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TIME: U.S. President George W. Bush speaks very openly and genuinely about his religious values. How do you find that?
LEE: I had this argument with a European leader, who said to me, "We Europeans don't like [Bush's] telephone line to God." And I said to him: But when you are fighting a fanatic on the other side who believes he represents God, it does help to give you a serenity and a tranquility of mind to believe you also have God on your side. Look at the President when he announced that he had ordered an attack on Baghdad. I never saw a man more composed—[he] spoke briefly into the microphone and walked away straight-backed, not a doubt in his mind. I thought to myself, that's not a bad commander.
TIME: You've been a staunch advocate of continued U.S. engagement in Asia. At the same time, you have been a pretty sharp critic, to put it mildly, of internal American society.
LEE: Because they want to impose certain values on me that would make it very difficult to govern a Singapore in the middle of a Muslim Southeast Asia. Sometimes, intellectually, I've got to give it as hard as they give it to me. It's important that we do that, because we intend to stand our ground with the Chinese and with our bigger neighbors. We are small, we are vulnerable, we can be destroyed. If we don't stand our ground, they'll just roll over us.
TIME: Do you like American society now?
LEE: I admire American society. But I would not want to live there permanently. If I had to be a refugee, like [former South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen] Cao Ky, who went to California, I would choose Britain, a less stressful society. [But Americans have] a can-do approach to life: everything can be broken up, analyzed, and redefined. Whether it can or it can't, Americans believe it can be solved, given enough money, research and effort. Over the years I have watched the Americans revise and restructure their economy, after they were going down in the 1980s, when Japan and Germany looked like eclipsing America, taking over all the manufacturing. Americans came roaring back. [They] have the superior system. It's more competitive.
TIME: But the U.S. is a very non-Singaporean society. It's messy and noisy, and it has turmoil.
LEE: You must have contention, a clash of ideas. If Galileo had not challenged the Pope, we would still believe the world is flat, right? And Christopher Columbus might never have discovered America.
TIME: You don't allow much contention in Singapore.
LEE: [The lack of contention] here could be a problem. But I do not believe you must have that degree of contention and political viciousness to be creative ... The exaggerated exploitation of political positions, just to do the other side in, it's so counterproductive, unnecessary. Take Hurricane Katrina. The politicking was incredible. So George W. Bush was not quick off the mark when Katrina struck. But I don't think his adversaries were simply that worried about New Orleans; they just wanted to put Bush down.