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My Moments with Lee Kuan Yew

I came armed to my interview with Lee Kuan Yew with a burning question. Days before, I had witnessed a 73-year-old illiterate woman in poor health being dragged out of a Singaporean courtroom, crying uncontrollably, to begin a six-month prison sentence for renting an apartment to illegal immigrants.

She had needed the money, she didn’t understand the law, and now here she was, on her way to jail for a transgression that in most places would merit little more than a slap on the wrist.

Was this correct, I asked the founding father of Singapore?

“I agree the punishment is draconian,” Lee told me. “But without a place to stay, an illegal immigrant cannot survive in Singapore.”

This was 2001, a time when the city-state had already begun to lighten up, taking baby steps to shed its authoritarian image. The law still meted out canings on bare buttocks for crimes such as vandalism, and the sale of chewing gum was still banned. But nightclubs, cafes, theatres and karaoke bars had sprouted up all over the island, a Speaker’s Corner had been established in a public park and raunchy plays such as “The Vagina Monologues” had begun making celebrated debuts.

But on this day, Lee, then in his late 70s and holding the title of Senior Minister, remained merciless in his defense of law and order. Yes, the punishment for that poor old Singaporean lady was harsh, he said, but in the end, necessary.

During the same interview, Lee spoke of “a much more relaxed attitude to contrary opinions in the media, in the opposition” and added, “we can afford to ease up.”

Yet the truth is neither Lee nor the generation of leaders who came after him, including the current prime minister, his son Lee Hsien Loong, ever moved much beyond the baby steps.

Lee Kuan Yew, who died on March 23 at the age of 91, deserved credit for turning his nation into an economic powerhouse that in many ways is the envy of the world – a country that only four decades ago was a poverty-stricken, malaria-ridden island struggling out of a century of British colonial rule. He was also an unabashed autocrat, jailing opposition leaders, silencing dissent and intimidating journalists who dared to criticize.

That Singapore, despite its undeniable success, is still unwilling to grant its citizens political freedom is one of Asia’s great enigmas. The people are clamouring for it, with 40 percent of the population voting for opposition parties in an election in 2011 (despite the possible loss of public funding for improvements in one’s neighbourhood if you vote against the ruling People’s Action Party). Singapore’s tight controls seem increasingly out of place in the age of Facebook, especially when other wealthy, fast-growing countries in Asia like Taiwan and South Korea have been able to provide both economic and political freedom. Increasingly, Singaporeans seem less afraid of speaking out and more critical of the restrictions placed on their lives. They’re angry about the high cost of living, rising immigration and the lack of secured retirement funds.

Singapore, despite having some of the world’s lowest levels of poverty and corruption and highest levels of educational achievement, is a nation ripe for change.

The first time I met Lee Kuan Yew, we sat in an immaculate conference room next to his office. Before I could start my interview, he began questioning me. Why was I in Singapore? What had I done before? When I told him I had spent 11 years as a journalist in South America, covering the drug wars of Colombia and the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, he scoffed. Why would I spend all those years developing expertise in a specific region only to up and and leave it? he asked. “What a waste!” were his exact words that I shall never forget.

But now, sir, I get the chance to develop expertise in Asia as well, I told him sheepishly, as a tentative smile formed on his face. Then he relented. “OK, that makes sense,” he said, especially if I use my new experience in Asia to acquire a more well-rounded perspective overall.

What struck me most about this exchange was that it took place at all. I had interviewed many world leaders, and none of them had asked me so many questions about myself, let alone bother with such a thoughtful response.

But this was Lee. More personable than his tough-guy image, and deeply practical at heart. His tenderness was most on display in his relationship with his wife Kwa Geok Choo, to whom he read Shakespeare’s sonnets and the works of Jane Austen while she lay mute and bedridden in the two years before her death in 2010.

But he’s also the man who once said he’d put on “knuckle-dusters and catch you in a cul-de-sac” if “you take me on.”

The government’s presence was ubiquitous in Lee’s Singapore, from “urine sensors” in public elevators to a bell that rings in your taxi every time the driver exceeds the speed limit (an effect that can be particularly mind-numbing on Singapore’s sleek highways). The government engaged in Orwellian social engineering, including running campaigns to persuade educated Singaporeans to have more kids and establishing a dating service for professionals.

Row after row of government housing in the city state are certainly not much to look at, but they are a testament to Lee’s genius. That’s because more than 80 percent of them are owned by the people who live in them, giving Singapore one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world and helping explain why so few Singaporeans in the past have fought against the established order.

Nowadays, however, the waiting time for those subsidized homes has lengthened considerably, and they’ve become a source of growing discontent.

Lee gave a famous quote to the New York Times several years back, stating, “We are ideology-free.”

“Does it work? If it works, let’s try it. If it’s fine, let’s continue it. If it doesn’t work, toss it out, try another one.”

It’s true that Singapore’s system of maintaining the People’s Action Party in power for the past half century has enabled the nation to plan for the long term and avoid the temptation to pander to electoral whims.

When I spoke to him in 2001, Lee explained, “If we had followed the prescription of the Western liberals, we would never have gotten here.”

That might be true. To get to where it needs to go now, however, Singapore need not renounce its founding father’s single-minded devotion to pragmatism. It’s just that pragmatism today demands a path of political, as well as economic, freedom.

Steven Gutkin served as the Associated Press Chief of Southeast Asia Services, based in Singapore, from 2000 to 2002, in addition to stints in Venezuela, Colombia, the U.S., Indonesia and Israel. Today, he and his wife Marisha Dutt run Goa Streets.