Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The man who called Lee Kuan Yew a dictator to his face

William Safire, the former speech writer for Richard Nixon and New York Times columnist who died on Sunday aged 79, was known as a pugnacious commentator.


There are perhaps few better examples of this than his interview with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding father, at the World Economic Forum in 1999, when he called Lee a dictator and accused him of showing disregard for the principles of liberal democracy.

In Safire's word's: "The determinedly irreplaceable Lee Kuan Yew is the world's most intelligent, and to some most likable despot."

Lee's response to the accusation of dictatorship was "do I need to be a dictator when I can win, hands down?".

Safire's New York Times piece on the interview is online here, while a full transcript of the interview has been posted here.

There are some real gems in here, such as when Safire asks whether Lee's son (Lee Hsien Loong) would be deputy prime minister [as he was in 1999] if it wasn't for the familial connection. [Lee junior was sworn in as Singapore's third PM in 2004.]

Lee responds: "If he were not my son, he would be the Prime Minister. I'll tell you honestly, I stopped him, because he can run faster than any of the others. But I told him it would do him no good. Just stay out of this race. And his generation, his peers, know that I am not boasting when I tell you this."

Then, Safire asks whether Lee forsees a dynasty. Lee replies:

"I am not that bereft of satisfaction with my life that I need to live vicariously through him. In fact, if he doesn't measure up, it is better that he does not show up, because he'll just besmirch the family reputation."

Lee also talks in the interview of the need to restrict the flow of online content to the "lumpen mass" of 30%-40% of Singaporeans who are not well-educated. [Just 15% of Singaporeans were using the internet back in 1999, compared to 76% today.]

"We don't want this barrage day after day ... the society has got to adjust and evolve step by step."

Hat-tip to Reme Ahmad, assistant foreign editor at the Straits Times, and his personal blog.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user No Use For a Name.

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