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TIME: Speaking of your son, the Lee family is in such positions of power in Singapore that there has to be some resentment.
LEE: In 1984 [then Defense Minister] Goh Chok Tong was looking for potential ministers to be M.P.s. He persuaded [Lee Hsien Loong], then a brigadier-general, to stand for elections. I said to [Hsien Loong]: You need to remarry—his first wife had died in '82—going into politics will make it more difficult. He decided to go into politics in 1984, and he remarried in 1985. In 1992 he had leukemia. His world crashed. These things are beyond anyone's control. Did I plan for him to be Prime Minister? Not possible. It worked out that way, but what I determined was that he would not succeed me, that there should be a clear interregnum between him and me. I said it openly, I said at a party conference that I would not have him succeed me because it would be bad for him, bad for the country, and bad for me. He would be seen to have got there by my influence. That would diminish him, reduce his ability to govern. In several elections we won by the largest majority of votes. I have lived a full life and do not need to live vicariously.
TIME: Who's the most impressive person you've met in your public life?
LEE: Deng Xiaoping.
TIME: We knew you'd say that. But tell us why.
LEE: I met this small man when he came to Singapore in November 1978. This small four-foot-eleven man, but a giant of a leader. He gave me a long spiel—the Russian bear, Vietnam was his Cuba in the Far East, danger for you. I had provided him with a Ming vase spittoon, and I put an ashtray in front of him. He neither smoked nor used the spittoon. The same arrangements at dinner. He did not use either. At dinner he said, "I must congratulate you, you've done a good job in Singapore." I said, "Oh, how's that?" He says, "I came to Singapore on my way to Marseilles in 1920. It was a lousy place. You have made it a different place." I said, "Thank you. Whatever we can do, you can do better. We are the descendants of the landless peasants of south China. You have the mandarins, the writers, the thinkers and all the bright people. You can do better." He looked at me, but said nothing. In November 1992, during his famous tour of the southern provinces, he said, "Learn from Singapore," and "Do better than them." I thought, oh, he never forgot what I said to him.
But what impressed me was, the next day in our talks in Singapore, I said, "You spent all this time to convince me why we should fight the Russian bear. Let me tell you that my neighbors want me to join them to fight you, you're the man who's giving us trouble. All this communist insurgency and your broadcasts urging them on and so on." He screwed up his eyes, peered at me, and asked, "What do you want me to do?" I said, "Stop it." One young man telling one old grizzly, guerrilla fighter: "Stop it." He said, "Give me time." Eighteen months later he stopped it. That man faced reality. I'm convinced that his visit to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, that journey, in November '78, was a shock to him. He expected three third-world cities; he saw three second-world cities, better than Shanghai or Beijing. As his aircraft door closed, I turned around to my colleagues, I said, [his aides] are getting a shellacking. They gave him the wrong brief. Within weeks, the People's Daily switched lines, that Singapore is no longer a running dog of the Americans, it's a very nice city, a garden city, good public housing, very clean place. They changed their line. And he changed to the "open door" policy. After a lifetime as a communist, at the age of 74, he persuaded his Long March contemporaries to return to a market economy.
TIME: Do you think of yourself as a religious man? Do you have a religious faith that keeps you going, sustains you?
LEE: We do psychometric tests on our candidates for important jobs. There is a scale of values: social, aesthetic, economic, religious, etc., six values. I cannot judge myself, but I believe I would not score very highly on religious value. I do not believe that prayer can cure, but that prayer may comfort and help. At the same time, I've seen my closest friend [former Finance Minister] Hon Sui Sen on his deathbed; he had had a heart attack and was fighting for his life, doctors were there, the priest was there, but there was no fear in his eyes. He and his wife were devout Catholics. They were both convinced they would meet again in the hereafter. I believe a man or a woman who has deep faith in God has an enormous strength facing crises, an advantage in life.
Many years ago I read a book—The Real Enemy by Pierre d'Harcourt, a French Catholic. He recounted his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. There were two groups of people in his camp. Those with convictions survived, and those who had no deep convictions died. The two groups who had convictions were the deeply religious—of whom he, a Catholic, was one—and the communists. They had the same unshakeable conviction that they would triumph. The others—famous doctors, talented musicians and so on—they would trade their food for cigarettes, knowing that if they did that, one morning they would not be able to go out into the cold for the roll call. But they had given up. The communists and the deeply religious fought on and survived. There are some things in the human spirit that are beyond reason.