Lee Kuan Yew Reflects

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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:

TIME: 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.

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