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TIME: But you would concede that Singapore now needs more contention and turmoil?
LEE: Surely, surely. Ideally we should have Team A, Team B, equally balanced, so that we can have a swap and the system will run. We have not been able to do this in Singapore because our population is only 4 million, and the people at the top, with proven track records—not just in ability, but in character, determination, commitment—will not be more than 2,000. You can put their biodata in a thumbdrive.
We also have a different culture, a different way of doing things. The individual is not the building block. It's the family, the extended family, the clan and the state. The five crucial relationships are: you and the prince or the ruler, you and your wife, you and your children, you and your parents, you and your friends. If those relationships are right, everything will work out well in society.
TIME: You have said that the people of Singapore are overly reliant on the government to solve their problems, but isn't the government partly to blame?
LEE: Should I have fostered more free enterprise, more do-it-yourself? Yes. But free enterprise was not working [for us] because we did not have enough entrepreneurs.
Hong Kong started with successful businessmen from mainland China, after '49. They were the business élite of the coastal regions. They were not just merchants. They knew how to run a shipping line, how to start a textile factory, run a bank and so on. We had traders, not manufacturers. Why did we [the government] start a shipping line? Because we didn't have a Y.K. Pao or a C.Y. Tung as in Hong Kong. The same with Singapore Airlines, and so with an iron and steel mill. How do we get out of these companies now? To get out, we've got to find a buyer who can provide the management to take over. We produced the bright officers who are good at numbers and who learned on the job. They did a great job. We don't want to do that anymore. If SIA can be run by some corporate group, we want to get out of it. But who in Singapore? Have we got a Li Ka-shing?
TIME: Are you disappointed that it is so hard to find that kind of animal spirit?
LEE: We did the best we could with the material we then had. Now we are switching to a new mode. The other day I attended the wake of the former chief justice. I was talking to the son, and I said, what are you doing? He's a lawyer, but he's given up law; he's now running a yoga club. He's got one in Hong Kong, he's got one here. I said, oh that's good. Where did you get the yoga teachers from? He said he got them from India. He says many people feel stressed, and so a yoga club. I think the spirit of enterprise is taking hold. They are trying out new businesses. You can have an office in your home, so long as the neighbors don't complain. You can start a boutique or a restaurant in a residential neighborhood if it is not a nuisance. And if there are three or four more of them, we'll change it from a residential to commercial area. But it's not going to happen overnight.
TIME: A documentary film was made locally about a Singapore opposition politician, and it was banned.
LEE: Well, if you had asked me, I would have said, to hell with it. But the censor, the enforcer, he will continue until he is told the law has changed. And it will change ...
[But] I'm not guided by what Human Rights Watch says. I am not interested in ratings by Freedom House or whatever. At the end of the day, is Singapore society better or worse off? That's the test. What are the indicators of a well-governed society? Look at the humanities index in last week's Economist, we're right on top. You look at the savings index, World Bank, we're right on top. Economic freedoms, we're on top. What is it we lack? Reporters Without Borders put Malaysia's newspapers ahead of us. In Malaysia the ruling coalition parties own the major newspapers. In Singapore the major banks are in control of the company that runs our newspapers. There is no information that Singaporeans want that they cannot get. All major foreign newspapers and magazines are sold here. We demand a right of reply, that's all. And if you go over the line, if you defame us, we're prepared to sue you, go into the witness box and be cross-examined. You can brief the best lawyers and demolish us. If I'm involved, I go to the witness box. And you can question me, not only on the particular defamatory issue, but all issues in my life.
TIME: Couldn't you have been lighter on the opposition—not sue?
LEE: No. If you don't sue, repetition of the lie [makes it credible]. It will be believed ... [Former U.S. Secretary of State] George Shultz once wrote to me about why I insist on this right of reply. I said to him, "We believe in the marketplace of ideas. Let the ideas contend, and the best ideas the public will buy." But I also said, "That assumes a large well-educated group of people as readers. Look at the marketplace of ideas in the Philippines, and see the chaos." Americans can have a marketplace of ideas. For example, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was a box-office hit. Americans enjoyed their President being mocked and satirized. But the majority voted for Bush in November 2004. When we have a large enough educated population like America, able to make independent judgments, we will loosen up. But even without the cacophony, all ideas are accessible in the media and the Internet.
TIME: You have strong views about a political culture of noise and discordancy. Yet at the same time you want Singapore to move a little bit more in that direction.
LEE: Surely. It is in the interests of my son and his team to encourage Singaporeans to be more self-reliant, willing to take charge of their lives, and less dependent on looking to the government for solutions. In other words, become more like Americans. Gradually over the years, I have seen the value of the American can-do spirit.
TIME: Singapore is a more modern, more sophisticated, better educated society than the U.K. Young Singaporeans are bright, smart, lively. They can take it, they can take a noisy marketplace of ideas.
LEE: Look, I don't meet them so often now. My son does. Let him decide. It's his call.