of the primus inter pares of Singapore politics.
The book has got much of Mr Lee’s pugnaciousness, only marginally tempered by age and fatalism. It’s got plenty of howlers, and a fair bit of insight. It’s pretty human.
If you try to enjoy it as it is and don’t take it too seriously, you’ll find it pretty good reading for the long National Day weekend.
Mr Lee never minced his words when he was in power, and he’s even less restrained in the book.
Commenting on China’s struggles with official corruption, he highlights a New York Times story that suggests ex-Premier Wen Jiabao’s family has stashed US$2.7 billion worth of assets around the world.
Scattered through his book ares observations that could be critcized for being dangerously illogical. Of George W Bush, Mr Lee says:
“When you are fighting a fanatic on the other side who believes he represents God, it does help to give you a serenity and a tranquility of mind to believe you also have God on your side. When Bush Junior announced that he had ordered an attack on Baghdad, I never saw a man more composed. He spoke briefly into the microphone and walked away, straight-backed, not a doubt in his mind. I thought to myself: “That’s not a bad commander””.
At turns he conveniently glosses over off-the-mark analyses he tries to post facto rationalize.
Of Burma opening up (and, notably, he chooses to refer to the country as “Burma” despite his interviewer asking him about his views on Myanmar), Mr Lee says:
“They decided it was not possible to carry on because they will eventually collapse. But the North Koreans are of a different culture and type. You do not see Burmese generals with their sarongs and headdress looking as brutal and resolute. It is a different people altogether”.
It’s almost as if he never said, about 3 years ago, that the Burmese generals were “obtuse” and negotiating with them was like “talking to dead people”.
His description of Chinese leader Xi Jinping is tin-eared at best, and completely quixotic at worst:
“Consider further the trials and tribulations that he has been through, having been rusticated as a young man, sent to Sha’anxi province in 1969, but working his way slowly back up, never complaining, never grumbling. I would put him in the Nelson Mandela class of persons”.
But, most of this is really all vintage Mr Lee and more entertaining than alarming or illuminating.
Domestically, he launches broadsides at all and sundry, from those on the opposition benches like Chen Show Mao to members of the People’s Action Party.
When asked a question about racial tensions in Europe, he rather unnecesarily (and extensively) highlights the fact that Mr Goh Chok Tong’s daughter has migrated:
“Goh Chok Tong’s daughter married an Englishman and lives near Bradford. He visits his grandchildren who look more Caucasian than Chinese. He tells me they get along with their neighbours. But that’s because they are middle class”.
And Mr Lee obstinately refuses to budge on policy mistakes he may have made in the past, almost as if two wrongs could make a right.
On the eradication of dialects, he notes his strong objections to a Cabinet proposal for its re-introduction in the media:
“A suggestion was made: “Mandarin is well-established among the population now. Let us go back to dialects so the old can enjoy dramas”. I objected, pointing out that I had, as prime minister, paid a heavy price getting the dialect programmes suppressed and encouraging people to speak Mandarin. So why backtrack? I had antagonised an entire generation of Chinese, who found their favourite dialect programmes cut off. There was one very good narrator of stories called Lee Dai Sor on Rediffusion, and we just switched off his show. Why should I allow Cantonese or Hokkien to infect the next generation? If you bring it back, you will find portions of the older generation beginning to speak in dialects to their children and grandchildren”.
More tellingly, the book doesn’t even speak of or attempt to explain his more gratuitous mistakes like the detention without trial of detainees like Chia Thy Poh and the late Dr Lim Hock Siew and Poh Soo Kai. He also doesn’t speak of his more recent bete noirs whom he went out of his way to crush: JB Jeyaretnam, Dr Chee Soon Juan, the Marxist detainees of 1987 and the alleged euro-communists of the 70s.
So, don’t read the book if you’re expecting contrition or insight into many of the most controversial decisions Mr Lee’s had to make in the course of his political career.
Don’t read it if you’re looking for accurate crystal-gazing into how geopolitics will unfold, or even an up-to-date analysis of what geopolitics today looks like.
It’s not, and it doesn’t pretend to be.
The book didn’t help me forgive the man his foibles (although, I wouldn’t dare to pretend forgiveness was mine to give). But it at least helped me understand some of his neuroses.
It’s Mr Lee speaking about himself that’s almost worth the price of the book, the peek into the psyche of a very decisive (and divisive) man that will inform the critiques of him for years to come.
What I found most remarkable (and, almost touching in its obstinacy) was the unyielding, almost inhuman pragmatism of the man.
When asked about the afterlife, he recalls the stoicism of his old friend Hon Sui Sen as his priest administered the Catholic rites to him before he passed on.
But Mr Lee doesn’t believe in the afterlife, and refused to just because it might give him comfort:
“I wish I can meet my wife in the hereafter, but I don’t think I will. I just cease to exist just as she has ceased to exist – otherwise the other world would be overpopulated. Is heaven such a large and limitless space that you can keep all the peoples of the world over the thousands of years past? I have a large question mark on that”.
When pressed by his interviewer on whether he held out a glimmer of hope of seeing his wife in the afterlife, because it is human to hope for life after death, he is resolute:
“No, it goes against logic. Supposing we all have a life after death, where is that place?”
In the twilight of his years, the one thing detractors and proponents alike would agree on is that Mr Lee will, for better or for worse, be defined by the hyper-pragmatism that he lived and will eventually die by.
In an era of pandering politicians, and decades after the worst excesses of his reign are starting to fade like the bad dreams of a new and hopeful electorate, one is almost tempted to call his perspective refreshing.
My favourite passage of the book, that I think best captures where Mr Lee is in life now, is a rambling rumination on solitude and loneliness. It doesn’t seem to mean very much, but it’s almost poetic:
“Q: Are you afflicted by loneliness sometimes?
A: You have to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. I had a friend who was one of the brightest students in Cambridge. He is dead now. His name was Percy Cradock. He had a wife who was Danish and had diabetes. She had lost two legs. Percy used to say: “I enjoy my solitude.” And I said: Get hold of the computer and go on Google. You can get all the poems that you have read and enjoyed, purple passages from works of literature. You just type in the keywords. It will come out.” And he did.”
The old adage is that you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose. Mr Lee’s book might suggest that politicians should retire in a surfeit of nostalgia, chutzpah and a dash of lyricism. Lap it up and enjoy it for what it is.