This week's Saturday profile in the New York Times is a surprisingly reflective interview with Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore's founding prime minister.
The 86-year-old political gunslinger has shown few signs of mellowing with age, most recently advising Singaporeans to work until they drop dead or risk ruining the island nation's economic prospects.
But, in an interview with a newspaper that his lawyers felt compelled to sue again back in March (a fact not mentioned in the piece), he talks rather movingly about his struggle to face the uncomfortable reality of ageing, his wife's illness and his own mortality:
“I can feel the gradual decline of energy and vitality,” said Mr. Lee, whose “Singapore model” of economic growth and tight social control made him one of the most influential political figures of Asia. “And I mean generally, every year, when you know you are not on the same level as last year. But that’s life.”
In a long, unusually reflective interview last week, he talked about the aches and pains of age and the solace of meditation, about his struggle to build a thriving nation on this resource-poor island, and his concern that the next generation might take his achievements for granted and let them slip away.
He was dressed informally in a windbreaker and running shoes in his big, bright office, still sharp of mind but visibly older and a little stooped, no longer in day-to-day control but, for as long as he lives, the dominant figure of the nation he created.
But in these final years, he said, his life has been darkened by the illness of his wife and companion of 61 years, bedridden and mute after a series of strokes.
“I try to busy myself,” he said, “but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.” Agnostic and pragmatic in his approach to life, he spoke with something like envy of people who find strength and solace in religion. “How do I comfort myself?” he asked. “Well, I say, ‘Life is just like that.’"
Although he has never seemed fond of apologies, he talks with a hint of regret about the darker days of Singaporean politics, when he locked up a number of political opponents for years without trial:
I’m not saying that everything I did was right but everything I did was for an honorable purpose. I had to do some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial.
But Lee is not yet ready to go gentle into that good night. The interview concludes with him citing a Chinese proverb: Do not judge a man until his coffin is closed.
Close the coffin, then decide. Then you assess him. I may still do something foolish before the lid is closed on me.