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Wednesday, 5 July, 2000, 22:31 GMT 23:31 UK
Singapore's elder statesman
Singapore city skyline
Singapore: A 'wonderfully tidy' city state
By BBC's Peter Day

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most political careers end in failure, tossed out of office at the polls, or a reign ended in ignominy by discontented colleagues.

But there are exceptions, and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore is one of them.

I went to visit him. Even by Singapore standards, it was sweltering. Not that the visitor really encounters the heat, dashing from fiercely air-conditioned hotel to air-conditioned shopping mall by air-conditioned taxi.

Everywhere there are clipped green lawns, and lush trees. On the skyline, glittering new skyscrapers housing some of the biggest banks in the world.

It's time for a new burst of creativity in business

Lee Kuan Yew
Singapore's streets and the buildings are free from litter and graffiti. The subway trains are so organised that each track - north or south - is given a separate colour on the map. Only idiots take the wrong trains.

It is wonderfully tidy, and after a week of it, just a bit oppressive, too.

And the architect of it all is Mr Lee.

Political power

Late on a humid Friday afternoon, my taxi inches into the sumptuous golf course grounds of the Presidential Palace. Guards beckon us up the hill to the white official building where the senior minister has his office.

Mr Lee has now been in retirement for 10 years, but instead of ending his 30-years as prime minister in disgrace, or thumb-twiddling irrelevance, they gave him the title of senior minister.

Lee Kwan Yew
Lee Kwan Yew: still a power behind the throne
Mr Lee is still a power behind the throne; one of his sons is likely to become prime minister some time soon.

His office is modern and airy, and I am overdressed in my suit; he is wearing an open-necked shirt. Tea is offered.

We chat for a moment about his British past: his Cambridge education, the enthusiasm for the BBC Home Service expressed in his memoirs, the time he campaigned for a university friend fighting for a parliamentary seat in Totnes in rural Devon in the early 1950s.

With this background, it is easy to see how Mr Lee devised his plans for his city state when in 1965, after six years of independence, the Malaysian Confederation fell apart.

The island of just over two million people was left on its own - independent but isolated in the middle of South East Asia.

Like Israel, we had to leapfrog the rest of the region, and attract multinational companies

Lee Kuan Yew
A tiny country with few resources, but its people had to devise a strategy for survival - an act of desperation, Mr Lee now calls it, a deliberate attempt to make Singapore a first world oasis in a third world region.

Israel provided the model, surrounded as it was by hostile Arab states.

"Like Israel, we had to leapfrog the rest of the region, and attract multinational companies," he says.

Nanny state?

Singapore's frequently one party government from Mr Lee's People's Action Party had other deliberate policies, too.

Opposition was frowned on; and the island's mixed race population was encouraged into no longer behaving like inhabitants of a third world developing country.

Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so that they don't open, I don't call that creativity, I call that mischief making

Lee Kuan Yew
Singaporeans have been taught how to be courteous, how to be less noisy, when to flush the lavatory, how not to chew gum (importing it is still officially banned).

There is no graffiti because the government says so; the day I arrived, the prime minister himself launched National Kindness Week.

"We were called a Nanny State," says Mr Lee, "But the result is that we are today better behaved and we live in a more agreeable place than 30 years ago."


It is also one of the most prosperous countries on Earth. But perhaps it's now time for this workaholic, shop-aholic nation to change its nature once again.

That anyway is the Senior Minister's message. At the age of 77, Mr Lee is a keen user of the latest technology, as alert to its potent influences as millionaire in Silicon Valley USA.

Singapore skyscrapers
One of the most prosperous countries in the world
For 30 years, Singapore played catch up, but now there is nowhere to take a lead from.

"It's time for a new burst of creativity in business," he says. "We need many new tries, many start-ups.

"Out of 10 maybe one will succeed, and eight will fail."

This is deliberately radical talk from a leader whose government has directed his country so closely for so long.

The old ways will not work anymore, he says. Singaporeans have to stick their necks out and start to embrace risk as a way of life, without a government safety net.

And if creativity is to flourish, it may call for some untidiness, some anxiety, the possibility of failure, or dissent.

Sign of change

But even in Singapore, some things will not change.

If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana

Lee Kuan Yew
Hesitantly, I suggest that chewing gum stuck to the pavements might be a sign that the desired new spirit of creativity has arrived.

With a grimace, Mr Lee disagrees.

"Putting chewing gum on our subway train doors so that they don't open, I don't call that creativity, I call that mischief making," he says. "If you can't think because you can't chew, try a banana".

So we shake hands and the official car takes me down through the groomed acres of government grounds back to the pristine air-conditioned malls of everyday Singapore.

It is Friday night, and they are shopping like crazy.

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See also:

26 Jul 98 | From Our Own Correspondent
Farewell to Singapore
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