Lee Kuan Yew quotes from Hard Truths

(Visa: I’ve been reading LKY’s ‘Hard Truths.’ Here are some quotes that have caught my attention and interest as I’ve been reading.)

On his persuasive powers:
“I can speak to the people over the blather of the media. In a way, I’m like a local Ronald Reagan.”

On the unpredictability of the future:
“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.”

On PAP Leadership:
“Part of the team is in place but you need a leader. You need somebody who can communicate, who can mobilise people, move people. It’s not enough to have good policies. You’ve got to convince people. That’s one reason I am making fewer speeches. I want them to fill the gap.”

On what it takes to be a politician:
“You must have convictions. If you don’t have convictions, you are going in for personal glory or honour or publicity or popularity, forget it.”

“What counts? First, integrity. Second, commitment. Third, ability. And forth, most important, a capacity to expound and carry people with you.”

On excitement:
“Are we as safe as New Zealand and can we dispense with our air force? No. Would I like to be New Zealand? Not really. I think its not an exciting, happening economy. Yes, they grow the world’s best grasses, good for horses and cows and sheep. But a dull life.”

On haste:
“Don’t let the grass grow under your feet.” (To the journalists, re: the Hard Truths project)

On socioeconomic divisiveness:
“It’s a divide between the successful and the less successful which happens in every society. The successful have forgotten that without the peace and stability that made their education, their job or their business opportunities possible, they would never have made it. But having made it, they think they made it on their own. Some students from the top schools like Raffles Institution or Hwa Chong, they go abroad and they think that they had done it on their own. They don’t owe the government or society anything. They are bright chaps, but how did they make it? Because we kept a balance in society. With peace, stability, we built up our education system and enabled the brightest to rise to the top.”

“Will we alwas be able to get the most dedicated and the most capable, with integrity to devote their lives t this? I hope so, but forever, I dont know.

I can see the change in values and attitudes of a different generation who feels that, you know, I’m not going to spend my life in public service like my father or my uncle. I see no reason for that. The place is running, let somebody else do it. Who is that somebody else? Have we got such a plethora of talent, capable, honest, dedicated? We haven’t.”

On Cambridge:
“Cambridge is a snooty place.”

“It changed the course of my life because in London I would have gone bonkers – the noise, the bustle and so on. I was a small town boy landed in this big city. But in Cambridge, there were bicycles all around. The town was there to cater to the students, at that time, 10,000 students. It was a very placid, serene society. It encouraged academic pursuits. Of course you got the drama clubs and debating societies, but on the whole it’s a quiet place. If you want any excitement you go down to London.

And the other thing was the summer when you can go to the Backs, laze around in the sun because you have so little sun in Britain. And you might find a photograph of me and my wife… Those are memories that stick in my mind. But you can’t relive that. Not possible. We went back in 1990-something but it was a different Cambridge and we were different persons, and it was a rainy day. So that’s that.”

On Meditation:
“Still the mind… empty the mind, relax. Look at yourself as a third eye from above and be aware of where you are in this cosmos – that you’re just a little particle. Get a sense of proportion that you’re just a little bit of this huge universe. Ignore your face. Ignore your body, and when you are deep in meditation, forget everything.”

“I believe we should teach meditation in schools because that will save going to the doctors, taking Valium or whatever.”

On his son Hsien Loong, in politics:
“He was old enough to remember the July 1964 riots (he would have been 12 years old, and in Catholic High School). I remember a car was sent out to bring him home (when the riots broke out) but couldn’t contact him because it was such a confused and chaotic situation. He walked home alone.” …

“It made a tremendous impact on him because he realized that this place could just go upside down.”

(Visa: This puts things into a bit of perspective for me. It didn’t occur to me that PM Lee Hsien Loong would have been personally affected by the riots.)

On Daughters:
“Well, I never took her out, because she’s a girl. How can I be looking after her when she’s running around among many other people? Daughters have to be protected.”

(Visa: This was in response to a question asking why Lee didn’t expose his daughter much to politics. Modern women might scoff at this, but I suppose those were different times.)

On Fashion:
“Why should I throw something away which I’m comfortable with? I’m not interested in impressing anybody.”

“You may say it’s a virtue, others think, why is this chap that thrifty? I mean, you look at our Prime Minister. He wears a new shirt every year for the National Day Rally.”

(Visa: I laughed at this one. Lee also described how, in his younger days, he thought of his criminal law supervisor’s shabby dressing as “inverse snobbery”.)

On his house:
“I’ve told the Cabinet, when I’m dead, demolish it. I’ve seen other houses, Nehru’s, Shakespeare’s. They become a shambles after a while. People trudge through. Because of my house the neighbouring houses cannot build high. Now demolish my house and change the planning rules, go up, the land value will go up… I don’t think my daughter or my wife or I, who lived in it, or my sons who grew up in it will bemoan its loss. They have old photos to remind them of the past.”

(Visa: The interviewer made a comment about the old National Library which was torn down. Lee didn’t address that directly, but he implied that the past can be preserved in pictures. I don’t entirely agree. I admire his pragmatism and willingness to destroy, but I also think Singapore has the wrong idea about urban spaces.)

On population density:
“My personal preference is less population density. But I’m not in charge. The government will go the way they believe is necessary for Singapore.”

(Visa: This really is consistent with his sentimental descriptions of how he used to enjoy cycling in the big open spaces in pre-Independence Singapore.)

On clean-and-green Singapore, and social inequality:
“AIf we did not create a society which is clean throughout the island, I believed then and I believe now, we have two classes of people: the upper class, upper middle and even middle class with gracious surroundings; and the lower middle and the working class in poor conditions. No society like that will thrive. No family will want its young men to die for all the people with the big homes and those owning the tall towers. So it was important that the whole island be clean, green and with everyone owning property. It was a fundamental principle on which I crafted all policies, and it’s worked.”

“You don’t live equally, but you are not excluded from the public spaces for everybody.”

On Global Citizenry:
“There is no such thing as a citizen of the world. If you go to China, I don’t think you will belong. Theyl’ll say okay, well’ll accept you… (Lee describes a historical example of the families of Malayan communist cadres being segregated in China). You think you’re Chinese, and that you will blend in, but you will not. You are already different. We are already different… Your major premises are in your mind.”

(Visa: It strikes me that Lee is speaking with a very pragmatic, current-day perspective, but his final point makes me believe that his first point may not necessarily hold true forever. As we demolish more mental barriers, especially through internet communities and globalization, I do think we’ll eventually see “global citizens”- if we aren’t seeing them already.)

On China:
“You can go anytime and the more successful they are, the less they will think of you and the more they will treat you with condescension. The romantic idea of going back to the bosom of your motherland is a delusion. We have become different, that’s all. You can go back to China, you’re still different. If your children are born and bred there, then they may be reabsorbed. Their inputs will be Chinese inputs.”

On Parenting (career advice):
“We did not try to shape their careers. We were both lawyers, but we did not think it was good to encourage them to be lawyers. Instead we asked: What are you good at? What are you interested in? What will give you pleasure and satisfaction and you’re good at it?”

(Visa: This was especially poignant and powerful for me. How many Singaporeans look up to MM Lee? And yet, how many Singaporean parents do this?)

On Mortality:
“Every day is a bonus, so let’s carry on.”

“If I don’t carry on with life, I will degrade. If you think you’re going to sit down and read novels and play golf, you’re foolish – you’ll just go downhill. Every day is a challenge. Every day has problems to be solved.”

“You’ve got to make the best of the rest of your life. If you start pitying yourself and say, oh why can’t I go back to what I was, then you’re creating misery for yourself.”

“I don’t waste time.”

On Marriage:
“We have never allowed the other to feel abandoned and alone in any moment of crisis. Quite the contrary, we have faced all major crises in our lives together, sharing our fears and hopes, and our subsequent grief and exultation. These moments of crisis have bonded us closer together. With the years, the number of special ties which we two have shared have increased.” – Advice to his son Lee Hsien Yang, who got married in 1981

On cost-benefit analysis:
“I used to play golf, but found it did not give me vitality because it’s a slothful game… So in between golf shots, I started to walk faster, and I found myself feeling better. And then, in between golf shots I started to run. Eventually I said, why am I wasting time with the golf? Just run! Nine holes of golf will take you one and a half, two hours. I run in 20 minutes, I feel better off. So the cost-benefit made me drop golf.”

On Films:
“I don’t watch films these days. No time. But I can remember the best comedy I watched was when I was a student. And I was in London when I watched Danny Kaye. For a serious film, Pygmalion

My Fair Lady, one of the best musicals on film, because the speech was perfect and the woman was very good because she could speak like a flower girl and she could speak like a duchess. And she could go back again and it’s code switch switching of a very high order. Those stuck out in my mind. Longest one I ever saw was Gone With The Wind, an American epic. But I don’t watch them any more.”

On Literature:
“If you’re interested, I would read Shakespeare. I think they’re classics. The way he’s able to express himself in iambic pentameter, it’s superb, the words he uses. If you’re interested in economics, I would read Hayek. I think he’s right – if you have a planned economy, you will fail. You’re interested in politics? No such book. You learn the hard way. You can read Kennedy, Profiles in Courage, or Obama and his life story and see how he performs.

(Visa: If you don’t know anything about Friedrich Hayek, check out this awesome video of Hayek and Keynes having a rap-battle. Very educational.)

I read Don Quixote for relaxation. It’s not relevant to my work but it carried me back to a different century. Cervantes imagined his knight-errant and Sancho Panza. Quite an interesting read. You might mean well but don’t tilt at windmills, it’s a waste of time. But it was a comedy, it’s a story. I don’t tilt at windmills. I got mortal foes to fight against.”

On Statesmanship:
“I do not classify myself as a statesman. I put myself down as determined, consistent, persistent. I set out to do something, I keep on chasing it until it succeeds. That’s all. That’s how I perceive myself. Not a statesman.”

“Roosevelt once said to Harriman (special envoy to Europe), he said, “Churchill makes such rousing speeches. Why can’t my speechwriters do that?” So Harriman told him, “He rolls his own cigarettes.” That’s the difference. He rolles his own cigarettes, like de Gaulle. So when he talks, it’s deep from within, and not written up by a polished scriptwriter.”

“It was circumstances that created me: the defeat of the British, the complete collapse of morale, the Japanese brutality, the reoccupation, the struggle for power between the communists and us as the British were withdrawing. That’s what created what I am. I don’t think I wanted to be a statesman, that’s rubbish. You don’t become a statesman. I wanted to be a lawyer.”

On fengshui and astrology:
“Utter rubbish! Utter rubbish! I’m a pragmatic, practical fellow. I do not believe in horoscopes. I do not believe in fengshui. And I’m not superstitious about numbers. But if you have a house which other people has disadvantaged fengshui and numbers, when you buy it, you must consider that when you resell. So again it’s a practical consideration. Not that I’m interested in it. But if I buy that, I must get a low price because when I sell it I will get a low price.”

On the $1 coin having 8 sides because of Lee thought it was auspicious:

“People spin these yarns! It doesn’t bother me.”

On Cycling:
“For three years I cycled (at Cambridge). Of course it’s cooler there, so you don’t sweat. Kept me fit. I used to have to cycle about five miles uphill to go to Girton to see my girlfriend (Kwa Geok Choo).”

“I think we should really consider special tracks for cyclists. Encourage it, then instead of this LRT (Light Rail Transit) and so on you have bicycle racks at MRT stations. It’s better for everybody’s health, it’s better for the environment and it’s certainly better than having the place or having the roads overcrowded with cars, taxis, buses. Doesn’t make sense to me.

But, you know, the modern generation: even to go to the bus stop, they want shelter. I think girls may not like it, they’ll be sweaty. The boys will say, ‘No, I’m doing my national service later, why you make me do national service now? We are rearing a generation that wants to be in comfort but I think cycling is good for them. It did me good, anyway.”

On regrets:
“I did what I thought was right, given the circumstances, given my knowledge at the time, given the pressures on me at the time. That’s finished, done. I move forward. You keep on harking back, it’s just wasting time.”

“Do I regret going to Malaysia? No. It was the right thing to do. Did it fail? Yes. Do I regret pressing for a Malaysian Malaysia and making it fail? No. It was all part of growing up.”

On his legacy and public image:
“I’m no longer in active politics. It’s irrelevant to me what young Singaporeans think of me. What they think of me after I’m dead and gone in one generation will be determined by reasearchers who do PhDs on me, right? So there will be a lot of revisionism. As people revised Stalin, Brezhnev and one day now Yeltsin, and later on Putin. I’ve lived long enough to know that you may be idealised in life and reviled after you’re dead.”

5 thoughts on “Lee Kuan Yew quotes from Hard Truths

  1. bianca

    i quite like this, you make me wanna read the book too, i quite like his writing! very simple and clear, i don’t feel an ounce of pretentiousness in there. hmm.

    and “inverse snobbery”!!! made me laugh too

  2. Tan Ah Beng

    All his books come with lots of wisdom…. and I am actually very grateful for all that he had done for Singapore… He was the RIGHT man at the RIGHT time for Singapore.

    And all along I suspected that his decisions were influenced by Austrian Economics… and now it was confirmed.

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