As the Singaporean prime minister settles into his seat for lunch, I am fussing with my tape machines – two of them, just in case one fails. Lee Hsien Loong smiles faintly and says: “The NSA will give you a copy.”
It is an unexpectedly subversive remark from a man I had expected to be the epitome of earnestness. The prime minister has a reputation as a cerebral technocrat, without a frivolous bone in his body. He even looks austere – tall, slim, grey hair and dressed in a dark suit and tie. So the biggest surprise, during our lunch, is how often Lee laughs. Over the course of the next hour, a variety of grim subjects provokes an incongruous chuckle or a broad smile – the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the second world war, the west’s mishandling of the revolution in Ukraine, China’s fear of separatist movements and the bankruptcy of Iceland. It is not, I conclude, that the Singaporean prime minister is a callous man. It is just that his way of taking the edge off the most difficult topics is to laugh while discussing them.
We meet at 11am in the Park Terrace of the Royal Garden Hotel in London. It is early for lunch but this is the hour his staff have carved out between other events on his visit to Europe: a nuclear security summit in the Netherlands, speeches, meetings with businessmen and Britain’s prime minister David Cameron, and, later that day, an event to celebrate Singapore Day in a park in east London, which 10,000 expats have registered for. With typical Singaporean thoroughness, the PM’s staff had emailed me the restaurant’s menu some days before our meeting and taken my order. We are positioned at a corner table, overlooking Kensington Gardens, with the sun streaming through the windows. Our first course – salmon and crab terrine – is brought promptly. Given the early hour, we both stick with water – although Lee, slim and fit-looking, does not strike me as a likely boozer.
Lee Hsien Loong, 62, became the third prime minister of Singapore in 2004 after an early life that had prepared him meticulously for the job. He is the son of Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister and founding father. The younger Lee was educated in Mandarin Chinese and English and, like both his parents, went to Cambridge university, where in 1974 he earned a first-class degree in maths, and a diploma in computer science. That was followed by more than a decade in Singapore’s army, where he rose to the rank of brigadier-general. Then politics. Yet, while enjoying a gilded career, Lee has also suffered from the vicissitudes of life. His first wife died in 1982, shortly after their second child was born. He himself was treated for cancer in the 1990s.
At Cambridge, he was asked to stay on and do graduate work. I ask if he was tempted. “It would have been very nice,” he says looking wistful, “but you can’t really do that, can you? I went on a scholarship and I had duties at home.”
I ask if he always knew he would go into the family business, into politics? There is a slight edge in his voice, as he replies: “No, I did not. It is not a family business.” With faint alarm, I recall that the PM has successfully extracted apologies and damages from media organisations, including the FT, for suggesting the Lee family has benefited from nepotism.
When he was prime minister, the older Lee had constantly emphasised Singapore’s insecurity – urging his fellow citizens to work hard and be vigilant. Since Singapore is a city-state of just 5.3m people – which became involuntarily independent only in 1965 when it was expelled from the Malaysian federation – such vigilance was understandable. But, since then, Singapore has enjoyed a long period of peace and ever-rising prosperity and now has one of the highest per-capita GDPs in the world. So I ask Lee if Singaporeans still need to feel insecure.
These are idealistic and enthusiastic revolutionaries in Ukraine. In a way, you think back to “Les Mis”
“Singaporeans generally feel more secure these days”, he says but then adds, with a slight frown: “One of our tasks is to remind them that this a result of a continuing act of will and an appropriate sense of insecurity is very helpful. You don’t have to be paranoid but you do have to take risks very seriously.” Taking the long view should remind Singaporeans to stay on guard, he says. “Not very many small states have great longevity, other than Venice, which lasted 900 years in one form or another.”
One important way of ensuring security is to remain on friendly terms with the neighbourhood giants. Singapore is in the rare position of being regarded as a trusted friend by both China and the United States. The Singaporeans were early believers and investors in the Chinese economic miracle, and Chinese officials have mined Singapore for economic and political ideas. But Singapore also regularly plays host to the US navy. I ask him what China thinks of Singapore’s vocal support for a continued American military presence in the Pacific. “They don’t like it,” he replies evenly, “but they understand it.”
Staying friendly with all the big powers is a smart strategy for Singapore, as long as peace prevails. But tensions have been rising in the region, particularly in a territorial dispute between China and Japan. Many western observers put the increase in tensions solely down to the rise of China. But Lee observes that Japan is also changing and that its government is asserting what it sees as “Japan’s nationalist rights”, particularly in its interpretation of history. “Questions have been raised over what is a definition of aggression so, therefore, since there’s no definition, did Japan commit aggression during the war?”
Singapore was occupied by Japan during the war, so I ask whether Singaporeans “generally think Japan did commit aggression”?
The prime minister’s tone suddenly becomes less dispassionate. He leans forward in his chair and raises his voice, sounding incredulous. “Yes, of course, they came to Singapore and they killed many tens of thousands of people, nearly including my father, which fortunately didn’t happen otherwise I wouldn’t be here!” He guffaws. “But my uncle was taken away – never came back.”
Lee Kuan Yew’s style of leadership was that of a generation shaped by the bloody dramas of the second world war. His son is running Singapore in a different era and has to use a different style: “My father used to say, ‘Look at de Gaulle, once in a very long while he makes a statement and everybody pays close attention, otherwise he’ll remain silent.’ But that was then and this is a different world.” Having initially resisted using social media, Lee is now a convert: “My colleagues went on the internet, went on Facebook, and they found it helpful and they persuaded me that I should try, so I did. It’s quite fun provided you keep it in balance and … from time to time slip in a serious message.” Earlier that morning, the prime minister had posted a photo he had taken of sunrise in London.
Cultivating voters – whether in the flesh or on Facebook – is the kind of thing that democratic leaders do. But Singapore is an unusual democracy in one rather crucial respect – the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has been in power since Singapore achieved self-government in 1959. Critics argue that although it holds regular elections, Singapore is effectively a one-party state. At the last general election in 2011, opposition parties notched up a record total of nearly 40 per cent of the vote. Even so the PAP won 81 of 87 seats. So can he envisage a day when the PAP is not running Singapore? “It could well happen,” he replies mildly. “I don’t know how it will work but it could happen.” A little later, he hints that the PAP is beginning to consider the possibility of one day forming a coalition government. “It may not be one team in, one team out, it may be more complicated – you’re getting used to more complicated than that in Britain now.”
A waiter arrives to serve the second course. We have both opted for the fish of the day, which turns out to be a delicious piece of grilled halibut. I tuck in but the prime minister leaves his largely untouched.
With the main dish served, I tack back to international affairs. In Europe, everybody is preoccupied by the crisis over Ukraine, so I wonder if it is having a similar impact in Singapore. “It’s not preoccupying people there but it is relevant to us. In fact, I made one Facebook post on that and to my surprise it got a lot of eyeballs. Because we are a small country, we depend on international law, treaties and agreements and the sanctity of these things, and, if they can just be overridden or ignored, well, then we are in serious trouble.” Ukraine, he points out, had had its territorial integrity guaranteed by an agreement, signed by Britain, the US and Russia.
I ask what he makes of the west’s reaction so far and whether it has been strong enough.
“I don’t think you can do a lot more. I think you should have thought of that before encouraging the demonstrators on the Maidan.” So has the west been irresponsible? “I think some people didn’t think through all the consequences. You can understand the emotional sympathies: they share your values, they want to link up with you … these are idealistic and enthusiastic revolutionaries, in a way, you think back to Les Mis. But can you take responsibility for the consequences and when it comes to grief, will you be there?” He answers his own question. “You can’t be there, you’ve got so many other interests to protect.”
We are now on to the pudding. I enjoy my scoop of raspberry ripple ice-cream but the chocolate tart seems a little sickly for this time of the morning. Our specially-printed menus claim the prime minister has been served a pistachio crème brûlée. It looks more like a bowl of raspberries and strawberries. Either way, he is not touching his dessert, which looks enticing. I fight off an urge to reach across and grab a couple of his raspberries. Under most circumstances, this would be a faux pas but it would be a particularly gross move with a Singaporean, given that the government has spent a great deal of energy, trying to inculcate good manners and positive habits into the population. Over the decades, Singapore has waged a huge number of publicity campaigns, urging its citizens to – among many other things – get a haircut, not to push when getting on trains, and to avoid overloading their plates at buffets.
The prime minister is the patron of the Singapore Kindness Movement, which campaigns for better behaviour. But he has also talked of making Singapore less of a nanny state. When I ask if his country is “lightening up a bit”, Lee laughs – lightly. “I think the fairways are wider. It doesn’t mean there are no limits but it means there is more free play.” On the other hand, he does not regard the phrase “nanny state” as an insult. “When people say they don’t want a nanny state they are, in fact, in a conflicted state of mind. On the one hand, they want to do whatever they want and not be stopped. On the other hand, if something goes wrong, they want to be rescued.”
A waiter approaches. Lee orders breakfast tea – it is still not midday, after all, while I opt for a double espresso. Our conversation leads on to Singapore’s role as a financial centre. As the Swiss have come under increasing pressure over banking secrecy, Singapore has often been discussed as the new safe harbour for footloose international money. I ask if Singapore has noticed an inflow of funds from Switzerland. “I don’t know where the money comes from,” he says with uncharacteristic vagueness. “Our private banking wealth centre is gradually building up. I think some of it comes from the region.”
Being a financial centre can be a source of great wealth but also of great instability. As Lee sips his tea, I ask him if he fears another major financial crisis. “At some point there will be some other financial crisis,” he says firmly. “It’s in the nature of a capitalist system. You just hope that you have put in enough fire breaks, that it is manageable, but it is actually very hard to do.”
The crises, however, are for another day. It is midday and Lee is due on the other side of London. As we wind up, I ask if he misses his privacy – and mention a lament of Barack Obama’s that he can never again just wander into a bookstore. “I’m not in Obama’s position,” he points out, reasonably enough. “I walk into bookshops. People know you, so they’ll come and greet you and take selfies with you. But if they just pretended they didn’t know you, you’d be quite upset too!” We shake hands as he leaves for the Singapore Day celebrations. There are people to meet, decisions to make – and many selfies to be taken.
Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs columnist
Royal Garden Hotel, 2-24, Kensington High Street, London W8 4PT
Three-course menu x2 £40.00
Salmon and crab terrine x2
Halibut with a basil cream sauce x2
Chocolate tart with raspberry ripple ice-cream
Pistachio crème brûlée
Hildon still water £4.50
Hildon sparkling water £4.50
Double espresso £5.50
Breakfast tea £4.75