Five British and Australian correspondents arrived at Singapore's television studios last week expecting to hear Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew talk about the prospects for Britain's Singapore bases, now that the tiny city-nation is independent of Malaysia.
But Harry Lee had a far bigger and a far more engrossing story for them. It was a searing attack on the United States that made cheeks burn all the way to Washington before the week was out.
Lee began calmly enough by making it plain that he wanted Britain's 50,000 troops to stay in Singapore. What he was worried about, he said, was that London itself might some day lose interest, adding: "If the British withdraw, I am prepared to go on with the Australians and the New Zealanders. But I am not prepared to go on with the Americans." When someone curiously asked why, Lee was ready and willing to answer.
The U.S. "lack of depth and judgment or wisdom," proclaimed the leader of the month-old nation, is the result of having only "400 years of history," of having "become a nation just recently." "I have had only three experiences with the Americans," said Lee Kuan Yew.
Insults & Bribes. By far the most dramatic was the bizarre account of a bungled American CIA exploit in Singapore. Late in 1960, according to Lee, a U.S. agent had flown into Singapore and tried to bribe his way into the city's Special Branch intelligence net. He was taped and filmed in the act, tossed quietly into jail. Lee then offered to free the agent in return for $33 million in U.S. economic aid for his nation. The U.S. refused, said Lee with superb aplomb, and instead "insulted" him with a counteroffer of $3,300,000 for Lee personally and his People's Action Party.
With the Kennedy Administration about to take over, Lee decided to abide the insult long enough to test the new President's response. It was straightforward and unequivocal: no under-the-table money at all, economic assistance only on its meritsand only if it was clearly not a quid pro quo for the spy's release. Secretary of State Rusk sent Lee an apology, and Lee let the agent go without fanfare.
Impudence & Impertinence. Lee was also still angry about a 1962 trip to the U.N. Lee's plane was held up in Hawaii, and he began casting about for a means to advise his waiting colleagues in New York of the delay. A U.S. official in the VIP lounge, according to Lee, said: "No, no, no, don't worry. We will look after it. We have a special network." "Special network," snorted Lee last week. "When we arrived, there was not a soul, not a soul."