When Mr Lee Kuan Yew was asked how he wanted to be judged by history, he replied: “Ah, history… I’m dead by then.”
That was during an interview in 2009 with the authors of the book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going.
I remembered thinking at the time that it was so like him: unsentimental to the end, and dead right.
But though he didn’t want to dwell on what that judgment might be, he had plenty to say about the future of this place after his death.
And we the authors were very keen at the time to get him to talk about it, pressing him about this scenario and that.
How did he see Singapore’s politics changing? How long would the People’s Action Party be able to remain in power? How might its demise occur? What will happen in 10, 20 or 50 years from now?
He had agreed to do the book with us because he wanted his views to reach as many people as possible, but especially younger Singaporeans, never mind if they agreed with him or not.
So, on the first anniversary of his death, I thought it fitting to put together those views, not about what he had achieved, but the future which he was so concerned with in his later years.
Some of the following extracts were said in different parts of the year-long interviews we had with him, but for the purpose of this piece, I have edited and put them together.
I think he would have wanted Singaporeans to reflect on what he had to say.
Q How confident are you that Singapore will survive you?
Mr Lee All I can say is I think Singapore is safe for 10 years. No trouble because there’s a team in place that will handle it. Whether it will be 15, 20, 30 years depends on them getting a team of players very soon. Part of the team is in place but you need a leader man. You need somebody who can communicate, who can mobilise people, move people. It’s not enough to have a good policy. You got to convince people.
Q What about beyond 10 years?
Mr Lee I think there will come a time when eventually the public will say, look, let’s try the other side, either because the PAP has declined in quality or the opposition has put up a team which is equal to the PAP and they say, let’s try the other side. It must come.
Q How will it happen?
Mr Lee It depends on when it happens and whether it happens all of a sudden or it happens gradually. If the decline in standards happens gradually, an opposition will emerge of quality. I mean, the public can sense it.
I think the more likely is a gradual evolution because it is most unlikely the way we have evolved the party and the renewal of the party leadership that you will get such a clash of opinions that it will divide the whole leadership, the MPs and the party machinery into two, or into one major part, one minor part.
Q What will happen if it takes place suddenly?
Mr Lee If it is sudden, well, you’re landed with an emergency. In that emergency I think the people will just take somebody like me and a few of those friends and say look, let’s make a bid and stop this from going down the drain.
Q What could possibly make it happen suddenly?
Mr Lee You have a rumpus in the leadership. They disagree profoundly, either for reasons of principle or personality and suddenly it breaks up… I cannot tell you what’s going to be in maybe 20, 30, 40 years, not possible. We might have a genuine difference of perspective what the future should be, what kind of Singapore will survive and thrive in that future. We might have a clash. I don’t know. I’ve lived long enough to know that nobody settles the future of his country beyond more than a decade or so of his life. Stalin grabbed the whole of eastern part of Europe, grabbed all the Asian republics right up to Siberia, took Outer Mongolia which belonged to China under his wing. That’s 1945. He’s dead. 1950s or -something, Khrushchev came up. 1992, it dissolved – less than 40 years. They threw up a Gorbachev who never went through a revolution, who did not know that he was sitting on a boiling cauldron.
Q So there’s nothing that can be done to prepare us for that eventuality?
Mr Lee Can anybody tell you how to prevent, from getting a stroke or an accident? That you will eventually die is a certainty, right? But how you will die, nobody can tell you.
Q What is your greatest fear for Singapore?
Mr Lee I think a leadership and a people that has forgotten, that has lost its bearings and do not understand the constraints that we face. Small base, highly, technically, organised, very competent people, complete international confidence, an ability to engage the big boys. You lose that, you’re down. And you can go down very rapidly…
No system lasts forever, that’s for sure. Ten years, I don’t think it’ll happen; 20 years, I can’t say; 30 years, even more I cannot tell you. Will we always be able to get the most dedicated and the most capable, with integrity to devote their lives to this? I hope so but forever, I don’t know.
As I re-read these extracts now, he seemed more tentative and ambivalent about Singapore’s future than I had ever heard him.
Who can tell what might happen beyond 20 years?
The PAP might still be around, but, then again, it might not.
But he had an underlying confidence in the people, that if they sensed Singapore was heading downhill, they would rally around another group and “stop this from going down the drain”.
Of all the things he had said about the future, that’s worth remembering.