For nearly five hours over two days this fall, Singapore's Minister Mentor LEE KUAN YEW spoke with TIME's Michael Elliott, Zoher Abdoolcarim and Simon Elegant on everything from China's rise to radical Islam, from American values to Singapore's first family. Lee was thoughtful, animated, defiant, playful, even emotional — and always provocative. Highlights of the conversation:
THE RISE OF CHINATIME: The coming East Asia summit is an unprecedented gathering of Asia's leaders. Do you see it as an epochal moment for the region? LEE: It happened in an unplanned, almost accidental, way. Abdullah Badawi, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, offered to host an East Asia summit: ASEAN plus three — the three being China, Japan and South Korea. China's premier, Wen Jiabao, then offered to host the second summit. That would move the center of gravity away from Southeast to Northeast Asia and make some countries anxious. We agreed that we should also invite India, Australia and New Zealand and keep the center in ASEAN; also, India would be a useful balance to China's heft. This is a getting-together of countries that believe their economic and cultural relations will grow over the years. And this will be a restoration of two ancient civilizations: China and India. With their revival, their influence will again spread into Southeast Asia. It would mean great prosperity for the region, but could also mean a tussle for power. Therefore, we think it best that from the beginning, we bring all the parties in together. It's not Asians versus whites. Everybody knows Australia and New Zealand are close to the U.S. There shouldn't be any concern that this is an anti-American grouping. It's a neater balance.
TIME: The summit is a coming-out party for China. The Chinese leadership use the phrase "peaceful rise." Does that strike you as about right, or are you nervous? LEE: My first reaction was to tell one of their think tanks, "It's a contradiction in terms; any rise is something that is startling." And they said, "What would you say?" I replied: "Peaceful renaissance, or evolution, or development." A recovery of ancient glory, an updating of a once great civilization. But it's already done. Now the Chinese have to construe it as best they can.
A year ago, a Chinese leader in his 70s asked me, "Do you believe our position on peaceful rise?" I answered, "Yes, I do — but with one caveat." Your generation has been through the anti-Japanese war, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Gang of Four, and finally the Open Door policy. You know there are many pitfalls, that for China to go up the escalator without mishap, internally you need stability, externally you need peace. However, you are inculcating enormous pride and patriotism in your young in a restored China. So much so that when they started demonstrating against the Japanese, they became violent. Furthermore, when my son, the [Singapore] Prime Minister, went to Taipei last year, he and Singapore were attacked on China's Internet chat rooms as ingrates, traitors. The day before yesterday, I was an old friend of China; today I'm a new enemy. It's volatile. The Chinese leader said they would ensure that the young understood. Well, I hope they do. Somewhere down this road, a generation may believe they have come of age, before they have.
TIME: So is nationalism — rather than its political system, or the build-up of its military, or the destabilizing role the Chinese Communist Party once played in Southeast Asia — the main reason behind the suspicion about China? LEE: The discomfort [with China] is primarily that it is becoming a very powerful country and that it's not averse to making its power felt. For instance, when we did not sufficiently make amends for having visited Taiwan, they just froze all economic ties at the official level. We are a very small part of their economy, but they are a significant part of ours — and they are fully aware of this. It's a lever they will use from time to time.
TIME: Western analysts did not expect President Hu Jintao to pay so much attention to the Communist Party, or crack down on the media — or to see so much nationalist sentiment surface. The West has a certain unease and wariness about China's leaders. LEE: They are communist by doctrine. I don't believe they are the same old communists as they used to be, but the thought processes, the dialectical, secretive way in which they form and frame their policies [still exist]. Their main preoccupations are stability, the continuation of their rule over China, and economic growth. Without a strong center they fear that they will never become competitive, they will never get rid of their state-owned enterprises, and they could have trouble in their inland provinces that are not doing well. A year before they took power, both Hu and Wen left me with the clear impression that they were going to redress this inequality, as best they could. To do that, they need a Party that responds to their orders, not have powerful barons in the provinces.
TIME: Other countries have addressed such problems, particularly corruption, through alternative power centers, such as independent prosecutors and courts, and a free press. LEE: They know they have a problem. But at the same time, how to solve it, because how do you suddenly find the resources to pay high wages? They call our [Singapore] system "high-paying clean government." If they go for "high-paying clean government," where is the revenue to come from? [But] as long as the center is determined and clean, they can gradually put it right.
TIME: Do you think the center is pretty clean? LEE: The core leaders I know — Hu Jintao, [Standing Committee Chairman] Wu Bangguo, Wen Jiabao, [Vice President] Zeng Qinghong — I say definitely yes.
TIME: You've resisted the idea that the last two generations of Chinese leadership were influenced by Singapore as a model. You've said, they will make their own model. But surely they have studied Singapore. LEE: They have studied us. They want to know how we stay in power in spite of multiparty elections and a plurality of views. They have huge Communist Party buildings, huge organizations. They find in Singapore no [ruling] People's Action Party building, no big statues, but also no corruption. The pap is everywhere, and the pap is nowhere. And they were surprised that our M.P.s have lawyers, doctors, professionals and business executives helping them nurse their constituencies, writing letters for constituents, advising them and so on. They went into the constituencies with our M.P.s, to see how it works. And they asked, "How do you do this? How do you create this?" In their [system], the high-ranking cadre is on a pedestal, traditionally in a curtained sedan chair. They're trying to nurture a new generation of cadres to model themselves differently. Yes, they can pick up pointers from us, but they cannot change the "magistrate-in-the-sedan-chair" culture so easily.
TIME: They will have to deal with democracy, or democratic pressures, at some point. LEE: They don't view it the way you do. It's been their experience to always need total control at the center. If China's center loses power, the country will disintegrate. That's a deep-seated historical lesson. Deng [Xiaoping] said, "You cross the river feeling for one pebble at a time." They're going about it in a pragmatic way. With corruption and the grassroots, they find that when they allow a vote for the village chief, the corrupt officials are voted out. How far will they go? I think they'll go for small townships. As long as they can stay in overall control, they will keep experimenting.
TIME: Mao Zedong said: "A single spark can light a prairie fire." LEE: A prairie fire will only start if there's a dry spell. They've got $700 billion worth of reserves. Never has the central government of China been so well equipped with the latest in transportation and communication technology. Is anybody going to die of hunger? No. Anybody needs to be turfed out of their homes and thrown onto the streets without alternatives? No.
TIME: Is that what it's all about then: keep the people fed and watered and they won't bother you? LEE: With rural folk, yes. With the town folk, that's a different problem. As China moves to a majority urban society, [where people have access to] satellite TV, Internet, cell phones, the towns have to be governed differently. At the moment they are co-opting: you are a successful entrepreneur, you are a great artist, then join us. The Communist Party is a very broad church. You help drive China forward. Make it work better.
TIME: Do they know that they have to do more than make the Communist Party a broad church, that there's a mindset they have to change? LEE: Oh yeah, they're not stupid. Talking to them, I do not think that they believe their grandchildren will live under this system unchanged. They allowed the book Studying in America by Qian Ning, son of [former vice premier] Qian Qichen, to be published. He was working at the People's Daily, went to the University of Michigan on a scholarship immediately after Tiananmen, and he wrote the book three or four years later. He had an impeccable communist pedigree, but what he wrote was quite subversive. When he arrived at Ann Arbor that summer of 1989, he suddenly realized that life consisted also of parties, barbecues, great friendships, not this hothouse self-criticism and politicking in Beijing. In one passage he says that all those who had their wives with them [in the U.S.], when these women go home, they would never be the same Chinese women. They had seen that a different style of life is possible. In an oblique way, he's saying he's changed his perspective of what is possible in Chinese society. This is the new world, multiple channels of interaction with the outside world, their students in universities abroad, businessmen scouting for opportunities abroad, tourists and businessmen coming to China.
TIME: You mentioned 1989, the year of the Tiananmen crackdown. You've said that came as an incredible shock to you. Do you think Deng Xiaoping did the right thing? LEE: I cannot judge what he did, because I did not have his information. If, in fact, there was a danger of similar outbursts in other cities, then I think he had to move. But I said later to [then Premier] Li Peng, "When I had trouble with my sit-in communist students, squatting in school premises and keeping their teachers captive, I cordoned off the whole area around the schools, shut off the water and electricity, and just waited. I told their parents that health conditions were deteriorating, dysentery was going to spread. And they broke it up without any difficulty." I said to Li Peng, you had the world's TV cameras there waiting for the meeting with Gorbachev, and you stage this grand show. His answer was: We are completely inexperienced in these matters.
THE DANGER OF RADICAL ISLAMTIME: How serious is the threat? LEE: This battle is going to be won and lost in the Middle East. The problem in Iraq is very grave. If the jihadists win there, I'm in trouble here. [Their attitude will be]: We've beaten the Russians in Afghanistan, we've beaten the Americans and the coalition in Iraq. There's nothing we cannot do. We can fix Southeast Asia too. There will be such a surge of confidence for all jihadists. The U.S. must be seen�if not to have prevailed or to have created a democratic Iraq�to at least to have denied the jihadists a victory. Because otherwise the consequences for America and for the world are horrendous.
TIME: The 2002 plot to blow up seven embassies in Singapore using truck bombs�our sense is that you were taken completely by surprise. LEE: Of course. How could we, in this most cosmopolitan and open of cities, where 15% Muslim Malays are completely mixed up with Chinese, Indians, Eurasians and others, go to English-language schools, do similar jobs, live in similar homes, produce 30-plus would-be jihadists?
TIME: You had no idea? LEE: No idea at all. It was a stroke of good fortune. Our intelligence had under surveillance a few religious types [in Singapore]. One of them left for Karachi and went on to Afghanistan, soon after the country was bombed by the Americans [in late 2001]. He was captured by the [anti-Taliban] Northern Alliance. He was of Pakistani descent. So we found that this wasn't just a religious study group. If that fella had not gone off to Karachi to fight with the Taliban, we would have been hit with seven truck bombs. The nitrates were sitting [across the causeway] in [the Malaysian state of] Johore.
At the same time that this Pakistani, born and bred in Singapore and English-speaking, was caught by the Northern Alliance, another Pakistani born and bred in Bradford, U.K., was caught in Iraq and sent to Guant�namo Bay. I watched his father on the BBC, and thought to myself: two Pakistani families left Pakistan, one for Bradford, the other for Singapore, produced children, brought up in two totally different environments, quite distant from the Islam of Pakistan, and yet they both end up fighting in Afghanistan. This Islamist pull is more powerful than that of communism. The communists never fully trusted one another across racial boundaries. The Vietnamese communists never trusted the Chinese communists and so on. But with the Islamists there is total trust: You are a warrior for Islam, so am I: We swear to fight together.
TIME: Both the rise of China and the rise of radical Islam require very sustained, long-term engagement by the U.S. Are you confident that Americans have the ability and the patience for the long-term view, the long-term engagement? LEE: In the past the U.S. had the option of opting out, as in Vietnam. Now Americans know they are vulnerable; 9/11 brought this home dramatically. American embassies and American businesses are being attacked worldwide. Opting out is not an option. To make the long-term burden sustainable you need a broad alliance, to spread the load, to reduce excessive burdens on yourself. You need others to agree on the basic causes and solutions. It's not poverty, it's not deprivation, it's something more fundamental, a resurgence of Arab and Islamic pride, and a belief that their time has come. The objective must be to reassure and persuade moderate Muslims, the rationalists and modernizers, which I believe the majority are, that they are not going to lose, that they have the weight, the resources of the world behind them. They must have the courage to go into the mosques and madrasahs and switch off the radicals.
AMERICAN VALUESTIME: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks very openly and genuinely about his religious values. How do you find that? LEE: I had this argument with a European leader, who said to me, "We Europeans don't like [Bush's] telephone line to God." And I said to him: But 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. Look at the President when he 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.
TIME: You've been a staunch advocate of continued U.S. engagement in Asia. At the same time, you have been a pretty sharp critic, to put it mildly, of internal American society. LEE: Because they want to impose certain values on me that would make it very difficult to govern a Singapore in the middle of a Muslim Southeast Asia. Sometimes, intellectually, I've got to give it as hard as they give it to me. It's important that we do that, because we intend to stand our ground with the Chinese and with our bigger neighbors. We are small, we are vulnerable, we can be destroyed. If we don't stand our ground, they'll just roll over us.
TIME: Do you like American society now? LEE: I admire American society. But I would not want to live there permanently. If I had to be a refugee, like [former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen] Cao Ky, who went to California, I would choose Britain, a less stressful society. [But Americans have] a can-do approach to life: everything can be broken up, analyzed, and redefined. Whether it can or it can't, Americans believe it can be solved, given enough money, research and effort. Over the years I have watched the Americans revise and restructure their economy, after they were going down in the 1980s, when Japan and Germany looked like eclipsing America, taking over all the manufacturing. Americans came roaring back. [They] have the superior system. It's more competitive.
TIME: But the U.S. is a very non-Singaporean society. It's messy and noisy, and it has turmoil. LEE: You must have contention, a clash of ideas. If Galileo had not challenged the Pope, we would still believe the world is flat, right? And Christopher Columbus might never have discovered America.
TIME: You don't allow much contention in Singapore. LEE: [The lack of contention] here could be a problem. But I do not believe you must have that degree of contention and political viciousness to be creative ... The exaggerated exploitation of political positions, just to do the other side in, it's so counterproductive, unnecessary. Take Hurricane Katrina. The politicking was incredible. So George W. Bush was not quick off the mark when Katrina struck. But I don't think his adversaries were simply that worried about New Orleans; they just wanted to put Bush down.
THE MAKING OF SINGAPORETIME: But you would concede that Singapore now needs more contention and turmoil? LEE: Surely, surely. Ideally we should have Team A, Team B, equally balanced, so that we can have a swap and the system will run. We have not been able to do this in Singapore because our population is only 4 million, and the people at the top, with proven track records�not just in ability, but in character, determination, commitment�will not be more than 2,000. You can put their biodata in a thumbdrive.
We also have a different culture, a different way of doing things. The individual is not the building block. It's the family, the extended family, the clan and the state. The five crucial relationships are: you and the prince or the ruler, you and your wife, you and your children, you and your parents, you and your friends. If those relationships are right, everything will work out well in society.
TIME: You have said that the people of Singapore are overly reliant on the government to solve their problems, but isn't the government partly to blame? LEE: Should I have fostered more free enterprise, more do-it-yourself? Yes. But free enterprise was not working [for us] because we did not have enough entrepreneurs.
Hong Kong started with successful businessmen from mainland China, after '49. They were the business �lite of the coastal regions. They were not just merchants. They knew how to run a shipping line, how to start a textile factory, run a bank and so on. We had traders, not manufacturers. Why did we [the government] start a shipping line? Because we didn't have a Y.K. Pao or a C.Y. Tung as in Hong Kong. The same with Singapore Airlines, and so with an iron and steel mill. How do we get out of these companies now? To get out, we've got to find a buyer who can provide the management to take over. We produced the bright officers who are good at numbers and who learned on the job. They did a great job. We don't want to do that anymore. If SIA can be run by some corporate group, we want to get out of it. But who in Singapore? Have we got a Li Ka-shing?
TIME: Are you disappointed that it is so hard to find that kind of animal spirit? LEE: We did the best we could with the material we then had. Now we are switching to a new mode. The other day I attended the wake of the former chief justice. I was talking to the son, and I said, what are you doing? He's a lawyer, but he's given up law; he's now running a yoga club. He's got one in Hong Kong, he's got one here. I said, oh that's good. Where did you get the yoga teachers from? He said he got them from India. He says many people feel stressed, and so a yoga club. I think the spirit of enterprise is taking hold. They are trying out new businesses. You can have an office in your home, so long as the neighbors don't complain. You can start a boutique or a restaurant in a residential neighborhood if it is not a nuisance. And if there are three or four more of them, we'll change it from a residential to commercial area. But it's not going to happen overnight.
TIME: A documentary film was made locally about a Singapore opposition politician, and it was banned. LEE: Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change ...
[But] I'm not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. 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.
TIME: Couldn't you have been lighter on the opposition�not sue? LEE: No. If you don't sue, repetition of the lie [makes it credible]. It will be believed ... [Former U.S. Secretary of State] George Shultz once wrote to me about why I insist on this right of reply. I said to him, "We believe in the marketplace of ideas. Let the ideas contend, and the best ideas the public will buy." But I also said, "That assumes a large well-educated group of people as readers. Look at the marketplace of ideas in the Philippines, and see the chaos." Americans can have a marketplace of ideas. For example, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was a box-office hit. Americans enjoyed their President being mocked and satirized. But the majority voted for Bush in November 2004. When we have a large enough educated population like America, able to make independent judgments, we will loosen up. But even without the cacophony, all ideas are accessible in the media and the Internet.
TIME: You have strong views about a political culture of noise and discordancy. Yet at the same time you want Singapore to move a little bit more in that direction. LEE: Surely. It is in the interests of my son and his team to encourage Singaporeans to be more self-reliant, willing to take charge of their lives, and less dependent on looking to the government for solutions. In other words, become more like Americans. Gradually over the years, I have seen the value of the American can-do spirit.
TIME: Singapore is a more modern, more sophisticated, better educated society than the U.K. Young Singaporeans are bright, smart, lively. They can take it, they can take a noisy marketplace of ideas. LEE: Look, I don't meet them so often now. My son does. Let him decide. It's his call.
THE PERSONAL LEETIME: Speaking of your son, the Lee family is in such positions of power in Singapore that there has to be some resentment. LEE: In 1984 [then Defense Minister] Goh Chok Tong was looking for potential ministers to be M.P.s. He persuaded [Lee Hsien Loong], then a brigadier-general, to stand for elections. I said to [Hsien Loong]: You need to remarry�his first wife had died in '82�going into politics will make it more difficult. He decided to go into politics in 1984, and he remarried in 1985. In 1992 he had leukemia. His world crashed. These things are beyond anyone's control. Did I plan for him to be Prime Minister? 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.
TIME: Who's the most impressive person you've met in your public life? LEE: Deng Xiaoping.
TIME: We knew you'd say that. But tell us why. LEE: I met this small man when he came to Singapore in November 1978. This small four-foot-eleven man, but a giant of a leader. He gave me a long spiel�the Russian bear, Vietnam was his Cuba in the Far East, danger for you. I had provided him with a Ming vase spittoon, and I put an ashtray in front of him. He neither smoked nor used the spittoon. The same arrangements at dinner. He did not use either. At dinner he said, "I must congratulate you, you've done a good job in Singapore." I said, "Oh, how's that?" He says, "I came to Singapore on my way to Marseilles in 1920. It was a lousy place. You have made it a different place." I said, "Thank you. Whatever we can do, you can do better. We are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the mandarins, the writers, the thinkers and all the bright people. You can do better." He looked at me, but said nothing. In November 1992, during his famous tour of the southern provinces, he said, "Learn from Singapore," and "Do better than them." I thought, oh, he never forgot what I said to him.
But what impressed me was, the next day in our talks in Singapore, I said, "You spent all this time to convince me why we should fight the Russian bear. Let me tell you that my neighbors want me to join them to fight you, you're the man who's giving us trouble. All this communist insurgency and your broadcasts urging them on and so on." He screwed up his eyes, peered at me, and asked, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "Stop it." One young man telling one old grizzly, guerrilla fighter: "Stop it." He said, "Give me time." Eighteen months later he stopped it. That man faced reality. I'm convinced that his visit to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, that journey, in November '78, was a shock to him. He expected three third-world cities; he saw three second-world cities, better than Shanghai or Beijing. As his aircraft door closed, I turned around to my colleagues, I said, [his aides] are getting a shellacking. They gave him the wrong brief. Within weeks, the People's Daily switched lines, that Singapore is no longer a running dog of the Americans, it's a very nice city, a garden city, good public housing, very clean place. They changed their line. And he changed to the "open door" policy. After a lifetime as a communist, at the age of 74, he persuaded his Long March contemporaries to return to a market economy.
TIME: Do you think of yourself as a religious man? Do you have a religious faith that keeps you going, sustains you? LEE: We do psychometric tests on our candidates for important jobs. There is a scale of values: social, aesthetic, economic, religious, etc., six values. I cannot judge myself, but I believe I would not score very highly on religious value. I do not believe that prayer can cure, but that prayer may comfort and help. At the same time, I've seen my closest friend [former Finance Minister] Hon Sui Sen on his deathbed; he had had a heart attack and was fighting for his life, doctors were there, the priest was there, but there was no fear in his eyes. He and his wife were devout Catholics. They were both convinced they would meet again in the hereafter. I believe a man or a woman who has deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crises, an advantage in life.
Many years ago I read a book�The Real Enemy by Pierre d'Harcourt, a French Catholic. He recounted his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. There were two groups of people in his camp. Those with convictions survived, and those who had no deep convictions died. The two groups who had convictions were the deeply religious�of whom he, a Catholic, was one�and the communists. They had the same unshakeable conviction that they would triumph. The others�famous doctors, talented musicians and so on�they would trade their food for cigarettes, knowing that if they did that, one morning they would not be able to go out into the cold for the roll call. But they had given up. The communists and the deeply religious fought on and survived. There are some things in the human spirit that are beyond reason.